Spring football games are not meant to be viewed as accurate representations of what a team will be in the upcoming season. Still months away from kicking off real games, teams place more importance on figuring out areas that need improvement and keeping key players healthy than playing amazing football in April.
Still, the sloppiness present in USC’s 2021 Spring Showcase, played at the Coliseum Saturday afternoon, was concerning. Five total turnovers and plenty of sacks only begin to paint the picture. Outside of a few nice plays, the offenses were stagnant and mistake-prone. The biggest question mark for the Trojans — offensive line — was certainly not answered with much confidence.
Again, though, it’s just the spring game. USC has a lot to work out, but shedding light on those necessary improvements is what this game is for. Here are the key takeaways from USC’s 2021 Spring Showcase.
Sloppy quarterback play
Junior Kedon Slovis’ starting job is almost definitely safe, but the question has surrounded the hierarchy behind him. Redshirt senior Mo Hasan has been the favorite because of his experience at Vanderbilt and the year he’s spent in USC’s system, but he suffered a knee injury in the first half and didn’t return to play.
That left a ton of snaps for freshman Miller Moss, and it didn’t go well. He missed a few throws, got fidgety against regular pressure in the pocket and was involved in two turnovers: one lofted throw under pressure picked off by junior cornerback Chris Steele and a botched handoff with senior transfer running back Keaontay Ingram.
Fellow freshman Jaxson Dart certainly took an edge in the battle of young signal-callers with some impressive throws. There were times he looked slow processing the field, and he completely missed redshirt freshman cornerback Joshua Jackson Jr. standing right in front of his intended receiver on an interception, but Dart’s arm talent is undeniable.
Despite the turnovers and missed chances from the freshmen, Helton said he liked the poise he saw from his quarterbacks.
“I didn’t see deer-in-the-headlights or big eyes,” Helton said. “They looked like they went out there and just played, which is what you want to see.”
Defensive fronts dominating offensive lines
With Alijah Vera-Tucker and Marlon Tuipulotu departing for the NFL draft, the front lines on both sides of the ball were always going to be potential weaknesses in 2021. The defensive line left little doubt Saturday as to which one is further along, constantly stuffing short yardage runs and getting after the quarterbacks. And this is all without star freshman defensive end Korey Foreman, the No. 1 recruit in the country per 247 Sports.
It wasn’t just the defensive line, though; Helton said the linebackers were among the most impressive position groups on the day.
“You didn’t see a ton of explosive runs in between the tackles,” he said. “I thought they played physical, I thought they played with that relentless effort and they chased the ball.”
Helton didn’t seem particularly concerned about the offensive line, pointing out the talent it lined up against.
“Obviously they will see from the tape [that] you get into some live game experience and you probably have some mistakes and things you need to correct, but there also were some positive aspects of it,” he said. “I think some young players got beat a couple times by a [junior linebacker] Drake Jackson and maybe a [sophomore defensive lineman] Tuli [Tuipulotu], but that’s happened to a lot of kids across the country.”
The offensive line was down a potential starter in redshirt freshman Casey Collier, but one player does not account for a unit failure in an intrasquad scrimmage. Vera-Tucker may be the only 2020 starter to replace, but he was far and away the best offensive lineman and played the most important position in left tackle. Struggling against a defensive front with questions of its own shows that this group needs a lot more work to be ready in the fall.
The biggest stock-elevating performance came from freshman wide receiver Michael Jackson III. The three-star receiver has his work cut out for him at USC’s strongest position group, but he made a major impression with some impressive catches, including a toe-tapping one-hander for a big gain and another one-handed catch for a touchdown on a goal-line fade in the final minute. He also displayed a good connection with Dart throughout the game, which bodes well for their partnership moving forward.
Joshua Jackson Jr. and freshman defensive lineman Jay Toia continued their strong springs with good performances, including their turnovers. Helton added that he thought the secondary as a whole played “lights out” and emphasized the versatility not only of redshirt senior safety Isaiah Pola-Mao, who is being tested at nickel, but also the young players who have been called on due to injuries.
Ingram and redshirt senior Stephen Carr were both dynamic in space and seem like the best choices to carry the majority of the load at the running back position. Ingram made a huge play on a 48-yard catch and run early to set up redshirt sophomore receiver Bru McCoy’s touchdown catch, and Carr ran with the blend of agility and power he has built throughout his USC career.
Helton repeated the right sentiment throughout the postgame press conference: Any experience is good experience, and this game is good to have with two more weeks of spring ball left to improve what went wrong. Just because a unit or side of the ball struggles in the spring game doesn’t mean it will for the season.
He and his staff got to see first hand, though, how much work the offense does need, and fixing out the issues there has to be the top priority moving forward.
- Helton said redshirt senior defensive tackle Brandon Pili suffered a torn Achilles and already had successful surgery.
- Hasan will have an MRI on his knee. Sophomore receiver Gary Bryant Jr. also went to the trainer’s table in the first half with a hamstring injury and didn’t return. No word yet on the seriousness of either injury.