USC Football Practice Notes: Lineup clarity on display on UNLV Tuesday

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

USC football opened UNLV Week with a Tuesday practice in full pads and a more clearly-defined lineup than years past.

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As USC football started preparations for UNLV on Tuesday, something was different.

Week 1 practices in years past featured a far more murky Trojan team. ORs littered the lineup and even settled position battles still seemed apparently up for grabs.

This year, the message from head coach Clay Helton, verbally and in application, was all about clarity.Af

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The biggest of area of clarity, of course, was the quarterback spot, where JT Daniels got his first taste of practice as the No. 1 on the depth chart ahead of Matt Fink and Jack Sears.

After practice head coach Clay Helton explained the thought process behind picking the true freshman, noting his impressive command of the offense, especially in live situations. When they put the ball down in scrimmages and two-minute drills, it was Daniels who handled the simulation best. It earned him the starting job.

But quarterback wasn’t the only position USC’s coaches set out to define on Sunday when the QB choice was announced. The process of working out the depth chart across the board was approached with the philosophy of giving every player a true sense of their role.

“I think it’s healthy for a football team going in that there’s no question mark,” Helton said. “You know where you stand in Game 1 and you know how you’re going to help the team.”

The surprising part of that is how it comes with USC prepared to rotate more than ever, seemingly willing to utilize newfound depth. Helton himself said it, “we are going to play a lot of guys at all positions.”

Yet that’s how it was on Tuesday, with lineups at practice clearly reflecting the new pecking order put out in USC’s depth chart.

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With a couple notable exceptions, namely the three-man rotation at running back and two-man battle at cornerback, the first team offense and defense appeared as settled as it has in a long while. Question marks are indeed at a minimum.

At least right now.

Practice Standouts

  1. Tyler Vaughns… If there was any question over potential chemistry between Daniels and Vaughns, it was answered unequivocally on Tuesday. The redshirt sophomore receiver caught a deep ball from Daniels during 1v1s with one hand, cradling the ball with ease despite tight coverage from Iman Marshall. Later he caught another long throw from the starter having separated from Greg Johnson. He was also active on shorter throws throughout the day.
  2. Ajene Harris… Harris took his strong Fall Camp showings and extended them into Game Week by nicking an interception off Matt Fink, then batting a ball from Daniels which he tried to force into Velus Jones Jr during 7-on-7.
  3. Iman Marshall… Marshall was beat by Vaughns early, but he came back with a vengeance, leaping for an interception of a Sears pass before winning his next two reps in the 1v1 period.

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Notes and Tidbits

  • Daniels’ maturity… Maturity has been a buzz work surrounding Daniels since he stepped on campus and wasted no time in showing his quarterbacking chops. On Tuesday, Helton had another reason to credit the freshman for his maturity, standing in front of a packed media scrum for the first time at USC and answering questions like a pro. “His maturity level both on the field and off has been extremely impressive,” Helton said.
  • Handling disappointment… Daniels winning the starting job was cause for celebration, but it also meant disappointment for the other two quarterbacks in the competition. Helton praised both Fink and Sears for their response to losing the battle. Both told him their focus was on being good teammates, and despite speculation of a possible transfer, both were present at practice on Tuesday. Helton told them to prepare like starters and credited them for doing just that. “You get 24 hours to be sad, then you come back to work,” he said. “You watch those kids today and I’m so dang proud of them. That’s who they are. That’s why we signed them.”
  • QB2… There was an inevitability about Daniels rising to the top of the QB heap, but the decision on USC’s official backup had some tilting their heads. After a promising Fall Camp, Sears was not the second man on the depth chart, but third behind Fink. Helton explained that Fink responded to the challenge after the second scrimmage and had his best week of practice during the Mock Game Week. Quarterbacks coach Bryan Ellis said Fink was simply ahead of Sears in terms of progression, specifying the things observers don’t see as reason for the decision.
  • 1v1 highlights… The 1v1 period with receivers and cornerbacks was a spirited affair on Tuesday with both sides getting their moments in. Vaughns started things off with his impressive on-handed grab, but later lost a rep to an Olaijah Griffin pass breakup on an inside route. Amon-Ra St. Brown bested Marshall with a perfectly run comeback route, gaining cushion for the easy grab. Marshall and Harris had their interceptions during the period as well. Going back the other way, Harris gave up a touchdown to Jones Jr., who beat him with speed downfield.
  • Running wild… The Team Run period gave USC’s running backs the chance to shine, as well as the offensive line. Though they weren’t going against the first team defense, they made it look easy, weaving and cutting through openings in the middle of the line with purpose. Vavae Malepeai started it off before Aca’Cedric Ware and Stephen Carr each matched his effort with impressive runs of their own.
  • German media… A German film crew was on hand for practice, looking to catch a glimpse of St. Brown for a feature they’re doing on the brothers St. Brown: Amon-Ra, Osiris and Equanimeous. All three speak German (and French) thanks to their mother, who is German herself.
  • Preparing for the road… Though USC will be at home to start the season, the Trojans still used crowd noise to up the difficulty during special teams drills, specifically on punts.