USC football spring game takeaways: New-look defense, QB situation, offensive line depth


LOS ANGELES — A’Marion Peterson found a hole in USC’s defense and scored a touchdown from 6 yards out. A few moments later, kicker Denis Lynch converted an extra point, and with that, the Trojans put the finishing touches on their spring game and their 15th and final spring practice.

USC’s defense won the game 43-28 (after starting with a 24-0 lead) and forced five turnovers, including four interceptions. For lack of a better description, it was a rather boring day. Things were kept pretty vanilla, and several key players didn’t participate.

Here is what you should take away from Saturday and how the spring game should color your view for the rest of the Trojans’ offseason.

Assessing the new-look defense

The main story from Saturday was the secondary and its four interceptions. As we highlighted during the first few weeks of spring practice, USC’s cornerbacks just look different. There’s a lot more length and height in that group now with UCLA transfer John Humphrey, who didn’t play because of injury, and Mississippi State transfer DeCarlos Nicholson. Add in Jacobe Covington, who started the Holiday Bowl, and three corners are at least 6 feet 2.

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Nicholson took advantage of an underthrown Miller Moss throw to break up a pass early on, and soon after, he picked off Jayden Maiava, who didn’t execute on a throw to Ja’Kobi Lane.

Covington provided tight coverage on Kyron Hudson, who had the ball deflect off his hands and into the waiting arms of Prophet Brown, who returned the interception 100 yards for a score. True freshman Marcelles Williams has received a lot of hype for his performance this spring and made good on that with an interception of Moss as well.

“We’re being put into position to make these plays and have the freedom to go out there and play fast, and that’s really important, especially in the secondary,” Brown said.

When asked about the length of the secondary, Moss said: “It also makes me be more precise as a passer. It just helps the team as a whole, and you can play more aggressively as a defense when you have coverage guys like that.”

If you’re a USC fan, that aspect of the day was encouraging. The quarterbacks made mistakes, and the secondary took advantage, and defensive backs made some good plays in their own right.

The fundamentals seemed to take a step in the right direction. There just weren’t the killer busts and massive openings we’ve seen from the Trojans’ defense the past few years. But, it’s still spring, and there are still plenty of areas for this defense to address.

There is a startling lack of depth on the interior defensive line. Bear Alexander, who has been limited this spring, didn’t play on Saturday. Kobe Pepe, who has played a very limited amount of snaps during his four years with the program, took his place.

The Trojans lost defensive line transfer Isaiah Raikes just a few months after he arrived and need to fill that void. It’ll be curious to see which direction the staff goes. The thought was USC might be a player for TCU transfer Damonic Williams, but it doesn’t look like he’ll visit. Former Arizona State/Louisville defensive lineman Jermayne Lole is slated to visit, but he has had a pretty extensive injury history so there’s a risk in that.

USC finished with one sack on Saturday. There’s an emphasis on the need for interior defensive linemen, but one also has to wonder how the coaching staff feels about its pass rushers. Pitt transfer edge rusher Dayon Hayes is reportedly slated to visit, so the staff might feel it needs help.

And while the secondary made plays, USC’s quarterbacks did throw for 396 yards on Saturday. Even though the Trojans are deep in the secondary, they hosted Florida State defensive back transfer Greedy Vance Jr. this weekend.

So while Saturday gave some reasons for optimism about this defense, USC still has plenty of work to do.

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In his three-year USC career, Miller Moss has thrown for 914 yards and nine TDs. (Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

The offensive line

Based on the first watch, the offensive line, which is a significant concern this season, held up well in pass protection. There weren’t any egregious physical beats or mistakes, which was a positive, and there were a couple of big holes in the running game.

“I do think we’re going to have the ability to — it feels like right now — to move people off the ball than maybe we have had in the first two years,” coach Lincoln Riley said. “We’ve got a little more mass, a little more girth with us. We’re starting to look more like you feel like the O-line at USC ought to look like.”

Time will tell if that’s the case. But the major question for the Trojans is their depth up front. Guard Gino Quinones will come back in the fall, which will help and he might slide in as the starter on the right side of the line. Alani Noa started at right guard on Saturday.

The staff has three guards it would likely trust in a game this fall — Quinones, Noa and Emmanuel Pregnon, the starting left guard. The other spots are kind of shaky. The backup center is a walk-on, Kilian O’Connor.

Mason Murphy has been inconsistent the past two seasons and is slated to start at right tackle. Elijah Paige is promising and should start at left tackle. But the backup tackles today were true freshman Justin Tauanuu (left) and redshirt freshman Tobias Raymond (right).

The chances of going through a season healthy with the same starting lineup are very, very slim. So USC has to add some players who can provide depth or even compete for a starting role.

Riley has emphasized that it’s a priority to add offensive linemen in the portal this spring, so that’ll be worth monitoring.

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The quarterback situation

Riley fielded several questions about USC’s quarterback “competition” this spring. While it’s technically a competition, using that term feels sort of overblown. People know the score, and Riley stated the obvious on Saturday.

“We’re in a position right now where we don’t have to decide a starter, but if we played today, it would certainly be Miller,” Riley said. “Obviously, that’s no surprise with the number of snaps he’s had in the system. So all those guys are going to continue to evolve as we grade spring, go through summer and get into fall camp. Guys aren’t going to be the same players as they were right now today, as that happens we’ll certainly lean in on the right guy and we’ve got several guys in the room we feel like can do it.”

Riley said the coaches will go back and evaluate the whole spring. He said Moss’ first two practices weren’t up to his standard, but he was “lights out” the rest of the way. Riley said Maiava started well, had a bit of a lull during the middle portion of the spring but finished strong.

A starter likely won’t be named until the season approaches, but it’s Moss’ job to lose, and it would be a pretty big upset if he wasn’t the opening-game starter against LSU on Sept. 1. If he struggles, then maybe Maiava gets a chance to run with it.

“I don’t think my mentality or approach has been based on Coach Riley saying that I’m the starting quarterback or not,” Moss said. “My job is to lead this team and do everything I can to help us win. It’s not predicted on what’s said publicly. It’s predicated on that locker room and what’s said privately. I’m excited about the work we did this spring, excited about that going forward.”

Riley didn’t seem too concerned about the quarterbacks’ four interceptions. He didn’t believe there were chalked up to bad decisions — mainly lack of execution.

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Those interceptions were a good reminder of how spoiled USC fans have been by Caleb Williams’ quarterback play on that same field the past two seasons. It was also a reminder that these are relatively inexperienced quarterbacks who will likely require some patience as they grow and develop this season.

(Top photo of Lincoln Riley: Gina Ferazzi / Getty Images)





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