COLUMN: Football is stacked in talent in spring ball

Now that college basketball is over, the countdown to football season officially begins. While we are still a long summer away from fall camp and the start of the season, spring football always provides an exciting glimpse into the future.

This year is no different, especially at USC, where some former highly touted recruits are making a name for themselves. This seems to be an annual trend for Trojan players. As the team restocks its talent reservoirs, there will be more spring standouts than ever as pieces begin to fall into place for Helton’s second season at the helm.

In the past, the springtime has been a showcase for talent and potential. While some players who shined in spring ball failed to make a similar impact in the regular season, such as  Isaac Whitney and De’Quan Hampton, others have used the 14 sessions to stake a claim for their future starting spot.

Last spring, redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold had everyone talking on a daily basis. His skills and in-game ability were evident every time the ball was snapped, and it was obvious that it was only a matter of time until he took the helm as the starter. 

This year is a bit different for Darnold. Instead of surprising everyone with his immense talent, he enters the spring as a Heisman trophy frontrunner and potential first pick in the 2018 draft, earning serious hype at this year’s NFL Combine despite the fact that he won’t be eligible to attend until next year.

While hopefully he stays for more than just this year, his performance thus far has only added to the growing hype. Many preseason media darlings struggle to adjust under the bright lights, but Darnold seems to be excelling in this role and leading the team. Barring injury, his sophomore campaign could be one for the record books.

Darnold certainly highlights and accentuates the talent around him, but he is blessed to have a diverse and dynamic receiving corps. The Trojans will miss Darreus Rogers’ dependability and JuJu Smith-Schuster’s raw power and playmaking skills, but the team seems to have a few different stars in the making during spring ball.

If his Rose Bowl performance — and excellent November before that — didn’t cement junior wide receiver Deontay Burnett’s status as an excellent wideout, this spring is certainly helping. Burnett came in with the reputation of a burner, but what is really impressive is his sure-handedness and knack for finding openings in the defense.

The fact that he has blazing speed is just an added bonus, as the Darnold-Burnett combination looks to be even better than it was last season, which should have defenses concerned.

In addition to Burnett, sophomore wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. may be able to step in and make some of the plays that Smith-Schuster and Rogers have been making for the Trojans over the last few years. Pittman is exceptionally strong in his position, and flashed glimpses of his potential last season, especially in the rout of Oregon. This spring, he has continued to refine his route-running skills and will be a handful for defenses in the fall.

The Trojans are much deeper than just those two. Redshirt freshman wide receivers Tyler Vaughns and Velus Jones are showing the Trojan fanbase why they were both so heavily recruited as members of the 2016 class, and they should give those fans something to look forward to for the future.

Vaughns, a five-star recruit, is in the mold of recent standouts like Nelson Agholor and Marquise Lee, with a potent combination of size and athleticism. Jones has similar speed as last year’s Thorpe Award winner Adoree’ Jackson, but packs quite the punch, as he weighs 185 pounds. Both are raw, but the potential for greatness is clearly there, and Helton will have a lot to work with as he molds these two players.

Finally, the Imatorbhebhe brothers are the real deal. I cannot imagine how many high school defensive coordinators in Georgia had ulcers trying to devise game plans to stop both of them. The elder brother, Daniel, has already made a name for himself as the most sure handed and explosive tight end at USC since either Fred Davis or Dominique Byrd. His younger brother, Josh, was actually the more heavily recruited of the pair, and he is living up to his billing this spring, making life difficult for opposing defensive backs. The pair will help to buoy an already brutal air attack for the Trojans.

The Trojans are lucky to have so much depth in the wideout and tight end positions, and with Darnold slinging the ball around next fall and a crop of excellent running backs, the Trojans have the makings of a truly spectacular offense that could prove to be exceptionally difficult for opponents to beat in the upcoming season.

The defensive side also has some standouts, especially along the outside of the defensive line. Senior inside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu has been an absolute matchup nightmare so far, and junior outside linebacker Porter Gustin is equally fearsome on the opposite side.

If some of the young interior tackles can come in and make an impact right away while buoying the defensive line with junior Rasheem Green and redshirt senior Kenny Bigelow, the Trojans will once again have a fast and attacking defense that is just as dazzling for USC fans as the offensive unit.

This spring is proving that recruitment and player development both matter. Head coach Clay Helton and his staff have done an excellent job bringing in talent and coaching the players up, and it is clearly elevating the level of play. Of course, spring doesn’t mean much in comparison to the fall, but it is encouraging to see the Trojans looking great thus far.

Jake Davidson is a senior majoring in accounting. His column, “Davidson’s Direction,”  ran on Mondays.