The USC Trojans had another solid week of practice with minimal injuries. The focus at the end of the week was working towards Saturday’s live scrimmage while at the same time continuing to focus on situational mastery.
USC Focuses on Sudden Changes:
Frequently Helton’s emphasis on situational mastery takes the form of focusing on third down situations and red zone situations but on Thursday Helton had the team focus on “sudden change” situations. Helton appreciates that college football is a highly emotional and volatile sport prone to mistakes, blown assignments, or just bad luck in the form of turnovers, or kick returns or other big plays that can wildly swing the momentum. It happens to every team but Helton wants his guys to be prepared for it when it happens and be able to withstand the ups and downs of a game without it snowballing on them.
Trojans Use Crowd Noise on Wednesday to Prepare for Road Games
During USC’s ninth practice on Wednesday, the team focused on in- game situations, such as third downs backed up in the offense’s own territory, with the inclusion of artificial crowd noise. Coach Helton emphasized the importance of preparing for hostile environments with impending road games against PAC-12 foes and Notre Dame.
“One of the things that we have to rely on both offensively and defensively is the ability to communicate when it is loud,” said Helton. “Whether that’s visual snap counts or signals in special teams, we put a lot of emphasis into that today.”
Helton Happy with Team’s Health so Far
During Spring ball, coach Helton often talked about walking the line between intense practices designed to get his players game ready and avoiding injuries in the process: an effort to evade another cumbersome start to the season. It appears as though this philosophy has carried over into Fall practices, as coach Helton appeared pleased with the overall well- being of his team. Only freshman cornerback Greg Johnson was pulled from practice, due to a shoulder injury. The Trojans were also able to close out Thursday and Friday practices without further injuries on the team.
Helton also commented on the progress of wide receiver Steven Mitchell Jr., who is recovering from an ACL suffered last season, saying that, “He seems really confident on it. He’s still got the brace on it, but I’m pleased with where he’s at right now.”
Backups Starting to Standout
After practice, Helton signaled out several young players that have caught his eye so far in camp, including outside linebackers Connor Murphy and Oluwole Betiku, wide receiver Tyler Vaughns, and safety Ykili Ross, all of whom provide solid depth. The head coach praised the hard work and preparedness of his second units. Though Vaughns is making a solid case this week that he will not be on the second unit for very long if he continues to perform the way he has in practice this week.
“It’s a blue collar mentality,” said Helton. “You know when it is your opportunity, you’re ready to make the most of it. We saw it last year. Steven Mitchell was the starter, but you saw Deontay Burnett out here everyday practicing for his opportunity and then it comes [with Mitchell’s mid- season knee injury].”
Kicking is Still and Adventure
The only aspect of Wednesday’s practice that Helton seemed pessimistic about was the placekicking in the absence of the dismissed Matt Boermeester. Thursday’s practice did not show much improvement either as both Michael Brown and Chase McGrath went 2-6 in practice
“I’m thanking God, we still have about three weeks left,” said Helton on Wednesday. “It’s been off and on. One day it’s been really good and the next there’s balls going everywhere.”
Helton said that during Saturday’s scrimmage, the kickers would participate in game- like situations in order to get a better a assessment of who’s leading the competition.
USC Offensive line starting to take shape:
One of the big challenges for USC this season was to replace 3 starters on the offensive line. Further compounding the problem was that Nico Falah, Toa Lobendahn and Viane Talamaivao who are all very experienced players were dealing with injuries in the Spring and were not afforded much opportunity to participate in spring practice. All three have returned and the offensive line is looking much better now in Fall camp.
After Thursday’s practice Helton said:
“It’s really been good to have Nico , Toa and Viane back. Just everything works smoother when they’re in there, and that comes from game experience and game reps. You’re talking about guys that have played for three years straight and really helped this football team. So, when they’re in there the communication is great, and they’re really doing a nice job. It feels so much different than spring when they were not there. Just from a leadership standpoint and communication standpoint, and obviously the experience that they have to get the job done.”
As the line has improved Helton said on Friday they are only about a week away from having the right combination of linemen figured out. How well that combination performs this Fall remains to be seen but Helton appears rather confident in the group.
USC QB Sam Darnold is testing his young wide receivers:
Another area of concern for the USC offense is the young wide receivers and whether they can replace their top 2 pass catchers from a year ago. The question is not with the talent but with chemistry. Darnold has been spending practice testing his new receivers’ abilities so that he can understand their catch radius, ball placement preferences and their ability to work in traffic. As camp progresses the chemistry should also improve.
Darnold is also improving his ability to read and diagnose defenses. Despite playing very well last season when plays broke down, his ability in those situations should actually improve. In particular he has really improved his ability to diagnose pre snap when defenses are in man coverage and when they are in zone and learning when getting out of the play and scrambling for 4 or 5 yards is the best option.
Dominic Davis switches from running back to defensive back:
USC has a very crowded depth chart at RB but have a couple of injuries to the defensive backs a unit that will be in nickel defense for much of the season playing in the pass heavy Pac-12. While the switch RB to DB might not seem natural, Davis actually played defensive back in high school and switched to running back later in his high school career. Davis has the speed and the football IQ to succeed at DB and in his first two days on days on defense he has been able to hold his own.