Antonio Morales (The Athletic) — LOS ANGELES — Jack Sears’ pass floated in the direction of one of USC’s walk-on receivers toward the end of Saturday’s practice.
Sophomore safety Talanoa Hufanga, whose freshman season was cut short by a broken collarbone and who has worn a yellow non-contact jersey this spring, got tangled up with the receiver while in coverage, fell to the ground and stayed there for a few moments while athletic trainers and Clay Helton came to check on him.
It was a scare for one of the Trojans’ most talented defensive players, but it also displayed the tightrope the Trojans are attempting to walk this spring. You want to get players, especially younger ones like Hufanga, some valuable reps, but at the same time, you have to preserve your depth.
Hufanga was one of two scholarship safeties who were able to participate in practice this week. USC also practiced with one scholarship running back for most of the week and three scholarship corners.
When asked about Hufanga, who favored the right shoulder he injured last year, Helton was in wait-and-see mode.
“We’ll see. He’s been in non-contact this whole time and just fell and something tweaked,” Helton said. “We’ll have to see exactly what it is. The good news is we are in spring. It is March, and like I told him, he’ll be 100 percent by the time we get to fall camp.”
It was known that USC is struggling with depth at certain spots this spring. Hufanga’s scare during the sixth practice of camp only reinforced that. With that said, here are some other things we’ve learned through two weeks of Trojans spring practices:
Redshirt freshman running back Markese Stepp can be a lot to handle
Running backs Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr both missed Tuesday and Thursday’s practices with the flu. They returned Saturday but did very little contact in practice.
That left Stepp with a heavy workload throughout the week. He impressed by bowling over defenders and breaking through tackles Saturday.
“When you get in those live periods, you see his value,” Helton said. “A lot of times, everybody thinks they’re getting him when they thud him up or touch him. That’s a big man to get to the ground, and by far, had a great day today.”
The 6-foot, 230-pound Stepp is USC’s “big back.” Last season, he carried the ball seven times for 33 yards. Five of those carries came in the season finale against Notre Dame when the running back depth started to dwindle.
With the graduation of Aca’Cedric Ware, last season’s starting running back, it’s logical to assume Stepp will be more of a factor in the running back rotation this fall.
Connor Murphy appears poised for a bigger role
Through four seasons, Murphy, a 6-foot-7, 268-pound junior defensive lineman, has had a relatively quiet career with the Trojans, never recording more than six tackles in a season and redshirting last year.
Though it’s still early, Murphy said he’s received an ego boost this spring. USC’s defense is utilizing four down linemen more often than it did last season, and as a result, Murphy has often worked with the first-team defense through the first two weeks of spring ball.
The highlight of Murphy’s spring, so far, came on the final play of Thursday’s practice.
The offense and defense were competing in a goal-line drill, and through eight plays, each side had won four plays apiece, which left everything to one decisive play. JT Daniels took the snap, dropped back and threw the pass, only for Murphy to bat down the ball at the line of scrimmage and give the defense the win.
“(Connor) has bought into what was going on,” first-year Trojans defensive line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a said. “(He’s) one of the guys when I first got here, was in my office, picking my brain, asking what I’m gonna teach, what I’m doing, what I’m all about. He’s running with it, man. He’s doing a nice job. Today he was playing some three-technique, which is really new for him. He went from playing outside linebacker last year to playing defensive end, now playing inside because of our injuries. Really proud of him. He’s a smart, smart young man. He puts the time in, the effort in and watching film, and he’s one that’s not afraid to ask questions when it’s film time.”
The first thing Kauha’aha’a emphasized with Murphy was gaining weight. USC’s defensive line coach is a stickler on maintaining weight and holds his players accountable on that topic. He has a goal weight for most of his linemen, and the target is plus or minus four pounds.
After playing last season at 255 pounds, Murphy is up to 268. “I’ve been stuffing my face,” Murphy said. “Five meals a day, snacks in between, I’ve got a high metabolism so I’ve just got to keep doing what I can do, drink those extra protein shakes and I’ll get there.”
Murphy said he doesn’t feel any slower with the added weight. There’s still a long way between now and Aug. 31 against Fresno State, and Murphy has plenty to prove, but so far he’s positioned himself well.
It hasn’t taken long for Drake Jackson to assert himself
Drake Jackson’s decision to pick USC over Arizona State in the early signing period this past December came down to the final minutes. The early returns have been promising.
Christian Rector has class on Thursdays, which allows Jackson, a 6-foot-4, 260-pound edge rusher, to run with the first-team defense. Jackson, a former four-star prospect, did just that Thursday and held his own against the first-team offensive line.
“He’s a stud,” Murphy said. “He’s (really) natural. He’s a pretty good pass rusher, and you can’t teach that. He’s just really natural out of the gate. He’s going to be another Rasheem Green coming out of here. He’s going to be a beast.”
Jackson, who intercepted a tipped pass (then fumbled) in Saturday’s practice, has been working with the first- or second-team defense since the start of camp, so it’s clear the staff has confidence in him. He’ll likely be a factor in the rotation this season if things keep progressing.
Kauha’aha’a said where Jackson has separated himself is the time he’s put in mentally, watching film and asking questions off the field. Listed as a defensive lineman and an outside linebacker, Jackson has the ability to stand up or put his hand down on the line of scrimmage.
With the loss of Porter Gustin, last year’s leader in sacks, USC will take some pass rush wherever it can be found.
Greg Johnson has returned from the transfer portal and isn’t interested in talking about it
Johnson was asked about his decision to withdraw from the portal — after he spent a week in it — and said the following: “I talked to my teammates and stuff, my coaches, we’re past that now. So I’m just focused on getting better every day and coming out here and giving my best effort.”
He reiterated much of that when he was asked if he seriously contemplated leaving the program. The fact of the matter is USC needs bodies at defensive back in the worst way, so Johnson’s return is a positive. On paper, the decision to enter the portal didn’t make much sense considering he’d likely be a starter this spring.
Johnson, who underwent shoulder surgery at the end of last season, is the Trojans’ only corner who has started a game and is available to practice this spring, which means the redshirt sophomore is the team’s most experienced option. After returning to the team for its second spring practice, he hasn’t taken long to get those first-team reps.
“Greg, I see that he’s now challenging receivers a little bit more,” secondary coach Greg Burns said. “He’s taking chances getting out of his break, going for the interception in terms of being cautious.”
Johnson still has to wear a yellow non-contact jersey at practice because of his shoulder injury from last season, but he and Isaac Taylor-Stuart are the first-team corners at the moment. True freshman Briton Allen has been getting reps with the second team. Aside from that, USC is mainly relying on walk-ons at corner.
Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast described Johnson as more of a “work-in-progress type guy,” but having him in the mix is better than not for the Trojans.
It’s still early but …
Here’s a look at where things stand in terms of the first-team offense and defense based on practice observations through two weeks:
Quarterback: JT Daniels.
Running back: Vavae Malepeai, Stephen Carr, Markese Stepp.
Receiver: Michael Pittman, Tyler Vaughns, Amon-Ra St. Brown.
Tight end: Josh Falo.
Offensive line (left to right): Austin Jackson, Alijah Vera-Tucker, Brett Neilon, Andrew Vorhees and Jalen McKenzie.
Some offensive notes: Stepp was the only healthy scholarship running back at practice this week. Carr and Malepeai have been nursing injuries. … Sophomore receiver Devon Williams isn’t listed as a starter, but he’s been impressive this spring, and with Velus Jones still in the transfer portal, Williams will likely be the team’s fourth receiver. But truthfully, with the depth concerns at defensive back, it’s difficult to gauge the true progress of the receivers this spring since they’re competing against walk-ons a lot of the time.
Defensive line: Christian Rector, Jay Tufele, Marlon Tuipulotu, Connor Murphy.
Linebackers: Palaie Gaoteote, Jordan Iosefa.
Safeties: Talanoa Hufanga, Isaiah Pola-Mao.
Corners: Greg Johnson, Isaac Taylor-Stuart.
Nickel: Chase Williams.
Some defensive notes: John Houston has started the past two seasons at inside linebacker and is expected to remain a fixture in that rotation if he doesn’t end up a starter. … If Hufanga’s tweak turns out to be something serious, walk-on safety Jordan McMillan, who intercepted a pass in the Notre Dame game, is another option at safety, and so is Raymond Scott, who came to USC as a linebacker. Backup safety C.J. Pollard has been at practice but has often had a boot on his foot. … Sophomore Olaijah Griffin isn’t available this spring but projects to start whenever he returns.