Team Cardinal beat Team Gold 27-7 in the USC Trojans football Spring Showcase on April 17, but the score doesn’t really tell the story.
It was interesting to see junior quarterback Kedon Slovis play with the revamped offensive line, but the highlights were more about the young quarterbacks’ battle on the field and the coaching staff battle on the sidelines — offensive coordinator Graham Harrell and defensive coordinator Todd Orlando facing off as head coaches of Cardinal and Gold, respectively.
It was pretty much just a televised practice, so not everything should be read into — but let’s talk about some things that stood out.
The Defense Is Really Good
It can’t be said that they were evenly distributed because they were done to benefit the head coach. Harrell had his offensive weapons, and Orlando had his defensive weapons. Nonetheless, both sides played hard.
Orlando is entering his second season as the Trojans’ defensive coordinator, and he is making sure that side of the ball is the best in the country.
The defense was strong last season and could always get better. USC allowed 26 points and 369.7 total yards per game last season, ranked in the top-50 in college football but ranked in the top-5 in the Pac-12 conference.
Both teams had some solid play from their defense, but Orlando’s Gold team shined bright despite their loss.
Redshirt sophomore inside linebacker Tuasivi Nomura finished the day with seven tackles, redshirt senior safety Isaiah Pola-Mao added five tackles and a sack, and junior outside linebacker Drake Jackson had three tackles, a sack for a 13-yard loss, and a pass deflection.
The Gold team finished with five sacks altogether on Slovis and the freshman QB Jaxson Dart.
Each side threw two interceptions apiece — junior cornerback Chris Steele and redshirt junior inside linebacker Spencer Gilbert for the Cardinal team and junior cornerback Dorian Hewett and redshirt freshman cornerback Josh Jackson Jr. for the Gold team.
The Cardinal team had some standouts as well with junior safety Briton Allen finishing with five tackles and a sack while redshirt junior cornerback Isaac Taylor-Stuart and redshirt junior inside linebacker Raymond Scott had five tackles apiece as well.
Freshman defensive lineman Jay Toia had a solid outing with three tackles, a sack, and a fumble recovery on a muffed handoff by freshman QB Miller Moss.
Head coach Clay Helton spoke a little about freshman defensive back Calen Bullock’s versatility playing some reps at cornerback in the Spring game.
“You know Calen has been a kid that, during camp, we’ve moved back and forth,” he said. “He showed it the other day coming up with two interceptions in the back end at safety but has great range and speed and playmaking ability, and his length is evident. We got a little bit short at corner with Jayden [Williams] being out, so having the availability and versatility of Calen Bullock being safety and possibly corner when needed — that just ups his stock and it was good to see today.”
The Trojans won’t have redshirt sophomore safety Max Williams or redshirt senior defensive lineman Brandon Pili this season — Williams to an ACL tear and Pili to an Achilles tendon tear he had surgery on.
By the looks of it, Steele is going to be covering one side and the player on the other side is going to be decided a long way down the line, with Hewett and Taylor-Stuart looking like the front runners.
The defensive line will be redshirt senior Nick Figueroa and sophomore Tuli Tuipulotu, with the third spot likely redshirt junior Jacob Lichtenstein — who had two tackles and a sack for a 16-yard loss in the game.
The outside linebacker role is probably locked in by Jackson and redshirt senior Hunter Echols, but the inside linebacker spots are a toss-up.
The Running Game Has A Lot Of Potential
There are eight running backs on the Spring roster — and it’s important to know all of them.
Redshirt seniors Vavae Malepeai, Stephen Carr, Quincy Jountti, and Grant Jones, senior transfer Keaontay Ingram, redshirt freshman Matt Colombo, and new freshman Brandon Campbell.
Ingram and Campbell are the only new additions to the team, and they got some good reps in the game.
Carr and Malepeai got the bulk of the touches for the Cardinal team, but Colombo was right behind them.
Carr finished the game with 53 rushing yards on eight attempts and a 13-yard reception plus a touchdown, Malepeai had 30 yards on eight attempts and a touchdown, and Colombo finished with 47 yards on his seven attempts.
The Gold team’s rushes were split between Ingram and Campbell — Ingram finishing with 20 yards on seven carries and Campbell rushing 19 yards on six attempts. Ingram also had a big 49-yard catch and run to set up the game’s first touchdown — and the Gold team’s only.
Helton said he liked that all of the guys got reps on the field in this game.
“I really liked what Keaontay Ingram and Brandon Campbell showed, not only today but all the way through camp,” he said. “I’m really excited about their future here. Then you saw the experience of Vavae [Malepeai] and Stephen Carr and they bring to the table. Stephen had a good day today, looked really healthy and physical, and made some really nice plays, and Vavae is just consistent as he always is.”
The likely starter come September is Malepeai, but it wouldn’t be surprising if Carr or Ingram get some solid reps.
There Are So Many Receivers With Potential On This Roster.
There are 12 wide receivers for Slovis and the quarterbacks to choose from. Any of them can pull off a big catch at any moment, and that might be the most exciting thing for fans to anticipate in the upcoming season.
Redshirt senior transfer K.D. Nixon, redshirt junior Zach Wilson, juniors Drake London and John Jackson III, redshirt sophomores Munir McClain, Bru McCoy, Kyle Ford, and Chase Locke, sophomore Gary Bryant Jr., redshirt freshmen Ty Shamblin and Danny Ryan, and freshman Michael Jackson III.
Everyone knows the ones returning from last year’s roster, but a few new names had a solid day.
For the Cardinal, London showed out and finished with 139 receiving yards on seven catches with Michael Jackson III pulling in 42 yards on three catches. London was clearly Slovis’s favorite target while Jackson was Dart’s favorite.
For the Gold, it was a little harder to come by but McCoy finished with 34 yards on two catches to go with Ingram’s big catch and run.
London and McCoy are the sure starters with Bryant and Jackson in the mix. Nixon didn’t pull in any passes, but he can be a reliable target with experience for Slovis down the line.
The Quarterback Battle For The Backup Spot Is Going To Be Fun To Watch
Slovis is the favorite — there’s no debating that — but who is up next?
Dart and Moss, in that order, are definitely competing for the backup spot.
They both completed 7-of-13 passes, and they both threw an interception, but Dart had 99 yards and a touchdown to Moss’s 34 yards.
Helton said Dart has had the opportunity to really shine in the last few practices — but said all three quarterbacks looked poised.
“I didn’t see deer in the headlights or big eyes. They went out there and just played, which is exactly what you want to see,” he said. “Obviously there were some mistakes and there were a couple of things they did wrong, but they had some nice plays also. Man, what a nice play at the end of the game there — to have two guys that were supposed to still be in high school, right about prom season right now — and they hook on the last play on the game between [Dart] and Michael Jackson. That was great to see.”
Dart was slightly underrated when he was first recruited by USC, and after signing his letter of intent, he lit up the field in his senior year in 2020, throwing for a national-best 4,691 yards and a Utah state-record 67 touchdowns to pair with only four interceptions — ultimately winning the 2020 MaxPreps National Player of the Year award among other accolades.
Redshirt senior transfer Mo Hasan deserves some praise because he had a lot of potential to be the backup, but he, unfortunately, left the game with a leg injury that was ultimately ruled a torn ACL.
He hasn’t had much luck on the football field. Hasan went from Fort Lauderdale, Florida to Syracuse, where he didn’t see any action, to community college in Kansas then to Vanderbilt for two seasons where he appeared in five games as a sophomore in 2018 and started one game as a junior in 2019 before leaving with a season-ending concussion.
Hasan completed both of his passes and had 74 yards and a touchdown before going to the sideline in the Spring game.
It’s worth mentioning that the game allowed 5,000 fans into the Coliseum to watch the game, but the day before, the women’s soccer team faced UCLA there but were only allowed four guests per player.
Redshirt senior utility player John Thomas of the USC baseball team tweeted a statement by his team on the day of the match condemning the actions by the Athletics department in support of the women’s soccer team.
A message for @USC_Athletics pic.twitter.com/NUqRBxChAm
— JT (@jtmadethat) April 16, 2021
Nonetheless, the show continued — and the Athletic Department didn’t release a public response regarding the matter.
Practices continue for the football team as they finish up the Spring and prepare for their first matchup in September against a tough San Jose State team.