The USC Trojans have had three spring practice sessions this week, and they have been fast paced and productive despite the many injuries that have limited participation.
The Trojans Spring Practice Preview, Challenges and Goals article includes daily updates in the comments, and provides a basis for judging these spring practice sessions.
The first two practices were played without pads on Cromwell Field because the grass was wet from rain. On Mar. 26, the Trojans returned to the newly resodded Howard Jones Field.
It was great to hear the sounds of people hitting since that was a missing element in practices last year. The live hitting energized spring ball.
USC obviously hopes to continue tackling and keep its players healthy, but the truth of the matter is that the two are mutually exclusive. You will get better if you tackle but get more injuries, and you will be worse if you don't tackle but stay healthy.
Head coach Lane Kiffin likes the early 7:25am practice time so well that it is likely the Trojans will continue doing this in the fall. He feels the players have a lot of energy, and there is an academic benefit with finishing before classes.
The players are learning they need to adjust their schedules to go to bed sooner because the 5:00am wake-up comes early with team meetings at 6:00am during the week.
It is clear that the Trojan athletes are more confident and all the hard work in the off season is showing. Everyone is working hard to move up on the depth chart.
The biggest challenge is that about half the team is missing due to 20 injured players and 22 new freshmen reporting in the summer. But, this does give the coaching staff a unique opportunity to get to know the depth of the team and those players get an opportunity.
The defense is well ahead of the offense. The players are much more comfortable with what the defense is doing. Assistant head coach Monte Kiffin said to USCFootball.com, “You can’t make plays if you are not lined up right.” That was a real problem last year, so they are keeping changes to a minimum. This is a big positive.
"They're starting to play fast," Kiffin said. "You can make plays when you play fast. And you can play fast when you know what you're doing."
But please don't think they're anywhere back yet," Monte Kiffin said. "We've got to get better. What we've got, we've got to coach 'em up."
Missing players on the offensive line have created mismatches with the defensive line, and that limits what the offense is able to do. So, 7-on-7 drills have been used more than usual. There have been multiple interceptions thrown by all the quarterbacks except Max Wittek.
Both Lane Kiffin and his quarterback, Matt Barkley are frustrated at the inability to get the offense going because of the "mismatches across the front lines. "Sure, he's frustrated, like I am right now," Kiffin said to USCFootball.com.
With three starters out and another at a position he probably won't play in the fall, "We couldn't run all the offense," Kiffin said.
The defense needs to prevent big plays and start and finish strong. That is what they have been doing in the first two days of practice. The offense needs to get better but it is understandable given the line and freshmen QBs.
"It’s obviously a huge emphasis," Kiffin said Thursday." I think we led the world in explosive plays last year at any level. It was good to see through two days us get better at it. We’re going to get better at it this year."
One of the biggest battles is for Matt Barkley’s backup at quarterback. The three players competing are even so far, although Scroggins has the advantage with a year of experience. All three players are freshmen: Jesse Scroggins (redshirt), Cody Kessler, and Max Wittek.
“We’re the same, to me, “Scoggins said Saturday to Pedro Moura of ESPNLosAngeles.com. “We watch the same film, go over the same things.” Wittek and Kessler have quickly caught on to the USC offensive system, and all three have split backup snaps so far.
Lane Kiffin is using more seven-on-seven drills for the freshmen, and all three players stay after the end of practice to get extra work. The decision will be made near the end of the spring or over the summer because the Trojans want to focus on getting Barkley ready during fall camp.
Freshman kicker Andre Heidari (strong leg) and long snapper Peter McBride are at the top of their game ability wise coming out of high school. Heidari continues to make his longer field goals in game like situations.
Some of the players who looked really good this week include freshman tailback D.J. Moran, redshirt junior Curtis McNeal, WR Robert Woods, WR Brandon Carswell, WR Markeith Ambles, WR De’Von Flourney, LB Dion Bailey, CB Nickell Robey and CB Anthony Brown.
There were some additional injuries this week, but only one may prevent further practice during the spring. Marc Tyler pulled up after running a pass route and left the field clutching his right hamstring and it is unlikely that he will return.
Redshirt freshman center/guard Giovanni Di Poala had his shoulder pop out, WR Robert Woods has a tight hamstring and was added to the limited list, and D.J. Morgan tweaked his knee.
D.J. Morgan said to USCFootball.com, "I just tweaked my patellar tendon on a plant one time. They told me to not take any chances and shut it down. It should be OK in a couple of days. I've been trying real hard to take care of that [surgically repaired] knee." Kiffin attributed it to what happens "when the grass is wet. Just a little tendinitis."
Center has become a position of injuries. Khaled Holmes could switch from starting right guard to center in the summer after he gets over his neck stinger injuries. Freshman Giovanni Di Poala was finding the challenge of stepping up to the first team a bit daunting the first two days, and then he had his shoulder pop out twice Saturday, something that's never happened to him before.
"But I didn't come out," Di Poalo said to USCFootball.com, even if his shoulder may have hurt a bit, as he headed off to see if he'll need to get fitted for a brace.
It is good to hear that Martin Coleman is down to 325 pounds, down from 360, and moved inside to guard from tackle. He is “feeling the best I ever have.” Without all that weight, he should not break down like in past years and he is moving well.
Some highlights on Saturday as reported by USCFootball.com included Barkley's completion to De'Von Flournoy on a crossing pattern 15 yards downfield that was the first offensive play that looked good, followed by a quick-hitter from Morgan that had him hitting the line of scrimmage quicker than any play developed last fall.
Barkley also hit both Flournoy and Brandon Carswell on deep middle crossing patterns. Freshman QB Max Wittek escaped on a couple of quick scrambles in seven on seven. Safety Jawanza Starling got a forced fumble on a big hit.
Anthony Brown made his presence felt with a nice pick in seven on seven passing. Curtis McNeal had the days best run inside right tackle with a nice out and in move. He also had the biggest hit on Harbin after his interception. "If he gets himself eligible, he can be a contributor," Kiffin said, especially on special teams.
Big catch and run of the day is by senior walk-on WR Nic Curry on a quick slant between the secondary for 35 yards. Best play of the day for the offense was Barkley's bullet to a diving Flournoy for 12 yards at the out of bounds line that looked like it went through the shoulder pads of Tony Burnett.
On Saturday, there were about 20 recruits altogether, including a few nice looking linemen. Inglewood brought five or size kids down including Derrick Woods. Muir cornerback Kevon Seymour sported a USC beanie. Some of the other recruits included: Jabari Ruffin, Kevon Seymour, Diamonte Wiggins, Ellis McCarthy, David Sills, Derrik Woods and Kyle Murphy. USC signees at practice included: Antwaun Woods, Greg Townsend Jr., Victor Blackwell, Cody Temple, Charles Burks, Marcus Martin and Steve Dillon.
Jack Del Rio was there with his son, Luke, a sophomore quarterback at Episcopal High in Jacksonville. He gave a nice speech to the kids after the workout.
USC added 12 walk-ons to its roster Saturday, including receiver Cody Gifford, the son of former New York Giants running back/receiver/defensive back and USC All-American Frank Gifford.
Here is a photo gallery from Saturday’s practice put together by John McGillen of USCTrojans.com.
Practice concluded on Saturday with a James Harbin interception. The senior walk-on worked a graveyard shift at a warehouse the previous night to make time for spring practice, so it was pretty cool to have his pick ring in the three horns (signals the end of practice).
Kiffin said this what he loves about coaching. It was a beautiful thing. Makes you forget the frustrations for a while of the offensive short handedness.