With spring practice at USC having reached its conclusion Saturday, here’s a look at some of the top position battles that took shape throughout the course of the March and April workouts.
The two safety spots
With the graduation of Gerald Bowman, and with Su’a Cravens having found a permanent home at Sam linebacker, common thought had Leon McQuay III and John Plattenburg manning the two starting safety spots without any real challenge. But with both Chris Hawkins and Jonathan Lockett sliding over from cornerback to jump into the rotation, the entire dynamic was changed in a hurry and a real competition took shape, especially at free safety.
With his cover skills, Hawkins, in particular, brought a different look to the position, and by mid-way through the spring schedule he was running ahead of McQuay with the No. 1 defense. With a strong showing in the spring game, however, McQuay showed that he’s not about to back down, and both players were listed as sharing the top spot on the post-spring depth chart.
At strong safety Plattenburg, perhaps buoyed by the element of competition, really separated himself from the pack quickly. He was listed as a starter on the post-spring depth chart, and it would be a surprise at this point if he isn’t lining up there in the first game of the 2015 season. But with incoming freshmen Ykili Ross, Marvell Tell and Iman Marshall set to arrive this summer, neither he or anyone else will be afforded the opportunity to let up for even a second.
The Trojans went into the spring needing to find a replacement for go-to receiver Nelson Agholor, and while the favorite, JuJu Smith, certainly staked his claim, particularly with his nine-catch performance in the spring game, there were plenty of other receivers who shined over the course of the fifteen practices as well. In fact, this is a unit that, from top to bottom, opened some eyes with their level of play, erasing some real concerns.
The arguable star of the group was Steven Mitchell, who saw time in the slot as well as outside. He appears to have regained the burst in his step that went missing following his knee injury of almost two years ago. Adoree’ Jackson showed off his big-play ability, so much so that USC head coach Steve Sarkisian will have a tough decision on his hands in determining just how much time the three-way star will spend on offense. Darreus Rogers stepped up his consistency as a more physical receiver in the Trojans offense. Ajene Harris looks like he’s ready to step in and contribute on a greater level – so long as he can stay healthy. And then there’s Isaac Whitney, a 6-foot-4 junior college transfer who started the spring off slow, but was really turning heads over the course of the last two weeks.
The competition to replace Andre Heidari as the Trojans’ starting placekicker didn’t gain a lot of attention early on this spring, but as Matt Boermeester and Alex Wood continued to duke it out and perform at a high level on a daily basis, this eventually developed into a battle that was too hard to ignore.
Both players pushed each other day in and day out with positive results. In the spring game finale, in fact, Boermeester and Wood were two of the standouts of the session, each going 2-for-2 on their field goal attempts, with Boermeester connecting on a 52 yarder, and Wood hitting one from 51 yards out.
Near the end of the spring Sarkisian said that he is nowhere near declaring a leader, so it looks like this is a competition that will rage on through fall camp.
With veteran starter Anthony Sarao sidelined for the spring with a foot injury, a golden opportunity arose for someone else to make a statement at Will linebacker.
In a bit of a surprise, however, that player wasn’t Michael Hutchings, but Olajuwon Tucker. Supplanting Hutchings with the No. 1 defense by the third week of practice, the sophomore out of Gardena (Calif.) Serra looked more than at home with the starters, showcasing solid instincts to go along with a bulked up frame. Sarao still figures to start at the position in the fall, but Tucker showed that he can definitely contribute here, and that he’s someone to watch with an eye toward the future.
You didn’t necessarily hear much about the fullbacks at USC this spring, primarily because there simply doesn’t appear to be a particularly large role for the position in Sarkisian’s offense. But in Soma Vainuku and Jahleel Pinner, the Trojans have two fantastic veteran performers at the spot who don’t always get the attention they deserve.
Two senior leaders both possess a team-first mentality and a fantastic work ethic, they’ve pushed each other throughout their time on campus, and that trend certainly continued this spring. In an effort to get each of them more touches, Sarkisian periodically lined both Vainuku and Pinner up at tailback this spring, and perhaps in the end that is the best way to utilize their talents. Vainuku, in particular, took a large number of carries as the featured back and really excelled at times.