The first week of spring ball is officially in the books at USC, and Steve Sarkisian's team is already starting to come together. Position battles are underway and a handful of early enrollees are getting their first taste of Trojan football.
Though things by and large still remain in flux due to the number of players sitting out with various injuries, it's already clear that a new attitude and identity are starting to shape.
Let's take a look at the most important moments from Week 1 of spring ball.
Trojans Come Out Blazing
Sark said back in his inaugural press conference as USC's head coach that he intended to speed things up in Troy by way of installing no-huddle elements to the offense. So far, he's delivered on that promise.
The first week of practices under Sark were notably faster than previous ones at USC, with incumbent quarterback Cody Kessler noting to reporters at practice that the Trojans ran 120 plays in an hour and 45 minutes. That breaks down to roughly 1.14 plays a minute.
Kessler also discussed with the media more differences between Sark's tempo from that of last season.
“Last year it was run a play and everyone talk about it and figure it out. This was just go,” Kessler said.
That said, Sark isn't spending a lot of time during live sessions breaking things down, but he has a remedy for that:
Sark said they don't have time to critique individual players because they run so many reps. They add walkthru teaching periods for that.— Ryan Abraham (@insidetroy) March 12, 2014
The players are responding favorably to the increased speed of things, and Sark even singled out one veteran, linebacker Hayes Pullard, as an example of what he expects from the Trojans as they progress through the offseason.
“If you’re walking, you’re wrong,” Sarkisian told reporters. “And Number 10 (Pullard) on defense was the first guy there on every drill.”
Injury concerns might influence the pace of practice as spring ball continues, but through the first week of practices, no new injuries surfaced. The Trojans have yet to introduce contact drills to the mix, and Sarkisian shed some light on when we can expect that to happen.
According to Rich Hammond of the Orange County Register:
Sarkisian said USC is at least two weeks away from tackling/scrimmaging in spring ball— Rich Hammond (@RegisterUSC) March 14, 2014
How much tackling, though, will also be determined by how many healthy bodies remain available.
Position Battles Answer Questions About Player Roles
The many position battles at USC are one of the more intriguing storylines this offseason, as nearly every position group has at least one spot up for grabs.
Focusing on the offensive line, Sark and new O-line coach Tim Drevno are looking to remold the entire unit into a more respectable, dominant front. That first starts with naming a center, and according to the Los Angeles Daily News' Scott Wolf, it looks like Max Tuerk will do the honors so far. Tuerk has previously started at right guard and tackle, and given his versatility and skill on the line, it makes sense that the coaches would want to try him out at center.
Tuerk told Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times that Lane Kiffin and his staff had tried Tuerk at center briefly, but the length of his arms made it difficult for him to get off accurate snaps. Sark's new offense operates out of the shotgun most of the time, so that won't be an issue anymore.
Early enrollee Toa Lobendahn is getting second-team reps at center, already proving his worth and backing up his highly touted recruit status.
Khaliel Rodgers got first-team reps at right guard with Tuerk having changed positions. Last season he earned respect by being impressive on the practice field, and now it's his time to do the same in a more visible role.
USC's O-line looks like this for now, but things could change once injured players become available again:
USC’s first-team O-line, from L-R today, was Chad Wheeler, Giovanni Di Poalo, Max Tuerk, Khaliel Rodgers, Nathan Guertler— Rich Hammond (@RegisterUSC) March 12, 2014
Defensively, things are looking relatively similar in Troy, though sophomore Quinton Powell looks to be serving a new role:
Quinton Powell rocking No. 18 off the edge as a OLB this spring. Looked really good.— Gerard Martinez (@gmartlive) March 12, 2014
With him lining up on the edge, that means senior Lamar Dawson (who is limited this spring due to injury), redshirt junior Anthony Sarao and sophomore Michael Hutchings will compete for the open Will linebacker spot.
Also on the outside are J.R. Tavai (as expected, after he filled in seamlessly for Morgan Breslin last season) and Scott Starr.
In the secondary, the status of where Josh Shaw would play in 2014 had been up in the air going into spring camp. Though he's not practicing due to a stress fracture in his foot, he told the media after practice that he knows exactly where he's playing this year:
Josh Shaw isn’t practicing because of stress fracture in foot, but said he knows he will play cornerback this season— Rich Hammond (@RegisterUSC) March 14, 2014
Shaw was USC's most capable corner in 2013, so this is good news for Trojan fans. Kevon Seymour, who blossomed in 2013, will line up opposite him. With him apparently out of the mix at safety, expect stud sophomore Su'a Cravens and Leon McQuay III to patrol the back four.
Quarterback Competition Is Brimming, But Not Boiling Yet
We know that Kessler and his challenger Max Browne are squaring off for the starting job, but nothing major has happened here yet.
According to Hammond:
And 247Sports.com's Mike Piellucci:
Sarkisian said he would ideally name a QB by the end of spring but doesn’t have that as a deadline.— Rich Hammond (@RegisterUSC) March 15, 2014
Sarkisian notes he's never named a starting QB in the fall and would prefer to name one by the end of spring. Won't commit to that, though— Mike Piellucci (@mikelikessports) March 15, 2014
Sark doesn't have a timetable on when he will crown a QB1, but he did speak with the media after practice about his perception of the two so far:
The guys are showing some real glimpses of real positive plays, and good plays from the quarterback position. And then, sometimes where they’re playing in a new system, and things are going fast and maybe they don’t make as good of decisions. All in all, I think the quarterbacks are playing relatively well for three days in a new system at the tempo we’re operating at.
Kessler would seem to still have the advantage, having a full season of starting experience under his belt, but Browne's vaunted status out of high school suggests he will be a considerable threat once the competition gains steam.