Not quite midway through spring practice, Clay Helton made an interesting call Tuesday. Focus on the second team.
Coach 'em up. Get 'em better. Get 'em ready to go. They're going to be needed.
Smart stuff. For this USC team, these coaches and these players, especially these young players.
USC will need them, if for no other reason than a 12-game, no-bye-until-the-last-week regular season.
But that bye-less schedule is just the first challenge, but maybe not the first reason to do this.
It just makes sense. This USC team is actually getting younger, at least in the numbers of guys who will be on the field in the rotation as a percentage of the game participants. When you look at position groups like the O-line, the wide receivers, the linebackers, the D-line even. there was more experience, although maybe fewer players, on the field.
The major reason to do this, as we see it, is to get more guys ready to go from the get-go. Right now. Thursday. And Saturday. And the rest of the spring, summer and when fall gets here.
"The best players play," Clay said when the talk Tuesday came around to one of those maybe-no-longer-second-team guys -- early entry freshman Marlon Tuipulotu who is one of the "best players" playing with the first team now after starting out with the twos a couple of weeks ago.
That's the kind of second-team focus and "enhancing" this team has to be all about. While at least one media person was questioning what kind of message this sends to the upperclassmen when you elevate a freshman, one who should still be thinking about the prom to first team replacing the likes of a married 25-year-old Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, Clay was saying the message was a simple one.
Especially when he said it again: "This is USC . . . the best players play."
Not sure there's a better message a coach can deliver -- as long as he delivers on it. And not to attempt a return to a decade ago, but it was by far the best thing Pete Carroll communicated in building the nation's best college program when he was here.
Because you can't do that unless you coach them up to compete every day. At every position. For the right to be next in line.
It's a new way of thinking for this Trojans program coming out of the dark roster days of the NCAA sanctions when just finding enough players who could play at the elite level USC needed them to perform at was all that mattered. Only 12 available defenders to upset a No. 4 Stanford team the first time Clancy Pendergast was here. Well, that would have to be enough.
Only the game isn't played that way any more most of the time. Most teams do not slow things down. So the guys USC coaches up on the second team can figure on playing in the rotation when it matters. Which is why Clay's call matters. Why it makes so much sense to come right out and say it.
Because as much as Marlon's elevation sends a message, so do Clay's words. And we get the sense they're listening. There are lots of young Trojans who can see themselves making a move -- if not onto the first group, into that second group that will play. Because the talent is there.
Let's go down the list here position group by position group, starting with defense:
*** Outside linebackers: When the two second-teamers you start with are Oluwole Betiku and Connor Murphy, you are not really talking second-teamers. You're talking in-the-rotation guys with Uchenna Nwosu and Porter Gustin. It does not get any better than this. Then there's senior Olajuwon Tucker who can fill in both inside and out.
*** Inside linebackers: We've already seen it happen here. With Cam Smith coming down with a stiff neck Tuesday, sophomore Jordan Iosefa stepped in seamlessly from his backup spot. Next to him is early entry freshman Tayler Katoa, whose athleticism will have to make up for his lack of linebacker experience. Which is why he's a target of what Clay is talking about.
*** D-Line: With Rasheem Green already in the mix with Marlon, and Kenny Bigelow on the way, the challenge is there for Josh Fatu, who showed some ability to find a spot for himself last fall, along with Malik Dorton and Christian Rector, who did the same, along with two who haven't yet made that move -- Jacob Daniel and Liam Jimmons. There's room here for one, two or three of them. It's just for them to make the move.
*** Secondary: Here may be the focal point for this whole deal with redshirt freshman star-in-waiting safety/nickel Jamel Cook showing up the way he has going back from second to first team with so much impact. Wherever he spends most of his time, with Ajene Harris battling for that spot, Jamel and his guys will be in a bit of the spotlight. And the numbers are big here for the backup bunch: Ykili Ross, Isiah Langley, Jonathan Lockett, Matt Lopes and C.J. Pollard. The challenge here is not so much the talent or the numbers but getting this group up to speed to communicate and play as fast as the first-teamers.
*** Quarterbacks: Perfect timing here for Matt Fink to have his best day as a Trojan in his second spring Tuesday. He threw it, ran it and controlled things in ways we haven't seen. And behind him is a talented early entry freshman Jack Sears who on one play, one adjustment on a throw over two defenders into the deep corner of the end zone, showed he's coming on. USC has to get this right because for all sorts of smart reasons including this one: USC is going to have to protect Sam Darnold -- in games and in practices. And someone else is going to have to be out there.
*** Running backs: This spring has made it clear how much the next guy in line matters here and with Aca'Cedric Ware and Dominic Davis mostly unavailable, the ball has bounced to redshirt freshman Vavae Malepeai who has stepped up in a big way. The focus is working here. And then Reuben Peters has shown he can do more than block at fullback. And James Toland is back. So get everybody healthy here and find ways to incorporate Ced's toughness and Dom's speed with Vai's knack of making things happen. A lot to work with here for Deland McCullough.
*** Tight end: Cary Angeline, we're talking about you here. With some two-tight-end sets for Daniel Imatorbhebhe and Tyler Petite, until the freshman recruits get here, Cary will be it for scholarship tight ends on the second team. Should be able to get plenty of one-on-one coaching from John Baxter.
*** Wide receivers: This is the position many think Clay is talking about with the number of young talents trying to step up to the place where JuJu Smith-Schuster, Darreus Rogers, De'Quan Hampton and Isaac Whitney, maybe even Adoree' Jackson, vacated. Lots of room here. Deontay Burnett, Jalen Greene, senior Steven Mitchell after his rehab and Michael Pittman can't take every rep. So there it is for Josh Imatorbhebhe, Tyler Vaughns, the recently switched Pie Young and when he's rehabbed, Trevon Sidney, to make the kind of leap redshirt freshman Velus Jones has made this spring. "We'll only go as far as they take us," Clay said Tuesday. He was talking about the whole group not just the second-team guys. But for this group, it's sometimes hard to tell the difference. But lots of work for Tee Martin here.
*** O-Line: The jumble here, with veteran starters Nico Falah and Toa Lobendahn out right now, makes it not so obvious where the line is between the first and second groups. So except for Chuma Edoga and Viane Talamaivao, you could consider all these players in pretty much the same boat from current first-teamers Chris Brown and Roy Hemsley, as they switch sides and from guard to tackle, to early entry freshman Andrew Vorhees who has made a big impression, to Cole Smith getting his big chance at center with the ones to Frank Martin, also at center, to Clayton Johnston and Jordan Austin, there are a bunch of folks in play here for Neil Callaway to get in line before the rest of the freshmen get here this summer.
By our count, that's 36 players who could qualify for the "second group" guys Clay is talking about coaching up. And that's not counting the two or three walk-ons every year who matter. That's a number we're not used to seeing, as we've said.
And it's why we like the way Clay singled out this group -- larger, younger, more talented than we're accustomed to -- as an emphasis the rest of the way. Good call.