With spring ball at USC in the books, here’s a look at five players who took advantage of the March and April workouts to show that they just might be ready to take on a more significant role in 2015.
WR Steven Mitchell (5-foot-10, 185 pounds, RS So.)
Arriving at USC in the summer of 2013 with high expectations, Mitchell’s development was stalled after he suffered a torn ACL in his right knee that would force him to miss his initial season. Returning to action last season, he flashed at times, but still didn’t appear to have the burst in his step that he was known for in high school, and he finished the year with seven receptions.
This spring, however, that explosiveness was back. Spending most of his time in the slot, but also lining up outside at times, Mitchell had arguably the best spring of any Trojans wideout. His rise could be a major boost for a unit looking to replace the production lost by the departure of Nelson Agholor and George Farmer.
S/CB Chris Hawkins (5-11, 185, RS So.)
Heading into the spring Hawkins was buried on the depth chart behind Adoree' Jackson and Kevon Seymour at cornerback, but a new opportunity arose when USC head coach Steve Sarkisian, with a desire to add some athleticism and speed to the two safety spots, decided to slide Hawkins and Jonathan Lockett over from cornerback with extremely positive results, particularly for Hawkins.
Bringing strong cover skills to the position, Hawkins also opened eyes by dishing out some big hits over the course of the five weeks of practice, showing that he possesses the physicality to play the spot. Impressive enough was the third-year sophomore, in fact, that after two weeks of spring ball he was running ahead of Leon McQuay III with the No. 1 defense at free safety on a consistent basis. Listed as sharing the top spot there with McQuay on the post-spring depth chart, Hawkins still has a battle on his hands, not just with McQuay, but also with incoming freshmen blue chippers Ykili Ross, Marvell Tell and Iman Marshall. By all indications, though, he’s a player who you’re going to want to keep an eye on in fall camp.
ILB Olajuwon Tucker (6-3, 220, So.)
With starting Will linebacker Anthony Sarao sidelined for the spring with a foot injury, Tucker and Michael Hutchings received a golden opportunity to take an increased number of reps at the position, and in a bit of a surprise, it was the younger Tucker who made the most of it.
Having played sparingly as a freshman, Tucker came into the spring showcasing a noticeably more bulked-up frame, and he did much more than just look the part, he also performed at a high level, bringing a physical brand of play to the spot. Drawing praise from Sarkisian and linebackers coach Peter Sirmon, he was thrown in with the No. 1 defense ahead of Hutchings at the beginning of Week 3, and he wound up staying there throughout the remainder of the spring.
Sarao will, in all likelihood, regain his starting spot when he returns, but after the way Tucker produced this spring, it’s safe to say he can now be counted on as a potential key reserve.
OL Nico Falah (6-4, 285, RS So.)
Having flown under the radar during his first two years on campus, Falah entered the spring as a completely hidden commodity. By the time the spring game rolled around, however, things had definitely changed.
In great shape, and playing with improved aggression, he looked like a new player at times, and offensive line coach Bob Connelly obviously took notice. When Khaliel Rodgers went out with a shoulder injury, forcing Toa Lobendahn to run with the No. 2 offense at center, it was Falah who got the call to go with the No. 1 offense at left tackle for a number of workouts, and to his credit, he didn’t look out of place.
With the sturdy Lobendahn still manning that position, and Chad Wheeler expected to return at some point, it’s still extremely unlikely that Falah will be a starter in 2015. But should someone go down, or perhaps need a series off here or there, he’s provided evidence that he can be called upon as a reliable option for the first time.
QB Max Browne (6-5, 220, RS So.)
Browne, the Trojans’ backup who has shown steady improvement throughout his time on campus, took his biggest leap forward yet this spring as he showed up to camp with a sturdier looking build, more zip on his throws and a new level of comfort in running the offense.
Showcasing his trademark precision deep ball on what seemed like a daily basis, he was especially impressive over the course of the last three weeks, particularly in the spring game finale when he completed 24 of 37 passes for 251 yards and two touchdowns.
His play certainly caught the eye of Sarkisian, who for the first time said that should starting quarterback Cody Kessler ever go down, he had no doubt that Browne could step right in and direct the offense effectively.
With an eye toward next spring, when the starting job will be up for grabs, there is now little doubt that Browne has to be considered the overwhelming favorite.