Tro­jans’ de­fense lack­ing drama

With start­ing lineup mostly set, po­si­tional bat­tles are dif­fi­cult to find at train­ing camp.

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Zach Helfand

Yk­ili Ross can do lit­tle wrong dur­ing train­ing camp. USC’s safety made two in­ter­cep­tions in a sin­gle prac­tice less than a week ago. On Wed­nes­day, he dived to snare an­other. He has earned praise from coach Clay Hel­ton, who said Ross is “start­ing to make plays for us.”

Yet a frus­trat­ing re­al­ity greets Ross at the mid­way point of train­ing camp. De­spite a stel­lar sum­mer, he is not in the con­ver­sa­tion for a start­ing spot.

In fact, 10 of USC’s 11 start­ing de­fen­sive po­si­tions have been all but de­cided since train­ing camp be­gan.

Ross and USC’s de­fense are deal­ing with a con­se­quence of their own good for­tune. The de­fense lost few sig­nif­i­cant play­ers from last sea­son. The play­ers who re­turn have ex­pe­ri­ence and skill. Dur­ing a time of the sea­son of­ten occupied by po­si­tional bat­tles — think Sam Darnold vs. Max Browne at quar­ter­back a year ago, or that sea­son’s wide-open de­fen­sive-line race — the USC de­fense’s have pro­duced yawns.

“The vibe was dif­fer­ent,” de­fen­sive end Rasheem

Green said of last sea­son. “To be hon­est, you're try­ing harder to im­press them be­cause the coaches are new. New play­book. You're just try­ing to learn new plays, get a start­ing job. Just a dif­fer­ent vibe.”

Four starters are gone from last sea­son. Of those open po­si­tions, three were filled with­out drama. Chris Hawkins, who split time start­ing and in re­serve at safety, moved firmly into the start­ing role. Jack Jones be­came the de facto starter once cor­ner­back Adoree’ Jack­son left for the NFL. And John Hous­ton Jr. has held a firm grasp on the weak-side line­backer job.

The only hotly con­tested po­si­tion has been nose tackle. Mar­lon Tuip­u­lotu, a fresh­man, and Josh Fatu, a se­nior, have both taken start­ing rep­e­ti­tions. Tuip­u­lotu, who im­pressed in spring prac­tices with a mas­sive 295-pound frame and high up­side, may end up play­ing a ma­jor­ity of the snaps by the end of the sea­son. De­fen­sive line coach Kenechi Udeze said his age would not make a dif­fer­ence.

“I don’t care if you’re a 79year-old se­nior cit­i­zen,” Udeze said. “The best per­son’s al­ways go­ing to play here.”

But that bat­tle may be mostly sym­bolic any­way; re­serves al­ways play a sig­nif­i­cant chunk of time on the de­fen­sive line.

The next tight­est po­si­tional bat­tle, Hel­ton said, was in the sec­ondary — not among the starters but over which play­ers would be their back­ups.

Some starters of­fered as­sur­ances that ev­ery spot is still open. Safety Marvell Tell III said that with de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Clancy Pen­der­gast, “no spot is so­lid­i­fied, so you’ve al­ways got to be on your Ps and Qs.”

Hawkins said that there were a few po­si­tional bat­tles the pub­lic didn’t know about be­cause the team kept them se­cret. How many?

Hawkins held out his fin­high gers and be­gan to count.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Eleven?”

But even some con­tenders say they know a start­ing po­si­tion isn’t in their im­me­di­ate fu­ture. Out­side line­backer Con­nor Mur­phy has drawn the at­ten­tion of Hel­ton re­cently for con­sis­tently per­for­mance. But Porter Gustin and Uchenna Nwosu sit ahead of him on the depth chart. So Mur­phy is look­ing for other av­enues to see the field.

“I’m just try­ing to carve out an­other role for my­self, try­ing to get as much play­ing time as pos­si­ble,” Mur­phy said.

He and Olu­wole Betiku, both sopho­mores, are likely to ap­pear pri­mar­ily on third downs, in pass­ing sit­u­a­tions.

Hel­ton said the lack of ma­jor po­si­tional bat­tles didn’t sig­nal a lack of depth; only at in­te­rior line­backer, Hel­ton said, is the team thin­ner than ideal.

In­evitably the depth chart will change with the wear and tear of a sea­son.

“We saw it last year,” Hel­ton said. “You saw Steven Mitchell as the starter, but you saw Deon­tay Bur­nett out here ev­ery day prac­tic­ing for his op­por­tu­nity. And then it comes.

“We have an in­jury and he’s gotta step into that next role, and if you’re not pre­pared for it, then you’re hurt­ing our foot­ball team and you’re hurt­ing your chances to cre­ate more op­por­tu­ni­ties.”

Ross has en­joyed such an op­por­tu­nity dur­ing train­ing camp. Tell was lim­ited on Wed­nes­day with ham­string tight­ness, so Ross re­placed him on the first-team de­fense.

“I'm not even look­ing at what this man’s do­ing, what the guy next to me’s do­ing, what the guy in front of me’s do­ing, what the guy be­hind me’s do­ing,” Ross said. “I’m just wor­ried about what my mis­takes are and just fix­ing my mis­takes. That’s all I’m try­ing to worry about. That’s it. Just be the best Yk­ili ev­ery day.”

That tun­nel vi­sion, he said, has made his train­ing camp es­pe­cially pro­duc­tive. He said he’d worry about that and let the play­ing time sort it­self out.

Gina Ferazzi Los An­ge­les Times

YK­ILI ROSS, right, and USC team­mate Jonathan Lock­ett jump for joy af­ter a big play last sea­son.

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