For an hour and a half, everybody waited. The hot summer sun steadily dropped in the sky to the west of Howard Jones Field. Some parents leaned over the adjacent baseball stadium bleachers for a better view, while others watched from the sideline.
The 2018 USC football season had officially started, but nothing had actually happened. And maybe nothing would. This was just the first of 25 practices before the opener against Nevada Las Vegas, and the players were not allowed to wear pads, only helmets.
But, a little after 5:30 p.m. Friday, the Trojans started playing football — or, depending on how you feel about seven-on-seven drills, at least something resembling it. As USC’s first-team skill position players gathered and looked across the line of scrimmage at the first-team pass defense, observers perked up. Small talk stalled.
Matt Fink took the first snaps at quarterback, missing his first two throws to wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr., each broken up by cornerback Iman Marshall. Jack Sears came in with the second team and promptly hit a couple of routine passes, one to running back Stephen Carr and one to true freshman receiver Devon Williams.
At 5:36 p.m., true freshman quarterback JT Daniels walked onto the field with the first team. The top defensive unit was back on the field, too. Daniels took the snap and, to his left, Pittman made an out-and-up move on Marshall, creating space down the left side. Daniels let it fly, and Pittman ran right under it in the end zone. Touchdown.
And certainly worth the wait.
The next play, Daniels hit Tyler Vaughns to the right. The next, he hit Velus Jones Jr. over the middle. The next, Daniels again found Pittman streaking to the end zone and put it right where it needed to be. This time, Pittman dropped it.
“That was a perfect ball,” Pittman said.
Some of best passes of the day belonged to Daniels, who in an alternate universe could have been practicing for his senior season at Santa Ana Mater Dei. Instead, he was here in the shadow of downtown Los Angeles, duking it out with fellow Southern California quarterbacks Fink and Sears.
Daniels completed seven of eight passes during seven-on-seven drills and hit his first three passes with the first-team offense in 11-on-11s.
Then, he threw the worst pass of the day — a dart to Pittman on a curl route that was snuffed out by cornerback Ajene Harris for the lone interception by a USC quarterback. The rookie’s mistake was promptly forgiven.
“Extremely accurate, very, very knowledgeable,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “For an 18-year-old kid to come out here and do what he did today was very impressive. It’s like he’s already been in a camp before, to be honest with you.”
Said USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin: “I thought he was really confident for a guy in his first practice. Just being firm in what you believe and the decision you made and why you did it. He knows what he sees. … I was impressed, but it’s just day one.”
It was only day one, but the microscope on a USC quarterback never flickers off. The group as a whole looked significantly better than it did in the spring, which had something to do with Daniels’ presence but not everything. Fink as the eldest got the first reps during all drills, and Pittman said he has emerged as a vocal leader for the Trojans. Sears showed consistency and command that had not been there to this point.
“He has made a lot of progression from spring to this first day,” Helton said. “You could see the light kind of click on. I think he made fast decisions. In spring, he liked to see things open a little bit. Today, the ball came out.”
Helton reaffirmed that he expects to name a starter later rather than sooner. It’s too important to rush it and, despite Daniels’ torrid start, he hasn’t had to perform against a real pass rush. USC won’t be in full pads until Wednesday, the team’s fifth practice.
“JT definitely puts a touch on it,” Pittman said, “and he has a feel. I’m excited to see the next practice. And the practice after that. And the practice after that.”
Notes: Helton confirmed that redshirt freshman Tayler Katoa is leaving the program for a two-year Mormon mission and will have the option to return to the team in 2020. … Redshirt junior offensive tackle Clayton Johnston has changed his last name to Bradley in honor of his stepfather, Helton said … The coach also provided an update on players who missed practice with injury: Oluwole Betiku Jr. (recovering from hip surgery); Solomon Tuliaupupu (recovering from foot surgery); Jake Lichtenstein (knee strain, out one week); Randal Grimes (back); Jake Russell (leg); and Jay Tufele (foot laceration).