USC Football Spring Camp Notes: Scrimmage brings out offense’s best (4/7)

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

On the 12th day of USC Football Spring Camp, the Trojan offense finally stepped up their game and got the better of the defense in a scrimmage setting.

It may have taken four weeks, but on Saturday USC Football saw signs of life from the quarterbacks and an offense which has struggled throughout Spring Camp.

“Probably the best day offensively that we’ve had in spring,” head coach Clay Helton after the Trojans ran through a live-tackling scrimmage on Howard Jones Field.

“It really started with our offensive line and our running backs setting the tone of the run game and then working the pass game off of it,” Helton said

The head coach called it the “best functioning of the quarterbacks” he’d seen this year, with Matt Fink and Jack Sears each guiding the offense in their own way.

Fink kept the ball moving with shorter passes underneath, getting the most out of receiver Tyler Vaughns. Sears made his mark with deep throws, twice hooking up with Velus Jones Jr. for long gains.

For Helton, the big difference on the day was simply giving the receivers a chance after overthrowing or missing them too often in previous outings. The likes of Jones Jr., Vaughns and Josh Imatorbhebhe each proved him right with tough grabs over defenders.

The quarterbacks seemed to benefit greatly from a productive run game, unshackled by tackling restrictions. The offensive line was able battle with more physicality while Aca’Cedric Ware and Vavae Malepeai were allowed to fight in between the tackles and gain yards after contact. Malepeai was particularly effective, breaking off a long run with extra reps thrown his way.

It was an overall encouraging performance by the offense from top to bottom.

“Hopefully it pays off in the next three practices,” Helton said. “I know it helps me sleep better at night. We needed this day offensively.”

A couple black eyes, at least

The Trojan defense had dominated the eleven practices before slipping up on Saturday. The performance, which included multiple missed tackles, won’t sit well with defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast.

However, it wasn’t all bad, as two veteran defenders were able to deliver what Helton called the only “black eyes” for the offense on the day.

Cornerback Jonathan Lockett stepped up early, jumping Sears’ first pass in the shadow of his own goal posts. Lockett secured the interception and then took two steps into the endzone for the pick six.

Helton later explained how Sears skipped a progression, locking onto his intended target and giving the fifth-year senior an opportunity to make a big play.

Senior cornerback Iman Marshall also delivered a major moment for the defense near the end of practice.

During the two-minute drill, Fink found Vaughns underneath and Marshall pounced on the receiver, stripping the ball and then scooping it for a score.

When it was Sears’ turn to run the two-minute drill, a pair of young defenders made their mark as well. Redshirt freshman Hunter Echols stormed off the edge to sack the quarterback on third down, setting up a fourth down which went unconverted, thanks in part to pressure from linebacker Levi Jones.

Shake it off

When Sears’ first throw ended up in the arms of a defender, it might have been a sign of another Saturday like he had a week ago, when he failed to complete a pass in the scrimmage portion.

Instead, the redshirt freshman bounced back and had his best day of practice so far. After the interception, Sears went 6-for-10 with two touchdowns.

Helton was pleased with his mindset and confidence as a field general on the day despite the early setback.

“You want the quarterbacks to be like a great pitcher or great golfer. It’s one swing or one pitch and whether it was good or bad, that situation is gone, move on to the next one,” Helton said. That’s just what Sears did.

Jones Jr. coming together

Jones Jr. was one of the brightest figures from earlier in the week and he kept his star shining on Saturday.

The receiver had three explosive plays on the day: First, he created the separation for an 85-yard touchdown from Sears. Then, he out-muscled cornerback Chase Williams for another big gainer downfield, held out of the endzone by a shoestring tackle by safety Talanoa Hufanga. He finished off his day by taking a speed sweep 10 yards out from the goal line and, following a strong block from Imatorbhebhe, dove for the pylon and the score.

Helton again noted how the light was on for Jones Jr., who gives USC a different body type than big-bodied receivers like Tyler Vaughns and Michael Pittman. With legitimate 4.4 speed, he showed the deep threat he could provide for the Trojans in 2018.

Notes and nuggets

  • Left tackle Austin Jackson and receiver Michael Pittman sat out of Saturday’s scrimmage with injury.
  • Center Brett Neilon and nose tackle Brandon Pili, who were held out of practice on Tuesday and Thursday, both participated.
  • Helton acknowledged USC’s greater usage of plays under center during the scrimmage, looking forward to using more playaction in 2018 to help out whichever young quarterback wins the job.
  • Both the offense and defense drew their fair share of flags from the Pac-12 refs on hand. The multiple offsides thrown against the defense were by design, in a way. The offense challenged the defense with hard counts and were able to draw defenders offside as a result. That’s something Helton wants to re-emphasize during the coming week: “It always goes to and fro, you get one fixed and then you have to get somebody else fixed.”
  • Receiver Trevon Sidney and linebacker Reuben Peters got into a scuffle and had to be separated near the defensive sideline. Sidney caught a short pass from Sears and was swarmed by a crowd of defenders. When whistles blew but the defender didn’t let up, the receiver retaliated and a shoving match ensued.
  • Fink went 7-of-8 during the scrimmage, not counting a long attempt he lobbed up on a free offsides play. His one miss was a bad one though. Sidney was streaking unmarked in the middle of the field and the quarterback overthrew him by a great deal.