Special teams paying dividends for Trojans

Special teams.

Just by the name, the unit separates itself from all other units in a team. Yet, despite what your second-grade teacher might say, simply because something appears special doesn’t mean it’s all that special. Special teams is the area on many teams where second- and third-string players get their chance to see some playing time.

That’s how it mostly was under Pete Carroll. Unless a kicker pulls a kick wide, the long snapper snaps the ball over the punter’s head or the return man muffs a punt, the unit remains like Michael Cera — you don’t know he’s there unless something happens to him.

That’s all changed with new coach Lane Kiffin. With him, special teams really is special.

Kiffin wasted no time in making it known that he was going to put a large emphasis on special teams. For the first 30 minutes of the first spring practice, Kiffin had every player participate in special teams drills. Linemen were catching punts and running backs were blocking kicks.

Senior tailback C.J. Gable, senior wide receiver Ronald Johnson and redshirt junior linebacker Chris Galippo have all said they’ve never spent as much time on special teams as they have this year.

“We got more emphasis on it now,” Johnson said. “It’s a lot better now. Everyone’s paying a lot more attention to detail and everyone’s buying in, and we are just making big plays now.”

The added emphasis has paid off, as already the Trojans have two returned kicks for touchdowns and blocked one field goal. To compare, in the last four years, the Trojans had a combined four kicks returned for touchdowns and it already has two in three games.

“I would challenge that we put more time and dedication into our special teams than anybody in the country and it’s continued to pay off for us three games in a row,” Kiffin said.

Not only has it continued to pay off, but it’s paid off at critical points in all three matches.

The biggest momentum-turning play on special teams happened last week at Minnesota. The Golden Gophers, big underdogs, had just taken the lead in the third quarter, and you know how underdogs work. The longer you let them stick around, the more dangerous they become.

Freshman wide receiver Robert Woods wanted no part in that, so he acted like the bully at school who steps on ants for fun and returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. That gave the Trojans a lead they would never relinquish.

Then there was the Virginia game two weeks ago. With 3:49 left in the game, USC had a 17-7 lead, but Virginia was lining up for a 35-yard field goal attempt to make it a one-possession game. The last thing many Trojan fans expected was for Virginia to be within a touchdown that late in the game.

Senior cornerback Shareece Wright made sure that didn’t happen. He twisted off the right side and blocked the kick to preserve the two possession game.

Lastly, don’t forget about Hawai’i, when senior wide receiver Ronald Johnson returned an 89-yard punt, the longest for USC since 1992, in the third quarter to put the Warriors away.

I would argue that without those three plays on special teams, USC would have one or two losses next to its name.

How does this happen? How do you get a team that paid as much attention to special teams as a kindergartner does to broccoli to all of a sudden buy into the fact that the broccoli turned into chocolate?

It’s great coaching by Kiffin and special teams coordinator John Baxter.

“It brings a lot of trust,” Johnson said. “At first, last year a kick return, I didn’t trust it at all. Now Woods is hitting it full steam ahead and coach Baxter really installed a lot into us.”

One person that Baxter needed to buy into the system is Galippo. The redshirt junior was a starting linebacker for the Trojans last year and now his playing time mostly comes on special teams. But instead of complaining about his demotion, Galippo has taken his new role very seriously.

“It’s pretty special,” Galippo said. “Coach Baxter’s a heck of a coach. To be in week three and have two special teams touchdowns, they both came in critical points in the game that completely flopped the momentum — it just shows how important they are and how playing on special teams you’ve contributed to the team.”

For Baxter, this is nothing new. Before coming to USC this year, he spent 13 years as special teams coordinator at Fresno State where he routinely turned out some of the best units in the country.

The Bulldogs led the nation with 49 blocked kicks and punts between 2002-09 and scored 39 special teams touchdowns during Baxter’s time there. For those non-math majors out there (my chemical engineer roommate helped me out here), that means Baxter’s unit averaged three special teams’ touchdowns per year.

“We’re not spending too much time,” Baxter said. “We’re spending what you should spend. They didn’t before. That’s not my fault. I got nothing to do with it. All I can control is what our staff does. You guys are used to watching [a team spend little time on special teams] but I’m not.”

It’s because of Baxter and Kiffin that special teams has become special again at USC.

“Spittin’ Sports” runs every Thursday. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or e-mail Kenny at klegan@usc.edu.