USC's young quarterbacks are trying to find their footing. The Trojans' defense is making it difficult.
On Thursday during a spring practice scrimmage, the defense appeared dominant as it raised its energy level and forced two turnovers.
"We wanted to come out here with an attitude and we really talk about not loafing at practice," defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said after the two-hour workout. "We came out here with the focus today to really chase the ball."
During team play, linebacker Porter Gustin jumped and raised his arms as quarterback Matt Fink threw over the middle of the field.
Gustin tipped the pass and it landed in the hands of defensive lineman Jay Tufele, who rumbled 80 yards to the end zone as teammates followed in celebration.
"Our coaches are always preaching that a batted ball is as good as a sack," said Gustin, who was sidelined most of last season because of a toe and biceps injury.
"I didn't know if it was going to come my way," said Tufele, a redshirt freshman who has received increased repetitions with the starters since sophomore Brandon Pili suffered an ankle injury last week. "But I was definitely going to take it."
Later, linebacker John Houston stripped the ball from Fink and recovered it.
Pendergast credited the players' ability to transfer skills learned during individual drills, experience and a modified scheme.
"We wanted to shave some things off of what we were doing and maybe try to simplify some things so we could play a little bit faster," Pendergast said, adding, "It's allowed a good abundance of those guys to focus on their technique and I can see that it is probably the biggest different on all three levels of the defense."
Returning to quarterbacks
Clay Helton coached quarterbacks for his first six seasons at USC and returned to his roots Thursday.
Quarterbacks coach Bryan Ellis was absent from practice as he and his wife were expecting to give birth to their first child.
Helton stepped in to work one-on-one with Fink and Jack Sears.
"They got overcoached today," Helton said, chuckling.
Fink and Sears have had an up-and-down spring as they compete to replace Sam Darnold. Both have been turnover-prone and at times have struggled to complete passes.
On Thursday, Sears completed a touchdown pass to tight end Erik Krommenhoek during red zone drills.
"They did OK," Helton said. "Not to say that we were an overnight success but we're getting there."
Helton cited ball security as an area still needing improvement.
The Trojans will scrimmage on Saturday as Helton tries to get Fink and Sears more experience in live action. Fink has appeared in three games, completing six of nine passes. Sears redshirted last season.
"They're really showing up trying to get better each and every day," Helton said.
Second pro day
Deontay Burnett and Ronald Jones II worked out in front of about 15 NFL scouts on Cromwell Field Thursday morning.
Darnold changed a flight from Cleveland, where he met with the Browns on Wednesday, to return in time to throw to Jones. Burnett caught passes from former Utah quarterback Troy Williams.
Jones ran the 40-yard dash in 4.48 seconds. Burnett ran it in 4.7.
Burnett and Jones were nursing hamstring injuries that kept them from performing at the Trojans' pro day last month.
Linebacker Jordan Iosefa suffered a knee injury last Tuesday and will undergo surgery to clear "cartilage damage," Helton said, adding that Iosefa will be sidelined between three to four weeks.