Shotgun Spratling |

The Ten Of Troy: Spring Ball

In this edition of the Ten of Troy,'s Ryan Abraham, Dan Weber, Shotgun Spratling, Keely Eure and Gerard Martinez rank the top 10 performers of spring practice. Please note that the rankings do not directly reflect the opinions of the Trojans football coaching staff. Players missing extended practice periods were not considered for ranking.

1. Uchenna Nwosu | Senior | Linebacker | Harbor City (Calif.)

Spratling: “My pass rush is getting a little bit better.” And with that senior to-be outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu delivered the understatement of the spring. Nwosu has been a demonic being flying around the edge to terrorize the offense throughout March and April. He took on a new role last year in Clancy Pendergast’s defense and after a year of learning through experience, Nwosu is a completely different player at the SAM linebacker spot. He can hold the edge and also get in the backfield to affect the quarterback. Because of their similar size and build, Nwosu watches a lot of Von Miller tape and tries to mimic the NFL’s best speed rusher. This spring going against a new set of tackles, his Miller impression has been dead on. It wouldn’t surprise us to see Nwosu have a similar big jump in production as Miller did from his sophomore to junior seasons at Texas A&M.

2. Sam Darnold | R-Sophomore | Quarterback | San Clemente (Calif.)

Weber: Sam Darnold has a dual challenge this spring: That Rose Bowl record-breaking performance in front of the entire nation and all that's come with it as a Heisman front-runner and projected top NFL pick should he leave early not to mention that Archie Griffin Award as college football's most valuable player . . . well, he has to forget all that. There's no looking back right now, Sam realizes. "It was pretty neat," he says of all that recent history. "You can't act like it didn't happen." But it doesn't matter now, the redshirt sophomore says of his responsibility to lead USC football back to the promised land, not just with his quick arm and feet, but with his head and voice and cool competitive huddle control. No more freshman this time around but with a young receiving corps that is his to mold. It is, as they say, a work in progress as the USC offense speeds up to accommodate the talents of its leader to elude the rush, see the field and distribute the football.

3. Velus Jones | R-Freshman | Wide Receiver | Saraland (Ala.)

Eure: Each practice, Velus Jones seems to make a play that, based on his teammates’ reactions, would make you think there’sa fireworks show going on at Howard Jones instead of just another spring practice. This spring, Jones has accomplished the tough task of standing out in a wide receiver corps that is exactly like him - young and talented. Yet, Jones’ talent is something that offensive coordinator Tee Martin admits he hasn’t seen in a while, a talent that makes him light up just when thinking about it. Whether it’s Sam Darnold or Matt Fink throwing to him, Jones doesn’t just catch the ball; his speed after the catch is what has him drawing comparisons to former USC wide receiver Marqise Lee. His youth is definitely still a factor, as his raw talent needs developing, but ultimately coaches see Jones as a future weapon with a very high ceiling and potential for growth.

4. Jamel Cook | R-Freshman | Safety | Miami (Fla.)

Martinez: Jamel Cook isn't your typical redshirt freshman. If Cook had not broken his foot before getting to campus last summer, he would have almost certainly burned his redshirt. Instead, USC was able to tuck him away on the roster and recruit like he wasn't good enough to play last season. Cook is showing this spring that he most certainly was good enough to play when 100-percent healthy. At 6-foot-4, 210-pounds, Cook can legitimately play the slot as a nickel safety. Playing that position this spring, his length and ball skills have led to more pass break-ups than any other defensive back on the roster. Cook's size is very deceiving. He is a coverage safety that can play either safety spot, nickel back or even cornerback in a pinch. Cook is exactly what Clancy Pendergast looks for in a defensive back, which will make it interesting to see how he is utilized schematically as the season progresses. 

5. Rasheem Green | Junior | Defensive End | Gardena (Calif.)

Abraham: Last season Rasheem Green started every game except the opener for the Trojans, leading the team with 6 sacks and a pair of blocked field goals. The true junior has grown each season as a player, but year two under Clancy Pendergast's and Kenechi Udeze's tutelage could provide a huge leap forward for the former five-star prospect. Udeze says the 285-pounder is "ready to take the next step" and that he "has to become a pro, which means being consistent in everything he does." Green has shown that consistency this spring and has emerged into a quiet role model who leads by example for this young and deeper USC defensive line. Green is playing much faster than he was last spring, in part because instead of learning Pendergast's NFL-style defensive scheme he is refining the knowledge he has already acquired over the past year. That means less thinking and more reaction to get after ball carriers and quarterbacks in enemy territory.

Gerard Martinez |

6. Vavae Malepeai | R-Freshman | Running Back | Millani (Hawaii)

Martinez: Vavae Malepeai is another redshirt freshman USC had the luxury of stashing away last season. Malepeai came on like gangbusters in fall camp showing the tenacity of a power back between the tackles, but the skills of an all-purpose back catching the ball. Visions of Malaefou Mackenzie immediately come to mind, and this spring, Malepeai has done nothing to cast doubt on those comparisons. He continues to show excellent vision and surprisingly good lateral quickness bouncing runs to the outside. If he can stay healthy, Malepeai should prove to be a key piece to the offense next season. With Aca'Cedric Ware injured and Ronald Jones skipping contact drills this spring, Malepeai's versatility has been on display. Limit his carries to third downs and you have a bigger running back that can easily slip out of the backfield to move the chains. 

7. Deontay Burnett | Junior | Wide Receiver | Gardena (Calif.)

Weber: Deontay Burnett is Sam Darnold's partner here, just as he was in that Rose Bowl record comeback that everybody says they must put behind them in order to not live on their laurels. Deontay certainly isn't living on his rep or record-setting Penn State game. Despite his size, Clay Helton calls the 6-foot, 170-plus pounder from Serra "the smallest horse in the stable but the one with the biggest impact" as he continues a spring where he has yet to drop a pass and daily shows the chemistry with Sam that produced three touchdowns in that January game that we won't mention any more. As quiet as he is, Deontay's practice presence and ability to just do everything right and his willingness to stay late working on the Juggs gun, for example, make him the Trojans' go-to guy in so many ways.

8. Marlon Tuipolutu | Freshman | Defensive Tackle | Independence (Ore.)

Eure: Based solely on looks, you wouldn’t be able to guess that Marlon Tuipulotu signed his letter of intent a couple months ago, let alone that he hasn’t even reached the legal age. The 6-foot-3, 295-pound defensive tackle looks anything but 17 years old while practicing - and he’s catching coaches’ eyes. Helton described Tuipulotu as a real asset to the team not only because of the aforementioned qualities, but also because he has learned the playbook faster than the average early enrollee. “He’s just one of the more football instinctive kids that I’ve seen,” Helton said after one practice. Tuipulotu’s athleticism and “quick twitch” is what has earning him first-team reps over senior Josh Fatu. Tuipulotu has been disruptive in the backfield, stopping the run as well as getting in the quarterback’s face. Yet, Tuipulotu can’t quite fully shed his freshman status just yet. Some of his youthful moments have included tracking down the ever-so elusive Sam Darnold, only to be juked out of his shoes. “Welcome to college, rook!” Darnold gloated. Welcome to college, indeed.

9. John Houston | R-Sophomore | Linebacker | Gardena (Calif.)

Spratling: Cameron Smith has moved over to the MIKE linebacker position vacated by the graduation of Michael Hutchings, leaving the WILL linebacker spot open for competition between John Houston Jr. and Jordan Iosefa. While Smith is the linebacker that you seem to always see in the hole to meet the ballcarrier when the ball is to his side, Houston has stood out because of his ability to make plays from sideline to sideline, tracking down plays going away from him with his elite athleticism for a linebacker. After primarily being a special teams player last year, Houston is showing this spring that he's ready to step into a more prominent role on the defense.

10. Chuma Edoga | Junior | Offensive Tackle | Powder Springs (Ga)

Weber: Chuma Edoga has all the talent -- and a new commitment -- to be the kind of offensive lineman USC always believed he could be. But there's a difference this spring. He's the guy. Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler, the two veterans the 290-pound Georgian backed up and replaced over the last two seasons, are gone. And he knows it. His head wasn't in the right place, last fall, he concedes. Now it is. All he has to do is convince his coach, Neil Callaway, that he will be there, with those great feet that give him great blocking angles and the ability to stay in a play, every play -- every day. He has a way to go, Callaway says, in the stick-to-it part of that equation. But he can get there if he dedicates himself to it. No more talk. Just time to do it.                       

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