USC practices in pads minus Wittek, Lee

The USC football team took the field for practice Tuesday without incumbent sophomore quarterback Max Wittek and junior wide receiver Marqise Lee. Both players suffered knee injuries on Saturday and were forced to sit out of the weekend scrimmage, but head coach Lane Kiffin is optimistic about both players returning to practice before next week.

“[The injuries] are not serious,” Kiffin said. “We anticipate both of them being back, if not this week, then the next two days of practice.”

Out of action · Sophomore quarterback Max Wittek (above) did not practice on Tuesday, giving extra reps to Cody Kessler and Max Browne. - Austin Vogel | Daily Trojan

Out of action · Sophomore quarterback Max Wittek (above) did not practice on Tuesday, giving extra reps to Cody Kessler and Max Browne. — Austin Vogel | Daily Trojan

Wittek tried to make the best of his time off the practice field and focused on improving other aspects of his game.

“I’m going to try to spend as much time mentally with my teammates, a lot more film work with individual players,” Wittek said.

The absence of Wittek in particular was an intriguing wrinkle in the battle for the starting quarterback job. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler and incoming freshman quarterback Max Browne were given additional reps in Wittek’s stead, to                  mixed results.

Browne in particular struggled, throwing two interceptions to safety and fellow freshman Su’a Cravens during 11-on-11 drills. Browne said his miscues were a result of the speed of the game and the learning curve in transitioning from high school to the college level. On some plays, it seemed Browne checked down without going through his progressions.

“Every single play, your head’s spinning … and you’re thinking so much,” Browne said. “Once I get comfortable with the offense I don’t think it’ll happen.”

Browne was not the only player struggling in practice — the entire team looked beleaguered following their first full practice in pads.

“[Tuesday was] unfortunately not one of our better practices,” Kiffin said. “It’s easy to come out energized the first two days of spring without pads. … Today was a little warmer, and being out in full pads for a long practice was good for us, good for our guys to realize that obviously we have a long way to go.”

One of the few bright spots of the practice was the play of Cravens, whose on-field intensity translated into two interceptions. Cravens, who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs in at a solid 220 pounds, has been described as looking like a college senior by assistant coaches. His play also resembles that of a more experienced player, a fact Cravens attributes to new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s system.

“When you’re thinking too much, you play slow,” Cravens said. “The playbook’s really simple, and [Pendergast] keeps it really easy for us to not think too much and just play.”

Kiffin was especially pleased with Cravens’ play and mentality, comparing his drive and quick jump on the learning curve to that of former Trojan standout wide receiver Robert Woods and cornerback Nickell Robey.

“[Cravens] is just so natural,” Kiffin said. “He went from making the two interceptions, one off the deep post and one off the edge just beating the back. He’s a special player.”

With the departure of senior safety T.J. McDonald and Robey to the NFL draft, Cravens’ early play is an encouraging development for a defense that seeks to adopt a new identity in the coming season.