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IMHO Sunday: Spring game brings hope, determination, and anticipation

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IMHO Sunday: Spring game brings hope, determination, and anticipation

In my humble opinion, cardinal and gold thoughts on what I see, what I hear, and what I think from Los Angeles:

Spring hope: With the perfect setting of the Hollywood sign looming in the distance just over the fringes of the last row of the Coliseum, watching the USC Trojans spring game was like sitting in a movie theatre viewing a movie trailer that became so intriguing that when it ended, there was a feeling of wanting more but knowing the main feature wouldn’t be out for public consumption until late August.

Spring hope – Part 2: USC’s spring game, under a breezy but sunny Southern California day before an announced gathering of 25,213, came to see the returning stars from last season’s 11-3 team and the excitement of the newcomers, and for the most part you saw more than what you expected to see and came away feeling the best is yet to come. Despite a very challenging back end of the 2023 schedule, Lincoln Riley’s Trojans seem to be in position to accept next season’s challenge and will bring a boatload of offensive talents and some promising defensive advancements to make a big run. Of course, you never really know the strengths and weaknesses of a team until the actual games are played, but things look like hope could turn into something special.   

Spring hope – Part 3: Offensively, I thought the stars you wanted to see played like stars and sometimes superstars. Caleb Williams played just a series, leading his team 75 yards to an opening drive score, but what more did you need to see from the defending Heisman Trophy holder? From there redshirt sophomore Miller Moss and true freshman Malachi Nelson got a majority of the snaps, and Moss played like somebody that knew the system. No, he’s not Caleb, but who is? As for Malachi, he played like you’d expect for a freshman – some good stuff and some not so good stuff. Three of the defense’s four forced turnovers came against the freshman quarterback. Even fourth string quarterback Jake Jensen got some snaps and looked competent.  

Spring hope – Part 4: Offensively in the backfield, the Trojans are in real good shape at running back. All you needed to see was a flashy 34-yard run by redshirt junior transfer MarShawn Lloyd to validate his reputation. He lived up to our expectations. He is dynamite. Freshmen Quinten Joyner and A’Marion Peterson were outstanding as well, each showing their individual skills. Joyner moving forward with a purpose, and Peterson showcasing his power running skills and reckless abandon. Peterson reminded many in the press box of LenDale White, the stud running back from the Pete Carroll era.

Spring hope – Part 5:
The wide receiving group reinforced that this is one of the nation’s finest units. Transfer Dorian Singer made some plays that lived up to his reputation after a vanilla beginning. Junior Mario Williams made a beautiful leaping 10-yard TD reception from Caleb Williams. Senior Brenden Rice had his moments, Raleek Brown made some noise as a receiver, and highly anticipated true freshman Zachariah Branch started bland, but cranked it up in the second half with some tidbits of his vast array of skills. Not to be intimidated, Branch was even called for an offensive facemask penalty trying to punish a tackler. It should be noted that the tight end position was virtually non-existent in the scrimmage, but the position group is currently thin so there are questions remaining there.   

Spring hope – Part 6: While it was expected that the Trojans’ offense would look explosive with Caleb Williams running the show, most Coliseum eyes were on the USC defense and has it made progress after the difficult performances in 2022? Against Caleb Williams in the first series, the defense had no answers, but Williams is going to do that to most if not all of USC’s 2023 opponents. There were, however, some bright spots along the 30 minutes of combined play. Still, despite the improvements on defense, tackling still appeared to be an issue.

Spring hope – Part 7: The revamped defensive line looked much improved depending which unit was on the field, and you can credit that to new arrival down linemen Anthony Lucas, who didn’t really stick out, Kyon Barrs, who did stick out, and Jack Sullivan, who made his presence felt in the starting lineup. They are obviously an upgrade, and I like the way Barrs plays in the middle of the inside maelstrom. He was a real enforcer. A big revelation and I mean big was the play of senior Solomon Tuliaupupu. The star-crossed talent finally has found a position to flourish with his newfound health. He could be a major difference-maker in 2023. As for the rush end position, it hinted at some surprises. True freshman Sam Greene from Washington DC had a sack and showed quite a motor. He had a sack of Miller Moss in the first half.

Spring hope – Part 8: The linebacker unit inside certainly is a major upgrade. Oklahoma State transfer Mason Cobb is a stud – period. He will be starter and somebody is going to sit. The question will be: who sits? Speaking of living up to the hype, true freshman linebacker Tackett Curtis from Many, Louisiana, went from reminding me of former USC All-America linebacker Matt Grootegoed to morphing into former Trojans’ All-America linebacker Brian Cushing. You know one thing wherever he’s around the ball, somebody is going to get hurt. Tackett delivered a couple of “kill shots.” Veteran Shane Lee was his stable self, but he is going to have to fight to keep his starting spot, especially when Eric Gentry returns for training camp.  

USC freshman linebacker Tackett Curtis showed in the spring game why Lincoln Riley thinks he was the best prep ILB in the USA.
(Photo above by McKinney/WeAreSC)

Spring hope – Part 9: The secondary had its moments. Returning redshirt junior corner Jacobe Covington and fellow redshirt sophomore corner Ceyair Wright had some highlights plays. I really liked the play of former Rancho Cucamonga star Christian Pierce, who had played well in the spring, and the true freshman showed what all the commotion was about when he was around the ball. The secondary, however, still has to show it can do it in the fall.

Spring hope – Part 10: Tackling was a big issue last season…to put it mildly. It appeared that part of the defense showed some improvement, but there some plays where it could have been cleaner. Some of it was due to the offensive talent, and some of it was the need to just get to the ball carrier and get him on the ground and then go for the strip.

Spring hope – Part 11: The special teams were okay, depending on what you were looking for. Since there was no kickoff or punt returns, we’ll have to wait to the fall to see the results of that. However, when you see Zach Branch and Tahj Washington back deep on kickoff returns, you know there is danger in a positive way. Returning field goal kicker Denis Lynch converted all two of his attempts. All-Pac-12 punter transfer Eddie Czaplicki punted twice, but they weren’t the boomers that perhaps some were expecting to see. Don’t worry about Eddie, who averaged 35.5 on his spring game punts, he’ll be just fine.  

Summation: Perhaps the greatest takeaway on Saturday was measuring the team in terms of its depth. While there were “wow” plays on offense and some big hits on defense, a key for me was seeing how much depth there was on both the offensive and defensive lines. Lincoln Riley’s roster isn’t quite where he wants it to be, but it certainly has made some big advancements. The question will be is it advanced well enough to win the Pac-12 Conference and make a run at a post-season CFP bid. Offensively, it appears they can, but the question still remains whether the defense has advanced enough to at least be capable, yet capable may be enough to propel the Trojans against a schedule that will try to destroy all those lofty goals.

Lincoln Riley gathers his team after the spring game for some final words before in the long haul until training camp in late July.
(Photo above by Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)


The USC Spring Game quotebook

Lincoln Riley reviews the spring game: “Hey, fun day. A really, really fun and competitive day. I told the team that was a very fitting end to our spring because I would say that in a lot of ways, that’s kind of what our spring has looked like in terms of the kind of competition down to the wire. Most days have been like that. Looking back, some of the better teams that I’ve had the chance to be a part of, that’s what it was like the majority the time. Every day was a battle. If any player or any position group or any side of the ball didn’t show up, the other group was going to make them pay, and it created this great competitiveness back and forth.

“I think even those of you that were that were here at this game a year before; it may be tougher to tell from the stands, but the body types, the size, especially at the line of scrimmage, has some of the competitive depth at a lot of these positions is very different in a very positive way. We’re very excited about that. It’s been a really nice spring; this is a great way to finish it off. Obviously, this team has a lot of work in front of us and a lot that we have to get better at.

“Our mentality this entire spring has been to take the standard that was established in year one and really go do something with it, and really try to push it to another level. We’ve raised the standards for our guys in every part of the program to help achieve that, and I think by and large part these guys have done a good job attacking that. Again, a successful day. I think we stayed healthy which you know, pretty fortunate to stay relatively healthy throughout the entire spring. Really got out of spring without any major injuries. I don’t think anything will affect us much in the fall, which is obviously a great positive. Obviously, you saw a lot of guys making plays including these two guys right here. A lot to build on, but a lot to be excited about after today.”

Riley on spring game standouts: “You know, it’s always the hardest day for me to evaluate because during a normal game, I’m on the sideline and either one of our special teams, or our offense or our defense is out there and I’m calling it. This one it just goes and goes and goes and goes. Obviously, Jacobe’s (Jacobe Covington) play at the end, and he had a couple of other plays today, that I thought really stood out. Christian Pierce’s play, I know we’ve seen a couple shots of that from Christian this spring, so I don’t think anybody on either side was really surprised to see that. MarShawn (MarShawn Lloyd) had a couple of great plays like he’s had, really throughout spring. Listen, no side was perfect. Both sides at time had plays being made against them.

“Both sides had some really big plays of their own way. We kind of had stretches where the defense was winning and stopping, we had stretches where the offense was scoring, just a little bit of everything. I thought the guys handled it well. Dennis obviously hit the ball well, which it’s great to get some of those live kicking situations. I think a lot to be excited about, but I don’t know that I would single anyone out. I’ll certainly answer questions individually about any of the guys, but very representative of what we’ve seen up to this point for the last 14 practices.”

Riley on Caleb Williams brief appearance: “He’s played a lot of football. My job is to look at it and see what we can get the most out of today. I don’t know that play- ing two or three more series changes anything for Caleb in September, October or November. For a guy like Miller Moss, who hasn’t had a lot of live game snaps, these are invaluable. For a guy like Malachi Nelson or Jake Jensen, this is their first time to really do it. Malachi especially, being a true freshman. These snaps are way, way more valuable to those guys than maybe somebody that’s played the amount of ball that Caleb has. He had a good first series. We knew coming in, and that was kind of the thought, that we were going to play him one series and let the other guys get the rest of the game.”

Riley on defensive changes: “I mean, the difference in the front seven is noticeable. I think we all knew, like deep down, that we had some holes there last year. I mean, it is what it is right? Even when we’re winning games and playing well, defensively, you know at some point this has got to be addressed. It was going to be a focal point, no matter if we won five games last year, we won 11, or we won 15 games last year, it was going to happen.

“I’m excited about what that looks like, and then I’ve seen – with the me- dia the other day, I used Ceyair Wright as an example, Jacobe’s a great example as well – but the continuity of having some of the same coaches, obviously, the defensive staff other than Greg is exactly the same, the same system, you see year two some of these guys start to take off. All of a sudden, not everything’s not so new for them. They start to get settled in and they start to play faster and more confident, and more of a playmaking attitude within that scheme because there is that familiarity. I think there’s several defensive guys I’d put in that category, Shane Lee, Jacobe Covington, Solomon Tuliaupupu.

“We have a number of returners that are playing better ball this spring than they did at any point during the season last year, so guys are getting developed. I know there’s a lot of talk about the newcomers, and there should be, but there’s a lot of guys that were in house last year that look a lot different and are hitting the way that they should and that’s very exciting.”

Transfer tailback MarShawn Lloyd on his Coliseum debut and the freshmen backs: “Oh yeah, it was definitely amazing to be able to do that in front of the fans and honestly just be out there with my team- mates. I feel like we did a great job. The O-line did a great job, just everything connecting on all cylinders. It was just pretty cool to be able to showcase that in front of everyone.

“Oh, they’re (freshmen backs) amazing. You know, I tell them that every day. They’re really, really good backs. They don’t even seem like freshmen to me. They’re still getting the playbook, but they’re very hard workers and it’s only up from here for them.”

Corner Jacobe Covington on his touchdown-interception: “The referee called a touchdown, and you can’t really argue with that, but then they went back to review it and I’m just happy to be there for my team. There’s a lot of things that went into that pick, but I’m just happy I was able to take it away.”


From the press box…

(Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

Nobody asked me…but: Just like last season’s 2022 spring practice game,much credit to Lincoln Riley in how he presented the 2023 spring game by having his team play real big boys football. The length of the game (basically a half of football) was just right, and everybody came away satisfied for the most part wanting more. Patience will be a virtue.

Nobody asked me…but: We’re reminded during yesterday’s Trojans’ spring game Saturday also marked the opening of the transfer window, which runs through April 30. As you know, earlier last week offensive lineman Courtland Ford announced he was entering the portal, which is not exactly a shock. It figured that others would join Ford and not longer after the Ford announcement, redshirt junior defensive back Joshua Jackson Jr. proclaimed he, too, was entering the portal. Lincoln Riley said earlier that he expected some of his players would entertain the portal.

Courtland Ford #74 announced through social media that he has entered the transfer portal
(Photo above by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Nobody asked me…but: I suppose the loss of Courtland Ford in terms of depth and experience along the offensive line probably means there will be consideration of adding an O-lineman out of the portal. A reminder that the Trojans do have an offensive lineman in waiting in transfer Ethan White out of Florida, who is expected to be a starting guard when the Trojans open their first game against San Jose State.  

Nobody asked me…but: The irony of Courtland Ford to the portal was that last Monday night Lincoln Riley was effusive in his praise of Ford and his physical development while having to overcome an off-season hand issue. It figures that the Trojans will be looking for some O-line depth from the portal to offset the loss of Ford, who will return to Texas. IMHO, the Trojans will survive this loss, but it’s too bad for Ford that he didn’t keep pushing to compete and complete his USC career.

Nobody asked me…but: I would keep an eye on recently announced Texas A&M center Matthew Wykoff, a member of the 2022 SEC All-Freshman Team, who announced this past week through social media that he is entering the transfer portal. Wykoff was recruited hard by current USC O-line coach Josh Henson when the coach was at A&M.    

Texas A&M offensive lineman Matthew Wykoff (#77), All-SEC Freshman, has entered the transfer portal. Might USC be his destination?
(Photo above by Icon Sportswire / Getty Images)

Nobody asked me…but: The hiring of Kliff Kingsbury has its limitations as an offensive analyst because he’s not part of the official 10-man coaching staff. For one, he can’t in theory coach players. He can’t coach during practices. He can, however, participate in position-group meetings, break down film, and he can do game-planning if needed by Lincoln Riley.

Nobody asked me…but: Just the publicity of hiring Kliff Kingsbury has already paid dividends in terms of the national and local media exposure and is a real feather in the cap for Lincoln Riley.

Before taking the Arizona Cardinals NFL head job, Kliff Kingsbury was Clay Helton’s USC’s offensive coordinator for about a month.
(Photo above by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

Nobody asked me…but: It seems perhaps that Lincoln Riley is taking a page out of Alabama’s Nick Saban’s playbook by taking experienced former coaches and making good use of them as staff analysts for his program. Over the years, Saban has not only used some high profile out-of-work coaches (Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian, Bill O’Brien, etc.) but positioned those coaches in the future to return as head coaches somewhere as could be the case with Kliff Kingsbury.  

Nobody asked me…but: In case you were wondering, the spring game press box meal consisted of chicken, chips, and rice. Yes, there were also chocolate chip cookies and plenty of assorted soft drinks.

(photo above by Greg Katz/


The post-game show…

(Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images)

New commish: The Big Ten officially hired former MLB and CBS Sports Executive Tony Petitti as the league’s next commissioner. Having a background with CBS sports, Petitti will have his hands on scheduling for USC and UCLA, a real concern for the Trojans and Bruins in most all sports. Petitti will have a say in future Big Ten expansion.

New commish – Part 2: Petitti’s media background comes from working for ABC Sports, CBS and the MLB Network. He helped create the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) back when he was with ABC and working with the NCAA tournament while at CBS. He also worked extensively with the NFL while at CBS.

Tony Petitti, who once worked in MLB and has a background in college sports has been named the new commissioner of the Big Ten. (Photo above by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Kliff: Football Scoop calls the acquisition of Kliff Kingsbury by Lincoln Riley as a USC senior offensive analyst a “huge coup hiring.”

Kliff – Part 2: The aspect of the hiring of Kliff Kingsbury is so intriguing to me is the fact that they are good friends and those that know both say there will be a seamless transition and no jealousy factor along the way. Kingsbury loves the L.A. beach scene and will have several future coaching opportunities down the road.

Kliff – Part 3: Kingsbury, 43, has mentored such NFL quarterbacks as two-time Super Bowl Champion Patrick Mahomes and fellow first rounder Johnny Manziel during his 2012 Heisman Trophy season, along with Case Keenum, Davis Webb and Nic Shimonek. At the NFL level, Kingsbury coached the 2019 No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick Kyler Murray, who won a Heisman Trophy while being coached by Riley at Oklahoma. Think that will help in USC quarterbacking recruiting?   

Lost Confidence: Former Trojans All-America defensive tackle Shaun Cody believes that one of the things that hurt the Trojans’ defense last season was after the fast start and the creation of turnovers, the defense gradually lost confidence in itself, and losing inside linebacker Eric Gentry didn’t help.

Former Trojans All-America DL Shaun Cody believes the loss of ILB Eric Gentry really hurt the confidence of the 2022 defense.
(Photo above by Icon Sportwire / Getty Images)

Here come the Irish: With the Trojans returning to South Bend on Oct. 14 to play Notre Dame, out of a sense of respect it should be noted that this past week marked the 115th year anniversary of the “Notre Dame Victory March” (AKA the Notre Dame fight song).


The Call-in Show…

Caller No. 1, Greg, what do you think about players playing two sports at USC like football and baseball?

Caller No. 1, My first response is to giggle. Really, most of these two-sport players have a pretty good idea where they are best suited to making a living in professional sports. Therefore, in the back and front of their minds, they know where their bread is buttered. There are very few Duce Robinson types that could play both sports in college.  

Is future USC 5-star TE/WR Duce Robinson the Trojans’ next two-sport star?
(Photo above by Chad Simmons/On3)

Caller No. 2: GK, I love your panel on “Inside the Trojans’ Huddle, but some of the viewer comments are quite scathing and personal attacking in nature. How do you put up with it?

Caller No. 2, it kind of goes with the territory, but for the most part the viewership has been quite positive in their comments and to be truthful, our view numbers are good and continue to climb. That being said, we can agree to disagree whether it’s within the panel members themselves or a viewer’s contrary opinion. What we don’t have to be is disagreeable, disrespectful, and there is certainly no place for personal attacks like politics, religion, gender, and physical features. I know it’s unfortunately currently fashionable to bash the media. I come from the generation of “telling it like it is.” If I see something I like in the USC football program, I will say it. If there is something I don’t like, I will say it. It’s just an opinion. Society is much better off being held accountable for its actions than voicing one viewpoint.     

Caller No. 3: Katz, what do you think of the idea of holding a spring game against another Pac-12 member like UCLA?  

Caller No. 3, given the attention and the intensity of the crosstown rivalry, I am sure that spring game format would be a success at the box office. However, playing a rival like UCLA poses a lot more negatives than positives. Playing Westwood once a year is more than enough for me.   

Would USC playing UCLA in the spring game be a good idea?
(Photo above by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

Caller No. 4: Gregorio, any update on quarterback recruit Dylan Raiola and his reaction to the Trojans hiring Kliff Kingsbury?

Caller No. 4, I have not heard a reaction from the Raiola camp on the hiring of Kingsbury at USC, but I can guarantee you that the move by Lincoln Riley didn’t go unnoticed by the Raiola family and give them more to consider when making Dylan’s college choice.   

Does USC’s hiring of former Arizona Cardinals head coach and QB guru Kliff Kingsbury help the Trojans’ Raiola recruiting chances?
(Photo above by Chad Simmons/On3)

Caller No. 5: As a true senior citizen, Greg, does it bother you when people refer to you as an “old man”?

Caller No. 5, not really because I am. I think of all my friends, acquaintances, or people in general that didn’t live long enough to get to where I am in life. I am grateful to be where I am today and take life one day at a time. I have never drunk beer, alcohol, or wine, but I must admit I did smoke a Tiparillo (thin cigar) very briefly in high school. I have never done drugs in any shape or form. I guess for me, my body has rewarded me with some bonus extra years extension… knock on wood.


The last word

For those that missed last Tuesday’s “Inside the Trojans’ Huddle”, panelists Marc Kulkin, Chris Arledge, Erik McKinney, and Greg Katz discussed the impending hiring of former Arizona Cardinals’ head coach Kliff Kingsbury as Trojans’ quarterback coach, previewed Saturday’s USC Spring Game by offense, defense and special teams position groups, spring game attendance predictions and the no post-game fans autograph policy, and panel answers to viewers’ questions.

The post IMHO Sunday: Spring game brings hope, determination, and anticipation appeared first on On3.

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