Special teams no longer an afterthought

USC coach Lane Kiffin is arguably one of the most polarizing figures in college football. So, it’s no surprise after the Trojans home-opening win against Minnesota he received scrutiny going for two points rather than kicking the extra point.

Defending the uprights · USC junior offensive tackle Matt Kalil (center), a cornerstone player on an inexperienced offensive line, has also found a niche for himself on special teams, blocking three field goal attempts in Lane Kiffin’s first 15 games as head coach. - Daily Trojan file photo

Perhaps the most interesting facet of the recent debates regarding the merits of going for two, however, is how they have managed to detract from a veritable special teams renaissance under this new coaching regime.

And associate head coach John Baxter is at the forefront of the movement.

Since Baxter was hired, USC has devoted a significant amount of time to practice special teams.

“You do drills to help get better and to isolate areas for improvement,” said Baxter, who coached Kiffin at Fresno State. “The drills are the techniques, the techniques are the plays, the plays are the game. All the drills are there to develop the techniques.”

For a stretch, USC did not have to concern itself with improving at the margins, as the team had a stranglehold on recruiting the best Southern California high school athletes and often nabbed high profile out-of-state players as well. As the parity of the Pac-12 increases, however, and the age of powerhouse conferences draws near, special teams and the battle for field position can no longer be neglected during in-week game preparation.

“The best player plays [on special teams],” Baxter said. “It has nothing to do with what position they play on offense or defense. If they’re the best player for the [second return] position on punt return or the best player for the offensive guard on extra point, they play. What position they play on the depth chart means nothing.”

Excluding a middling 5-for-11 success rate on two-point conversion attempts during Kiffin’s tenure, there is ample statistical evidence to suggest USC’s newfound emphasis on special teams has paid enormous dividends.

One need look no further than junior offensive tackle Matt Kalil’s forearm that deflected the last-minute Utah field goal attempt Saturday.

Kalil, a projected first-round NFL draft pick this spring, has blocked two field goals this year, both of which proved to be deciding factors in each of USC’s victories.

That now brings the running total to nine blocked kicks in 15 games for Baxter’s special teams unit. Compare that to a combined eight blocked kicks from 2007 to 2009.

True to Baxter’s words, the position a player regularly plays is irrelevant, as three offensive linemen — Tyron Smith (now a rookie in the NFL) — Michael Reardon, who left the program before the season, and Kalil, have accounted for two-thirds of these blocked kicks, a specialty usually reserved for defensive pass rushers.

Therein lies Baxter’s innovation: He allots practice time to determine whose combination of wingspan, grit and athleticism is best suited to wreaking havoc on kicking teams. No regular offensive player blocked a field goal from 2006 to 2009 under former coach Pete Carroll.

Baxter’s mentality of playing the best player for the position extends to other special teams units as well. Freshman linebacker Tre Madden, originally expected to redshirt this season, played in the first two games of the season on special teams, recording two tackles.

At the beginning of training camp, there were rumblings USC might find another primary kick returner to save sophomore wide receiver Robert Woods from additional wear and tear as he is already the focal point of the USC offense.

As many as five other players have practiced at the position. However, Woods remains USC’s primary kick returner; he is simply the best option, according to Baxter.

“What’s one con [to Robert Woods returning kick-offs]?” Baxter asked. “If you’re afraid of getting injured, don’t play football. Why would you even play this game then? I don’t see anything out there that’s different from playing receiver in terms of contact.”

USC’s kicking game, which was a glaring issue last season, is already off to a positive start. Freshman kicker Andre Heidari showed he has a capable leg after connecting on a field goal from 47 yards. Heidari has range that extends beyond 50 yards, according to the coaching staff. Junior punter Kyle Negrete has also placed six of his nine punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.

What was a decided weakness for the Trojans these past couple of seasons might turn out to be a definitive strength.

“Negrete played a good first game — four balls inside the 20 [yard line],” Baxter said. “Heidari’s also off to a good start. Once he shows consistency in a game setting, we will probably rely on him more and more.”