The USC Trojans finished off spring ball on Saturday with a scrimmage in front of more than 15,000 fans at the Coliseum. Here are five things we learned from the day:
1. The Trojans explosive passing game is in good shape: There has been a lot of talk this spring about how the Trojans are looking to return to a more physical style of play that would involve power running football. With 20 players out of action due to injuries, however, USC coach Lane Kiffin elected not to tackle in the scrimmage, which meant the running game was severely limited. So the passing game took over, with the usual suspects such as Marqise Lee (8 catches, 148 yards, 3 TDs) and Nelson Agholor (7 catches, 102 yards, 2 TDs) along with a nice contribution from Victor Blackwell (7 catches, 155 yards, 1 TD) in his bid for the No. 3 wide receiver spot.
2. Kessler continues campaign for QB spot: Kiffin made a point to praise all three of his quarterbacks after the scrimmage, and there was something to like from all of them during the day. This followed the pattern of spring ball in which the competition was very close and will continue into fall camp. But there is a slight change in how the competition was viewed coming into spring ball when Max Wittek was thought to be clearly in the driver's seat. Cody Kessler has come out in spring and made a great case for the starting spot, including a performance in the scrimmage in which he completed 15 of 22 passes for 242 yards and 3 touchdowns with no picks. It’s not to say that Wittek played poorly, he hit on 12 of 17 passes for 145 yards and a pair of touchdowns but also had two interceptions. You can’t pin too much on one scrimmage, but the mood of the fans coming out of the Coliseum was very supportive in favor of Kessler and the idea of him being the USC starting quarterback in the fall.
3. Secondary is still a primary concern: It’s been no secret that the USC defensive backs, primarily the corners, have had a tough transition to the 5-2 defensive scheme under Clancy Pendergast this spring. Kiffin tossed out the idea last week of moving Josh Shaw back to corner in the fall or possibly even letting Lee or Agholor pull double-duty at corner. Those concerns weren’t helped on a day when the USC passing game connected for six touchdowns, but there were some bright spots. Demetrius Wright, who has been battling a hip problem, had two interceptions in the scrimmage and had nice returns of 30 yards on both plays. Wright did an excellent job on one of the picks of simply playing center field and going up to get the ball in front of the receiver. Ryan Henderson, who made nice progress this spring, also had an interception.
4. Breslin shines on big stage: Morgan Breslin was one of the bright spots for the USC defense last year, but he had been somewhat quiet this spring as he adjusted to his role as a stand-up outside linebacker in the 5-2 defense. But once the fans were in the stands and there was a game-day atmosphere in the Coliseum, Breslin turned on the motor that helped him to so much success in 2012. Breslin ended the scrimmage with four tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks, which is a critical stat to help make this defense work. The 5-2 defense relies on the ability of the corners to play aggressive man coverages, and that means the front seven needs to get pressure to make the quarterback get rid of the ball quickly. Breslin will play a huge role in that next fall.
5. Non-tackling leaves many questions: It was difficult to judge the effectiveness of the scrimmage in many ways because of the decision not to tackle on defense. The USC running backs only had 19 carries for 37 yards, but the runners were declared down on first contact, so there was no opportunity to break tackles for extended yardage. The impact of injuries on the quality of practice will be a real situation to watch this fall. Kiffin has been clear about saying he doesn’t know if the team will be able to tackle because of the risk of injuries with the reduced roster.