Upon one of the first mentions of USC's kicking game during training camp, Clay Helton let out a sigh.
"I'm thanking God we've got about three more weeks left," Helton said.
The Trojans have struggled to replace Matt Boermeester, who won the Rose Bowl game on a 46-yard kick as time expired but was unexpectedly removed from USC during the offseason.
Suddenly, Michael Brown was the only scholarship kicker left. USC scrambled to boost its depth by bringing in Chase McGrath, a preferred walk-on.
The competition, Helton said, "seems to go back and forth." Neither has run away with the job.
"It's been off and on," Helton said Wednesday. "One day it's been really good. And then today there's some balls going everywhere."
Helton had expected the position to lack drama this season. Boermeester was unspectacular — his 18 made field goals in 25 attempts ranked USC 68th nationally in kicking percentage. But his 18 makes finished one shy of USC's single-season record. Plus, he was proven in the crucible of the Rose Bowl.
USC's Title IX office investigated Boermeester during the offseason following an allegation that he assaulted his girlfriend, according to Boermeester's attorney. Boermeester and his girlfriend, Zoe Katz, have denied the allegation. He was removed from the school following the investigation.
The change was a surprise to Brown, a redshirt freshman, but he said he'd prepared knowing that "you never know when the job's going to come forward."
The first two weeks of camp were shaky. Neither he nor McGrath had made an attempt from longer than 45 yards. Brown had one 46-yard attempt fail to make it out of the end zone. He was spotty from several other attempts of longer than 40 yards.
The performance was out of character for Brown. The Chris Sailer Kicking Academy, the most prodigious incubator of young kicking talent in the country, said Brown had "one of the strongest legs in the nation" in its high school evaluation.
"As long as I'm kicking from the 40 and in, that's what I'm comfortable with right now," Brown said.
Special teams coach John Baxter said he was less concerned about range than about consistency.
McGrath has also been streaky, but he made one attempt from about 50 yards out earlier this week. (He was not available for comment. By a team policy, USC's freshmen are not allowed to speak to reporters during the start of training camp.)
Baxter called both kickers "very similar players." He didn't rule out the possibility that both could kick early on.
Helton hopes one will begin to emerge during a scrimmage on Saturday, when he plans to put each one in pressure situations.
But Baxter noted that evaluating any kicker is difficult before he has played in a game that counts.
"I'll give you a better assessment after we play a game," Baxter said. "Anyone can go out and practice."
Dominic Davis diverts to ‘D’
Dominic Davis examined a crowded USC backfield and determined there wasn't much of a place for him. So on Thursday, he arrived at practice no longer wearing the offense's red uniforms. Instead, he wore the whites of the defense.
"Dom approached us and said, you know what coach, we've got a lot of talent right now in the backfield," Helton said.
Davis believed he could be of more service at cornerback, where USC is thinner. Helton called it "a nice move for us, to be honest with you."
Davis played on both sides of the ball in high school. He said he didn't know yet whether the change would be permanent.
"I'm just feeling it out right now," he said. "I hope to."
Helton plans to run about 60 live-action plays during the team's scrimmage on Saturday.