Young players took center stage during USC football’s first spring scrimmage on Saturday, drawing praise from the Trojan head coach.
Familiar faces like Uchenna Nwosu and Ronald Jones II shined during USC football’s first spring scrimmage at Howard Jones Field on Saturday, but for the coaches, the day was all about the unfamiliar faces making their push for playing time.
“What stood out to me right off the bat was some some of the young players that we’re going to need to step up,” Helton said.
The most notable of those young Trojans was defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu, who ran with the first team throughout the scrimmage.
The early enrollee has impressed coaches with his athleticism and commitment to the game, but they have been coy about his prospects to become a major contributor as a true freshman.
Saturday was the first sign that the highly-coveted four-star recruit could force his way into a starting job by the beginning of the season.
“To see him hold the point with the first string today, I thought was really impressive,” Helton said, on a day when he credited the first-team defense with limiting the first-team offense’s ability to run the ball.
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On the other side of the ball, running back Vavae Malepeai drew praise for driving a more potent rushing attack for the second-team offense.
“It was great to see Vavae [Malepeai] today run the ball like he did, to be able to bring a physicality with the run game,” Helton said.
The head coach was particularly complimentary of the second team offense’s ability to move the ball on the ground, given the struggles the first teamers faced on the day.
Malepeai was key to that, running with the combination of power and quickness which made him such an exciting prospect last fall before a broken collarbone ended his first season before it began.
The redshirt freshman proved capable of carrying the rock inside while also showing enough burst to bounce outside for extra yardage at times on Saturday.
His one black mark was a dropped pass from Sam Darnold. Had he reeled that in, he likely would have scored a touchdown.
Helton also reported his pleasure with young receivers Michael Pittman, Josh Imatorbhebhe and Velus Jones, particularly the former two who USC needs to fill gaps with the two-deep of outside receivers like JuJu Smith-Schuster, Darreus Rogers, Isaac Whitney and De’Quan Hampton no longer available.
“I thought both looked comfortable out there in a scrimmage situation and made some good plays for us,” Helton said.
Pittman held his own against junior cornerback Iman Marshall, making a series of tough catches despite tight coverage and punishing hits. Imatorbhebhe, too, showed his strength after the catch.
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Helton credited both Pittman and Imatorbhebhe for not tightening up despite the stage of the scrimmage with a large crowd of family, fans and former Trojans watching.
As for Jones, who caught a long pass over safety Chris Hawkins to set up a touchdown, Helton simply repeated the phrase he’s been saying all week in regards to the redshirt freshman in the slot, “[He] keeps on making plays for us.”
“It’s good to see those three kids step up,” said the head coach.
Stepping up has been a theme for the Trojans thus far during spring camp, with several open starting jobs requiring inexperienced players to fill in empty spaces.
It remains early, but the first spring scrimmage demonstrated all the potential USC has coming through the ranks for 2017.