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USC Spring Practice (Offense): Psssst... TE Connor Spears and TB Stefan Smith are Future Stars

March 15, 2015

                                                                                                                                         Photo credit Lisa Horne


Los Angeles, California-- USC held its last practice before a 10-day break at the Los Angeles Coliseum. By 12:30 PM on Saturday, it was well over 95 degrees but the players seemed to be spirited and in a good mood. The practice included drills and a lot of scrimmaging. 


Here are my quick hits on the offense. 


Quarterback Cody Kessler will not be challenged for the starting spot. Kessler is throwing the ball harder than last season and seems more comfortable in the pocket. He did throw at least two picks-- Cameron Smith and Lamont Simmons made good reads and jumped the receivers' routes.  



                                                                                                                          Cody Kessler photo credit Lisa Horne


Kessler's one 'area for improvement' is lateral passes. Last season Kessler had problems with these throws--one resulted in a fumble recovery and a touch down for the defense. On Saturday, two of his laterals were off. This must improve.  


Max Browne looks more confident. His arm mechanics are superb but his footwoork is still a question mark-- he's no Drew Brees. Browne's feet seem like they have anchors on them. He had good touch on some intermediate throws but he was consistently overthrowing the long balls. Browne looks like a lock as Kessler's back-up. 


                                                                                                                                Max Browne photo credit Lisa Horne


Ricky Town is just a freshman but you can see why he was recruited so heavily. He has a strong arm and is very tall. He does not have that typical underweight freshman look about him. Town may really push Browne next year for the starting spot. 


                                                                                                                                 Ricky Town photo credit Lisa Horne


USC is loaded in the backfield. Justin Davis, Tre Madden and Soma Vainuku will all be getting the ball a lot. Vainuku is a truck--from the waist down to his ankles, there are no gaps between his legs.  He is just huge.  Ball handling was an issue today. There were lots of fumbles and sloppy play so expect that aspect of the game to get addressed immediately. 


I thought that walk-on tailback Stefan Smith impressed the most. He has incredible field awareness between the tackles and is adept at picking his way through the defensive line. Smith is a glider and a north-south runner. He also shows remarkable patience waiting for the play to develop.


"I try to find space," Smith told me.


"I like to bang it up the middle and see what opens up." 


Smith knows if he puts in the hard work there will be great rewards at USC. Former Trojans Buck Allen and Clay Matthews have inspired him. Allen and Matthews had to fight from the bottom to get to the top of the depth charts. Smith is already taking reps with the 2's and 3's so he's definitely making an impression on the coaches.  


As a redshirt freshman, Smith will probably play on the scout team this fall. But mark my words, he is a future star. (I had Buck Allen, a sixth string running back, as a sleeper two years ago.  Allen is now getting paid.) 


When Nelson Agholor and George Farmer declared for the 2015 NFL Draft, some Trojan fans were a little worried about the receiving corps. Don't be. 


Every time Juju Smith came in for a play, you could almost hear a collective groan from the defense. He is scary good and may be one of the greatest receivers to ever have played at USC. Darreus Rogers and Steven Mitchell also had a good practice. 


One receiver really stood out. At 6-6, 240 pounds, he's hard to miss. Tight end Connor Spears has been taking reps with the first team. But wait... he's a walk-on.


And there were still media members waiting patiently to talk to him after practice.


                                                                                                                                     Connor Spears photo credit Lisa Horne


Spears is smart. He had a 4.02 G.P.A. at Bishop Heeland High School in Sioux City, Iowa. He was offered academic scholarships from Cornell, Columbia and Yale. After playing one year at Columbia, he transferred to USC. He has three years of eligibility left. 


Spears is a big target. But the position also requires excellent blocking techniques. "I'm working on it," he said with a big grin. 


Spears admits to being a bit of a late bloomer. He really didn't play football until his freshman year in high school. He wasn't sure he was going to play his sophomore year. 


 "I was a basketball and baseball guy, " he admits.


Although Spears lives in South Dakota, he attended high school in Iowa.


"I live right on the border... about half a mile in from exit 1," he explained.

"I would go right across the bridge to go to school." 


Spears is looking forward to his position becoming more featured. Injuries and scholarship limitations over the past few years have limited the tight end's role at USC. Spears noted that head coach Steve Sarkisian used tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins extensively when he was the head coach at Washington.


"Once we get our numbers up, I think the tight end will be pretty instrumental in this offense."


Keep your eyes on Spears-- that should  not be too difficult with his movie star good looks.  A year of perfecting his blocking techniques should earn this player a scholarship. 


"He's a great fit in our system," Sarkisian said after practice. "He catches the ball well" and has "a good feel for the offense."


Placekicker Matt Boermeester was also impressive. I saw him make two field goals with the ball placed at the 48-yard line. They were line drives--so the potential for a block was there--but he made the field goals nonetheless. 


The offensive line seems pretty solid. The tackles did have trouble blocking the outside backers on the edge. Was this because of great linebacker play or not-so-great tackle play? It's hard to say. The blocking between the tackles looked great. Or was the defense lacking? Again, it's hard to say. 


As Sarkisian noted, it has only been two weeks of practice so it is way to early to make assumptions.


So far, the offense looks very, very good. 



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