It was another physical, quick-hitting practice at Howard Jones Field as players got the pads back on and the intensity came to play. Except during this practice, the effort from his players really stood out with coach Steve Sarkisian.
"Practice got hard today," Sarkisian said following the teams fully-padded session. "They had to fight through mentally. The guys kept grinding and it was great to see guys keep working. We weren't always perfect fundamentally, especially in the second half of practice. That second half will be crucial for us to be exceptional in the fall.
You could see the defense flying around the football from the opening whistle, and a big part of that effort was inspired by the return of DE/OLB J.R. Tavai. The emerging talent played a key role in USC's undermanned defense last season, and will add even more versatility, and more importantly positive emotion, to the locker room vibe.
"It fired me up," coach Wilcox said about seeing Tavai, who Coach Orgeron called his best defensive athlete, working on the practice field. "It was huge to have him back."
The defense line was really the talk of the practice, as Steve Sarkisian praised the efforts from coach Chris Wilson's unit. He mentioned that the combination of JC-transfer Claude Pelon and redshirt freshman Kenny Bigelow could give USC's defense an entire two-deep package built towards success.
"These guys were barely able to stand up after the first few practices," Sarkisian said, before praising both players improvements over the last few weeks. He along with defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox have hinted that both Pelon and Bigelow fit well together on the field, which could mean share played time for two immovable forces up the middle.
Going right down the defensive line, junior Antwaun Woods unleashed what Sarkisian calls his "dominator mode." His hustle was firmly evident in today's simulated game, impressing everyone on staff with his constant effort. "Antwaun has been the standard on the defensive side of the ball," Sarkisian said. "That guy lives in the backfield, he does an amazing job of making the ball bounce to the perimeter and has an amazing motor."
Add to the fact that Jabari Ruffin, Scott Starr -both of whom received high praises from Wilcox on Thursday- and Quinton Powell continue to showcase a good mix of speed and power off the edge, the front end of this unit could be locked and loaded for another strong season. Leonard Williams remained sidelined from practice with his shoulder injury, but did participate in team-related walk throughs and play instillation periods.
Coach Sarkisian tested both sides of the football with tempo, pace and heavy run periods. What resulted may give fans a brief glimpse of what to expect from this team when the season kicks off August 30th against Fresno State.
"The mental mistakes have gone down," defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. "They (his proclaimed two-deep defense) are more and more conceptually understanding what we are doing. They've done a really good job in the meetings. I've noticed that the guys are into it, they're asking great questions and they want to learn."
Busting their tails off for a large contingency of Gardena Serra High School players, most notably Adoree' Jackson, along with some former Trojans like quarterback Brad Otton, linebacker Lawrence Larry and cornerback Daylon McCutcheon, USC brought the best of young and old with some high-intensity yet fundamentals-driven practice.