USC chooses caution over preparation in a quiet spring game

The most taxing portion of Sam Darnold’s Saturday came not during USC’s spring game at the Coliseum, which was not much of a game at all. USC’s starting quarterback threw six passes, handed off a few times, then stood for the rest of the afternoon on the sideline with his helmet in his hand.

The taxing portion came afterward, when an hour-long autograph line formed for Darnold. Was he worried about all the scribbling overtaxing his arm?

"Hopefully not,” Darnold said, jokingly. “But if it does, I'll just ice it tonight, and get after it tomorrow I guess."

The Trojans’ spring ended quietly Saturday. Their spring game became what coach Clay Helton called a “situational practice.” And it was fairly light one, at that. Washington State also practiced Saturday, and the Cougars attempted 68 passes; USC ran 62 plays total.

The thin spring practice was the latest attempt by Helton to juggle two, often competing, interests. He has made injury-prevention a central emphasis. But his biggest regret from last season was a sloppy 1-3 start that eliminated the Trojans from playoff contention by October.

"Everybody talked about us being one of the better teams out there, 'Oh, maybe we were a playoff team,'” Helton said. “But the fact of the matter is we lost three games early in the season. And one of the things that we have to do to be able to have a really special year is to be able to start fast, right from the get-go."

Often, the best way to prepare for a fast start is through physical, full-speed practices. But the best way to prevent injuries is avoiding physical, full-speed practices.

On Saturday, caution won. Most starters were pulled before full-contact periods. Running backs Ronald Jones II and Aca’Cedric Ware rushed only four times each.

“For the most part, he kept the ones out of all live scrimmages today,” safety Chris Hawkins said. “I think we did the first two thud periods, and that was it. It's just something, that's how they roll at USC. And we've done that since I was a freshman."

In the past, however, USC has been hamstrung by a roster emaciated by scholarship limits after NCAA sanctions. The Trojans are now at full strength. But a rash of minor injuries sidelined a significant portion of USC’s starters.

The result was a spring game even lighter than last season’s, when the Trojans ran 22 more plays and drew 23,000 spectators. This year, only 14,781 showed up.

Helton acknowledged that “physicality is where we win ballgames, and we understand that." But, he said, "You have to be selective.”

USC’s players have watched other teams’ spring games “and there were injuries that really didn't need to happen,” Hawkins said. “You look at the Mississippi State game, a dude got hit in the helmet” — a hit vicious enough that the rest of the session was cancelled — “that was a hit that wasn't really needed to happen.”

The summer will replenish USC’s roster with recruits and with players recovered from injury. Then, Helton said, he would feel free to scrimmage in full — up to a point.

"It's a fine line,” he said. “And we'll have to walk that line in training camp."

A thin line

Viane Talamaivao plunged his hands in his pockets as he spoke. He was in shorts, not in full pads. Many of his fellow offensive linemen weren’t either, including two projected starters, Chuma Edoga and Toa Lobendahn.

Of all the positions affected by injury, none have been more so than the offensive line. It is also the position, other than quarterback, that benefits most from repetitions as a unit.

“Chemistry is a big thing with the offensive line,” Talamaivao said. “When you're playing with new guys, it's just a feel. It's just a different feel when you're with different people, and you've got to play significant snaps together.”

"The musical chairs, that's tough,” center Nico Falah said.

The Trojans should be at full strength in the fall. Lobendahn, who tore knee ligaments last season, said he was “feeling really good” and said he could’ve played by the end of spring if necessary. Talamaivao, who is nursing a torn biceps, and Edoga, who injured a hand and finger, are expected to heal fully.

But the time away, all agreed, had set back the developing line.

"It's not going to be perfect,” Talamaivao said. “And it's not going to be fully developed in-season. But it's going to grow throughout the season."

Quick hits

Freshman running back Vavae Malepeai led USC with seven rushes for 37 yards. … Reserve quarterback Matt Fink completed five of nine pass attempts for 47 yards and one touchdown; Jack Sears completed three of seven for 32 yards. … Tyler Vaughns was the leading receiver with three receptions for 48 yards and one touchdown. … Kicker Michael Brown made five of seven attempts with a long of 50 yards.

zach.helfand@latimes.com

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand

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