Defense makes presence felt in Thursday’s practice

With fewer than two weeks left of spring football, the USC Trojans held its 11th practice Thursday, with the team’s defense rattling the Trojans’ young quarterbacks.

Senior cornerback Iman “Biggie” Marshall decided to come back to USC for one more season. Emily Smith | Daily Trojan

Quarterback Competition

It was an on and off day for both redshirt freshman Jack Sears and redshirt sophomore Matt Fink. The two continued to make strides in competing to become former QB Sam Darnold’s successor.

Both Sears and Fink missed key throws but were able to bounce back. Sears missed a deep target but responded with an excellent quarterback carry on the next play.

Fink had trouble early on, but later connected deep with redshirt sophomore wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe.

Outside of positional drills, head coach Clay Helton worked the quarterback tandem through a number of accuracy and ball security drills. The quarterbacks were tasked with making plays on balls that were snapped too low or too high.

Helton was stepping in for quarterbacks coach Bryan Ellis, who is absent on paternity leave.

Both accuracy and ball security were issues during the 2017 season. Darnold tied for the Football Bowl Subdivision high with 22 turnovers last season. Across his 27 starts at USC, he was responsible for 22 interceptions and 21 fumbles.

Defense dominates

As junior Michael Pittman, Jr. and redshirt sophomore Tyler Vaughns continue to battle to replace Deontay Burnett as USC’s top wide receiver target, redshirt sophomore Velus Jones, Jr. continued to insert himself into the conversation.

Jones’ speed has made him a valuable target on quick release throws and it showed during practice.

Senior Tyler Petite was a popular target for quarterbacks during practice. Standing at 6’4” and weighing 250 pounds, Petite used his body to his advantage to break away from defenders during live drills.

At the end of the day, it was the defense that truly shone throughout practice. The quarterbacks were under constant pressure and were picked off a few times.

In one instance, senior outside linebacker Porter Gustin tipped a pass from Fink into the hands of redshirt freshman defensive lineman Jay Tufele. Tufele ran it all the way back with the entire defense joining him in celebration.

The defense loudly called out plays and jawed at the offense for the remainder of practice.

Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast had plenty of praise for freshman outside linebacker Kana’i Mauga, whom Pendergast said has impressed the coaching staff all spring.

“Kana’i is very consistent, he’s a conscientious player,” Pendergast said. “He does things the right way most of the time, and if he makes a mistake he recognizes it.”

Pendergast emphasized that Mauga is skilled enough to play as an inside linebacker or on the line of scrimmage, giving the team much- needed flexibility.

Secondary shines

The cornerbacks, led by redshirt senior Ajene Harris and senior Iman Marshall, continued to make things difficult for the team’s quarterbacks.

Jonathan Lockett, another redshirt senior, picked off Fink early in practice. The rest of the corps prevented deep balls and pushed receivers out of bounds.

“We’re a very competitive group,” Harris said. “We come out here with tremendous effort. We feel very confident about ourselves this year.”

As his collegiate career winds down, Harris has taken it upon himself to coach the next crop of cornerbacks.

“When I was a younger guy, the older guys … took me and showed me the ropes,” Harris said. “It’s just my role to show the younger guys the ropes and continue to help them through this process.”

Injury Notes

Redshirt freshman lineman Marlon Tuipulotu continued to work alone as he rehabs from a back injury. Pittman Jr. warmed up away from the team before rejoining the group for drills.

Junior linebacker Jordan Iosefa will require surgery to repair cartilage. Iosefa suffered a knee injury during Tuesday’s practice and needed to be pulled. He is expected to be back by the start of summer workouts on June 1.