Baxter confident in young unit

With no scholarship kickers or punters and a lack of emphasis during practice, USC’s special teams have been largely unremarkable in recent years. But following the hire of Fresno State’s John Baxter as associate head coach and special teams coordinator in March 2010, many of the unit’s issues were shored up — at least to some degree — last season.

Head start · Freshman placekicker Andre Heidari, taking over for the graduated Joe Houston, arrived as an early enrollee for spring practice. - Carlo Acenas | Daily Trojan

In 2010, USC blocked nine field goals and extra point attempts, a significant improvement in production for a team that blocked just two in the season prior.

“This is where we improved the most the year before we got here to last year,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said.

Perhaps most notably, during a Nov. 6 contest at home against Arizona State, with USC trailing by four points with 6:59 remaining in the fourth quarter, then-freshman cornerback Torin Harris returned a blocked extra point attempt for two points, cutting the deficit in half. The Trojans eventually secured a 34-33 victory on a late field goal from kicker Joe Houston.

Subsequently, the Trojans hope that upward trend continues in 2011.

“It’s a big part of who we are,” Baxter said. “The bottom line is: the ball gets kicked, we’re trying to block it. We can’t emphasize it more than we do.”

Baxter’s newly implemented schemes were fruitful in other areas of special teams as well a season ago. In the return game, the Trojans averaged 14.6 yards per return on punts, good for seventh nationally, and 24.5 yards per return on kickoffs, 17th nationally.

But punt returner Ronald Johnson, who returned an 89-yard punt for a touchdown in the team’s season opener against Hawaii, has graduated, meaning either junior tailback Curtis McNeal, sophomore cornerback Nickell Robey or sophomore wide receiver Robert Woods will take over return duties.

USC must also replace its kicker and punter from 2011 in Houston and Jacob Harfman.

Baxter, however, remains unfazed, citing the group’s cohesiveness.

“The biggest thing is the team chemistry right now,” Baxter, the second-year coordinator, said. “This team and this unit has really bought into doing things the Trojan way. The older guys have done a lot of things to help the younger guys.”

And some of them are young.

In the kicking game, USC is expected to rely on two true freshmen in kicker Andre Heidari and punter Kris Albarado.

“Obviously our specialists are new, so that’s a big challenge,” Baxter said.

Statistically, field goal kicking has been one of USC’s weakest areas in recent years. Over the last three seasons, it has converted just 31 of its 46 attempts.

In 2010, Houston, though making good on 10 of his 16 attempts, struggled particularly early, missing four of his first six attempts of the season, including a late 40-yard field goal against Washington on Oct. 2. USC wound up losing by a score of 32-31.

As a result, much is expected of Heidari, who was ranked as the No. 2 overall kicker in the class of 2011 by Yahoo! Sports’

The Bakersfield, Calif. native, who has shown the ability to put the ball through the uprights from 50 yards out, arrived in the spring and could potentially serve as an upgrade despite his age.

“There’s a lot that goes into being familiar and comfortable with your surroundings,” Baxter said. “[Heidari] being here early has helped a lot.”

Additionally, freshman Kris Albarado, a two-star prospect from Lake Charles, looks to take over punting duties for the recently graduated Harfman, who finished with an average of 41.1 yards per punt.

As a senior at St. Louis High School, Albarado averaged 45.3 yards on 24 punts with a long of 65 yards.