Football team buying into new beginnings


Everything about the first football practice of spring this Tuesday seemed a little bit different.

No one was wearing No. 7 for the first time in what seems like an eternity. Gone were all four team captains from last season. In their wake was a brand new crop of players wearing unfamiliar numbers, playing roles we’ve never seen them play. The field had a new saying on it this season: “Don’t talk about it. Be about it.”

Not to mention Tuesday’s practice was dark, cloudy and freezing. I swear, every practice I went to last year was sunny. Things just didn’t feel right.

But, perhaps that’s the best thing that could happen to the 2013 Trojans: Complete change.

Junior linebacker Hayes Pullard said something that really struck me after practice.

“We’re not going to focus on the past,” he said about the defense’s issues last season. “We can’t focus on 2012. We have to focus on 2013 now.”

It would be easy to get caught up in last year’s 7-6 disaster of a campaign. The “could haves,” the “should haves,” and, of course, the “would haves.” There were meltdowns, turnovers and close losses that should have never happened.

But there’s no trace of those memories on the practice field. It’s a completely clean slate. Even the characters have changed. Last season, the theme might have been “prep not hype,” but the hype seemed to get to the team. A No. 1 preseason ranking, Sports Illustrated covers and ESPN coverage will do that to a team. It’s normal.

There is none of that this year, and that seems to have loosened up the team. They looked genuinely happy to be out there.

Even head coach Lane Kiffin smiled at reporters. He gave thoughtful answers and didn’t seem to be in a huge rush. As the media approached him, there was no look of dread.

He looked happy. I can’t say that was the case last year.

Yes, there’s no Matt Barkley or T.J. McDonald. Instead, there’s a Max Wittek/Max Browne/Cody Kessler and Josh Shaw. Different? Absolutely. Bad? Definitely not.

The Trojans need a new look, anyway, and they need a new face of the program. Junior wide receiver Marqise Lee will serve as that face in 2013. Other than that, though, there are a lot of names that didn’t come up a whole lot last season. Nelson Agholor. Morgan Breslin. Leonard Williams. They’re names every Trojan fan knows, but they certainly aren’t of the star caliber that Barkley and Robert Woods were.

But in not having such star power — in not having the expectations and the weight of the world on their shoulders — USC football players look ready for the challenge of the upcoming season. They aren’t watching everything they say, nor are they afraid of being scrutinized for every single thing they say or do.

With less media attention and expectations, there’s room for these 18- to 22-year-old kids to be themselves. As much as we think they’re professionals, they aren’t. They’re college students trying to deal with college student things. The Trojans were uptight last year — they couldn’t really be themselves. It was evident at every press conference, at every practice and during every single game.

Worst of all, they didn’t look like they were having fun, which is a shame, because college football is one of the most fun things to be a part of.

Now, for the first time in more than a year, the Trojans can relax. A relaxed atmosphere was evident Tuesday and it probably will be for the foreseeable future. It’s a welcome sight. Pullard was right: 2012 is done. 2013 is a completely new adventure.

 

“Goal Line Stand” runs Fridays. To comment on this story, email Michael Katz at katzml@usc.edu or visit dailytrojan.com.