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USC Sports

To prep for bruising schedule, USC varies the tempo at practice

For the first time since Reggie Bush and Lendale White, two USC backs eye 1,000 yards
As USC’s only senior running back, Justin Davis is reliable and experienced.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Within five seconds of USC breaking the huddle on Thursday, the ball had already been snapped and Justin Davis had already taken a handoff and scampered off the right side of the line.

Many other times this training camp, Max Browne or Sam Darnold has barked out plays without huddling at all. Occasionally, the offense will huddle leisurely, dilly-dally at the line and only start the play after about 30 seconds have elapsed.

Adjusting to varied tempos has been a weekly concern for years. The effect is acute in the Pac-12, which has teams ranked from sixth in adjusted tempo (Arizona State) to 116th (Oregon State), according to FootballOutsiders.com.

USC has made tempo a priority this training camp as one way to steel itself for a punishing schedule that many pundits project as the most difficult in the nation.

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“What we’re doing with tempo, I think’s extremely important,” Coach Clay Helton said.

Helton plans to deviate from what might be his normal practice structure this season in anticipation of the grueling slate of games.

In the fall, Helton said, he expects to have the first-team offense clash with the first-team defense more often than usual, rather than using the scout team for much of practice.

“This is something, I think, that we’re going to have to do throughout the year,” Helton said. “Because when you’re playing Alabama and a Notre Dame, a Utah State and a Pac-12 schedule, those are quality opponents.”

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USC’s recent surge in depth means the scout teams should provide better competition, and, Helton said, “they’ll be quality.”

“But,” he added, “it helps when the man across from you maybe is as good as anybody that you play. When JuJu [Smith-Schuster] goes against Adoree’ [Jackson], that’s a great matchup, and that may be the toughest matchup that they both are exposed to.”

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The strategy could increase injury risk, so Helton said he would adjust as he sees fit.

“As many times as we can do it and stay safe, we will,” he said.

Quarterback quandary

While a quarterback battle is complicated at its core, it can also be very predictable at times.

That’s how USC’s quarterback competition played out Thursday, with Browne and Darnold going lockstep with each other splitting first-team reps. If Browne ran a three-play sequence with an inside handoff, pass to the flat and a zone read, Darnold stepped in with the same unit and did the same.

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The only tangible difference was when the pocket collapsed and Darnold, a redshirt freshman, showed off his scrambling ability.

“You know Max is really good at that too,” Darnold said after practice, flashing a smile and conceding that it’s been difficult to separate the two.

Helton still has 10 practices to do so, and he said this summer he’ll choose his starting quarterback on Aug. 20. Browne, a redshirt junior, said it can be hard to gauge where he stands in the competition when the reps are evenly split. After reviewing the tape from Wednesday’s practice, Helton said both quarterbacks were shaky with their reads and missed a few big-play opportunities.

He did not say one looked better or worse than the other. In Helton’s view — or at least the view he’s willing to share — the two quarterbacks are executing the same plays at the same level.

“I mean, shoot, there’s a lot of things that you can do to separate yourself, whether it’s leading and just making plays,” Darnold said. “But we both do that, so it’s hard to do that. But it’s a good problem to have, I guess, if you’re a coach.”

The quarterbacks are close personally too, and chatted while walking off the field Thursday. But that doesn’t mean the battle isn’t heating up, even if it feels monotonous once in a while.

“Shoot, every day’s a game for me,” Browne said. “Living on edge.”

Quick hits

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The funeral Mass for former USC broadcaster Tom Kelly will be held at 1:30 p.m. Friday at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angeles, at 555 W. Temple St. A reception will follow. The public is invited to both. Kelly, the longtime voice of USC football and men’s basketball, died on June 27 at 88. … Defensive back John Plattenburg (concussion protocol) and offensive lineman Chad Wheeler (foot) did not practice. … Safety Chris Hawkins (hamstring) is nearing a return to team drills. … Safety Marvell Tell III’s hamstring injury was diagnosed as a light strain, Helton said, and he is expected to return to full team activities in about a week. … Linebacker Jordan Iosefa injured his ankle and was pulled from practice Thursday. “I don’t think it’s too severe,” Helton said.

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand

Follow Jesse Dougherty on Twitter @dougherty_jesse


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