THREE AND OUT: Cal vs. USC Preview

BERKELEY -- Mike Vernon and I break down the biggest factors in Cal's Thursday-night clash against USC, PLUS, a full transcript from Sonny Dykes's Monday press conference and film from the week of practice.

Sonny Dykes Monday Presser Transcript:
What did your daughters get you for your 45th birthday: “A skateboard. How about that?”

Sounds like an injury waiting to happen: “It does. I was riding around the office yesterday.”

Do you have a history with skateboards: “No. They just wanted to see their dad make a fool of himself, so they got me a skateboard.”

Did you accommodate them: “Yeah [laughing].”

“I didn’t come limping in, so I made it.”

Opening comment: “Looking forward to playing USC Thursday night. Going to Los Angeles and playing in the Coliseum I think is something our players are looking forward to, They’re excited about the challenge. USC’s a good football team, a team that I think gets better and better. A lot of talent. I think everybody knows that they’re going to be a talented football team that challenges you in a lot of different ways, is really big on both sides of the ball. An explosive team, a team that runs the ball well, and can also get the ball down the field in their passing game. A team that’s made a lot of big plays on special teams. It’ll be a big challenge for us, but again, our guys are looking forward to getting down to Southern California and competing against a good program.”

Do you kick the ball away from Nelson Agholor? “I think you’ve got to try and balance it a little bit. I think the biggest thing you want to do is, we’ve got to cover better. We have done that most of the year, and obviously gave up a punt return against Oregon that was frustrating for us. We covered pretty well; we just didn’t tackle particularly well in that instance. At some point, you’ve got to get where you can cover, so I think that we’ll challenge our guys, and we’ve really focused on improving our coverage units in this extra time that we’ve had. We’ve looked at some personnel, we’ve made some changes, we’ve really emphasized it. We know it’s going to be a big part of giving ourselves a chance to win Saturday. We’ll see how it plays out.”

Are you healthier at those spots on special teams: “Yeah. We were pretty banged up on our coverage units, but we’ve gotten some guys back and are much more healthier than we have been. A lot of those weren’t really significant injuries; they were just an injury here, an injury there, a guy out this week, a guy couldn’t practice, so we were just really young with our coverage units. Now, the guys have gotten more experience, and we also gotten some players back from injury that will give us a little bit more depth.”

When you’re playing against USC, the offensive and defensive lines stand out; how do you match up? “You just look at the size of their guys, they’re big guys. Their offensive line is young. I think the center is probably one of the best linemen I’ve seen. I think he’s a very good player. The other guys are good players. They just don’t have a ton of experience. They’re very talented, very big, very strong, very athletic, but relatively young. On their defensive front, they’re a little bit more experienced group, but just as I described their offensive group. They’re big, they’re athletic, they’re talented. That’s why when you go and look at USC, the skill position players win Heisman trophies, and have had a lot of things good happen to them, but you look at their history, they’ve always had good offensive and defensive lines. That’s really how they’ve built their program through the years. They’ve always had great offensive linemen, and that allowed them to have great running backs and really productive guys. Those two things go hand in hand. I think they’ve been productive running the football this year because they have a very good offensive line.”

Have you been able to pinpoint whatever has happened with the offensive line the last few weeks, and how to do you ensure that it keeps on an upward trajectory: “I think we were disappointed with the way we played against Washington, and just challenged them a little bit. I think they’ve come back, refocused, and [we] really wanted them to play physical, and I think they’ve played the most physical the last two weeks that we’ve ever played, in the year and a half I’ve been here, the last two weeks. I think the group is just starting to develop a little bit of an identity, and starting to really function well as a group and as a unit. When those guys do that, then that’s when they usually have a lot of success. I think a big part of that has been staying healthy with that group, and it’s been mostly the same five starters, most of the year. I think that’s really led to their development.”

What about the rest of the USC defense; what do they do, what style do they play? “They’re athletic and they’re going to move their front around a lot, blitz and just try to play good, physical football. When you look at their defensive linemen, what you see is, you see guys coming off, they use their hands well, their defensive line does. The ends are athletic. They play a lot of different guys coming off the edge as pass rushers. They’re all pretty effective in what they do. Just a physical group. I think that’s the thing that stands out the most, is just they’ll come off the ball and they’ll hit you in the mouth and mix it up. It frees up their linebackers to make plays. Hayes Pullard’s a good player. He makes a lot of plays. He’s always around the football. He’s got a lot of experience at that linebacker spot. When you look at the back end, they’re very athletic. Lot of long guys that run well, cover well. They’ve done a nice job of open-field tackling. That’s one thing that stands out about these guys, is that people get the ball in the open field against them, and they usually find a way to get them on the ground. That usually speaks to how athletic the defense is. That’s the biggest thing when you look at them. If you’re a good-tackling defense, that usually means you have a lot of good athletes on your defense.”

Do they blitz a lot? “They’re definitely going to blitz and move their guys around and they’ll show you a lot of different things. One thing they don’t want to do, they don’t want you to get too comfortable and settled. They mix it up enough to keep you off balance, and do a nice job of creating some different pressures, week to week. They’ll have a good plan against us, and attack our protections and they seem to generate something like that every week.”

In a league with a lot of good QBs, Cody Kessler doesn’t get much pub, but he’s got 25 touchdowns to just two picks: “The funny thing about it is, one of the worst things you can say about a quarterback is that he kind of really executes the system well, because, somehow, people see that as a slight, and that’s not the case, at all. I think if you look at the best quarterbacks in college football and the NFL, they’re system guys, and he does a nice job of executing this system. He really takes care of the football. He doesn’t make a lot of mistakes, very decisive in his decision-making, has a lot of confidence in his wide receivers. He’ll let them go make plays on the ball. They’ve done a nice job of managing their offense, where he’s completing a really high percentage of his passes, and utilizes all the skill players, the fullbacks, the running backs and receivers. They do enough offensively just where they keep you off balance, and he’s been really effective. He takes care of the ball. He’s playing really smart. When you play against a quarterback that’s doing that, it’s tough.”

Did you do the trash can drill before meeting Tony Franklin? “I think the guy that really – I don’t know if it was a Hal Mumme or a Chris Hatcher thing – Chris was a quarterback that played for Hal at Valdosta State, so Chris kind of worked with our quarterbacks at Kentucky. That was the first time I ever saw the drill run. You know how that stuff goes. I’m sure I’ve taken credit for the drill, I’m sure Tony has, I’m sure Hal has, I’m sure Chris has. I’m sure coach Leach has. Everybody kind of takes credit for stuff. There’s no telling who saw it first. It was probably some junior high coach in Cisco, Tex., or somebody saw him doing it and just kind of copied it. Honestly, in other words, I don’t really know. I don’t know who’s idea it was or where it came from. As I said, I’m sure a lot of people take credit for it.”

How do you think it helps your quarterbacks? “The funny think about quarterback play is there’s so much made out of arm strength, and I think, when you sit down and you say what makes a quarterback a good quarterback, there’s probably 10 things that come before arm strength, and I think, as much as anything just being able to throw the ball with touch, because good quarterbacks can get the ball to drop where they want it to drop. When you think about what’s throwing the football, it’s right place at the right time. It doesn’t matter how you get there. What matters is that it does get there. The best example that I ever saw was Kurt Warner. I don’t know if Kurt Warner could throw the ball 30 yards, but he got to the right spot at the right time, all the time. I think this drill teaches you how to throw it with touch, because obviously you don’t want the bucket to get knocked over. You want the ball to fall directly into the bucket, so it’s got to be on its downward flight. It’s really a drill that’s designed for goal-line fades, more than anything else, where you want to drop the ball in a particular spot in the end zone. It’s something that our guys have done through the years, and I think it’s served us well.”

Did Kenny Lawler, Avery Sebastian and Trevor Davis practice much last week? Where are they at, at this point? “Yeah, they did. I think they, all three, practiced full this week, and so we anticipate them all playing in the ballgame. I think how much will be determined by how we practice tomorrow, and how they do on Wednesday and how they feel on Thursday, but I would anticipate all three of them playing significantly.”

You didn’t want to make excuses with both of the receivers out, but how helpful is it to have them back? “It’s good to get them back. I think it’s certainly good to get them back. It’s important for us always to have depth at those wide receiver spots, and they’re two of our most productive players. They both give us a little bit something different than the other guys give us, and the great thing is, all these receivers compliment each other. They’re better as a unit than they are, individually, just because they can all do different things, and they all bring something different to the table. It’s good to get them both back. Trevor’s been a really productive player for us on special teams. Kenny’s been such a force on throwing fade balls and back-shoulder throws and all the stuff that he’s really good at.”

How much Will Davis play on kickoff return? “I don’t know yet.”

How’s his neck? “His neck’s feeling great. We’ll see how that goes.”


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