USC Football Practice Notes: Greg Johnson to start vs. UNLV

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

As USC football continued their preparations for the season opener against UNLV, Clancy Pendergast named a definitive starter at cornerback.

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On Wednesday, USC football took one step closer to starting the 2018 season, and it was a very welcome step.

“We’ve been hitting each other now for the last four weeks and we’re ready to go play somebody,” head coach Clay Helton said after practice on Howard Jones Field.

The Trojans are in the process of putting the finishing touches on their UNLV gameplan, working on third down situations on Wednesday specifically.

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Containing Rebel quarterback Armani Rogers, a dual-threat passer with explosive running ability, was a particular focus.

That’ll be the job of a Trojan defense with major expectations on their shoulders. UNLV will be a first test, but there’s reason to put faith in that unit.

“I feel really confident in our defense right now,” Helton said.

Wednesday brought further clarity to the defensive lineup. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast declared Greg Johnson his Game 1 starter opposite Iman Marshall, elevating the redshirt freshman over Isaiah Langley despite their split designation on the depth chart.

Johnson will be making his first career start on Saturday, but the rest of the first team is loaded with veterans who should be able to take some of the pressure off the youngster.

It’s precisely those veterans with their wealth of experience that has given Helton a sense of calm.

“I don’t think a moment will be too big for them,” he said. “They’re pretty serious about it.”

But there is one area that has the head coach jokingly reaching for his Pepto-Bismol. With Toa Lobendahn sidelined by a pectoral strain this week, there is a possibility of USC starting a true freshman quarterback and redshirt freshman center in the opening game.

Should Lobendahn, who is day-to-day on the injury list, be unavailable, Brett Neilon will step into the lineup for his first ever game as a Trojan.

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While the inexperience is a concern, the head coach looked to squash any fears over a potential Cyrus Hobbi redux. Neilon had time to develop this past fall during his redshirt season and was already far enough along that Helton claims he could have even contributed as a true freshman under different circumstances.

“He’s ready to play when called upon,” Helton said.

As ready as Neilon may be, the Trojans will certainly be hoping his turn in the first team comes much further down the line.

Practice Standouts

  1. Hunter Echols… Standing in for Porter Gustin during the 11-on-11 period, Echols had a few standout moments, stuffing a run then bursting into the backfield for a tackle for loss. After practice, Pendergast said it would be difficult to put Gustin on a pitch count, but the presence of more players with the ability to fill in could allow them to give the senior 20 or so plays off where they couldn’t in the past. Echols is one of those players.
  2. Olaijah Griffin… Griffin came up with a big pass breakup during the 11-on-11, preventing a long touchdown from JT Daniels to Tyler Vaughns. He continues to look bright in the early goings of his Trojan career.
  3. Tyler Petite… With Josh Falo sitting out because of a hamstring, Petite showed he could be a weapon in the passing game as well, catching a couple passes for what would have been chunk gains. One of those was a particularly tough grab through contact by safety Talanoa Hufanga.

CHECK OUT: Breaking down the depth chart, player-by-player

Notes and Tidbits

  • A new punt returner… USC’s depth chart release on Sunday included a big change at punt returner, where freshman Amon-Ra St. Brown will take over for Ajene Harris. What made the coaches pull the trigger and put their faith in the young playmaker? First and foremost, his ability to simply catch punts without fuss was key “He has a maturity about it,” Helton said. “You could just see it was easy for him and natural for him. He didn’t have to work at it.” The head coach also noted St. Brown’s ability to make one move and go, bursting upfield with explosiveness. Like his quick pickup of wide receiver concepts, St. Brown just has a knack for this too, Helton said.
  • More on Amon-Ra… Helton again took the opportunity to compare St. Brown to Robert Woods, who became an impact player almost instantaneously. That’s the trait he sees in St. Brown as well: “He’s going to be a really, really good college football player. You can just tell when some guys step on this field, he’s going to be one of those guys.”
  • UNLV’s Tony Sanchez has history… There’s a familiarity with UNLV head coach Tony Sanchez that Helton has, but not through the college ranks. Sanchez was the head coach at Bishop Gorman before he came on board with the Rebels. Since Gorman is a school heavily recruited by USC, the Trojan head coach had already built a relationship there with Sanchez. “Coach Sanchez has been a great coach for a long time. It’s good to see him doing what he’s doing,” Helton said.
  • Isaiah Pola-Mao to play… Even though he missed out on a starting job to Bubba Bolden, safety Isaiah Pola-Mao will still see plenty of action this year, according to Pendergast. The redshirt freshman will backup both safety spots and has the potential to be “special,” Pendergast said.