Antonio Morales (The Athletic) — LOS ANGELES — USC hit its first major checkpoint of training camp Saturday afternoon, capping off its first full week of camp by holding its first scrimmage since April. There were some big plays, several penalties and more than a few insights to take away from it.
Let’s take a look back at the week that was with some observations from the five practices that were open to the media.
1. USC’s scrimmage featured 19 offensive possessions, per The Athletic’s very unofficial count. JT Daniels led six drives, Kedon Slovis led five, and Jack Sears and Matt Fink led four (again, unofficial). Some were under normal situations. Others were in two-minute drills or two-minute red zone drills, and some were end-of-game situations.
Daniels wasn’t as dominant as he was during his first training camp scrimmage a year ago, when he went 10-of-12 with four TD passes, but he was steady. Three of his possessions ended with touchdown passes.
He threw two touchdowns to Amon-Ra St. Brown, one of which came during the end-of-game scenario, and another to Devon Williams (left) during red zone work. He didn’t make any killer mistakes — even though he was nearly picked by corner Greg Johnson — that would seem to hurt his standing.
Slovis had a good start to the week, but the freshman quarterback has seemed to hit a bit of a wall the past few days. His first drive ended in a Markese Stepp touchdown run, but he was intercepted later in the scrimmage by true freshman corner Adonis Otey.
Fink and Sears, the two older quarterbacks, took advantage of Otey, who was primarily working with the second-team defense, early in the scrimmage. Both threw long touchdowns to Velus Jones, who used his speed to escape from Otey’s coverage on both scores.
Sears also led a touchdown drive, which was finished by a Stepp scoring run, in the end-of-game drill, and Fink also threw a touchdown to Michael Pittman Jr. during the two-minute drill.
“There were some big plays,” head coach Clay Helton said. “I thought they took advantage of one-on-one situations. I thought JT and Jack did a nice job on the last two two-minute drives. I thought they both played very maturely. … Walking away from it, old guys that have been in played old. Young guys made young guy mistakes.”
2. So where exactly do things stand with the quarterback competition?
At Pac-12 Media Day, Helton was adamant about utilizing all 25 practices before naming a starter. Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s tune sounded a bit different when he met with the media for the first time in camp on Tuesday.
“I don’t think you can go that far (Friday before the opener),” Harrell said. “I think you can compete for a while though. We’re four practices in. … We’ve got to figure who we think is going to be playing best August 31, and obviously you have to make the decision on who the guy is before that point. I think you have to get closer to that point to see who’s playing the best at that time and gives you a chance to win games.”
For the first week of camp, USC has split the reps between the four quarterbacks pretty evenly. Harrell said he could see them trimming reps for some quarterbacks after the first 10 days or so.
When asked whether he’d narrow the quarterback race down to fewer players anytime soon, Helton pointed to next week.
“We’re going to go through the 17th,” he said, “and be able to see every QB, evaluate them, and allow them to compete, allow them to get better and allow them to progress.”
3. Based on the totality of the seven practices the media has seen, here’s how I would peg the QB competition so far:
- Sears or Fink
- Fink or Sears
As you can see, I think Sears and Fink are pretty interchangeable this camp. Sears has a higher ceiling and was popular among the fan base after his start against Arizona State last season, but his performance remains uneven from day to day.
Fink had the better scrimmage Saturday. Slovis has gone through his tough days lately but generally has seemed more consistent than Sears or Fink. And none have really done anything to make me think Daniels won’t be named the starter.
But there’s more that goes into being named the starter than practice. Just ask the guys who’ve won the job before.
4. USC opened the week by avoiding a scare with senior inside linebacker Jordan Iosefa, who suffered a knee injury during Monday’s practice and had surgery on Tuesday.
It was not a season-ending injury, though. Iosefa dislocated his patella and will be out for four to six weeks.
“Everybody heals different but the good Lord was watching after us and one of the warriors of our team,” Helton said. “I’m very, very happy for him, being a senior.”
That injury has vaulted true freshman Ralen Goforth (left) up the two-deep at inside linebacker. Goforth, whose brother Randall played at UCLA from 2012 to ’16, was a three-star prospect in the 247Sports Composite who signed with the Trojans in December and enrolled in January.
He took reps with the second-team defense most of the week. On Saturday, the coaching staff decided to limit John Houston’s reps during the latter portion of the scrimmage so the fifth-year senior could coach Goforth and Eli’jah Winston, who recently moved from outside linebacker to the inside, and so those two could get more reps. That meant a lot of first-team reps for the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Goforth.
“Ralen’s a very smart, instinctive player,” Helton said. “You can tell he’s played a lot of ball. Very football smart, book smart. Picking up the playbook and not really making a lot of busts, making the right calls. … It’s his opportunity with Jordan getting healthy off surgery. What a great opportunity to get some valuable reps and he’s making the most of them.”
5. Running backs Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr both missed portions of spring ball, which opened the door for Stepp, a redshirt freshman, to receive a bigger workload. Malepeai didn’t practice this week after tweaking his knee, which has created another opportunity for Stepp to receive more touches.
Stepp, who is 6 feet tall and 235 pounds, typically does well in scrimmage situations. He’s a tough runner, and his size makes him hard to bring down. He had a nice run off the left side of the line to end Slovis’ first drive and ended the scrimmage with a short scoring run.
But he also caught several passes out of the backfield, which seems like it will be a staple for these running backs and is not something Stepp looked particularly comfortable with in the past.
“Remember when he first came here, he was not a natural ball catcher,” Helton said. “He’s really worked at it. He knows that’s the nature of this offense and that’s extra touches for the back.”
Malepeai and Carr are both natural receivers out of the backfield, although Carr hasn’t been utilized as an option much in that regard.
Helton said the hope is Malepeai will be integrated back into practice next week, maybe with some outside running.
6. Slovis tossed a short pass to fellow true freshman Munir McClain (below) during Tuesday’s practice. McClain caught the ball, sidestepped one defender and then evaded the rest of the defense on his way to the end zone.
McClain’s strong play from the weekend prior carried over to this week. He remains a pleasant surprise for the Trojans, who also have to be pleased with the play of their other freshman receiver, Drake London.
Helton didn’t hesitate when asked about the prospects of the two seeing playing time this fall.
“They’re going to play this year,” Helton said. “In this offense, you’ve got to have eight receivers, two deep that can go at any time. Those kids have shown they can pick up the offense and go.”
It’s a promising sign for the group of receivers USC signed this fall, considering Kyle Ford (knee), who was the top-rated receiver in California, and Bru McCoy (fever), a former five-star prospect, have yet to practice.
“To step into that room, to be honest with you, you’re going to turn into a dude or you’re going to be out of there,” Harrell said. “That’s just the room you’re stepping into. Those two guys (McClain and London) have done a good job stepping in, making plays and just adapting to the room and adapting to the culture of that room.”
7. In a bit of an interesting move this week, USC did some shuffling in its secondary — not in terms of who was starting but in who was playing which position.
Greg Johnson, who usually plays outside cornerback, received a decent amount of snaps at nickel during practice and the scrimmage. Chase Williams, who generally plays nickel, received a lot of reps at safety.
Williams started at free safety against Notre Dame and played pretty well, but he transitioned to the nickel spot this spring. The Trojans don’t really have a ton of depth behind him, so getting Johnson some experience there makes sense.
And there isn’t really any experience behind Talanoa Hufanga, who is coming off two collarbone injuries, at safety. Playing Williams there also makes sense should USC ever need a backup plan.
8. Coming into training camp, the general assumption seemed to be that Tennessee grad transfer Drew Richmond would compete with Jalen McKenzie for playing time at right tackle. But through the first week of camp, Richmond has played primarily at left tackle behind Austin Jackson. McKenzie has received a majority of the first-team reps at right tackle.
Senior Clayton Bradley left), who missed all of spring with a back injury, has been the second-team option at right tackle.
There hasn’t been much movement with the starting offensive line. Right now, it seems pretty set (from left to right): Jackson, Alijah Vera-Tucker, Brett Neilon, Andrew Vorhees and McKenzie.
9. Several players were held out of the scrimmage. Defensive lineman Brandon Pili, corner Max Williams, linebacker Solomon Tuliapupu, receiver John Jackson III, defensive lineman Jacob Lichtenstein, Ford and Malepeai were among those who didn’t participate.
Malepeai is probably the most critical absence of the group, although the Trojans do need Pili for depth along the defensive front, and Williams is promising at corner.
10. The next scrimmage is the USC Football Fall Showcase next weekend in the Coliseum.
Season ticket holders get in free, while others who wish to attend will have to pay $10. The Trojans haven’t opened a practice to the public during training camp, so it’ll be interesting to see how much they really show during next week’s scrimmage.