Former stars visit as USC football prepares for scrimmage

Just one day after scouts from across the NFL flocked to USC’s campus for Pro Day, the football team returned to Howard-Jones Field on Thursday for its fifth spring ball workout this offseason.

With just over three weeks remaining until its spring game, USC continued its preparation for the 2017 season on Thursday.

Continuity a strength on defense

Head coach Clay Helton received high praise from his coaches and players for his ability to keep nearly all of his coaching staff from last season’s Rose Bowl-winning team intact over the offseason.

The 2017 Trojan coaching staff features only one newcomer: former Indiana running backs coach Deland McCullough. McCullough is replacing Tommie Robinson, who departed from USC in the offseason to coach at LSU.

“[Keeping the same coaching staff] really helps us,” defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said. “We obviously still have lots to do this spring, but keeping that continuity does help.”

A USC defense which held seven opponents to their season-low in points in 2016 has had the opportunity to further develop under Pendergast’s schemes. An offseason to study a familiar defensive playbook is helping players grasp concepts and trends from coaches.

“It’s real helpful having the same playbook and the same schemes coming into this spring,” redshirt sophomore linebacker John Houston Jr. said. “It’s helped me a lot to know some of the schemes. I feel like I’m ready to just go full speed.”

Redshirts showing promise

With Michael Hutchings graduating, Houston — who sat out the entirety of last season — has now been taking first-team reps this spring. Houston is considered a frontrunner for the starting inside linebacker position for the Trojans.

“[Houston] is doing a great job,” Helton said. “He’s always had the athleticism and the ability to track and get to the ball extremely quickly. He’s not done, and he’s not a finished product right now. But we are happy with where he currently is.”

USC’s defense also suffered a loss in the secondary this offseason, as former safety Leon McQuay III — who made the pivotal interception in January’s Rose Bowl — graduated. McQuay’s departure has opened the door for redshirt freshman safety Jamel Cook to garner some playing time in the secondary this season.

Cook’s 6-foot-3-inch, 195-pound physical frame has impressed many observing USC’s spring workouts. On several occasions through spring workouts, Cook has made some heavy hits on ball carriers, grabbing the attention of the media, teammates and coaches.

“[Cook’s] had flashes of real brilliance,” Helton said. “You’ve seen the explosiveness and physical nature that he brings. His length really makes things hard for smaller receivers.”

Scrimmage Looming

This Saturday, the team will be participating in an intersquad scrimmage at Howard-Jones Field. The scrimmage will feature “live-tackling” among the players, Helton confirmed.

A large portion of Thursday’s practice was devoted to installing play-calling systems in preparation for the upcoming scrimmage this weekend. Forecasts show that there is a slight chance of rain Saturday morning, when the scrimmage would be taking place.

Star Power

Several famous faces and figures in the USC community made their way to Howard-Jones Field Thursday to watch the Trojans practice.

Former USC Heisman-winning quarterback and NFL Pro-Bowler Carson Palmer and former All-Pac-10 USC defensive end Lawrence Jackson were in attendance.

Just one day after participating in Pro Day workouts, former USC receivers Juju Smith-Schuster and De’Quan Hampton were also present on Thursday.

On Wednesday, former USC head coach and current Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll attended USC Pro Day on Cromwell Field. Carroll and Helton had the opportunity to chat during the workout.

“Anytime you get to be around someone who is a great coach [in] Carroll, you try to get things from them, and I did,” Helton said. “I really appreciate him. He’s been great to me ever since I got the job here.”