Change welcome for Jordan Cameron
LOS ANGELES -- Jordan Cameron may have been listed as a tight end on the USC football roster after switching from wide receiver prior to spring practice, but Sunday's scrimmage was the first time the 6-foot-5, 250-pound redshirt senior actually looked and played like one.
In fact, if Cameron continues to play like he did in USC's opening scrimmage of fall camp, catching a team-high eight passes for 96 yards, he may very well find himself in the starting lineup for USC's season opener against Hawaii on Sept. 2.
Cameron's metamorphosis from a long-haired, 220-pound reserve receiver who wore No. 23 to a short-haired, 250-pound (possible) starting tight end wearing the same No. 84 as tight end greats such as Shannon Sharpe and Jay Novacek didn't happen overnight.
After he was switched to tight end by USC coach Lane Kiffin, who began his coaching career at USC as a tight ends coach in 2001, Cameron spent the majority of the offseason in the weight room, working with strength and conditioning coach Aaron Ausmus, and in the film room with former USC receiver Keary Colbert, who is the team's tight ends coach.
"I had to show the new coaching staff who I am and today was a résumé day," Cameron said after the scrimmage. "I had to show them what I could do. They tried me at different positions, they put me out wide, put me inside and that's what I came here to do. I'm pretty athletic, I'm a big guy and I can create some mismatches."
Cameron certainly looked the part, especially in the second half of the scrimmage when he turned a short pass from quarterback Matt Barkley into a 39-yard play before being tackled just short of the goal line.
"I'm too slow," he said, still shaking his head at his near score. "I need to get out there and make some moves."
Kiffin figured Cameron would have a better chance to get on the field if he moved to tight end, but even he has been surprised by Cameron's quick growth after a shaky spring where he looked lost every time he lined up inside.
"He's responded really well," Kiffin said. "He had a great offseason. He put on about 12 pounds and was up to 250 at one point. He really bought into playing tight end. He is able to do stuff in the passing game as a former receiver and he took off today. He'd been quiet in the practices so far but really showed up in the scrimmage."
"He wants to play, whether it's lining up in the backfield or splitting out to receiver or playing tight end. He just wants reps and he's loving it right now," Barkley said. "He's a big body. There are situations where he just boxes people out and goes up and gets those jump balls. Jordan had a great day today and it's cool to see him mold into that hybrid H-back."
While Cameron might still be learning how to play tight end, it isn't a surprise to see him excel at boxing out defenders and grabbing jump balls. Cameron played high school basketball at Newbury Park and joined the USC men's basketball team after the 2008 football season. Although he isn't on the team anymore, he still plays pickup basketball and credits those no-holds-barred games with not only improving his toughness but also being the reason he's currently missing an upper tooth.
Kiffin can only hope his newfound toughness will help him become a better blocker, which seems to be the only facet of his game missing at the moment.
"He needs to improve on his blocking but it's definitely improved," Kiffin said. "It was a disaster in the spring because he just moved [to tight end] but he's doing a lot better."
Cameron knows he's still a long way from being named the team's starting tight end with more experienced players such as Blake Ayles and Rhett Ellison competing with him, but his performance on Sunday may have given him the inside track on a job he probably never thought he'd have six months ago.
"There are only two ways to go; you can either shy away from [competition] or get better and I'm trying to get better," Cameron said. "My goal is to play and I know I got to step up."
Kiffin figured his defense was slightly ahead of his offense entering Sunday's scrimmage but was still unhappy with the ineffectiveness of the first-team offense, which was matched up against the first-team defense throughout the scrimmage. Barkley completed 9 of 15 passes for 127 yards and a touchdown while tailbacks Allen Bradford and C.J. Gable combined for 20 yards on 13 carries.
"I don't think C.J. or Allen looked real good but I have to go back and watch the film," Kiffin said. "I'm in the middle [about Barkley]. I don't know. I have to back and look at the film."
The offense did have a few highlights in the second half of the scrimmage, as receiver David Ausberry caught a pair of touchdown passes (a 5-yard pass from Mitch Mustain and a 10-yard throw from Barkley) and tailback Curtis McNeal ran for a 30-yard touchdown on a play where he was nearly knocked down twice but kept his balance.
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"Curtis had about three plays like that and has really showed up in scrimmages when it's live because he's so hard to bring down," Kiffin said. "He probably ran the most consistent of the guys at first look."
No quarterback controversy
While Barkley struggled to find a rhythm during the scrimmage, Mustain continued to have a great camp, completing 23 of 35 passes for 231 yards and one touchdown. After the scrimmage, however, Kiffin was quick to squelch any talk of a quarterback controversy ... for now, at least.
"Matt's the starter but I wouldn't say he's far, far ahead [of Mustain] which is a good thing," Kiffin said. "You don't want him to be far, far ahead. We want our backup to be able to go in and play. I feel we wouldn't have two game plan sheets for both players which is unusual. A lot times you have another game plan sheet for your backup because he can't do everything the starter can. I'm very excited about Mitch's performance."
Barkley simply smiled when asked if Mustain was pushing him for the starting job.
"I feel that Mitch is pushing to make me better," he said. "There are a lot of factors that contribute to [his success]. He's playing against the second defense and there are different plays called but obviously I'm striving to be perfect. A lot of things went his way today."
One of the positions of concern for USC heading into camp was at kicker and those concerns were magnified during the scrimmage as the team missed two extra points and a short field goal. Jacob Harfman pushed a 32-yard field goal wide left and also missed an extra point wide left. Joe Houston pushed another extra point wide right.
"I didn't expect that. I was surprised by that today," Kiffin said. "I thought we had made a lot of ground there. It's very disappointing. We'll continue to work there and we obviously have a lot of work to do."
Linebacker Devon Kennard, who is competing with Chris Galippo to be the starting middle linebacker, led the defense with seven tackles, while spending most of the game with the second unit. He and Galippo, who had one tackle, have been alternating as starters during camp and Kennard said he expects to start the next scrimmage.
"It was a good day. I felt like I was flying around and making a lot of plays. I'm excited about that," Kennard said. "The competition continues. I think every day we're going to be switching so I'm just taking it day by day."
It was the culmination of a great weekend for Kennard, whose father, Derek Kennard, was singled out by Emmitt Smith during his Hall of Fame induction speech Saturday for his contributions on the Dallas Cowboys' offensive line during the 1990s.
"It was great to hear my dad get noticed for what he accomplished in the league and the success he helped the Dallas Cowboys and Emmitt Smith have," Kennard said. "He was excited about that and I'm sure he called Emmitt and said thank you. It was an exciting day."
Arash Markazi is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ArashMarkazi.