There’s a scene from the classic football film Friday Night Lights that perfectly captures what USC head coach Lane Kiffin and his team are going through.
The season for the Permian Panthers has just ended in bitter disappointment, and Permian head coach Gary Gaines is taking down the nameplates of departing players from the team’s depth chart on the wall. At the same time, the camera pans over those same players walking out of the stadium.
The weight of the scene is not in Gaines’ concern about replacing the on-field production of those players. The poignancy actually comes from his realization that the leadership, the heart and soul of his team, is gone, and it’s his job now to find new players to pick up the pieces.
The Trojans find themselves in a similar predicament for the fall season.
All four team captains from last season have moved onto the NFL: quarterback Matt Barkley to the Eagles, center Khaled Holmes to the Colts, safety T.J. McDonald to the Rams and cornerback Nickell Robey to the Bills. These players made up the core of the team’s leadership, along with fellow departures Robert Woods and Jawanza Starling, leaving Kiffin with the tough task of developing replacements.
Though the head coach of a football team bears most of the burden of leadership, it takes more than that for a team to be successful. It’s imperative that the players themselves be accountable for their actions, something that is not overlooked by this year’s group.
“You have to get on guys and tell them to keep pushing,” junior wide receiver Marqise Lee said. “And you have to do it without the coaches. [Doing it] with the coaches is good, but I feel as if players can really bond when it’s just the players.”
With the leadership among the team in a transitional phase, the simple question that remains is this: Which players can step up and lead this team?
The Trojans have plenty of potential leaders to choose from. Though they lost great players and great leaders from a season ago, the process of developing new ones is not an unfamiliar task.
“Every year is different,” Kiffin said. “We’re facing that with losing a lot of really good players from last year and really good leaders. As we move into fall, it’s our job to make sure developing those guys as great leaders is prominent.”
Redshirt senior defensive end Devon Kennard could possibly fill part of the leadership void. Kennard missed all of last season with a torn pectoral muscle, but remained a vocal part of the team throughout its many on-field struggles.
“He was a leader already last year, and we still look up to him as a leader,” said redshirt junior linebacker Hayes Pullard, one of the more experienced and vocal players on the team. “He‘s one of the main guys I look up to. Just having him back is a relief. He’s been through the ups and downs throughout the seasons and he knows how this tradition is supposed to be run.”
Kennard said he isn’t putting any added pressure on himself to step into McDonald and Robey’s shoes.
“I’m not T.J. I’m not Nickell,” Kennard said. “I’m just going to be the best Devon Kennard I can be, and I think my teammates respect that. We’ve got a great chemistry on the defensive side of the ball.”
On the offensive side, senior tailback Silas Redd finds himself in a unique position. One year ago, he was forced to adapt quickly to his new surroundings, having transferred to USC from Penn State in the wake of NCAA sanctions placed upon the Nittany Lions. Now, he’s about to embark on his final college season, a veteran among an offense filled with more than just a few newcomers.
“The thing about Silas is he’s a leader,” Kiffin said. “He’s very confident, very emotional. Now that he’s had an offseason around the guys, even though he’s battled some injuries, I think he’ll have a bigger leadership role, and also he’ll have a more successful season if he can stay healthy.”
Though Redd is expected to get the bulk of the carries this season, he also has the luxury of relying on a deep stable of backs behind him, most of whom have little to no game experience. That casts Redd in the suitable role of mentor.
“Whatever those guys need, [my teammates] can come to me,” Redd said. “I know my stuff really well and I have experience to answer questions some of the younger guys might have. Anything that I can do to help them, I’m going to do.”
Redd’s role in the offense is a crucial one. He’s battle-tested and reliable, two traits that cannot yet be said of whomever USC’s starting quarterback ends up being. One of the leading candidates, redshirt sophomore Cody Kessler, is fully aware of what is expected of him should he win the job.
“It’s definitely a big loss when you lose [team leaders] like that, but at the same time, it gives opportunities for new guys to step up,” Kessler said. “We don’t have a lot of game experience like Matt [Barkley] did, but we don’t have a choice. When you’re the quarterback, guys are going to look to you when things go wrong, so you’re going to get thrown into that spot.”
With Redd, Pullard, Kennard and company in tow, it appears as if a new regime is already starting to take shape. Despite the great players who have departed, a changing of the guard might be just what this team needs to shake off the bitter feelings of the season that has come to be known simply as “7-6.”
The motto the team adopted at the onset of that ill-fated year, “Prep, not hype,” never quite stuck. The play of the 2012 Trojans never came close to reaching its enormous preseason hype.
This year’s rallying cry, “Don’t talk about it. Be about it,” though, seems to hold more water. When asked if wearing the captain’s “C” on his jersey was a goal, Pullard responded firmly.
“The ‘C’ doesn’t mean anything,” Pullard said. “You have to show that on the field. All that is leading by example. A leader is shown by his actions. Whether I’m wearing the ‘C’ or not, I’m just trying to go out and show the guys the Trojan way.”
Follow Nick Selbe on Twitter @NickSelbe