USC Football Practice Notes: Trojans focus on first down efficiency in Stanford prep

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

USC football opened preparations for Stanford on Tuesday with an emphasis on first down and the importance of defensive backs in one-on-one situations.

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USC football’s first major test of the season comes in Week 2 with a trip to face the Stanford Cardinal. That made Tuesday’s full pads practice all the more intense, with the Trojans fully understanding the magnitude of the Pac-12 opener.

Stanford is a familiar opponent, but head coach Clay Helton doesn’t plan to take for granted the Trojans two victories over the Cardinal in 2017. This Stanford team brings even more of a challenge to the table than usual.

Helton called them “one of the better rushing attacks” in the conference in the recent past, but Bryce Love and the running game aren’t the only weapon on the table. David Shaw’s team proved in Week 1 against San Diego State that loading the box alone won’t stop the Cardinal. If you dare them to throw, they will.

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“I think that’s what’s been the biggest change for them over the last year is the advancement of KJ Costello,” Helton said.

With the likes of JJ Arcega-Whiteside, Trent Irwin and Colby Parkinson, all 6-foot-2 or taller with great high ball skills, Stanford will take advantage of one-on-one opportunities in the passing game. Critically, Costello has given them a competent passer capable of getting the ball downfield accurately.

“They’re as good a jump ball team as there is out there,” said Helton.

So how does a team defend a Stanford squad which can now run and pass in equal measure?

For Helton, it all comes down to first and second down efficiency. That’s what Tuesday’s practice was all about.

It certainly worked last year. In the two meetings, Helton said the Trojans limited the Cardinal to under three yards per play on first down.

“That really helped us because when you’re talking about them being in third-and-seven-to-10 compared to third-and-one-to-three, at third-and-one-to-three they’re the best in the world,” said Helton.

From there it may all come down to USC’s secondary winning their battles.

Encouragingly, it was the Trojan defensive backs who shone most brightly on Tuesday. Ajene Harris had an interception. Iman Marshall had blanket coverage throughout the day. Marvell Tell joined his fellow defenders with multiple pass breakups.

Practice Standouts

  1. Iman Marshall… Going against Tyler Vaughns in the 1v1 segment, Marshall was perfectly positioned and forced the receiver to bat away multiple balls as the defender tried to intercept. Marshall also had Vaughns playing DB during 7-on-7 action.
  2. Ajene Harris… Harris nabbed a pick six against JT Daniels during the 7-on-7 period and made another leaping pass breakup during 11-on-11.
  3. Marvell Tell… Tell joined the PBU party with a couple of his own, nearly intercepting an overthrown deep ball.

Notes and Tidbits

  • Can’t simulate 4.3 speed… As much as Helton may talk up Stanford’s growing passing threat, the fact remains the Cardinal are all about Love. The head coach called him a “one-two punch” as a rusher and pass catcher. He’s fast, but patient, trusting his blockers and waiting for the right moment to explode through the game. Helton’s comparison was Laveon Bell of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The trouble with game planning for Love is not lost on USC. “You cannot simulate a 4.3 [runner],” Helton said. “That speed is unique.”
  • QB’s first road test… JT Daniels impressed in his debut against UNLV, but the Stanford game will present him with a much tougher mountain to climb. He’ll get his first taste of road action in the Pac-12 against a Top 10 team. Helton is confident that USC’s practice field has been intense enough to get him ready for the challenge. “The fire he was under in training camp going against our ones and that pass rush…helps you,” the head coach said. The next step is keeping the calm demeanor he maintained in camp and in Game 1 in a more hostile environment.
  • Only one forced ball… Helton is also confident in Daniels’ ability to handle the road test because of what he showed at the Coliseum in Week 1. He only forced one ball in 35 attempts on the day. That ball was lucky not to be intercepted, but on all of his other attempts he sent the ball where it should have gone, according to Helton.
  • Working on chemistry… Chemistry between Daniels and receivers not named Amon-Ra St. Brown was an issue against UNLV, but coaches and players alike insisted on Tuesday that the connections will come with time. “It gets better each and every day,” Helton said, joining a chorus that included Tee Martin, Tyler Vaughns and Michael Pittman.
  • JT’s a guy’s guy… What is Daniels like off the field? Helton says he has a dry sense of humor and keeps it light, never getting too serious about things. “He’s a guy’s guy and I think the players like that about him,” Helton said.
  • Early challenge built in… Why does USC always seem to play Stanford earlier than normal? It’s locked in. The Trojans and Cardinal both face Notre Dame later in the season, losing one weekend for conference battles, Helton explained. Thus, there is an agreement between the teams and the Pac-12 to play their annual conference rivalry game in the first three weeks of the season. That may seem like a disadvantage, but the head coach brushed it off, noting tough matchups throughout the season, no matter what. “If it’s Game 1, 2 or 3 it’s your job to be prepared.”