USC Football Spring Camp Notes: Kana’i Mauga gets opportunity (3/29)

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

The eight practice of USC Football Spring Camp saw spring enrollee Kana’i Mauga get a shot with the first team while defense dominated discussion.

A noticeable absence during USC Football’s Thursday practice created a surprising opportunity for one of the newest Trojans on the field.

With Jordan Iosefa out for the day because of a dental issue, spring enrollee Kana’i Mauga leaped over more experienced players to take the majority of first team reps at outside linebacker.

It was a clear recognition of Mauga’s strong Spring Camp debut, arriving bigger than advertised and displaying an early grasp of Clancy Pendergast’s defense.

Head coach Clay Helton raved about Mauga’s burst and penetration off the ball, his slippery moves, his body control and leverage, his football smarts and command of the playbook.

“His first step is amazing,” Helton said, comparing the freshman qualities with those of Uchenna Nwosu and Porter Gustin.

Breaking down the safety battle

One of USC’s biggest tasks on defense this offseason is finding a replacement for safety Chris Hawkins, whose graduation has left a hole alongside Marvell Tell.

The battle thus far has been between Ykili Ross and Bubba Bolden, with Ross getting first crack at first team reps followed by the younger Bolden.

The head coach refers to Ross as the “elderstatesman” of the group.

“Conceptually, he gets the whole thing,” Helton said.

Bolden, meanwhile, is as advertised from high school: “A very physical athletic talent.”

While those two have featured, there are other Trojans looming and looking for a chance.

USC has seen limited work from Isaiah Pola-Mao, who is still restricted from full contact because of last season’s shoulder surgery, but Helton highlighted his excitement to see his 6-foot-3, 210-pound frame more involved.

Helton also praised spring enrollee Talanoa Hufanga for his instinctive playmaking, standing out twice on Thursday. Meanwhile, C.J. Pollard got a lofty comparison to Hawkins for his knowledge of the scheme and the game, organizing the defense from the back.

Sticking with what worked

Last season, defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast took the lemon of losing Porter Gustin to injury and made lemonade with it. He did that by taking advantage of his available personnel, adjusting his defensive front to suit whichever opposing quarterback would take the field.

Christian Rector, who thrived on passing downs as a defensive lineman, proved particularly valuable against heavy passing offenses like Washington, Cal and Oregon State.

However, against mobile quarterbacks, Pendergast found it beneficial to use a more athletic linebacker like Jordan Iosefa in that outside slot. He could chase down athletic quarterbacks and surf more easily through blockers.

“It’s one of the things I thought Clancy was ingenious doing at the end of the season,” Helton said.

That system was born out of necessity, but it’s not going away now that Gustin is back healthy and available, per Helton.

“It made us a better football team down the stretch in November and it’s something that we’re continuing,” Helton said on Thursday.

Install for those packages will begin next week.

Biggie’s mindset

Iman Marshall’s decision to return for his senior season includes a noticeable change.

“His mindset is so different,” Helton said. “I think it always happens when you go into your last season. He’s really taking the approach that ‘I want to compete to be the best corner in the country. I’m not going to be comfortable. I’m not going to be stagnant.'”

Helton praised the cornerback for his “shut up and work” mentality during winter workouts and the way he is setting an example for USC’s younger defensive backs.

Whatever Marshall is doing, it appears to be working. Helton called his performance this offseason, “by far his best since he’s been here.”

More praise for the offensive line

On Tuesday, Helton spent some time praising the progress of his young offensive linemen and he couldn’t help but do the same on Thursday.

Asked which players had emerged so far this spring, Helton singled out centers Brett Neilon and Justin Dedich

“The good lord is watching out for us to allow us to get Toa [Lobendahn] healthy and advance two younger players,” Helton said. “And both of them are doing a wonderful job.”

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Helton’s compliments didn’t stop there. He gave left guard Alijah Vera-Tucker a mention as a great service team player who had elevated himself this spring as well as tackle Jalen McKenzie for jumping out at him as well.

No question on Bryan Ellis

When Helton promoted Bryan Ellis to full-time quarterbacks coach, the decision was met with some skepticism from the Trojan fanbase. However, the head coach is sticking by his choice.

“There was no question in my mind after watching him perform for a year,” Helton said. “His knowledge…his mind and his creativity. He’s a guy that has your back.”

Ellis is just 29 years old, but Helton himself was hired as a full-time coach at 23 by Fred Goldsmith, the head coach at Duke in 1996. He said he thanks Goldsmith every day for the opportunity.

“Being young doesn’t mean you’re not good,” Helton said, referencing Rams head coach Sean McVay, who has been a clear success at only 32.

Helton sees a similarly bright future for Ellis.

“He is a brilliant, brilliant coach that I think is going to be a star in this profession,” Helton said.


  • Matt Fink hit Velus Jones Jr. for an impressive touchdown pass during 7-on-7. The pass dropped in just beyond the defense where only Jones Jr., who had separated just enough from Ajene Harris, could catch it on his fingertips.
  • Tight end Josh Falo made a spectacular touchdown grab during Team Run, stretching out for a Holden Thomas pass.
  • Running backs Aca’Cedric Ware and Vavae Malapeai had a solid outing, running behind Austin Jackson and Chris Brown on the left side of the line. The latter looked particularly effective back in full pads for the first time this spring.
  • Thursday featured situational work, giving the offense a look at an uneven 3-4 front while the defense was tested by heavy packages akin to Stanford’s offense.
  • Saturday’s practice, which starts at 10:00 a.m. and is open to the public, will be in full pads and will feature a situational scrimmage with some live tackling.
  • USC is holding their annual coaches clinic this Friday and Saturday. Fresno State head coach Jeff Tedford and Stanford head coach David Shaw will be on hand along with NFL coaches from the Seattle Seahawks and Los Angeles Chargers.