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'Hungry for more': Takeaways from USC football's spring camp

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'Hungry for more': Takeaways from USC football's spring camp

USC’s new-look defense aced its first test, but even a five-takeaway spring game victory isn’t enough to satisfy defensive end Jamil Muhammad.

“It’s almost like today wasn’t good enough,” the redshirt senior said Saturday as the Trojans wrapped up their 15-practice spring season, “because we’re hungry. We’re hungry for more.”

Spring practices don’t guarantee much in the way of fall results. Every team ends the sessions cloaked in sun-soaked optimism. Coach Lincoln Riley emphasized his excitement over “the vibe of this team” on Saturday, but good energy won’t be enough in four months when USC confronts the reality of its first Big Ten season. The Trojans still have things to prove at every position.

Here are the main takeaways from USC’s spring practices:

USC’s secondary won the spring game

It might be the team’s steadiest position group.

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Miller Moss could sense the difference himself. Throwing lanes were tighter. Windows he was used to seeing were no longer open. There was a swagger, too, about USC’s secondary, one that felt entirely foreign from its last two frustrating seasons.

Last year, USC’s pass defense ranked outside of the top 100 in yards allowed, regularly victimized by big plays down the field. But a new defensive coordinator, a new defensive backs coach and a new scheme, plus some added length on the perimeter, appear to have turned around what was once USC’s most underperforming position group.

At least, that appeared to be the case Saturday, as USC’s cornerbacks picked off four passes, a testament to how much of a difference size and length can make when matched with the right scheme.

“It’s completely different,” said cornerback Prophet Brown, who returned an interception for a touchdown. “I feel like the players are really buying in and stepping up and playing for one another, and now we’re being put in position to make these plays.”

Marcelles Williams looks like a star in the making

Even among such a deep secondary, freshman Marcelles Williams is finding a way to carve out a big role. The former four-star prospect was one of the standout freshmen of spring camp, earning raves from offensive and defensive teammates alike who praised his consistency, maturity and advanced technique honed from years of practicing with his older brother, former USC safety Max Williams.

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“He’s a high school senior still,” Moss said this month of the latest Williams brother, “but he can definitely play corner with the best guys on our team right now.”

The former St. John Bosco standout proved his mettle by intercepting a Moss pass during Saturday’s spring game, leaping to snag a ball intended for receiver Ja’Kobi Lane. Williams worked mostly with the No. 2 defense on Saturday as Mississippi State transfer DeCarlos Nicholson and Jacobe Covington started at cornerback. Both were involved in takeaways as Nicholson picked off a pass by backup quarterback Jayden Maiava one play before Williams’ play against Moss, and Covington broke up a pass that led to Brown’s 100-yard interception return.

Offensive line is still far from settled

Quarterback Miller Moss throws from the pocket during the spring game behind a rebuilt offensive line.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Although the Trojans are pleased with their top offensive line — Jonah Monheim at center, Emmanuel Pregnon and Alani Noa at left and right guard, respectively, Elijah Paige at left tackle and Mason Murphy at right tackle — they are holding their breath when it comes to depth. Tackle is especially a concern where 6-foot-7 redshirt freshman Tobias Raymond is the next option behind Murphy or Paige. Raymond was 255 pounds when USC coaches started recruiting him, offensive line coach Josh Henson said, and has grown to 314 pounds and is still getting used to the extra pounds.

“His feet have slowed just a little bit,” Henson said last month. “He’s going to catch up. He’s catching back up and he’s figuring it out.”

USC could target an offensive lineman transfer from the portal to bolster the group. The Trojans also expect to have guard Gino Quinones back from a leg injury he suffered last September.

USC needs more depth on the defensive interior

Kobe Pepe had only appeared in a handful of games for USC over the previous four seasons. But on Saturday, with Bear Alexander sitting out because of an injury, Pepe was suddenly the man in the middle of USC’s defensive line.

His rise to that spot was a sign of a looming problem for USC’s defense, one it would be best suited solving in the transfer portal this spring. After 330-pound transfer Isaiah Raikes bailed this spring to re-enter the portal, an already-thin interior is looking threadbare heading into next season.

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Alexander gives USC an athletic terror in the middle of the line, but beyond him, there isn’t much in the way of proven talent up front. Redshirt senior Nate Clifton and sophomore Elijah Hughes have both been mentioned as standouts this spring, but neither have the heft needed to man the nose tackle spot. As USC turns to the transfer market, it would be wise to add a proven presence to pair with Alexander in the middle.

Inexperience aside, USC might be just fine at receiver

 Jaden Richardson runs for yardage.

USC wide receiver Jaden Richardson runs for yardage during the spring game.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

USC isn’t going to have much experience at receiver. Nor will it probably have much depth. Of its seven current scholarship wideouts, five will open next season as sophomores or younger, one has never played above Division III (Jaden Richardson) and the other (Kyron Hudson) caught only 17 passes a year ago.

But what it lacks in experience or depth, it may more than make up for in top-line talent.

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In Lane, Zachariah Branch, Duce Robinson and Makai Lemon, the Trojans have a more-than-capable sophomore quartet that’s only going to get better over this upcoming season and the next. All four had their moments Saturday, from Lemon’s team-leading six receptions to Lane successfully reeling in a one-handed grab.

Wideouts coach Dennis Simmons made clear early in spring he wanted to add another receiver or two from the transfer portal. That’s to be expected. But if USC’s current young core of wideouts keeps its current upward trajectory, there might not be enough passes to go around.

Woody Marks is in front of running back room

With game experience and leadership quality, Mississippi State transfer Woody Marks has emerged as the starting running back. He is in line to be the third transfer in as many years to take over at running back at USC, following Travis Dye and MarShawn Lloyd. Although Marks is currently ahead of sophomore challengers Quinten Joyner and A’Marion Peterson, Riley expects the underclassmen, including freshman Bryan Jackson, to contribute.

“That’s a nice room right there,” Riley said. “We feel like we can play with all four guys, which I don’t know if we felt like that at this point.”

Joyner had one carry during the spring game and popped it for 16 yards. Peterson and Jackson, both 6-foot running backs weighing 228 and 200 pounds, respectively, add the size and physicality Riley has emphasized at all positions.

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A’Marion Peterson scores a touchdown.

USC running back A’Marion Peterson scores a touchdown over linebacker Elijah Newby during the Trojans’ spring game Saturday.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Kicker questions

Denis Lynch is a USC cult hero for his eccentric fashion, but the junior kicker is hanging on to his starting position by a thread.

The former walk-on who was awarded a scholarship last year is 25 of 36 on field-goal attempts for his career, including 10 made kicks on 14 attempts last year. His inconsistency in mid-range kicks — nine of 17 on attempts between 30 and 39 yards — opens the door for competition.

Riley said last month that kickoffs and field goals are “an area we know we have to perform better at.” Besides Lynch, the Trojans have redshirt freshman Tyler Robles, who played in two games last year, including handling kickoffs in the Holiday Bowl. Each kicker made their extra-point attempt during the spring game.

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One year after Jeff Van Gundy's dismissal, ESPN's NBA broadcasts are worse off

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One year after Jeff Van Gundy's dismissal, ESPN's NBA broadcasts are worse off

It was perplexing last summer when ESPN fired NBA Finals game analysts Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson. It was part of the network’s layoffs that Disney seemingly goes through every couple of years, sort of like an NFL team pruning the books to provide room for future million-dollar spends.

The Van Gundy salary dump particularly did not make sense, as he was maybe the best game analyst in sports with his gym-rat mentality and “Inside the NBA” quirkiness.

In the wake of those moves, ESPN is not nearly as good as it was. With the venerable play-by-player Mike Breen, the Hall of Famer Doris Burke and an on-the-rise JJ Redick, in theory, ESPN should provide an excellent listen, but it takes time to develop NBA Finals-level chemistry.

Breen, Burke and Redick don’t have it. With just four months under their belt together, they don’t come across like a team that should be advancing past the second round. But they will.

Tuesday night, Breen, Burke and Redick will be in Boston to call the Eastern Conference finals before the main event next month, the NBA Finals. Suddenly, the future of what was a stalwart, steady booth for ESPN is again in doubt, as the current group lacks humor and flow. Hopefully, they will acknowledge the Indiana Pacers in this series.

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On Sunday, from start to finish, ESPN turned its production of Game 7 of the Pacers-New York Knicks series into a Knicks home broadcast by showing “First Take” host Stephen A. Smith walking into the arena as if he were a player and then having him deliver a Knicks pregame pep talk. During the game, Breen and company focused too much on the Knicks and not enough on the all-time shooting performance by the Pacers. After ESPN showed the best of itself Friday with its Scottie Scheffler arrest coverage, the contrast of Sunday’s NBA performance was embarrassing.

How ESPN got here and where it is going next is an intriguing broadcasting question. Especially with a framework agreement on a new TV deal with the NBA that is expected to keep the league’s biggest event on ESPN’s stage for the next dozen years.

Breen, who turns 63 on Wednesday, remains the anchor. However, in the playoffs, he is too often left trying to do it all on his own, not fully trusting in his new teammates.

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With his familiar voice, Breen might be able to carry the trio late in close games, but he is not raising his partners’ levels. Evaluating what he has, he comes across as more of a shoot-first point guard, not only providing the play-by-play but often the analysis, too.

Post-Van Gundy and Jackson, ESPN had a seemingly workable plan. Breen’s good buddy Doc Rivers was available after being fired as the Philadelphia 76ers head coach. With Breen and Rivers, there would have figured to be some strong built-in chemistry.

With the history-making Burke, who will become the first female TV analyst on one of the traditional big-four league’s championships (NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL), top ESPN executives Jimmy Pitaro, Burke Magnus and David Roberts had a succession figured out. Roberts even named heirs apparent, as Ryan Ruocco, Richard Jefferson and Redick were anointed the No. 2 team with an eye on calling the finals one day.

Though the NBA did not like Van Gundy’s criticism of its officiating — and complained about it to ESPN — there is no proof that the league ordered his banishment. One concern ESPN had, according to executives briefed on their decision-making, was that Van Gundy would jump back into coaching, which he had flirted with for years.

Mark Jackson, Jeff Van Gundy and Mike Breen

Mark Jackson, Jeff Van Gundy and Mike Breen talk before Game 2 of the 2022 Eastern Conference finals. The three called 15 NBA Finals together. (Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

Van Gundy, though, never left during his 16 seasons with the network, while Rivers’ stay at ESPN was almost as short as Bill Belichick’s run as “HC of the NYJ.”

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While on the broadcasting job for ESPN, Rivers first started consulting with the Milwaukee Bucks in December, then left to become the team’s head coach in January, embarrassing ESPN after giving it a three-year commitment.

By the All-Star break, Redick, who turns 40 in June, was moved in. He has had an incredible broadcasting run, making many millions as a podcaster and gambling spokesperson and through his ESPN game and studio work.

But as evidenced by his latest venture, an inside-the-game podcast with LeBron James, Redick’s post-playing passion might mirror that of Rivers. His game analysis is more coach-like than conversational.

After a brief flirtation with the Charlotte Hornets’ coaching job, he is a top candidate to join James’ Los Angeles Lakers. Following Van Gundy’s departure, ESPN has a second analyst who could go through with the broadcasting crime that Van Gundy was charged with but never committed. Until if and when Redick leaves, he is on the call with Breen and Burke.

It doesn’t sound as if Breen, Burke and Redick dislike one another; they just don’t finish each other’s sentences. Heck, half the time it feels as if Burke and Redick barely start many of their own. It’s a lot of Breen.

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Breen, Van Gundy and Jackson called 15 NBA Finals, which allowed them to develop a comfort level with one another and the audience. Breen’s “Bang!” receives the shine — and it is a strong signature call — but it is his rhythm for the action and his inflection at the right time over 48 minutes, denoting whenever something special happens, that stand out.

If you close your eyes and just listen to Breen’s emotion in his calls, you can tell where a play stands in excitement on a 1-to-10 scale. That is why, in crunchtime, ESPN should still be fine.

It’s when the booth needs to shine in light moments or blowouts that Van Gundy and Jackson are missed.

Jackson was far from perfect — last year, he inexplicably left Nikola Jokić off his All-Star ballot — but he had his schtick, most notably the phrase “Mama, there goes that man!” He could hit some 3s off the ball from Breen and Van Gundy.

Van Gundy’s dismissal, though, was a head-scratcher. With a headset on, he was always in triple-threat position: keen analysis, a looseness to say anything and humor.

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Van Gundy has moved on and is now a senior consultant with the Boston Celtics. ESPN is still paying him. Maybe it could ask him to come back for a series or two.

(Top photo of JJ Redick, Doris Burke and Mike Breen: Andrew D. Bernstein / NBAE via Getty Images)

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College golf team puts Delta on blast for handling of golf clubs before NCAA championship in viral video

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College golf team puts Delta on blast for handling of golf clubs before NCAA championship in viral video

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The East Tennessee State University men’s golf team is going viral after the school’s social media account showed the team’s golf bags being launched by Delta Air Lines’ employees, as the group prepares for their fourth straight appearance in the NCAA Division I Men’s Golf Championships.

ETSU’s golf account on X posted a video on Tuesday that showed airline employees throwing the team’s golf bags after arrival. 

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A set of clubs is seen during the Division I Men’s Golf Championship held at Grayhawk Golf Club on May 30, 2023, in Scottsdale, Arizona.  (C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

“Nice of Delta to handle our clubs with such care…,” the post read. 

Several users on social media lamented similar issues with the airline, prompting Delta’s social media account to respond to several. 

Delta also posted a message directly in response to the team’s video, which had nine million views as of Thursday afternoon. 

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“We’re so sorry this is how your golf clubs were handled. It’s not who we are,” the statement read, “And we’re working to make it right, so you’ll have everything you need to compete at the tournament this weekend.”

NCAA logo

A NCAA logo is seen during the match between the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and the Florida Gators during the Division I Men’s Golf Championship held at Grayhawk Golf Club on May 31, 2023, in Scottsdale, Arizona. (C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

DELTA AIRLINES STOWAWAY CAUGHT ON TEXAS-BOUND PLANE AFTER SNAPPING PHOTO OF PASSENGER’S BOARDING PASS: FEDS

The ETSU Buccaneers punched their ticket to the NCAA championship for the fourth straight year, after placing second at the Chapel Hill Regional earlier this month. 

It also marks the program’s 21st appearance for the men’s team. 

A member of the East Tennessee State Buccaneers during the Division I Men’s Golf Championship held at Grayhawk Golf Club on May 26, 2023, in Scottsdale, Arizona.  (C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

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Nationals are scheduled to begin Friday at the Omni La Costa Resort & Spa in Carlsbad, California. 

Six individuals and 30 teams will compete in a 54-hole round, with just the top 15 teams and top nine individuals advancing to the next stage. 

Follow Fox News Digital’s sports coverage on X, and subscribe to the Fox News Sports Huddle newsletter.

 

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Black former players to play in Negro Leagues All-Star Game tribute on Memorial Day weekend

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Black former players to play in Negro Leagues All-Star Game tribute on Memorial Day weekend

The names trigger memories recent and long-ago. From David Price to Russell Martin, from Tony Gwynn Jr. to Jerry Hairston Jr. to Dee Strange-Gordon, former Dodgers sprinkle the rosters.

And the 14 Hall of Famers serving as coaches include a who’s who of legends that tormented the Dodgers as exalted opponents: Ozzie Smith, Ken Griffey Jr., Fergie Jenkins, Dave Winfield, Fred McGriff … the list goes on.

They’ll gather in Cooperstown, N.Y., for the East-West Classic: a tribute to the Negro Leagues All-Star Game on Saturday at historic Doubleday Field. Team captains CC Sabathia and Chris Young held a draft of recently retired Black players to fill rosters for the game, which anchors a Memorial Day weekend of festivities at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum surrounding the opening of an exhibit titled “The Souls of the Game: Voices of Black Baseball.”

“I’m looking forward to seeing these guys’ faces when we walk into the Hall of Fame,” Sabathia said. “We are all super close, and it’s going to be fun to get us all together.”

The exhibit will cover the Negro Leagues era, the complexities of integration, Jackie Robinson, the struggles Black players experienced and calls for change in today’s game. Stories from Black baseball also are being added to other exhibits throughout the museum.

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Only 6% of players on opening day MLB rosters this year are Black, a number that has slowly eroded for decades. A study by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at Central Florida found that Black players represented 6.2% of MLB players in 2023 and 7.2% in 2022. When the study began in 1991, 18% of MLB players were Black.

Baseball has launched programs to boost participation in recent years, and one result has been an uptick in the number of Black players drafted in the top 100 — an average of 12 per year since 2021. Ten of the first 50 draft picks in 2023 were Black and 30% of the first-round picks in 2022 were Black — a significant increase over the previous decade, when 17.4% of first-round picks were Black.

Four of the first five selections in the 2022 draft were Black, and all four were alumni of at least one of the following MLB diversity initiatives:

— The DREAM Series operated by MLB and USA Baseball has since 2017 brought together predominantly Black high school pitching and catching prospects nationwide during the Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. The program includes seminars, mentorship, scout evaluations and video coverage in addition to on-field instruction. Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher and Sherman Oaks Notre Dame High product Hunter Greene participated in the DREAM Series.

— The MLB ID Tour scours the country for baseball talent among underexposed and diverse groups of athletes, and this year has held events at the Compton Youth Academy as well as in Atlanta, Dallas and Chicago.

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— The Breakthrough Series provides a platform for players who have entered the MLB diversity pipeline to perform for scouts and collegiate coaches. The Series, which began in 2008, has produced 22 first-round draft picks and 36 players have advanced to the major leagues.

— The Hank Aaron Invitational will be held in July at Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, Fla., where approximately 250 teenage players from across the U.S. will by trained by former MLB players and coaches that in the past have included Griffey, Winfield, Eric Davis, Marquis Grissom, Reggie Smith and Delino DeShields.

Only 6% of Division I baseball players are Black, a number that has grown slightly but remains alarmingly low. Developing future major leaguers is a clear objective of MLB’s diversity initiatives, but getting Black players into college is also important.

“We see more kids playing at the Division I college baseball ranks, and we see more kids being drafted into the minor leagues,” said Del Matthews, MLB vice president of baseball development. “And so we’re just flooding that through [our] various programs.”

The Memorial Day weekend festivities honoring the history of Black baseball will begin with an unveiling of a bronze statue of Aaron on the first floor of the Hall of Fame Museum. Then the East-West Classic — the name is a nod to the Negro League All-Star game held annually from 1933 to 1962 — will bring living, breathing Black players together.

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“It’s going to be one of those weekends that’s going to stick with us for a long time,” said Young, the East team captain who played for the Angels in 2018, the last of his 13-year career. “If you have a son or daughter who plays baseball, take them to the Hall. If you are a baseball player, go check it out. It’s life-changing.”

East-West Classic rosters

East: Captain Chris Young, Josh Barfield, Doug Glanville, Tony Gwynn Jr., Jerry Hairston Jr., Scott Hairston, LaTroy Hawkins, Ryan Howard, Edwin Jackson, Jeremy Jeffress, Adam Jones, Russell Martin, Melvin Mora, David Price and Mo’Ne Davis.

West: Captain CC Sabathia, José Contreras, Ian Desmond, Prince Fielder, Dexter Fowler, Curtis Granderson, Darrell Miller, Tyson Ross, Tony Sipp, Dee Strange-Gordon, B.J. Upton and Justin Upton.

Hall of Fame coaches: Harold Baines, Rollie Fingers, Ken Griffey Jr., Fergie Jenkins, Jim Kaat, Fred McGriff, Eddie Murray, Jim Rice, Lee Smith, Ozzie Smith, Joe Torre, Dave Winfield, Pat Gillick and Ryne Sandberg.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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