Speed. Fundamentals. Simplicity. With four of five spring practice weeks complete, these three concepts have become pivotal for USC football.
Trojans head coach Clay Helton has completely taken himself out of all things Xs and Os, leaving the schemes up to first-year offensive coordinator Graham Harrell and veteran defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. Harrell’s air raid system has introduced a fresh sense of urgency to the USC offense. USC’s speed was on full display during the Trojans’ spring showcase Saturday morning.
Redshirt freshman tailback Markese Stepp exploded down the right sideline for a 60-yard touchdown, towards the end of the showcase’s first 11-on-11 live scrimmaging period. Quarterbacks Matt Fink, JT Daniels and Kedon Slovis looked fluid throughout the day’s three scrimmages. Daniels and Slovis were both 3-of-3 passing in the first scrimmage, while Fink was 2-of-3 and Jack Sears completed one in two attempts. Under pressure in the 7-on-7 portion of live action, Fink shuffled to redshirt junior tailback Quincy Jountti for a large gain.
Helton said, “Obviously the system that Graham has brought in is very simple, it’s allowed our kids to play fast. That’s what I’m taking away from it, is how much faster we’re playing, how much fun the kids are having. I’m having fun to be honest with you and our coaches are too running around with these kids.”
One aspect that killed the 2018 Trojans, especially throughout their last three games, was a low attention to detail. In consecutive losses to Cal, UCLA and Notre Dame, USC’s offense committed 22 penalties. To correct the woes of last season, Helton’s solely focused on correcting fundamental mistakes that result in turnovers and penalties. With the spring nearly finished, Helton is pleased with his team’s progress.
“They have become more fundamentally sound, they’re playing more disciplined and both sides of the ball there’s a sense of urgency, not only to protect the ball but you even saw today two turnovers by the defense and we really pushed that,” he said.
Redshirt senior cornerback Dominic Davis forced a fumble and true freshman defensive lineman Drake Jackson provided the highlight of the showcase, intercepting a Sears pass with one hand and returning it for a touchdown.
The difference in USC’s performance from last year’s spring to 2019 has been immense. Pendergast simplifying the defense and Harrell bringing new fluidity to the offense can account for the Trojans’ recent improvement. With an entire summer break and fall camp ahead, however, the results of USC’s new approach won’t be known for months. Until the Trojans take the field against Fresno State on August 31, it’s impossible to really tell if they’ll be able to translate this momentum from practice into live game action.
If Saturday was any indication of the real thing, USC is trending in the right direction. There doesn’t seem to be much confusion on the field this spring for the Trojans, whereas many were scratching their heads coming out of last year’s slate of spring practices with Tee Martin’s offense in place.
As the 2019 season looms, a strong sense of competition and enthusiasm surrounds the USC program with spring football coming to an end. The Trojans take the field three times this week, with one more NCAA full pad practice allowed.
Blake Atwell is a multimedia journalist and sophomore at Santa Monica College.