Another spring session is in the books for the Trojan football team, and now the wait begins for fall practice and the opener against the Alabama Crimson Tide. Spring practice is great for showcasing potentially new dynamic players as well as offering a glimpse of what the season ahead brings. This year, Clay Helton’s first as head coach, was no different.
While most of the focus surrounded the quarterback battle between redshirt junior Max Browne and redshirt freshman Sam Darnold, there were points of interest all across the Trojan roster. In addition, fans and players got their first taste of the newly assembled coaching staff. The group of coaches offers an interesting blend of holdovers from the current staff, returning coaches on their second tour of USC and Helton connections.
Coaching is such an important component of player development at the collegiate level, and it seems that this group knows what they are doing. While it is still early, and the sample size is only 15 practices, the quotes and practice assessments coming from both coaches and players seem to be markedly improved in terms of discipline and organization from years past.
In particular, both sides of the line appear to be in good hands. The offensive line, which returns the bulk of their depth chart, is led by new coach Neil Callaway. Callaway has more than 30 years of experience in coaching, and brings sage wisdom and a low key approach that has the line looking in sync and developing at a rapid pace. So far, Callaway has impressed with his role during the spring and could be the best line coach the Trojans have had since Tim Drevno during the 2014 season.
An offensive line that is strong and mobile as well as disciplined will be a key to the Trojans’ success regardless of who is under center. On the defensive side, the front four will set the tone for a back seven that returns a wealth of talent.
Unfortunately, the front four is relatively thin at this stage. Redshirt junior defensive tackle Kenny Bigelow Jr., who was expected to be an anchor on the line this year, was lost for the season during the spring. The Trojans suffered another scare yesterday as sophomore defensive tackle Noah Jefferson left practice with what Helton said is hopefully a minor injury. Any more losses on an already beleaguered front four will make first-year coach Kenenchi Udeze’s job even harder.
Udeze who was a star at USC and part of the Wild Bunch 2 line that featured fellow NFL stalwarts Mike Patterson and Sean Cody in addition to Omar Nazel, moves into a position coaching role with great promise and fanfare. What he may lack in years of coaching, Udeze more than makes up for with enthusiasm, passion and firsthand knowledge and experience of what it takes to be great at both the collegiate and professional level.
One of Udeze’s strengths in the spring and hopefully going forward will be the development of some of USC’s younger athletes on the line who have demonstrated tremendous potential and just to need refine their technique to elevate their game.
Building up strong lines on both sides of the ball will allow Helton to implement his desired game plan, and win with a punishing and high octane attack. One spring session won’t build the final product, as that will take some serious time, but the Trojans made some serious strides in their first 15 sessions.
The team is stacked at the receiver and running back positions and has many young and talented defensive backs and linebackers. With a renewed emphasis on spreading the ball around next season, the Trojans could have some other position players join junior wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, junior defensive back and wide receiver Adoree’ Jackson and sophomore tailback Ronald Jones II on the national radar. If they can stay healthy athletes like redshirt junior wide receiver Steven Mitchell Jr., senior wide receiver Darreus Rogers, redshirt sophomore wide receiver Ajene Harris and sophomore tailback Dominic Davis all could have expanded roles in the offense.
Ultimately, regardless of who is under center in the first game, if the Trojans can further develop their offensive line and make sure either Darnold and Browne has enough time to spread the ball around to the immense talent surrounding them, the Trojans could be in great shape next season.
Spring session is over and the early results on offense look promising. Now, the fall will be about making sure the defense can stay healthy and match the offenses’ progress so Helton’s debut season as head coach will be a successful one.
Jake Davidson is a junior majoring in accounting. His column, “Davidson’s Direction,” runs Mondays.