Position battles headline first USC spring football practice

The Trojans commenced preparation for the 2017 football season Tuesday with their first spring practice of the offseason at Howard Jones Field. USC is coming off of a 52-49 victory over Penn State on Jan. 2, which clinched the school’s record 25th Rose Bowl Trophy.

Head coach Clay Helton and his team are now preparing for the new season, which kicks off at home against Western Michigan on Sept. 2.

Competition out wide

With the departure of receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster (declared for NFL Draft) and Darreus Rogers (graduation), USC enters 2017 without its top-two pass catchers from the previous season. Smith-Schuster and Rogers combined for 126 receptions and 1,610 receiving yards as a tandem last season.

There is now fresh competition for playing time with their vacated positions. The Trojans have a total of 10 scholarship wide receivers; eight will still have underclassman standing in the fall.

Two leading candidates to take up receiving duties for the Trojans are junior Deontay Burnett and sophomore Michael Pittman Jr. Burnett was a standout in USC’s Rose Bowl victory this January, as he reeled in 13 receptions for 164 yards and three scores against Penn State.

“The receiving corps is very competitive,” Burnett said. “[It’s competitive] in the weight room and in the film room, and that’s what I like to see. We’re going to need our young guys.”

Redshirt freshman receivers Josh Imatorbhebhe, Velus Jones Jr. and Tyler Vaughns all made appearances at Tuesday’s spring practice. However, Trevon Sidney, another redshirt freshman receiver, was held out from practice as he recovers from offseason hip surgery. Sidney is scheduled to miss all spring workouts this offseason according to Helton.

Offensive line shake-up

The offensive line unit was another position group that endured significant offseason losses. All-American and All-Pac-12 tackles Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler both graduated, and left guard Damien Mama is also no longer on the team after declaring for the 2017 NFL Draft following his junior season.

While there have been plenty of changes up front, USC has several viable and experienced options to take the three crucial slots on its offensive front. Senior Viane Talamaivao is slated to be the opening-day right guard for the Trojans; he has started at guard for USC over the past three seasons.

Following Tuesday’s practice, Helton announced that the team would tentatively be going with junior Chuma Edoga at left tackle and redshirt sophomore Roy Hemsley at right tackle. Redshirt junior Chris Brown received practice reps with the first team at left guard. Helton made sure to note that these slots were still open throughout the remainder of the spring and into the fall.

Redshirt senior center Nico Falah sat out Tuesday’s practice with what Helton described as a “bit of a bad back,” but Helton said Falah should be back to practice in the coming weeks. Falah took over as USC’s starting center last season after Toa Lobendahn suffered a season-ending knee injury. Lobendahn, a redshirt junior, was limited at practice, still recovering from ACL surgery.

Special Teams Shuffle

The Trojans opened practice without redshirt senior kicker Matt Boermeester Tuesday. USC announced on Feb. 7 that Boermeester was indefinitely suspended from the team due to a violation of “code of conduct” policy.

Boermeester, who knocked through a 46-yard field goal to win the Rose Bowl in January, has been left off of the Trojans’ 2017 roster.

“There’s been no change of his status,” Helton said. “If there is, I’ll be the first to let you know.”

Filling in for Boermeester will be redshirt freshman kicker Michael Brown. Brown, who suffered a quadriceps injury last fall, will be slotted to take on all placekicking duties for the Trojans in the fall.