Special teams is one of many USC units turning the page from 2019. After the Trojans averaged the Pac-12’s third-fewest kickoff return yards and second-fewest punt return yards, ranked last in the country in kickoff return coverage and allowed two kickoff return touchdowns in 2019, special teams coordinator Mike Baxter was fired in late December.
Enter Sean Snyder, who took over as special teams coordinator in February after 26 years in various positions at Kansas State and who is choosing to leave last season fully in the past.
“I came into this, and I didn’t really look in the rearview mirror, to be honest with you,” Snyder said in a virtual press conference Wednesday. “What I’ve done is I’ve come out and tried to just install me — install what I like to see and what I like to do … I didn’t want to have any preconceived notions of what any of the players in the past have done. I wanted to build it from scratch and give everybody an opportunity.”
Snyder outlined a straightforward approach for the special teams unit in 2020: Don’t drastically alter the game plan from week to week; make sure his players become comfortable with their individual roles.
“There’s a lot of teams that will go out and every week will have a completely different scheme of what they’re trying to do,” Snyder said. “My goal is to be able to bend and mold what we’re doing to the teams that we’re playing against and keep the players in a position to where every day they’re doing the same thing.”
Snyder said he hasn’t yet determined his return specialists, mentioning that juniors wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown and cornerback Olaijah Griffin as well as seniors tailback Stephen Carr and redshirt wide receiver Tyler Vaughns have all impressed in that role in camp.
The first-year coach highlighted junior safeties Talanoa Hufanga and redshirt Isaiah Pola-Mao, sophomore cornerback Jayden Williams, redshirt sophomore safety Raymond Scott, redshirt freshman receiver Bru McCoy and sophomore receivers Drake London and John Jackson III as standouts in non-specialist roles. Snyder also said redshirt sophomore punter Ben Griffiths has “unlimited” potential.
“And there’s more,” Snyder said. “I’m missing guys. There’s quite a few guys that have really stepped up.”
Snyder said he’ll try to limit starters to two special teams units and the most effective players will play regardless of their place on the depth chart.
“I’m not married to a starter or a second stringer or a third stringer,” Snyder said. “I’m just gonna put the best guy out there that’s getting the job done the best way.”
The adjustment period
Snyder admitted that the lack of a spring camp has made it difficult for the unit to get its timing down. However, he said the group has made strides recently, growing more comfortable with the scheme’s fast pace.
“The effort’s been great, the attention the players have had with what we’re doing and what we’re trying to do — I mean, they want to be great at what they’re doing,” Snyder said. “That’s half the battle right there.”
Special teams isn’t the only group that underwent a coaching change over the offseason, and Snyder noted that many of his players have to adjust to a new defensive scheme led by coordinator Todd Orlando as well.
That’s one reason Snyder said he tries to keep things simple.
“I want to be fundamentally sound,” he said. “I want us to be able to go out there and execute at a fast pace and a high level. I don’t want guys to have to over-process and overthink things.”
Redshirts junior placekicker Chase McGrath and senior long snapper Damon Johnson — who Snyder together referred to as “staples” of the special teams’ efforts — also joined in the press conference Wednesday.
McGrath said he got kicked off several fields outside of USC while training during quarantine, and Johnson said he and his father had to get creative to practice his craft, tying a tire to a tree branch as a target.
Now, the two are back on the field together, looking to build on their rapport that led to McGrath hitting 14 of 17 field goal attempts and all 54 PATs last year.
“Honestly, it’s everything,” McGrath said of having a snapper as reliable and consistent as Johnson. “Since 2017 — actually, Damon, I don’t remember you ever giving me a bad snap on a field goal or anything. You’ve been nothing but perfect, man. Honestly, that makes the world of difference. My job is so much easier, because every single time, I know that the snap, hold will be there, like I don’t have to worry about it. All I need to do is just focus on my job.”
McGrath won the Trojans’ Special Teams Player of the Year award in 2019, and Johnson isn’t afraid to claim at least some of that success.
“I feel like I’ve done a really good job of being consistent for Chase,” Johnson said. “I always say that if he’s having a good year, I like to take credit for it … With long snapping, you don’t really want to be in that limelight of being mentioned. I’ve been told that my whole career, basically. So I think I’ve done a pretty good job with that.”
An underrated facet
Special teams isn’t one of the most talked-about groups on a football team, especially when that team boasts the offensive firepower USC does.
But it’s one that could flip a game’s momentum in the blink of an eye, and Snyder is looking for that impact from his group.
“My mentality is based on the fact that special teams has to be a part of the game,” Snyder said. “We should be able to have a big spark in the game to be able to trigger a big play.”