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IMHO Sunday: A welcomed Spring Showcase change but questions remain

Greg Katz04/17/21
Article written by:On3 imageGreg Katz
coliseum spring game

In my humble opinion, cardinal and gold thoughts on what I see, what I hear, and what I think from Los Angeles.

The Showcase: Whoever or whatever initiated the change in Clay Helton’s traditional USC Spring Showcase (AKA spring game) mindset, it was a welcomed sight for those able to see the proceedings inside the Coliseum or watching the affair on the Pac-12 Networks. Maybe it was because The Spring Showcase was taking place at the midpoint of five weeks of spring practice as opposed to the final weeks of spring ball. Maybe the new game-like presentation was to inspire a cautious cardinal and gold fan base or pinpoint season ticket renewal foot-draggers as an enticement to watch.

The Showcase - Part 2: Or maybe – just – maybe - this Spring Showcase was a break from Gentleman Clay’s more restrained past spring game traditions to appease a coaching staff that now insists on a culture of intensity and physicality as the best path to championships. Whatever it was, The Spring Showcase mostly kept the interest of all concerned, which was perhaps the whole point of the exercise.

The bottom line, IMHO, is that the new format worked well and was a success from a structural assessment, but the reality is the 2021 Trojans still have a ways to go if they're going to win the Pac-12 South and work their way up to the Pac-12 championship level. Whether what you saw was encouraging or discouraging, at least Saturday afternoon gave you a window into forming your own opinions.  

The Showcase – Part 3: Before getting into the spring game performances, the game itself was divided into four 12-minute quarters (running clock in the fourth quarters) mostly live contact, with the 2021 Trojan roster split into two "drafted by coaches" Cardinal and Gold teams, although players were used at times as interchangeable roster parts. In the end, it was basically irrelevant that the Cardinal beat the Gold 27-7.

To add to the adult competition and bragging rights, normal offensive coordinator Graham Harrell was the head coach of the Cardinal and was assisted by "offensive coordinator" Seth Doege and "defensive coordinator" Craig Naivar. Giving additional support was D-line coach Vic So’oto and O-line coach Clay McGuire.

The Gold's head coach was defensive coordinator Todd Orlando along with his "offensive coordinator" Mike Jinks (running backs coach) and "defensive coordinator" Donte Williams (cornerbacks coach). Rounding out the Gold staff was wide receiver coach Keary Colbert and special teams coach Sean Snyder. Clay Helton was more a CEO allowing his coaches to enjoy their temporary leadership roles.

Trojans head coach Clay Helton (photo above) allowed his assistant coaches to run the Spring Showcase while he watched and did some segments with the Pac-12 Networks, which nationally televised Saturday's event .(Photo by WeAreSC)

The Showcase – Part 4: For the estimated 5,000 fans in attendance ($20 per ticket) that were placed on the press box side of the Coli, there was an expected fan protocol. All spectators were supposed to be California residents, and seating was restricted to blocks of six or fewer seats with members of a single household or audience group (audience groups were limited to a total of six persons making up a maximum of three household "units"). 

Fans were required to adhere to all physical distancing guidelines, allowed only to sit in their assigned seats and were expected to wear face coverings at all times, except when actively eating or drinking. Did fans on Saturday adhere to the aforementioned rules? Masking adherence appeared to be a challenge as we’ve seen at other outdoor events.   

The Coliseum (photo above) welcomed a return of a limited number of fans to Saturday's Spring Showcase. (Photo by John McGillen/USC Athletics)

The Showcase – Part 5: Now let's get to the meat and potatoes of Saturday's Spring Showcase. If you were looking at evaluating specific units, the mixing and matching didn't really do much for your scrutiny. Saturday was more about individual player evaluation than unit evaluation. Offensively, quarterback Kedon Slovis (8 of 12/128 yds/0 TDs/ 1 PI) looked like the Slovis we've seen before. He can get hot and drop a deep pass into the arms of future All-America receiver Drake London (8 rec. for 139 yds./ 19.0 avg.) or throw an opening drive interception to corner Dorian Hewett. What we still don't know is which Slovis will we see consistently in 2021? Will it be the freshman or sophomore version, and how will he be mentally when he is being hunted by defensive linemen, an experience he knows all too well from 2020? On a downer note, it appears that grad transfer QB Mo Hasan suffered a knee injury and the extent will be known after a medical evalution of photos.

Wide receiver Drake London (photo above) returned to the Coliseum turf on Saturday for the Spring Showcase and again displayed why he will be one of the most dangerous wide receivers in 2021. (Photo by John McGillen/USC Athletics)

The Showcase – Part 6: No question that while the offensive line - no matter the combination - still wasn't consistently dominate in goal line or short yardage situations on Saturday afternoon, the Trojans' running game issues of the past two seasons won't be because of a lack of ball carrier talent - far from it. Texas transfer Keaontay Ingram is a huge talent and ran like it (an exhilarating 48-yard catch and run). Freshman Brandon Campbell flashed at times, and returning ball carriers Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr (53 yds./ 6.6 avg.) both looked very good.

Texas running back transfer Keaontay Ingram (photo above) showed flashes that he could be a big part of the Trojans' backfield in 2021. (Photo by John McGillen/USC Athletics)

The Showcase - Part 7: One had to like seeing the two-back formations during the two-hours of hitting, but when the Trojans were in short-yardage situations, they still never took a quarterback snap under center. Some of the individual standouts, IMHO, were true freshman quarterback Jaxson Dart (7 of 13/ 99 yds./0 TDs/1 PI), who had a 30-yard completion to Drake London, true freshman wide receiver Michael Jackson lll (a one-handed TD grab from Dart), and true freshman tight end Lake McRee (he showed he could take a hit when drilled by linebacker Ralen Forforth after making a catch and run). Wide receiver Bru McCoy also caught a short TD pass from QB Mo Hason while being double-covered.

On Saturday, the Trojans' offense was inside 3-yard line, but the philosophy of not taking a quarterback under center snap continues (photo above). (Photo by WeAreSC)

However, whether Troy's offensive line can improve enough during the balance of spring ball and training camp to allow the Trojans' talented backs a chance to strut their stuff and protect their quarterback remains a major question mark. Saturday showed little indication - because of the mixing and matching of personnel - that the necessary improvement in O-line play has been upgraded. Right now, it is what it is.  

The Trojans are hoping the offensive line (photo above in the Spring Showcase) shows dramatic improvement in 2021. (Photo by WeAreSC)

The Showcase – Part 8: Defensively, the Trojans had some players that showed true to form. Outside linebacker Drake Jackson (his usual dominating performance), corners Chris Steele (PI of QB Miller Moss) and Josh Jackson Jr. (PI of QB Jaxson Dart), and even true freshman D-liner Jay Toia (fumble recovery) all had their moments. Linebackers Ralen Goforth brought the wood (ask freshman TE Lake McRee) and Tuasivi Nomura was very present (team-high 7 tackles). The secondary recorded some timely interceptions both by their skills and guile and QB mistakes.

The biggest downer coming out of Saturday's Spring Showcase was the announcement that senior defensive tackle Brandon Pili is likely lost for the 2021 season after undergoing surgery for a torn Achilles.

Outside linebacker Drake Jackson (photo above) was again a major force in Saturday's Spring Showcase. (Photo by WeAreSC)

The Showcase – Part 9: As for special teams, there were no returns allowed on kickoffs or punts, although we did see grad Transfer K.D. Nixon back on punt returns. With last season's starting placekicker Parker Lewis out of action for an out-of-state family event, which requires a seven-day quarantine return, backup kicker Alex Stadthaus handled the placekicking chores and converted a couple of long field goals (34 and 47 yds.) and all his PATs. Backup sophomore punter Will Rose (2 punts/38.0 avg.) executed smoothly without a rush.

The Trojans relied on backup placekicker Alex Stadthaus (photo above) to come through in Saturday's Spring Showcase, and he did with field goals of 34 and 47 yards. (Photo by WeAreSC)

The Showcase - Part 10: Some quick Saturday tidbits included the USC quarterbacks not wearing a yellow "don't hit me" jersey, former Trojans Michael Pittman, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Adoree' Jackson were in the Coli, and John Jackson, who has made a remarkable recovery from a serious stroke, provided some analysis of the Trojans on the Pac-12 Networks telecast.  

Even former Trojans receiving great JuJu Smith-Schuster, USC president Carol Folt, and athletic director Mike Bohn (photo L to R) were in the house on Saturday afternoon.

From the press box…

Spring Week 3: Prior to Saturday’s Spring Showcase and asked about seeing actual fans in the stands, junior corner Chris Steele said, “Obviously, last season was a little different not being able to see my parents and all the Trojans family in the stands, so it will be really exciting to look up in the stands and see my mom, dad, and little sister in the stands this weekend."

Like all his teammates, CB Chris Steele (photo above - No. 8) was excited to play once again in front of family and friends for Saturday's Spring Showcase and even had an interception during the game. (Photo by John McGillen/USC Athletics)

Spring Week – Part 2: The original reason given by Clay Helton as to why “The Spring Showcase” (AKA Spring Game) was played at the midway point of spring ball was to be able to have enough time in the second half of the spring practice calendar to have increased days to teach off the film to younger and inexperienced players. Of course, a TV time slot might have also contributed to the unusual mid-April scheduling.

Spring Week 3 – Part 3: At the midpoint of spring ball, it’s clear that Clay Helton and his staff continue to preach culture change and physical football. Led by a highly aggressive defensive staff that preaches such physicality, the Trojans look like they are actually making the effort to produce physicality and not just muse about it. It’s showing progress on defense, but the offensive line still has a way to go before they can make 2021 opposing defenses quake in their pads. BTW, has anybody - media specifically - ever asked Gentleman Clay his definition of physicality?    

The Trojans, especially on defense, have been on a mission to return the culture of USC football to one of physicality and an aggressive mentality during spring ball (Photo above by John McGillen/USC Athletics).

Spring Week 3 – Part 4: One of the potential obstacles to becoming a well-rounded, physical football team has been the dramatic, IMHO, difference in culture and philosophy of the offense and defense. The Trojans’ defense, by the very philosophical nature and temperament of defensive coordinator Todd Orlando and his seemingly cloned staff, relentlessly teach and stress violent, physical football.

Unfortunately, that isn’t what Orlando’s defense generally sees from the offense, more specifically the O-line. The offense line generally does not present itself with a violent, physical style of aggression – specifically the run game – which doesn’t help prepare the Trojans' own defense for major league physical opponents like Notre Dame, Oregon, and Stanford.

In other words, how does the Trojans' defense prepare through spring and training camp for a fall of physically balanced offenses when they don’t practice against that philosophy of football? Maybe it’s just perception that the offense and the defense are pulling in opposite directions of the rope.

Trojans' defensive coordinator Todd Orlando (photo above) and his defensive staff have pushed a culture of physicality and dominance, and it is hoped it will have an effect on the offensive side of the ball. (Photo by John McGillen/USC Athletics)

Spring Week 3 – Part 5: According to tight ends coach Seth Doege, his tight end unit has been learning to communicate with the new language of first-year offensive line coach Clay McGuire. Doege said, “Clay has changed the verbiage in the run. We have to do a good job of being on the same page from a communications standpoint. I've got guys teaching a little different technique or harping on a different technique, and we’re communicating with different tackles whether it’s Courtland Ford or Jonah Monheim.”

Spring Week 3 - Part 6: Focus has been on a perceived physicality differences between the defense and the offense. Seth Doege was told by a media member last week that it appears the defense was a little ahead of the offense in the physicality department. The young coach immediately took exception with that premise by responding, “I disagree. I think we’re about where we need to be offensively, especially with the older guys. We’re repping a lot of younger guys, especially the 2s and 3s.” Translation: It only looks that way because the younger players are not as physically developed as their older counterparts and are simply inexperienced.   

Tight ends coach Seth Doege (photo above) disagrees that the defense is ahead of the offense in terms of physicality. Doege says the offense is playing younger and inexperienced players, which has presented a false sense of defensive physical dominance compared to the offense.

Spring Week 3 – Part 7: Senior tight end Eric Krommenhoek was asked this past week if this has been the most physical spring he has experienced during his time at Troy? The veteran said, “Definitely the most physical spring. Obviously, we didn’t get spring last year. I think it stems from (Todd) Orlando's philosophy, but it’s the defense’s philosophy. Those (defensive) coaches are always preaching physicality to their guys.” FYI, “EK” added that Graham Harrell is also preaching physicality “to us.”

Spring Week 3 – Part 8: In regard to one spring corner position already sewed up by junior Chris Steele, Trojans secondary coach Donte Williams took exception to that perception this week by saying, “You (the media) say, ‘the other cornerback spot,’ there’s always at least two. That’s just how it’s going to be. That’s how guys like Chris continue to perform, because the guys behind them are continuing to make plays. It’s not, who do I see as the other cornerback spot. It’s to make sure that we always have the two best players to help us win games, on the field at a time. So that’s what we’ll continue to make sure we assess, and make sure we put the best guys on the field going forward.”

Trojans CB coach Donte Williams (photo above) says it would be a media false perception that there is just one open corner spot opposite Chris Steele. The coach says he looks at it as two openings that must be constantly evaluated.

Spring Week 3 – Part 9: A strong candidate for the corner position opposite of Chris Steele is athletically gifted redshirt junior Isaac Taylor-Stuart from San Diego. Of Stuart, DB coach Williams said, “It’s the little things for him. Whether at times he gets a little lazy with his technical aspect, or at times he plays too high, at times his feet cross over. The biggest thing for him is consistency. When it’s consistent, like everybody saw when he was in high school like at The Opening, he has all the attributes that you would want at that position.”

The post-game show…

Homecoming: Mark your calendar for Homecoming, which is Oct. 30 against the reorganizing Arizona Wildcats under a new head coach (Jedd Fisch). Hopefully, COVID won’t be a big issue for gatherings on the USC campus, but there are, of course, no guarantees.

Homecoming – Part 2: FYI, homecoming is a week after the Trojans return from South Bend and their annual clash with Notre Dame, which is scheduled for October 23, a week later than usual due to the Irish's contractual scheduling obligations to the ACC.

After playing at Notre Dame (photo above) on Oct. 23, the Trojans will return to the Coliseum for the annual USC Homecoming Game on Oct. 30, hosting Arizona.

It’s a family thing: The Trojans have also scheduled “Trojan Family Weekend” for the Utah game, which is the weekend of Oct. 7-10. The Utes have never won in the Coliseum.

Number’s game:
Former Trojan quarterback Sam Darnold, who was recently traded from the New York Jets to the Carolina Panthers, will wear a familiar number with his new team. Sam will wear No. 14, the same number he wore with so much success at USC but was also his number with the Jets, which didn’t quite turn out to be so successful.

Former Trojans quarterback great, Sam Darnold (photo above) will be wearing his familiar No. 14 when he lines up for his new NFL team in 2021, the Carolina Panthers.

Pac-12 ouch:
In a recent ESPN 2021 Power Ranking, ESPN wrote of next season’s Pac-12 Conference and its post-season aspirations, “The entire conference has a cumulative 6% chance to reach the playoff, with Oregon making up five of those percentage points.”

In memory: Most Trojans fans won’t remember his name unless they can recall the O.J. Simpson era when he competed with Simpson for the 1968 Heisman Trophy, but it was sad to learn of the passing of Purdue’s great two-way star LeRoy Keyes at 74.

The call-in show…

Caller No. 1: GK, were you surprised that a limited number of fans were allowed to watch the spring game in person inside the Coli?

Caller No. 1, I was only surprised that compared to the Dodgers and Angels, maximum Coliseum capacity was only 5,000. Don’t blame USC entirely for the fan limitations for the spring game; it was dictated by health department edicts based on the current state of COVID affairs.   

Caller No. 2: Grego, were you able to see the Pac-12 Networks live presentation of Saturday’s USC’s Spring Showcase?

Caller No. 2, yes, I was able to see the Pac-12 Networks’ production of the USC Spring Showcase, which was presented by play-by-play announcer JB Long and analyst Yogi Roth, the former USC assistant coach under Pete Carroll. I thought the cable presentation was good and had a good pace. Long did a workmanlike job handling the action while Roth was his usual optimistic self, pointing out all the positives about the 2021 Trojans although he did say that the biggest question would be the offensive line. The replays were good and the interviews of Clay Helton, Kedon Slovis, Drake Jackson, Michael Pittman, and Adoree' Jackson had value for the most part.

The Pac-12 Networks with broadcasters Yogi Roth and JB Long (photo above L to R) televised Saturday's Spring Showcase and the production was well done for the most part. (Photo by WeAreSC)

Caller No. 3: Gregster, do you think that having the Spring Showcase makes the final couple of spring practice weeks anti-climactic?

Caller No. 3, no, not at all. If having the “game” at the midway point of spring practice means more action and more intensity rather than worrying about getting somebody hurt, it’s fine with me. The timing was different, but the bottom line is that there is just two weeks left in spring ball anyway, and this four-quarter scrimmage showed me some things I wanted to know. Kudos to the coaching staff for “returning” to a format that best resembles somewhat a game simulation.  

Caller No. 4: Katzmeister, what did you think of Clay Helton dividing the Trojans into a cardinal team and a gold team rather than offense vs defense for the spring game? Did you like the Spring Showcase divided into four quarters?  

Caller No. 4, it reminded me of the days of John McKay, John Robinson, and Pete Carroll. During the McKay era, the Silver Fox would divide his team in half and play a game. He didn’t worry about injuries or the like but was more concerned with a real game situation and level of intensity. McKay upped the competition with the two-teams format, and the game was played in the Coliseum.  

Saturday's Spring Showcase was divided into a Cardinal team and a Gold team (photo above). (Photo by John McGillen/USC Athletics)

Caller No. 5: G-Kat, when are you most relaxed?    

Caller No. 5, I used to tell our late publisher Garry Paskwietz that I was most relaxed sitting on a folding chair watching USC football practice on Howard Jones/Brian Kennedy Fields. Garry repeatedly told me it was better than taking blood pressure pills (LOL). Times, of course, have changed with media restrictions on practices, so the relaxation window isn’t quite the same.

As to being away from SC football, I am sort of a night owl, getting to bed around 3 a.m. So, what do I do staying up that late? I write, read, or sometimes watch the MLB channel, as I find this time of the evening to be very peaceful and stress free.    

Prior to COVID, there was nothing more relaxing than sitting in a folding chair along the sideline watching and evaluating a USC football practice. (Photo above by Derek Marckel/USC Football)

The last word: Tight end Erik Krommenhoek speaking to the disappointing ending of last season said, “Last year losing to Oregon at home in the Coliseum is a sick feeling.”