Pete Carroll caused a stir among Trojan fans when he moved Matt Leinart to the top of the end of spring depth chart. The ranking doesn’t mean too much right now as this competition is far from over but is does signal an important move for Leinart. Matt is locked in competition with Matt Cassel, Brandon Hance and Billy Hart and the consensus prior to spring was that it would be a 2-man race between Cassel and Hance. Carroll said Leinart earned the promotion by improving his arm strength and being more decisive. Hance had a promising spring slowed by lingering shoulder problems but recent surgery to remove scar tissue should have him back to 100% in a few weeks. Cassel was the prediction of most regular practice observers to leave spring as the #1 guy and he is still very much in the competition. Hart is considered the long shot although several defensive players from last season think he would make an excellent choice. Stay tuned.
The Hershel Dennis era got underway this spring at the USC tailback position as Hershel came to camp ready to go and claimed his job with authority. He has tremendous footwork, vision, instinct, toughness and that special something that all great running backs have. Hershel was durable as he carried the load in a sparse backfield although walk-on Andre Woodert did an admirable job to share the burden. Lee Webb showed some good blocking ability and David Kirtman is an athlete who can contribute but we need Brandon Hancock on the field. Brandon should be completely healthy for fall camp.
Mike Williams has a chance to be the most dominant receiver in the country. He’s up to 232 lbs and there were times this spring when it looked like he was a man playing among boys. Keary Colbert is a terrific complement to Williams as Keary is the professional who shows up with terrific routes, a strong work ethic and a desire to improve his game. The most pleasant surprise of the spring was the dynamic performance of Justin Wyatt. Justin was moved from corner to see what he could provide on offense and the results were a whole lot of big plays as he brings the type of moves we haven’t seen since RJ Soward. There were some dropped balls as he adjusted to receiver but he’s shown enough explosiveness that Carroll has already said Justin will stay on offense. Chris McFoy, Jason Mitchell, Greig Carlson and D Hale will all be fighting for playing time in the fall.
Alex Holmes was looking solid as a senior leader for the first half of spring before he was held out of the last two weeks. Gregg Guenther missed time as well due to basketball and so Dominique Byrd took advantage of the extended reps to show the coaches that he deserves increased playing time. Carroll said he was the most improved player on offense and Dominique can be a real weapon as a pass catcher.
There were a lot of banged up bodies and players playing with nagging injuries but the line as a whole stayed together remarkably well in the spring and showed signs of continued improvement. The run game looked extremely good at times and Carroll says they have a good understanding of the philosophy of running the football. Jacob Rogers is settled at left tackle and he’s been a rock while battling a sore shoulder. Lenny Vandermade was supposed to take it easy during spring to continue rehabbing his bicep but Lenny is a warrior and he was out there on a regular basis. Norm Katnik is the anchor in the middle as these three seniors form an experienced nucleus. Kurt Katnik, brother of Norm, is the back-up center and he was also scheduled to see time at TE until breaking a bone in his hand. The right side of the line is young but loaded with potential. Winston Justice sat out the first part of spring and elected not to make the move to jersey #71 until he practices on a consistent basis and “earns” the right to wear it. Don’t worry about Winston, though, he’s as good as they come and he’ll be ready for fall. Fred Matua and Kyle Williams had a strong competition for the RG spot with Matua leaving spring as the starter but with Kyle proving to everybody that he’s ready to contribute at either guard or tackle. Nate Steinbacher and Travis Watkins provide the depth while Eric Torres continues to rehab his leg.
Pete Carroll says he’s “real excited about this group” and with good reason. The defensive line should be among the finest in the country this season and these spring drills showed how dominant they can be. Kenechi Udeze remains solid at the strong end and he is maturing into a physical force. Van Brown is his back-up and we saw flashes of inspired play from Van this spring. Omar Nazel is a returning starter with a lot of talent and football intelligence and he was joined at the rush end spot this spring by Frostee Rucker. Those two should form a nightmare combo for opposing tackles coming off the end with the athleticism of Nazel and the brute intensity of Rucker. Line coach Ed Orgeron says Mike Patterson is the best nose guard he’s seen at USC in his tenure. Mike uses his hands very well and has some good practice battles with center Norm Katnik. Travis Tofi served as the primary reserve in spring, Travis has a good burst off the ball and is naturally strong but he’s probably a year away from really contributing. Shaun Cody sat out spring ball as he continues his rehab. Shaun says he feels good and is confident he’ll be healthy in time for fall camp. LaJuan Ramsey took advantage of the absence by Cody to get reps as the first team tackle and he performed well. Orgeron says LaJuan is “tough, man, he’s tough”.
There was concern heading into spring about the middle LB spot with the injury to Oscar Lua. Pete Carroll took a look at both Lofa Tatupu and Danny Urquhart with Tatupu stepping forward and playing well enough to earn the starting job coming out of spring. Lofa is a very instinctive football player who Carroll said was the most improved defensive player in spring. Urquhart played well enough to contribute. Matt Grootegoed was solid as ever at strongside backer while Dallas Sartz has bulked up to 220 lbs and was one of the stars of the Trojan Huddle scrimmage. Dallas is another player who always seems to be around the football. Melvin Simmons returns on the weakside and we know what he can do.
One of the more anticipated debuts in recent Trojan history took place when Darnell Bing finally hit the field wearing the un-retired #20. It didn’t take Darnell long to prove he was worth all the hype. The first thing you notice is his size, Darnell is a big man at 6-2 3/4, 218 and he combines that size with terrific speed. In the first half of spring ball he played primarily at strong safety but also saw action as a reserve tailback who broke off several long and impressive runs in his limited carries. Darnell was moved into the starting safety role midway through spring and that ended his RB audition although Carroll said he saw enough to know that Bing could contribute on offense if needed. Mike Ross is a talented player who is the back-up to Bing.Mike is a hitter in his own right and Bernard Riley said Ross is the one player on the team who will try to take your head off every time. Jason Leach looked good at free safety with Greg Farr currently earning the reserve role. The corner rotation is still unsettled in part due to injuries to key players. Marcell Allmond is expected to be one starter and he looked solid in the first part of spring until suffering an injury in track and sitting out the remainder of drills. Kevin Arbet returned but was hobbled by his lingering ankle problems. Ronald Nunn only took part in a few practices although he should be fine for fall camp when the competition will also include John Walker, Chris Bocage, incoming JC transfer Will Poole and the Ting brothers Ryan and Brandon. Pete Carroll loves to see players battle for playing time and this should be quite a competition come fall.