USC special teams coach John Baxter is quick to point out the cover of his unit’s practice plan, where the words “Attention to Detail” are splayed across the page.
And on the field goal protection page, the headline reads “Count On Me.” The team says these words before each field goal, and that mentality is a big reason why the team has allowed zero blocked kicks in the two years Baxter has been with the team.
“I’m proud of that number,” Baxter said. “The bottom line is that you have to be vigilant in your approach and how you practice. Protecting the kicker and punter are paramount because we have two of the best in the country.”
It’s unusual for a special teams unit to garner so much attention, but two of last year’s most memorable plays occurred during kicks and punts. Former left tackle Matt Kalil blocked a last-minute go-ahead field goal attempt by Utah kicker Coleman Petersen — which redshirt junior cornerback Torin Harris then returned for a touchdown, ensuring the game did not go to overtime — and redshirt senior punter Kyle Negrete faked a punt against Washington, rushing for 35 yards and barreling headfirst into a defender.
Negrete, now heading into his second year after transferring from the University of San Diego, has earned his coach’s confidence. He averaged 40.1 yards on 39 punts last year. His directional kicking was also especially strong, as he downed 19 kicks inside the 20-yard line and kicked zero touchbacks.
“What’s so unique about the position that I play is that you can never master it,” Negrete said. “You have to be so technically sound. There were a few punts last year that I left out on the field, and I wasn’t too happy about it. People might say that I had a good season statistically, but there are definitely a couple of punts I want back.”
This season, Baxter has the luxury of having two punters at his disposal. Redshirt freshman Kris Albarado, a top-five punter in the nation coming out of high school, is expected to be used in certain long-distance situations and to put positive competitive pressure on the incumbent Negrete.
“[Albarado] is a really good player, and [he and Negrete] will go head to head,” Baxter said. “Punting is like pitching: You’ll bring a pitcher in for a certain situation. The difference is that once you pull a pitcher, you can’t put him back in. We can send in anybody we want.”
On the offensive side, Trojan fans should feel confident when sophomore kicker Andre Heidari steps onto the field. Heidari had a sensational first season, making 15 of 17 field goal attempts (with a long of 50 yards) and a perfect 50 for 50 on extra points. He averaged 65 yards per kickoff with 10 touchbacks, a number that figures to increase this season with the NCAA moving all kickoffs up to the 35-yard line.
Heidari, the former No. 1 kicking recruit in the nation, offers the Trojans a weapon few other college teams possess: a kicker who can consistently convert field goals from a distance greater than 45 yards.
“Last year, I hit a 50-yarder against Stanford, so if I’m anywhere between 50 to 53 yards, I think I have a good chance,” Heidari said.
On the other side of the ball, USC has created a reputation of wreaking havoc on opposing kickers. The Trojans blocked seven kicks last season, four of which were stopped by Kalil, who was drafted in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft by the Minnesota Vikings. Baxter insists that the entire unit, not just Kalil, was responsible for those blocks and that only a similar group effort will replicate the results.
“The challenge for our team is that [Kalil] was part of a unit that helped him get through,” Baxter said. “That unit was [Kalil], Christian Tupou and Rhett Ellison, so none of them are there now. We’ve got to redo that whole unit.”
The team might look toward two towering freshmen to replace Kalil’s kick-blocking prowess: 6-foot-8 offensive tackle Zach Banner and 6-foot-5 defensive tackle Leonard Williams.
“There are several guys that are going to have an opportunity to do that,” Negrete said. “Obviously, Kalil is a tough guy to replace with his experience and success, but that’s what training camp is all about.”
The kickoff and punt return game for the Trojans will be another key advantage. Two seasons ago, then-freshman receiver Robert Woods stood out in the return game, averaging 25.6 yards per return on 38 returns with one touchdown and earning first-team All-Pac-10 honors.
Last season’s return game was more of a group effort. Partly because of Woods’ ankle woes, Woods returned only 17 kicks and 13 punts last year and averaged less than before, with 23.1 yards per kickoff return and no touchdown returns.
Woods’ absence opened the door for others to step up. Sophomore receiver Marqise Lee averaged 28.5 yards on 10 kickoff returns with one touchdown while junior cornerback Nickell Robey averaged 11 yards on 12 punt returns.
All told, this special teams unit will continue to draw the attention of opposing teams’ coaches and their game plans.
“We made a pact that we were going to work harder than we ever have,” Negrete said. “We’ve been busting our tails throughout summer workouts to get better.”