Defense shines again; QB battle still open

LOS ANGELES -- Picking up right where they left off after a stellar performance in USC’s scrimmage on Friday, the Trojans’ defense shined, once again, in the team’s shorts-and-shoulder-pads practice on Saturday, with the play of the defensive line, in particular, catching the eye of USC head coach Lane Kiffin.

USC Trojans“I saw some good stuff in practice today, and I thought the D-line played really well, kind of the same characters as usual,” Kiffin said. “Going back to the film yesterday, I thought the storyline was the first-team defense -- five three-and-outs. If the game would have been over at halftime, the first team defense would have given up minus-2 yards at that point. It was a really good showing by the front seven on defense, especially. Those guys showed up and made plays. George [Uko] made a bunch of plays, Hayes [Pullard] showed up, Su'a Cravens probably made more plays than anybody, and he only played 28 snaps.”

Upon further review: Quarterbacks

After going through the film from Friday’s scrimmage, Kiffin revealed that while the numbers put up by Cody Kessler (20 of 28, 231 yards, 3 TDs) were on the opposite end of the spectrum when compared to those of Max Wittek (2 of 7, 15 yards), not all is necessarily as it seems.

“Yesterday’s numbers got screwed up just by the way the series went,” Kiffin said. “Obviously Cody got more chances because of the pass attempts, and he played really well in there. And then Max was going against, for the most part, the No. 1 defense, which was having a really good day versus the No. 1 offense -- which also had a number of special players out.”

As such, Kiffin still doesn't appear to be close to naming a starter between Kessler and Wittek.

“It’s the same thing I’ve said all along,” Kiffin said. “Ideally we would have liked to have had it done by now. We don’t know when it’s going to happen. Ideally we would not like to have two quarterbacks on opening day, but you never say never.”

Injury report: Tailbacks getting healthy

Kiffin said after practice that 17 players are still being held out of contact, with the most recent addition being wide receiver Victor Blackwell, who watched from the sideline on crutches Saturday with a brace on his knee.

One position group that appears to be getting healthier, however, is the Trojans' tailback corps. With Buck Allen carrying the bulk of the load of late, the group has been bolstered by the recent return of Ty Isaac, and on Saturday both Silas Redd and Justin Davis were back, as well, taking part in the workout in a limited capacity.

“Today we got Justin back for the beginning of practice, and Silas ... that’s the first time in a while that they’ve done individual,” Kiffin said. “Justin did team and looked really good, so I think we’re headed in the right direction. We could be back here very soon with everybody outside of D.J. [Morgan] back in full participation.”

Other notables who sat out the practice included Dion Bailey, Morgan Breslin, Torin Harris and Tre Madden. Late in the day, tight end Xavier Grimble and nose tackle Antwaun Woods also could be seen in the trainers' tent with apparent injuries, and Pullard was also in and out of the lineup, wearing a yellow jersey later in the day.

Saturday highlights

The team’s 11-on-11 period started with a big hit by Cravens on Isaac, holding the run attempt for no-gain. Davis, donning a yellow jersey, took a handoff for a gain of 6 or 7 yards, and that was immediately followed by an impressive run by Allen in which he bounced outside to pick up 20 yards. Kessler would get Marqise Lee -- also in a yellow jersey -- involved soon thereafter, completing a 9-yard pass on the outside to the star wideout. Leonard Williams came in for a sack on Kessler. During a brief two-minute drill, Wittek completed passes to Darreus Rogers, Grimble and Nelson Agholor, but the drive ultimately stalled.

During 7-on-7s, Wittek completed a deep strike over the middle to Agholor, and in the final 11-on-11 period, Agholor caught a number of passes from both quarterbacks, and it’s safe to say that he’s really starting to resemble the standout performer everyone saw this past spring. Freshman WILL linebacker Quinton Powell -- who spent much of the day running with the first-team defense alongside Lamar Dawson -- had a nice pass break-up in coverage on a toss over the middle to Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, and Williams recorded another sack.

On one of the wildest plays of fall camp, outside linebacker Charles Burks picked off a Wittek pass over the middle, only to fumble it. The defense wound up recovering the ball, but all 22 players on the field still had to run a lap after the play. Kessler came in and hit Isaac with a pass in stride for a pickup of more than 30 yards, and Dawson and Shaw combined for a sack on the last highlight play of the day.

Notables in attendance: Former USC head coach John Robinson and ESPN 300 Class of 2014 tight end Bryce Dixon (Saint Bonaventure/Ventura, Calif.).