The USC football team took to the field for practice Tuesday for the first time following spring break.
Sophomore quarterback and incumbent starter Max Wittek, who is coming off a knee injury sustained two weeks ago, returned to action and got back into the thick of the battle for the starting quarterback job.
“I felt like Cybertron out here with two knee braces, but I felt good overall,” Wittek said. “I think it’s natural to be sore after sitting off of it for three weeks.”
Wittek’s injury meant more reps for sophomore Cody Kessler and freshman early admit Max Browne, but Wittek remained focused on his task at hand. When asked about the quarterback competition, Wittek said he wouldn’t be surprised if head coach Lane Kiffin didn’t name a starting quarterback by the end of spring.
“USC is built on competition, and competition gets the best out of everyone,” Wittek said. “It’s important for us to feel like we’re competing against each other all the way.”
Wittek’s teammate and Biletnikoff Award-winning sophomore wide receiver Marqise Lee was also sidelined over the break but, unlike Wittek, he was not cleared to practice.
“I’m OK, probably a little bit sore here and there, but I’m able to go,” Lee said. “Coach Kiffin [said] there’s no need to rush it — he gave me a little extra day off.”
Lee did have a personal milestone to celebrate today, however, as he was enshrined with a plaque on the Trojans’ All-American Walk for his efforts during the 2012 season.
“I was super happy just to accomplish it,” Lee said. “The thing about it is I’m not done, though. It would have been great if I got it as I left; I didn’t. So now … that plaque is motivation … by me having the next two years now I really gotta compete and make sure I let everybody know why I’m on that wall.”
Despite injury issues with two of its biggest stars on offense, the defense stole the show in practice on Tuesday.
“Very defensive-dominated throughout the day, especially by the front seven,” Kiffin said, referring to the defensive line and linebackers. “In both units, but the first team front seven especially.”
The Trojan defense appears to be taking shape under the tutelage of new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. Pendergast was not as impressed with the play of the defensive line, stressing the importance of developing consistency.
“It’s kind of been a roller coaster for the whole group,” Pendergast said. “Just when I’m expecting a guy to be consistent, he’s not, so it’s kind of been an up-and-down group so far.”
One player fighting to be more consistently on the “up” side was sophomore defensive lineman Leonard Williams. As a defensive tackle for the Trojans in 2012, the play of Williams and senior defensive end Morgan Breslin was one of the bright spots on a heavily criticized defensive unit.
The 6-foot-5 Williams has moved to defensive end, the position he played in high school, and hopes to make more of an impact in the pass rush in the coming year. Williams, who is officially listed at 270 pounds, stated he was 285 pounds during the season but appears to have gained more muscle.
“I feel faster and [have] more endurance,” Williams said. “Last year by this time I’d be worn out and ready to go to sleep, but I’m just fine right now.”
When asked about what he is striving to achieve next season, Williams brushed off any personal goals and pointed to the Trojan tradition of strong defensive lines.
“Just play good as a whole D-line,” Williams said. “I just want us to look like a good D-line, like the Wild Bunch.”
The “Wild Bunch II” moniker, originally named after the Sam Peckinpah film The Wild Bunch, was appended to the hellacious Trojan defensive line of 2002-03, which included now-NFL player Mike Patterson and defensive ends Omar Nazel and Kenechi Udeze.
With a maturing defensive line and Sports Illustrated All-American honorable mention Breslin returning for his senior year, the thought of a “Wild Bunch III” in the coming season is an enticing possibility.