Junior wide receiver Michael Pittman runs down the field during spring practice. (Josh Dunst/Daily Trojan) There are a handful of players who seem to have made strides from where they were last year and look poised to step up for the Trojans. Freshman defensive back Britton Allen has shown promise, offering impressive tenacity in the secondary with a penchant for stripping out the ball. Sophomore Devon Williams has been putting together his unique combination of top-end speed and incredible length at 6-foot-4 to become a dangerous receiving weapon. Besides tangible changes to the team’s offensive strategy, there’s been a concerted effort to change elements of the team philosophy as a whole with toughness and discipline at its core. The team as realized it needs to work on accountability after a 2018 season that saw them average almost 14 penalties per game, and the coaching staff is determined not to let that happen again. Former offensive coordinator Tee Martin has been replaced by former University of North Texas head coach Graham Harrell. Harrell brings with him the dynamic air-raid offense; a system that’s spread quickly across the college football landscape in recent years, yet has never appearing at USC until now. The Trojans have long maintained a traditional pro-style offense, built on deep drops from under center, long developing routes and multi-level reads. The air-raid, on the other hand, emphasizes stretching the field both horizontally and vertically, generally putting the quarterback in a shotgun alignment and allowing him to make quick and often simple reads. There are now live referees throwing flags on any penalties at every practice. It’s already seemed to have paid rapid dividends, as there’s been a noticeable drop in violations since the first day of practice. Whether or not it carries over to real games will remain to be seen, but it’s a promising start. Two weeks into Spring Football, it’s already clear that the Trojans will be doing things very differently this year. Looking to bounce back from their worst season in 19 years, head coach Clay Helton and his staff have are shaking things up across the board. The system encourages simplicity from players across the formation, allowing them to focus more directly on executing individual tasks without needing to process the entirety of the play. Multiple players have mentioned that the simplicity of the air raid allows them to “play fast,” relieving them of the weight of processing too many moving parts during each play. That difference has shown on the field, with the offense running a surprisingly high number of offensive plays in practice for this early in the offseason. Although a two-week sample size isn’t much to work with, a number of players already seem to be ready to serve as key contributors for the upcoming season. Some are unsurprising — veteran receivers Tyler Vaughns and Michael Pittman, linebacker John Houston and defensive tackle Jay Tufele have all shown up to work, picking up from where they left off. The shift to the air raid has been evident in almost every aspect of practice so far. There’s been an emphasis on letting the offense just run, even this early into training without the absorption of an entire pro-style playbook. Redshirt junior receiver Tyler Vaughns, now one of the team’s upperclassmen, commented on the benefits of that fact. Some of last year’s impact freshman also seem to be in their stride — linebacker Palaie Gaoteote has remained a standout and receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown has been as consistent as ever. Talanoa Hufanga had been looking even better at safety than he did last year, though an injury in Saturday’s practice makes his future status unclear. Hufanga had a fantastic freshman season until a collarbone injury took him out for the year. The same injury that seems to have been re-aggravated despite his non-contact designation in practice. “We’re getting more live reps which I like,” Vaughns said. “We’re getting more team reps and everything like that, so it’s really helping us as an offense.” Two sophomores who played a very limited role last year have stepped up in these two weeks. Running back Markese Stepp, buried on the depth chart for most of last year, has been a force on the practice field. Stepp is a runaway freight train at 235 pounds, bulldozing defenders with regularity. With the sidelining of Stephen Carr and Vavae Malepeai to the flu, Stepp has received many first team reps and shown showing ability to catch the ball out of the backfield along with being a punishing runner. On the other side of the ball, sophomore cornerback Isaac Taylor-Stuart missed most of last season due to injury after playing mostly special teams early in the year, never receiving an opportunity to play real game snaps on defense. Taylor-Stuart is tremendously gifted as an athlete, with blazing speed to go with his impressive frame of 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, but his lack of refined technique held him back in the early stages of his freshman year. However, he’s become one of the first-string corners and his continued improvement could be one of the most important factors in the success of the Trojan defense come fall.
Africa has started the journey to the kickoff of the 2017 Afcon qualifers with games around the continent.Friday saw the start of 26 games, with Tunisia destroying Djibouti 8-1 at home in Radès. The Group A opener means the Carthage Eagles have a great start ahead of their second game with Liberia in September while Djibouti play Togo. The most stunning result so far was recorded in Morocco, where Guinea play their home games due to the continuing fears of Ebola contagion back home.Angola lapped up the celebrations as they smashed Central African Republic 4-0 in Group B while Cape Verde in Group F got their groove on with a 7-1 demolition of Sao Tome and Principe.In the same group, it was truly a feast of goals for some, but Morocco could just manage a 1-0 win against Libya.Shocker in Morocco Swaziland stunned Guinea 2-1 in Casablanca with captain Tony Tsabedze getting both goals for a side ranked 117 places below opponents who reached the 2015 quarter-finals in Equatorial Guinea.The loss was a second straight one for new coach Luis Fernandez, who replaced French compatriot Michel Dussuyer as coach. It was a completely unexpected result in a match moved from Conakry to the Stade Mohammed V in the Moroccan commercial capital because of Ebola epidemic fears.Swaziland had never won an away Cup of Nations qualifier in 20 previous attempts stretching back to the 1986 eliminators.But they got precious recent practice in the Cosafa Cup southern Africa championship, defeating Tanzania and Lesotho and drawing with Madagascar. Bafana clutchAt the Moses Mabhida Stadium, it was a goalles draw as Gambia parked the bus against South Africa (snapshot pictured above). Gambia were gutsy, but for the hosts, it was a case of missed chances. Cranes soarUganda defeated Botswana 2-0 in their opening match of Group D at the Mandela National Stadium in Kampala on Saturday. A goal each in the second half from Geoffrey Massa and Brian Umony were enough to give Uganda the victory after having dominated the entire match. Uganda came into this match as favourites following their decent home record, having won seven out of seven fixtures. Zimbabwe late winnerSaturday saw Khama Billiat’s stunning 82nd minute goal getting Zimbabwe a 2-1 win over their hosts, Malawi, in their Group L matchup in Blantyre.The win put Zimbabwe second in the group on three points whereas Swaziland are top after the north African heroics. Despite going into the game amid financial problems and enduring a bus break-down on Friday afternoon while travelling to Blantyre, it was the cash-strapped Warriors who lived up to their name.Eagles begin wellThe Super Eagles, three-time African champions, started their quest to return to the tournament with a 2-0 win over Chad in Kaduna on Saturday. Nigeria coach, Stephen Keshi handed debuts to Anderson Esiti and Kingsley Madu while usual suspects, Vincent Enyeama, Ogenyi Onazi, Ahmed Musa and Kenneth Omeruo all got starting berths.But the two goals came in the second half within a minute of each other, with strikes from Gbolohan Salami and Odion Ighalo (penalty). Group G still has Egypt and Tanzania still to play.Fennecs return?El Arbi Soudani scored a goal in each half to help Algeria to a 4-0 win over the Seychelles at Blida’s Stade Mustapha Tchaker on Saturday evening. Eager to get their 2017 African Cup of Nations qualifying campaign off to a positive start following their disappointing exit from this year’s showpiece, head coach Christian Gourcuff named his strongest available line-up.Lions cruiseSadio Mané found the net as Senegal beat Burundi 3-1 at the Stade Léopold Sédar Senghor in Dakar as the Lions of Teranga kicked off their campaign for a place at the Gabon finals.Moussa Konaté gave Senegal the lead with a penalty on the quarter-hour mark, but Fiston Abdul Razak levelled matters on 59 minutes. Stoke striker Mame Biram Diouf restored Senegal’s lead four minutes later, with Mané wrapping up the win in the first minute of injury time. Zambia miss great chanceZambia goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene (above pictured) saw his stoppage-time penalty saved as Zambia drew goalless at home with Guinea Bissau.The Group E result left the two sides tied on one point apiece with the other two sides in the group, Congo and Kenya, playing each other on Sunday.Zambia coach George Lwandamina described the start to the campaign as sad.”It is a sad beginning because we wanted to win this match. Our boys did all they could but we could not get a goal to wrap up the game because our opponents decided to defend in numbers. In short, they parked the bus. But there are lessons to be learnt and we shall make changes where necessary in our next match,” Lwandamina said.–Afcon 2017 qualifying resultsFriday, June 12Tunisia 8-1 DjiboutiMorocco 1-0 LibyaGuinea 1-2 Swaziland Saturday, June 13Angola 4-0 Central African RepublicMali 2-0 South SudanUganda 2-0 BotswanaBurkina Faso 2-0 ComorosZambia 0-0 Guinea-BissauCape Verde 7-1 Sao Tome and PrincipeNigeria 2-0 ChadAlgeria 4-0 SeychellesSenegal 3-1 BurundiMalawi 1-2 ZimbabweSouth Africa 0-0 GambiaSunday. June 14Ghana v MauritiusMozambique v RwandaCameroon v MauritaniaDR Congo v MadagascarTogo v LiberiaCongo v KenyaEquatorial Guinea v BeninEthiopia v LesothoNiger v NamibiaGabon v Ivory CoastEgypt v TanzaniaSudan v Sierra Leone – Follow Gary on Twitter: @garyalsmith