August 12, 2017
LOS ANGELES — Clay Helton gathered USC’s players near midfield of the Howard Jones Field grass on Saturday afternoon.
Three air-horn blasts had commenced the end of the team’s second live scrimmage of training camp.
Players had taken a knee around Helton, who stood in the center of the group. The Trojans’ coach first brought up his defense.
“I’ll tell you what, D, you came out here with an attitude,” Helton said, beginning his address to the players.
It looked as much.
But across the ball, the Trojans’ offense looked stymied over 70 plays.
Helton, who normally effuses with optimism, was blunt with reporters, describing contrasting performances from the two units. While complimentary of the defense, he described the offense’s performance as “up and down.”
“Obviously,” Helton said, “we have a lot of work to do.”
Six of the eight drives for USC’s first-team offense ended with a three-and-out, including one on a safety. It twice reached the end zone, but to varying results. The first time, running back Ronald Jones snuck up the middle, crossing the goal line for a touchdown. On the second trip inside the 20-yard line, quarterback Sam Darnold floated a pass toward the back corner of the end zone as receiver Deontay Burnett ran a fade route. But Darnold’s pass hung in the air, and cornerback Ajene Harris stretched to pick off the pass, snagging it with his right hand.
“It’s good to see the reality today,” Helton said afterward.
The Trojans will go through a third scrimmage at end of training camp late next week.
“The defense is always going to be ahead in these early scrimmages,” Helton said, “just because you have so much offense, and you have young kids, and you’re getting them to learn concepts and be able to play fast.”
When asked what he thought ailed the offense on Saturday, Helton raised several issues, including youth.
Of USC’s 11 scholarship wide receivers, for example, eight are underclassmen, including six freshmen.
Right now, he said many of the players on the less-experienced offense are still learning a sizable playbook, though it would be downsized and tailored to an opponent closer to the season.
“It’s going to help them once we dwindle down, once we get into game-plan mode and that whole bible becomes just one specific game plan,” Helton said.
USC will have a mock game week on Aug. 22.
Players were also in and out of the huddle. The Trojans continued to rotate heavily on their offensive line Saturday, switching Nico Falah and Toa Lobendahn at center and limiting Viane Talamaivao at right guard because of injuries. Other contributors, such as tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe, are also sidelined. Imatorbhebhe, who caught four touchdowns last season, has a hip flexor.
“Obviously Daniel is a great player,” Helton said, “and we want him out here.”
The offense never found flow against the defense.
Both outside linebackers Porter Gustin and Uchenna Nwosu were disruptive on the edge.
Helton called them “phenomenal.”
Any encouraging signs were on the defense, a group filled with experienced returners and more experienced than its counterpart.
“I thought the defense played well today,” Helton said Saturday, concluding the first two weeks of training camp. “Kids got lined up, they were communicating and they looked like they were playing extremely fast.”