No. 17-ranked USC was back on Howard Jones Field on Wednesday for one last practice before taking a couple of well-deserved days off during its bye week.
First off, sophomore wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was not at practice again on Wednesday for personal reasons.
“As a coach I have to be there for my players,” head coach Steve Sarkisian said. “Right now that’s the status that it is.”
An advantage of the bye week is that the coaches have the flexibility to move some players around and in order to try different lineups and give them experience at other positions. Freshman Dominic Davis — who has been playing at tailback in games — received some snaps at wide receiver.
Sophomore offensive tackle Toa Lobendahn saw some snaps at center as well.
“With the bye week, you have the chance to move some guys around a bit,” Sarkisian said.
The bye week also allows the coaching staff to get out on the road and look at potential recruits. Sarkisian said that he and some of his coaching staff would be heading out after practice to jump back on the recruiting trail.
“This is a great chance for us to get on the road, see some games, go to high schools,” Sarkisian, who plans on utilizing the next two days to visit potential players said after practice. “We don’t have the natural bye that normal people do, so we have to take advantage of our days we have.”
After practice, Sarkisian talked about the committment of wide receiver Michael Pittman, who becomes the fourth spring 2016 enrollee for the Trojans after signing a financial-aid agreement. The second-year head coach believes that Pittman’s physicality will yield dividends on the field for USC.
“The big physical receivers are a real presence for us,” Sarkisian said. “I think he’s going to provide that same mold for us.”
Sarkisian is widely known as a skilled recruiter. ESPN ranked USC’s 2015 recruiting class as the third best in the country, but, it’s no secret that USC’s reputation as one of the nation’s most storied programs in the country helps too.
One of the recruits that Sarkisian previously sealed the deal on National Signing Day was sophomore Adoree’ Jackson, who has displayed his outstanding speed sparingly thus far this season in all three phases of the game.
Jackson had an 80-yard touchdown on Saturday against ASU. On the game, he put up 131 yards on three receptions.
“I don’t think anybody can get me … if we were in the open field, and if he had an angle, and I had to use my speed, I doubt it,” Jackson said. “So at the same time, I try to make sure that I don’t use my speed as much, so I lull them to sleep — then you think you got it — then I turn it on and go.”
Plays like last week’s against Arizona State make it mandatory for Sarkisian and his coaching staff to find ways to get Jackson the ball. It’s his confidence in his ability that makes Jackson deadly.
When he saw an Arizona State linebacker signal blitz and the safety drop back, he said he knew he was going to score. When watching Jackson play on offense, comparing former running back Reggie Bush and Jackson seems almost unavoidable.
“There is about one guy I can compare him to, and I am not allowed to say his name around here,” Sarkisian said. “Obviously as a staff, we’ve been beating ourselves for days thinking, ‘How do we find a way to keep getting number two the ball.’”
Junior linebacker Jabari Ruffin, who practiced with the first team today, largely attributes the young players’ improvement and effectiveness to defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox’s platoon substitution system.
With this system in place, players often practice with the first, second and third string defenses, which Ruffin says is an opportunity that allows them to work on fundamentals.
Wilcox’s constant influx of talent appears to promote competition in practice and get the most out of his players.
“With extra time with the bye week, we’re going to look back on defensive film so far,” Ruffin said. “Whether that be the Stanford game or the ASU game, we just want to look at things that got us and things we really need to focus on in order to be a great defense and as close to perfect as we can.”
Additionally, Cameron Smith and Iman Marshall highlight a freshmen class filled with superb, impactful players who are already exceeding the high expectations of them this season.
“I think that was the coaches’ goal: to get some of these younger guys to play. And I think that we are doing a great job at that. I think we are getting really comfortable,” said Smith, who leads the defense in tackles.
Smith believes that practices like Wednesday’s, where the team spent the majority of the time in 11 on 11, are a reason for his success. Smith noted that going against USC’s offensive line and offense, that is perhaps the best in the Pac 12, forces his defense to play more physical — helping them to get off blocks faster, work on schemes and establish a better understanding of how they can be most effective.
Along with simulating game play situations in 11 on 11 work, players also hope to use this extra time off to get healthy and take care of their bodies.
“I mean, with the bye week, we like to go back more and focus more on ourselves, fundamentals, techniques and our footwork,” defensive tackle Cody Temple said. But the motto has really been ‘Come back ready to work,’ and that’s how it is.”
The Trojans will finish up their bye week and continue to prepare and improve with the heart of their schedule coming up, beginning with next Thursday night’s game at home against Washington.