The USC football team wrapped up spring practices Saturday with a “Spring Showcase” at Oliver Cromwell Field.
One of the hottest topics of spring football was the ongoing search to replace NFL-bound quarterback Sam Darnold. Currently on the roster, the Trojans featured last year’s backup redshirt sophomore Matt Fink, redshirt freshman Jack Sears and redshirt sophomore Holden Thomas. From the start, head coach Clay Helton insisted that a starter wouldn’t be named during the spring but noted that all three quarterbacks improved most on “decision-making and accuracy” throughout the spring season. The quarterback competition will only intensify as the Trojans welcome consensus five-star recruit J.T. Daniels into the mix. Helton also mentioned that Daniels, who reclassified from the class of 2019 to 2018, will participate in practices starting this summer.
On the offensive line and skill positions, a few players set themselves apart. In particular, redshirt sophomore Velus Jones, Jr. stood out as a top contender to replace Deontay Burnett in the slot receiver position.
“I have a huge opportunity to step up,” Jones said. “This is what I have been preparing and praying for and why I redshirted. It’s my time.” He will also look to be a contributor on special teams as kickoff and punt returner.
The offensive line also improved dramatically throughout spring. Despite receiving criticism last season, this spring’s unit played together and saw young players stepping up all over. With former left tackle Toa Lobendahn presumably moving back to center, offensive tackles freshman Austin Jackson and redshirt sophomore Clayton Johnston competed extensively to cover the quarterback’s blind side. Though Lobendahn was limited throughout spring, young centers in true freshman Justin Dedich and redshirt freshman Brett Neilon were praised by offensive line coach Neil Callaway for their early success.
With returning senior stalwarts such as outside linebacker Porter Gustin, inside linebacker Cameron Smith and safety Marvel Tell, it was clear that the Trojans’ defense already has all the tools to be an elite unit next season.
One group that continually drew praise was the defensive backs, led by Iman “Biggie” Marshall. Marshall, who likely would have been drafted had he declared, has returned with a vengeance and new sense of focus and dedication to the game for his senior season.
“I’ve just started looking at more film and slowing the game down,” Marshall said. “I feel like when I lose, I’m beating myself no one else is beating me.”
His positional coach, Ronnie Bradford, has also taken note of Marshall’s renewed sense of focus this spring.
“Iman has begun to understand the little things,” Bradford said in late March. “He’s now displaying his leadership capabilities and taking more of that role within his defensive backs group.”
With myriad impending changes on the offensive side of the ball, USC may have to rely extensively on its defense to lead the way next season.
While USC looked to replace eight NFL departures with the roster from last year’s Cotton Bowl and early enrollees, more reinforcements are on the way for next season in the form of the No. 4 recruiting class in the nation, according to 24/7 Sports.
Some of the headliners of the group include five-star cornerbacks Olaijah Griffin and Isaac Taylor-Stuart who will look to break into the defensive back rotation come fall. Another monster addition on defense will be inside linebacker Palaie Gaoteote. Gaoteote was rated as the No. 1 inside linebacker in the country, according to 24/7 Sports, and the 15th overall player in the class of 2018.
On offense, USC will not only welcome one Mater Dei legend in Daniels, but also his favorite target in five-star Amon-Ra St. Brown. St. Brown, the brother of former Notre Dame standout Equanimeous and current Stanford receiver Osiris, will look to contribute to the receiving core immediately upon arriving in Los Angeles. St. Brown was the No. 1 rated receiver in the state of California and caught a whopping 18 touchdowns in his final high school season, according to 24/7 Sports.
As expected, some questions remain as USC looks to retool and compete for another Pac-12 title. With the remaining player-run summer workouts as well along with the 25 fall practices, Helton and his staff will look to find answers ahead of their season opener against UNLV Sept. 1.