With three weeks of practices in the books for spring football, the new-look USC Trojans are starting to find their stride. Both sides of the ball are adjusting to new coaches and new schemes, and given the fast pace at which USC practices, players already have a large volume of reps under their belts, which has facilitated the learning process greatly.
“I’m a believer in muscle memory, of getting on the field and doing it over and over and over again,” said head coach Steve Sarkisian. “Not that I don’t value meeting time, but I do believe that actually doing it and getting those reps and learning from your mistakes, that you can improve more rapidly and the retention is better.”
Though the offense and defense are in constant competition with one another, Sarkisian was reluctant to deem one unit ahead of the other at this point in spring practice.
“They both have their moments of doing good stuff,” Sarkisian said. “The defensive front today, especially in the run game, was really good. Offensively, we need to improve our pad level, because we’re not running the ball the way I would like yet, but we’ll get there. But in the passing game, I think the offense is making some plays, so it goes both ways. That’s a sign of a good team — that it’s a battle back and forth.”
Sarkisian might prefer not to compare offensive and defensive progress this spring, but it seems as if the offense has adjusted to the fast pace of practice better than the defense. The defense frequently appears to have the upper hand in the first half of practice, but the offense performs better toward the end.
“I don’t know if that’s necessarily a theme,” Sarkisian said. “Part of this system can give the offense an advantage way late in practice from a conditioning standpoint — physically and mentally. That’s part of it when the games roll around too. That’s why we make it as hard as we can throughout practice — to prepare our guys for game-like atmosphere, which I think we do a good job of doing.”
New defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox is aware of his unit’s tendency to get fatigued during the end of practice and has emphasized this to his players.
“We just have to continue to sustain throughout practice,” Wilcox said. “We’ve had a tendency to start practices fast and the first half of practice play well. And then the second half, to not play as well, so we have to continue to emphasize finishing practices, because that’s when you start getting up in the play count. In plays 100 through 120, that’s when we’ve not been as good.”
JOINING THE FUN
Former head coach Lane Kiffin was criticized for many things during his USC tenure. One of them was the way that he seldom used his talented tight ends in the Trojans’ passing game. Last season, USC’s three scholarship tight ends — Xavier Grimble, Randall Telfer and Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick — combined for just 32 receptions, 353 yards and three touchdowns all year.
Those numbers seem destined to be improved upon this season. While at Washington, Sarkisian’s primary tight end during his last three seasons with the school was Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who caught 146 passes for 1840 yards and 21 touchdowns in his career and won the John Mackey Award as the nation’s best tight end last season.
Grimble declared for the NFL Draft after last season, but Telfer and Cope-Fitzpatrick returned. Telfer has missed all of spring due to injury, and Cope-Fitzpatrick has taken advantage of the extra reps, wowing coaches with his performance. Senior Chris Willson looks more seasoned after switching to tight end last season, and come fall the nation’s top high school tight end, Bryce Dixon, will also be in the mix.
“No question [the tight ends will be used more],” offensive coordinator Clay Helton said. “You’ve seen Jalen already this spring have several big plays for us. If you look at what Coach Sark has done in the pass, with Austin Seferian-Jenkins, the tight end is a huge part of this offense. Having Jalen out there, with Chris Willson doing a good job and eventually getting Randall back, we’re excited to use those tight ends. Those guys are very valuable in this offense.”
In installing his new offensive scheme, Sarkisian has made it a point to simplify the offense’s terminology, which was quite lengthy under USC’s previous staff.
“We’ve really cut the verbiage down, there’s a lot less words, but I think it’s efficient. We’re almost getting it. We’re really close to clicking it for the guys, and when we do it’ll be a lot of fun.”
With the Trojans still limited on scholarship players due to NCAA sanctions, the amount of live tackling during practice has been an issue for the past few seasons. Wilcox has taken caution in how much tackling he allows his defensive players to engage in.
“You work tackling in controlled environments, where the number of bodies potentially on the ground [is minimized]. You work in those one-on-one situations with bags. [Tackling] is something you’d love to work on all the time, but you’ve got to be smart about how you do it.”
USC’s next practice will take place on Tuesday at 4 p.m. on Howard Jones Field.