15 takeaways from USC spring football practices

USC coach Clay Helton looks on at the Trojans' spring game at the Coliseum on April 17, 2021.
USC coach Clay Helton, top, looks on at the Trojans’ spring game at the Coliseum on April 17.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

It was a quiet spring for USC, which wrapped its last of 15 practices late Friday afternoon as the sun beat down on Howard Jones Field, beckoning for summer. For Clay Helton, the Trojans’ embattled coach, it was likely his last quiet stretch for some time, as the inevitable questions about his future loom.

Other questions remain after spring, from USC’s offensive line to its defensive backfield. But on the final day of spring, Helton remained unflinchingly positive. “We’ve learned a lot,” he said, “but we’ve also accomplished a lot in our mind.”

Here are 15 things we learned about USC after 15 spring practices:

Jaxson Dart during USC's spring game at the Coliseum on April 17, 2021.
Jaxson Dart during USC’s spring game on April 17.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

  1. Even before he laced a perfect back-shoulder pass to the Coliseum sideline, announcing his arrival to a few thousand USC fans at the spring showcase, Jaxson Dart had already made a major impression. The four-star freshman’s arm talent is obvious. But it’s the rest of his uber-athletic skill- set that raised eyebrows early on, as Dart has been electric out of the pocket and on run-pass option plays. That’s not to say fellow freshman Miller Moss can’t close the gap this fall, but for right now, Dart looks like the heir apparent and backup to beat behind the Trojans’ entrenched starting quarterback.
  2. Kedon Slovis admitted at the start of spring his confidence dwindled during his sophomore season. He’s worked on building that back since, but the junior quarterback wasn’t always at his sharpest during the pastmonth. Helton praised Slovis for his situational work and advancements in his leadership, but the actual results on the practice field were often inconsistent. That said, spring is meant for trial and error, and with two of his top three targets off to the NFL, it will take time for the quarterback to build a rapport with his new receivers.

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  3. The last two linemen to occupy USC’s left tackle spot have become first-round draft picks. Whether Courtland Ford can successfully fill the enormous shoes of Alijah Vera-Tucker or Austin Jackson remains to be seen, but after a spring session during which the freshman appeared largely unchallenged at left tackle, it seems he will enter the fall as the overwhelming favorite to earn the spot.
  4. He might not be the only young offensive tackle to earn an opportunity up front. USC’s coaches have raved all spring about freshman Jonah Monheim. He was the highest-rated of USC’s six offensive line recruits in the 2019 class, and he might wind up one of the Trojans’ five starting linemen next season. He’s spent most of spring at right tackle behind Jalen McKenzie, who could find himself in a position battle this fall.
  5. USC’s offensive line was, by far, its most pressing concern heading into the spring. Nothing has changed on that front. Helton and new offensive line coach Clay McGuire said they would shuffle the first-team line, but for the majority of camp, the line was as follows: Ford and McKenzie at offensive tackle, Andrew Vorhees at left guard, Liam Jimmons at right guard and Brett Neilon at center. Justin Dedich could push Jimmons or Vorhees at guard, if given the chance.
  6. Drake London hadn’t ventured away from the slot much at all until this spring. Turns out, his talent still translates on the outside. No offensive player was more dominant during 15 practices than London, who seems well on his way to being one of the nation’s top receivers in 2021.
    USC's Drake London (15) congratulates fellow wide receiver Bru McCoy (4) after McCoy's touchdown catch Nov. 7, 2020.
    USC’s Drake London (15) congratulates fellow wide receiver Bru McCoy (4) after McCoy’s touchdown catch Nov. 7 against Arizona State.
    (Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)
  7. It’s still unclear who will emerge as the No. 2 option in USC’s passing game. Former five-star wideout Bru McCoy seems the most natural choice, but he spent much of spring dealing with a hamstring injury. Freshman Gary Bryant Jr. was hampered by a similar hamstring issue. With both in and out of the lineup, Colorado transfer KD Nixon had opportunities to establish himself as a steady, experienced option in USC’s receivers room. He was consistent, albeit unspectacular.
  8. The most impressive performance by a USC wideout this spring outside of London actually came from a receiver with no collegiate experience. Freshman early enrollee Michael Jackson III wasted no time in flashing his superior talent, pulling in a one-handed, highlight-reel grab in his first week of spring. The three-star recruit didn’t slow down from there, adding two more memorable catches in the spring game. Helton, offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, and receivers coach Keary Colbert all took turns lavishing him with praise this spring.
  9. Since transferring from Texas, Keaontay Ingram was expected to quickly carve out a role in a struggling USC run game. That takeover is by no means complete. But Ingram seems well on his way to being one of the Trojans’ top two backs. Running backs coach Mike Jinks reiterated USC wants to employ less of a by-committee approach this fall, and Ingram has the look of a workhorse, with the ability to do damage in space and between the tackles. He’s more dynamic than Vavae Malepeai and more physical than Stephen Carr. “His running style is completely different from what we have,” safety Isaiah Pola-Mao said last week.

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  10. Marlon Tuipulotu and Jay Tufele are off to the NFL. Brandon Pili suffered a torn Achilles that will keep him out for the season. Caleb Tremblay transferred to Tennessee. And yet, USC probably feels overjoyed about its defensive tackle depth coming out of the spring. Redshirt freshman Jamar Sekona was one of the camp’s biggest standouts, while enormous four-star freshman Jay Toia appeared unstoppable in spurts. Dejon Benton also made a notable leap. All three should get opportunities up front this fall, when they’re joined by Alabama transfer Ishmael Sophser, who sat out through April.
  11. There’s no question USC’s defensive line will be the strength of its defense next season, and Tuli Tuipulotu will be a major reason for that. After an impressive debut last fall, the sophomore fortified his standing up front during a stellar spring in which offensive players regularly remarked about his strength and physicality.
  12. The presence of Drake Jackson and No. 1 overall recruit Korey Foreman won’t hurt, either. Jackson was a terror when he managed to practice this spring. During one spring game sequence, he singlehandedly ended a drive by sacking the quarterback, swatting a pass, and stopping a run behind the line. A car accident ended his spring early and left him in the concussion protocol, but his potential is well established. The question for him this season is consistency. We don’t know how exactly Foreman will fit alongside his former Corona Centennial teammate. But that’s a good problem to have.
    USC's Drake Jackson pressures quarterback Kedon Slovis during the spring game April 17, 2021.
    USC’s Drake Jackson pressures quarterback Kedon Slovis during the spring game.
    (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
  13. No one is going to adequately replace Talanoa Hufanga, last year’s Pac-12 defensive player of the year, but Helton seems to have settled on the guy tasked with trying. Chase Williams opened spring as the starting strong safety and never looked back. Helton singled him out Friday as one of the top performers in camp and recalled a play during which Williams met Ingram one-on-one at the goal line and stopped him cold. “What I loved this spring was his physicality that he brought, kind of like Talanoa brought,” Helton said of Williams. Pencil him in as the safety opposite Pola-Mao.
  14. Isaiah Pola-Mao spent much of spring moonlighting as a nickelback, and Helton said Friday he might continue to rotate into that role next season. After flashing his pass rushing prowess through spring, you can count on USC using Pola-Mao blitzing out of the nickel spot in the fall. How much time he ends up spending at the nickel will likely depend on how Texas transfer Xavien Alford progresses in the fall and how Greg Johnson looks in his return from injury.
  15. An extremely thin group of cornerbacks this spring meant plenty of opportunities for a converted receiver to try his hand at cornerback. If the last 15 practices are any indication, it seems Joshua Jackson Jr. could have a real future at the position — perhaps sooner rather than later. The redshirt freshman is still learning the finer points of playing cornerback, but his instincts for man coverage and his natural ball skills have already earned him a role in the rotation.