An offseason of scapegoating, finger-pointing and holding everyone besides USC head coach Lane Kiffin accountable continued last Friday. USC fired running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu in a stunning move apparently one month in the making. For those keeping score at home, USC has now nudged out four assistant coaches this offseason.
In response to the head-scratching news, redshirt freshman fullback Soma Vainuku posted on his Twitter account, “Not only did we lose the best coach, we lost the only Trojan who was on staff. Sad day.”
Freshman running back Ty Isaac offered a more succinct reaction via Twitter: “Disappointed.” To Kiffin’s credit, however, it appears the Under Armour All-American was kept abreast of the possible move before national signing day, even though Polamalu still visited him days before the deadline to complete the recruiting pitch.
Of all the coaches on staff, perhaps the only ones I might have guessed enjoyed more job security than Polamalu are defensive line coach Ed Orgeron and wide receivers coach Tee Martin — both ace recruiters whose position groups also exceeded expectations in 2012.
Unfortunately for Polamalu, the USC rushing attack rarely gained traction in most games, mostly because of play calling. By the end of the season, USC ran the ball on 46 percent of its plays — a fairly balanced offensive approach, to be sure. Kiffin did not become overly pass-happy, as many have charged. But the run plays were rarely imaginative and failed to utilize his running backs’ strengths.
Many of senior running back Curtis McNeal’s big plays in 2011 came on pitches where he could use his shiftiness to motor outside the tackles and down the sidelines. So why did Kiffin often call for him to run between the tackles like a conventional workhorse running back 40 pounds heavier? Of course, former left tackle Matt Kalil helped spring McNeal for several of those runs in 2011, but Kiffin rarely even gave McNeal a chance to succeed before relegating him to the bench.
Regardless of the suspect play calling, there is no question that the underperformance of USC’s veteran offensive line also betrayed the running game. Simply put, USC recently hasn’t produced the road-graders along the offensive line that can compare to the ones at, say, Stanford — a team that has transformed from an anemic, outgunned offense to one of the nation’s most punishing frontlines.
Moreover, in his three years, Polamalu never inherited a bona fide star running back he could coach into a force.
Among the cast of McNeal, Marc Tyler, Allen Bradford, redshirt sophomore D.J. Morgan and even junior Silas Redd, Polamalu never coached a player at USC with the combination of speed, vision and tenacity that could take over a game. All four of his running backs this past season were injury-prone and unable to shoulder 20-plus carries per game consistently.
Now, after bringing in two blue-chip, national running back recruits, Polamalu must leave without the opportunity to coach the young stars from the ground up.
Speaking of McNeal, Polamalu’s tough love and mentorship helped bring the 2011 savior back from the brink of losing his scholarship when the diminutive running back failed to qualify academically for the 2010 season. The die-hard Trojan and former USC fullback was a relatable figure for the running backs group, whose words of experience packed an extra punch.
On an offensive staff led by a coach who buries his head in a laminated play sheet and sports an inscrutable expression, Polamalu offered a much-needed spark of energy.
Polamalu is the one who berated Redd in his first USC practice for running in the wrong direction on one play, even though the former Penn State star had only just picked up a playbook days before. He held everyone accountable and pushed them to achieve their potential.
Emphasizing accountability, attention to detail and hard work will be the avenue through which USC can return to former glories. Unfortunately, the Trojans just gave up a coach with the ability to extract that kind of effort from his players.
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