The USC football team continues to have physical practices as their Spring game on April 14 draws closer. On Tuesday, the Trojans dealt with lingering injuries while the ongoing quarterback competition intensified.
Redshirt freshman defensive lineman Marlon Tuipulotu continued to work separately from the team as he recovers from a back injury from last season.
Sophomore running back Vavae Malepeai took 1st and 2nd team reps in his return from a short absence. Meanwhile, junior wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr., who is currently dealing with an AC sprain in his shoulder, was a limited participant. He was involved in positional drills that included route running, but did not have pads on and did not play in the scrimmages.
Both quarterbacks had their highs and lows in practice. Redshirt freshman Jack Sears and redshirt sophomore Matt Fink showed athleticism in their ability to maneuver around the pocket but also missed some key throws to their receivers.
Quarterbacks coach Bryan Ellis stressed that while they are keeping many of the concepts they employed with former quarterback Sam Darnold, he does not want Sears and Fink to mimic everything from their predecessor.
“We want them to see and keep learning those concepts we’ve used but I don’t want them to watch Sam because Sam was his own different animal,” Ellis said. “They need to be the players that they are.”
With now NFL-bound wide receiver Deontay Burnett’s departure and the Pittman Jr. injury, sophomore Josh Imatorbhebhe has been one of the bright spots for a suddenly thin wide receiving core. Running with the first and second-string offense, Imatorbhebhe showed explosion after a short catch and run as well as deep-threat ability, connecting with redshirt sophomore Holden Thomas on a deep ball down the right sideline.
While head coach Clay Helton previously attached Imatorbhebhe’s success to a better understanding of the playbook, the former ESPN 300 recruit attributed his progression to an improved focus.
“If I have to run a route, I’m making sure my pad level is low,” Imatorbhebhe said. “I’m getting out of my breaks quickly, and I’m not letting it get into my head if I drop a ball.”
His quarterbacks have taken notice of his progress.
“[Imatorbhebhe] is a great athlete, and I can’t wait to see him on the field more,” Fink said.
On the defensive side of the ball, the senior duo of linebackers Porter Gustin and Cameron Smith stood out again as leaders both vocally and through their play. The duo basically lived in the backfield, and Gustin sacked redshirt freshman quarterback Jack Sears on back-to-back plays while Smith, playing in the “Mike” linebacker position once again in defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s system, called out defenses along with his solid play.
After finishing last season 71st in the country in sacks allowed with 30, both offensive line coach Neil Callaway and his players focused on one theme: toughness.
Sophomore Andrew Vorhees, who started the final nine games at right guard last year, highlighted this, saying, “Our team, and my unit specifically, need to be tougher mentally and physically this year.”
The specific game that continues to haunt some of the Trojans and the offensive line in particular, is the Cotton Bowl, where USC allowed a season-high eight sacks.
“[Ohio State was] the best defensive line we played all year and the game was an experience we need to learn from,” said sophomore Austin Jackson, a potential starting offensive tackle who appeared in all 14 games last season.
With projected starting center senior Toa Lobendahn limited in spring practice, redshirt freshman Brett Neilon and freshman early enrollee Justin Dedich have earned high praise from both Callaway and Helton. Callaway mentioned their “punch and quickness of the line of scrimmage” and Helton praised their ability to “avoid assignment errors and not getting physically beaten.”
Entering next season, the USC coaching staff has the tough task of replacing seniors guard Viane Talamauvao and center Nico Falah on the offensive line. However, the unit returns three starters from last year, along with frequent contributors such as Jackson and redshirt junior offensive tackle Clayton Johnston.
Both are projected to take on starting roles in the fall.