USC Football Spring Camp Notes: QBs toss first interceptions (3/8)

Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy
Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy /

USC Football’s second day of Spring Camp featured a switch up at quarterback, the secondary making plays and a new look at running back.

With Thursday’s USC Football practice at Howard Jones Field presented the first big hurdle for quarterbacks Matt Fink and Jack Sears to clear: Both passers threw their first interception of camp.

Sears, who took the majority of first team reps after Fink held the No. 1 spot on Tuesday, was the first to get dinged. During the early team period, he threw a pass over the middle which Cameron Smith tipped into the air. Marvell Tell got under it and picked it off.

Later, Fink took an ill-advised chance during the 11-on-11 period, going long for Michael Pittman in double-coverage. Ajene Harris made him pay, going up high to intercept the slightly underthrown ball.

Despite the missteps, there was plenty to be encouraged by on Thursday, which really was Sears’ day after Fink seemed to shine brighter on Tuesday.

“It was nice to see him pull the trigger. He made some good anticipatory throws,” head coach Clay Helton said. He added praise for Sears’ decision to keep the ball on a zone read, catching the defense off and gaining a chunk with his legs.

Through two practices, each quarterback has had the opportunity to show early signs of ability, but Helton reiterated that this Spring Camp is less about the competition and more about improvement.

“I don’t want them thinking, ‘oh god I made a bad throw, did that cost me the job?’ I want them to try to get better from Practice 1 to Practice 15,” Helton said.

“For two kids feeling it out, I’m liking where they’re confidence is. They don’t look scared out there. They don’t look timid. They look confident.”

A healthy day

There was a litany of injury updates on Tuesday, but Thursday was a much more quiet day on the health front.

Helton reported no serious injuries, though tight end Austin Applebee and receiver Jake Russell, both walk-ons, suffered hamstring pulls.

Wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe was absent because of a minor medical procedure, but Helton said he will be back after spring break. With him missing, USC’s receiver rotation did look a bit thin. Vaughns and Russell were the only options available at the outside position opposite Michael Pittman.

Dominic Davis at running back

Dominic Davis was back in a cardinal jersey on Thursday, rejoining the running back unit to help bolster depth.

No. 16 had spent last fall on defense, switching over to cornerback during fall camp. However, with Stephen Carr out for spring and Vavae Malepeai sidelined for at least another week, USC needed another body at running back.

On Thursday, Davis showed why he was recruited to USC in the first place. He broke free during the team run period, prompting an assistant to shout, “That’s why you’re a running back!” He also embarrassed a young defensive back, juking his way past Chase Williams during the 7-on-7 period.

Young players making impression

There usually isn’t much to say about spring enrollees after just a couple of practices, but the newest freshmen are starting to make an impression.

Jordan Iosefa praised linebacker Kana’i Mauga for “catching on so fast,” which is apparent in the way he already looks like a natural coming off the edge. He teamed up with Jay Tufele for a sack on walk-on quarterback Holden Thomas on Thursday.

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Clancy Pendergast also had positive words for safety Talanoa Hufanga, who he says is already picking up ground on the competition.

“He’s learning every second he’s out there,” Pendergast said.

Hufanga elicited cheers near the end of practice when he stuffed Dominic Davis running on the outside.

Non-redshirts paying off

One of the major talking points during the first week of spring camp has been depth, which is finally starting to look like a strength for the Trojans. In particular, young players with a wealth of playing experience have added a certain level of trust which may not have been there in the past.

“I see several guys, especially defensively, that we invested a non-redshirt year, basically putting them out in the fire and letting them play,” Helton said.

One of those non-redshirts is defensive lineman Brandon Pili, who saw 20-25 reps in games in the second half of the season because of injuries. The head coach thinks those reps pushed him forward quite a bit and he’s now anchoring the line for the Trojans this spring.

“He really looks good out here,” Helton said.

Equal time to compete

USC won’t be releasing a depth chart until the first gameweek of the season, which means it’ll be a long while until position battles are settled.

Still, the messaging from the coaching staff has been to downplay the competition aspect this spring. It’s not that competitions don’t exist (“Every position is competing right now,” Helton said on Thursday), but that those competitions haven’t even really begun to take shape.

Helton told the team, “Don’t worry if you’re with the ones or with the twos. Everybody is going to get equal reps. Everybody is going to at some point in time, step in there with the ones and we’re going to see how you handle it.”

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The first week of practice has born that out, with lineups constantly shifting and young players given their opportunities at multiple levels.

At cornerback, Greg Johnson and Je’Quari Godfrey saw extended reps with the first and second team on Thursday. At safety, Bubba Bolden has gotten opportunities along with the more veteran Ykili Ross.

Secondary coming along

Helton noted how pleased he is with the Trojan secondary at this early stage in camp.

“They’re making the calls and the adjustments when formations change and that’s a sign of an experienced group,” Helton said. “It’s a talented group.”

Marvell Tell and Ajene Harris proved their worth by coming up with the biggest plays of the day on Thursday, intercepting Jack Sears and Matt Fink respectively.

The head coach singled out Isaiah Langley for his progress. He also had high praise for Iman Marshall.

“Biggie is really playing good right now,” Helton said. “[He] has had back-to-back really good days playing the ball, which is nice to see.”

Velus in the backfield

Velus Jones Jr. is locked in a battle for playing time in the slot with Trevon Sidney, who has commanding first team reps so far, and Keyshawn “Pie” Young, but his role should continue to extend beyond just pass catching.

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With running backs in short supply, Jones Jr. has been a feature so far in spring, taking handoffs in the backfield.

“Velus is a receiver by trade, but we love to get the ball in his hands any way shape or form,” Helton said.

Change of plans

When the Trojans next come out to Howard Jones Field they will don shoulder pads for the first time this spring. However, it’ll be slightly ahead of schedule.

With a storm due to arrive over the weekend, Helton announced that USC’s Saturday practice has been moved to Friday afternoon. The head coach wants the full value of a clean day without dealing with the elements. He also noted more players will be available for a Friday outing than Saturday.

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Unfortunately, fans who hoped to see the Trojans on the weekend won’t get the chance, but at least they’ll avoid a day out in the rain.