Toughness is key for Trojans

High-profile athletes take a lot of barbs during their careers — both warranted and unwarranted. But perhaps no insult gets tossed about more recklessly by armchair fans than the “soft” label. And, unfortunately for the players, when the label gains momentum, it often sticks.

We’ve all seen it: the receiver who alligator-arms a pass in fear of an oncoming collision with a head-hunting safety, the running back who scampers out of bounds instead of burying his head for an all-important first down and the player who languishes on the bench for half of the game because of a tweaked hamstring.

Of course, I would never call any players in Division I college football soft. Heck, most of the players I’ve interviewed here have biceps bigger than my torso. It’s impossible for a player to progress to this stage without a tolerance for debilitating pain and without the courage to run full speed into brick walls.

That said, few people at the moment would categorize USC as the nastiest, grittiest football team, even in the city of Los Angeles. Far too many times last season, USC came up short on what I term “pure” football plays: not plays with any frills or misdirection, just those involving strong athletes trying to outmuscle one another when everyone in the stadium knows what’s coming.

In addition to Notre Dame’s energy-sapping, fourth-quarter goal-line stand in the Coliseum, there were plenty of other examples of USC’s failure in these situations. Oregon running back Kenjon Barner — thankfully ticketed for the NFL this offseason — ran for 321 yards at USC in 2012. Of those 321 yards, a whopping 272 came before contact.

What does that mean? USC’s defensive front seven got absolutely manhandled at the point of attack by Oregon’s blocking scheme. A svelte Oregon starting offensive line that averaged a mere 299.2 pounds steamrolled four-lane highways through which Barner waltzed.

To remedy this lack of toughness and to return to power football heading into next season, USC head coach Lane Kiffin has restructured his practices this spring, integrating more full-contact sessions. To win games consistently in 2013, USC will need to manage the clock with a proficient run game and improve tackling technique, both of which can only be enhanced and cultivated through physical practice. Of course, Kiffin has recognized this for a while but still will not commit to a similar approach in the fall because of limited numbers imposed by sanctions.

Thus far, the roster attrition as a result of player injury has been startling. Seventeen players, the vast majority of whom are on scholarship, sat out of Saturday’s scrimmage with an array of injuries; at this time, there are only 62 scholarship players in the entire program.

The list of injuries to this point includes junior wide receiver and Biletnikoff winner Marqise Lee, presumptive senior starting running back Silas Redd and half of the two-headed tight end monster in junior Xavier Grimble. That’s a tremendous amount of all-star talent on the training table.

But despite the growing injured reserve list, Kiffin must continue to forge ahead this spring in his efforts to exact more tenacity out of his players.

For the time being, defenders need repetitions tackling at full speed so that when the 2013 season begins, they are not constantly getting dragged five yards before hauling the opposing ball carrier down to the ground. Similarly, the offensive line — perhaps the most underachieving position group on the team — needs to cultivate a willingness to play for the entire snap and to knock down anything in its way.

Kiffin can always scale back once fall camp rolls around. For example, he might force Lee to wear a yellow “no-contact” jersey during the fall — much like he did with former wide receiver Robert Woods — to limit his defenders from laying punishing hits on Lee, considering the junior sensation already sustains far too many blows on Saturdays. Unfortunately, USC will not have the luxury of conducting full-contact practices in the fall, simply because the roster contains several holes and too many players who are absolutely indispensable.

It’s unrealistic to expect players to simply flip the switch come game day and summon the necessary technique and mentality needed to win these individual battles, which is why this spring practice experiment is so important. Of course, only time will tell if this black-and-blue spring will pay dividends in the fall by helping to produce the hard-nosed Trojan football that fans have cheered for in past generations.


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