USC's Rising Stars Camp 

June, 25, 2009

It was an interesting day on the USC campus Wednesday. The Trojans were hosting their Rising Stars camp, where many of the top high school football prospects around the country had come to L.A. for a two-day proving ground. While the camp featured an eye-opening collection of defensive line talent, much of the talk around Brian Kennedy Field was about the quarterback derby that was unfolding. At stake: one scholarship offer.

Coach Pete Carroll, who talks about competition probably more than any person on the planet, had invited a handful of quarterback prospects to the camp for the chance to prove they were deserving of the lone scholarship the Trojans were going to extend to a QB in the 2010 recruiting class. Most top QB prospects have already committed by now, and some no doubt weren't too interested to sign on just one year after USC got Matt Barkley, a guy who arrived early and might actually become the starter as a freshman.

The quarterback group for USC had thinned a bit when Brett Nottingham accepted a scholarship offer from archrival UCLA a few days earlier. Bryan Bennett, another promising West Coast QB, also fell out of the mix when he committed to Oregon earlier this month. Still, Carroll appeared to have his share of options. Among them: strong-armed Chase Rettig, lanky 6-foot-6 Tyler Bray and fast-rising Nick Hirschman, a protégé of Bob Johnson, the same coach who produced former USC star Mark Sanchez. However, the QB many expected to emerge the winner in this beauty contest is Jesse Scroggins III from nearby Lakewood, Calif. Scroggins' stock has soared in the past few months. We've written about the unique path he has taken to his blue-chip status thanks to some creative training methods his father devised for him.

It's been a busy month for Scroggins. He already showed off his skills at Florida and Tennessee's camps, schools that already have offered him. Scroggins' hip has been a little sore, but he won't let that slow him down this week. His father, wearing a T-shirt with the words "Just Do It" written in script on it, even went in to work at 2 a.m. Wednesday just so he could be out here watching. It is a little surreal for the family. Father and son had been out at this practice facility years ago to watch the Trojans. The elder Scroggins tells a story about meeting then-Trojans offensive coordinator Norm Chow and briefly introducing his son. "This is Jesse Scroggins. Remember his name."

Usually, those kind of comments from proud, optimistic parents don't prove to be so prophetic, but sure enough, the younger Scroggins has blossomed. So what if Chow, now across town at UCLA, opted for another QB? Scroggins has some sweet options, and things could get a whole lot more intriguing if the kid performs like his dad believes he can.

The atmosphere during drills is upbeat. During the morning session Trojans staffers shout directions at receivers as they work with the QBs in the routes-on-air drill. It's hard for the QBs not to press with each rep. They know, or at least they believe, someone, perhaps Carroll himself, is studying their every move. (They are, since most staffs film camp.) Carroll is also hands-on, moving from drill to drill, checking out campers at all positions, offering tips and encouragement. He instructs one receiver on positioning off the line of scrimmage. He tells another linebacker what he should be looking for on an offensive look.

Carroll also stands behind Rettig and Scroggins as they throw out-routes and is there to pat them on the shoulder after a receiver drops a ball that hits the kid right on his chest. A few minutes later, Scroggins claps his hands in frustration after overshooting a receiver. "Let's go, Scrog!" one of the Trojans staffers shouts.

Later, when Rettig bounces a pass off the shin of a tightly covered receiver right as the horn ending a practice period, Trojan QB coach Jeremy Bates comes right over to the QB and starts maneuvering like he's surfing a big wave. (Rettig later explains that the coaches cautioned him against over-striding on his delivery, something he's been working on.)

Most of the QBs don't seem to loosen up even as the day wears on. Having a famous coach like Carroll observing you can do that to a 17-year-old. At one point during one of the water breaks, a frustrated QB remarks to his mom on the sideline that he knows the day isn't going as planned. "You just keep competin'," the mom says. "Do what they tell you, c'mon. Don't give in!"

It also doesn't help that the impressive array of defensive line talent is dominating the camp. The O-line prospects simply can't block them, and that is short-circuiting most of the plays in the 11-on-11 period. If anything, this puts an even bigger premium on a QB's ability to make smart decisions and unload the ball quickly.

During the afternoon session word filters around the sideline that Hirschman has bailed on the camp. (Internet reports say he checked his e-mail -- one assumes he did so during the camp's lunch break -- to learn he had received a scholarship offer from Colorado, which he promptly accepted.) Scratch another QB from the derby.

The younger Scroggins appears to be having the best day of the QBs. There are times when his mechanics get sloppy and Bates is there to point out that he's coming up too high when he hits the fifth step in his drop. But the QB believes he has made a strong impression. He's displayed a lot of zip on his passes, been accurate and shown good footwork. His dad has even had a chance to chat up former Trojans great Keyshawn Johnson, a local kid who shined at USC, on the sidelines. And when the air-horn wails three times, signaling the end of the first day of the camp, Bates makes a beeline towards the elder Scroggins to tell him how impressed he was with Jesse III and that they'd like to see what he can do on the second day of the camp.

The younger Scroggins later says he thought he had a pretty good day. "I started off a little slow but I got into my rhythm," he said via telephone Wednesday night. "I'm just hoping to get that offer, but it didn't happen yet."

He downplayed any stress over getting caught up in the moment. "Pressure is not really a big thing for me," he said. "They invited all of us because they like what we do. So you just got there and do what you do. And just compete."

Rettig, too, felt like he had a good day. "It was a really long day and there were a lot of good guys out there, but you just have to remember to go out there and do what you've been trained to do, and you gotta try and have fun with it."

Of course, with a scholarship offer hanging in the balance, that's not so easy.


• I'm late to the game on this, but I'm now on Twitter at BFeldmanESPN. So far it's been quite exhilarating to opine on the exploits of LSU DB Chad Jones as a relief pitcher ("He's got a better hook than Pacquiao") or about the tediousness of work conference calls ("Does Lindsay know everyone heard that comment?") Anyhow, hopefully I will get better at this thing. At least I've picked up a few new cool clichés from Indiana hoops coach Tom Crean, and I learned which Conference USA offensive coordinator just got a haircut.

• It was so sad to hear about the shooting death of legendary Aplington-Parkersburg football coach Ed Thomas.

Thomas coached a bunch of NFL players, which is amazing given the population size there. He also had an incredible impact on the community. Just check out this story by colleague Wayne Drehs.

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