With fall football practice already underway, Trojan fans have a lot to speculate about. While the almost brand new defensive line and the juggling of quarterback talent are on the top of their lists, the special teams members’ newfound focus is causing a stir as well.
Over the years, one of the aspects missing from USC’s training regime has been a coach completely dedicated to special teams. After some searching, head coach Pete Carroll found Brian Schneider, the former Oakland Raiders special teams coordinator for the last two seasons.
“In the past we’ve had [a bunch of coaches] coaching us on the different aspects of our game,” redshirt junior kicker Joe Houston said. “Now we have one coach with that NFL experience that is totally centralized on special teams and focused, and really it’s a lot more dynamic.”
Senior Jordon Congdon, who will compete with Houston for the place-kicking position, shared similar sentiments about Schneider.
“It’s been going real smooth,” Congdon said. “We’re much more focused now with his coaching dynamic … With kickers, we only get one shot and we’re not taking anything lightly, even if it’s just one kick.”
“I don’t know if it’s much different,” Schneider said about the difference he is making with special teams. “I think just probably an emphasis on them, really.”
Carroll said he has the utmost confidence in Schneider and his ability to keep the players on the right track.
“Brian is a great guy with a great attitude and personality about him,” Carroll said. “And the guys have really taken to him.”
Similar to many positions on the Trojan roster, the special teams unit must replace players who have moved on. David Buehler was picked up by the Dallas Cowboys in the seventh round of the NFL draft. Making nine of 13 field goals and 65 of 66 extra points, his accuracy is something that the Trojans need to recreate.
The Trojans are also losing starting punter Greg Woidneck, who averaged 36.9 yards per punt last year. Woidneck graduated last year.
The battle for the punter spot is already heating up. Billy O’Malley seemed to have solidified the punter position before junior college transfer Jacob Harfman entered the mix. Harfman is also competitng in the battle for place kicker, which Schneider said was still undecided.
“All three of them are [looking good],” Schneider said about Congdon, Houston, and Harfman. “You’ve got all three of them out there, the ‘Three J’s,’ really, is what they are. They’re all doing a great job.”
Carroll said he was excited about what he saw from Harfman at the beginning of fall camp.
“Today was the first day we got to see Jake Harfman kick the ball,” he said. “Jake can really hit it, so that’s a needed part of the competition for that spot. I haven’t seen him kickoff yet, which is another needed part, but he punted the heck out of that ball.”
He also had a few things two say about the other “J’s” battling for the place kicking spot, even giving a minor prediction about the season outcome.
“Joe Houston and Congdon continue to just be rock solid getting the balls in close,” Carroll explained. “That might give us a chance to work those two guys into the competition with place kicks and Jake as the punter and kickoff guy, but we’ll see.”
Whatever conclusions Carroll and Schneider come to, the competition does not stop once the starters are revealed.
“When you come to USC, it’s not going to be some job that’s just going to be handed to you,” Houston said. “Even when someone is named the starter, there’s still going to be competition; there’s going to be two guys at your heels no matter what.”
Last season, junior Joe McKnight started as the punt returner until ball handling problems allowed senior Stafon Johnson to take the spot for the rest of the year with a 9.2 yards return average. McKnight seems dedicated and determined to regain his starting position, but he’ll have to prove it in practice.
Kick returners junior Ronald Johnson and redshirt junior C.J. Gable seem to be locking down their positions early in practice. Gable (who brought the ball back for 93 yards and a touchdown against Stanford last season) and Johnson both appear to be ready to begin where they left off last season. Redshirt freshman Curtis McNeal’s name, however, is one that has been tossed around by both Schneider and Carroll as potential competition for Johnson and Gable.