Investment on special teams pays off again

Under special teams coordinator John Baxter, USC is committed like never before. It makes the difference again in 23-14 win over Utah.

LOS ANGELES – The next time someone says special teams is one-third of the game, tell him USC special teams coordinator John Baxter disagrees.

"Anybody that tells you it's one-third of the game is crazy," Baxter said. "It's one out of five plays and our approach to that is what play is so unimportant you can afford to take the play off."

Under Baxter, the Trojans are no longer taking any plays off. It showed Saturday afternoon in their Pacific-12 Conference opening win over Utah, with no fewer than four critical, if perhaps occasionally unremarkable, plays.

Of course, most of the attention will be lavished on left tackle Matt Kalil, who blocked Coleman Petersen's 41-yard field goal that would have sent the game to overtime, but how he got out there is just as compelling.

With the clock running, the Utes elected to send out Petersen instead of running another play or spiking the ball. That meant USC had to substitute three linemen from its base defense and replace them with Kalil and tight end Rhett Ellison and Ross Cumming quickly and precisely.

They did so and without any instruction from coaches, setting up Kalil and defensive tackle Christian Tupou to double-team a guard, penetrate and block the kick with his forearm, leaving a large purple welt where the ball hit.

"The thing that happened in that situation is really kind of a tribute to how we coach our players to be situational masters," Baxter said. "The players knew the call to make, made the call and then executed it. When we break at the end of practice and say "team," that was a real great example of team. Who blocks the kick is really immaterial in this situation.

"That fact that we pulled off as much as we pulled off as a team is really kind of exciting."

It is also exactly what head coach Lane Kiffin envisioned when he hired Baxter away from Fresno State. The former Bulldogs quarterback and student assistant knew first-hand the value of committing resources to special teams, reinforced by coaching against Urban Meyer and Florida in Kiffin's one-year stint in the SEC.

Kiffin has committed the time and players necessary to direct a massive overhaul, as opposed to his predecessor Pete Carroll, who often did not have a dedicated special teams coach or commit scholarships to punters or kickers.

"He's invested the time and the resources, and when I say the resources, I mean the personnel. He gives us as a staff free access to the players," Baxter said.

Practices usually have a period of no fewer than 30 minutes dedicated to special teams, often running up to an hour during the spring.

Quarterback Matt Barkley holds on field goals and extra points. Star receiver Robert Woods returns kicks, cornerback Nickell Robey punts. Even Kalil, regarded as a future top-10 draft pick, is involved, blocking another field goal last week.

"His philosophy is we are all football players," Kalil said of Baxter. "None of us are special. We all want to contribute in any way we can and it pays off."

Baxter was even allowed to sign a kicker, punter and long snapper in this past recruiting class. After making just one field goal longer than 40 yards last season, freshman Andre Heidari made a 47-yard kick on his first-ever try in college and had another negated by a false start.

That dedication paid immediate dividends last season, resulting in one kick return for a touchdown, one punt return for a touchdown, two blocked punts, two blocked field goals and three blocked extra points.

However, fans and media have not embraced all of Baxter's philosophy. His insistence on lining up in unconventional formations for extra points and giving Barkley the opportunity to go for two if the play presents itself drew immense criticism following the season-opening 19-17 win over Minnesota. Barkley pitched to Ellison after the first score, but the redshirt senior was stopped short of the goal line, forcing the Trojans to chase points the rest of the way.

"We hear ‘em booing us," Baxter said. "But the fact of the matter is we're going to do what we do and we're going to coach aggressively. From the head coach to myself, we got to play our style of football. If the fans don't like it, I guess the fans don't like it, but we're going to do what we have to do to try to win.

"We challenge for every point. That's our style and we're going to be relentless in our pursuit of every single point."

That nature has carried over to the field. Linebacker Dion Bailey abandoned his responsibility and ran down cornerback Ryan Lacy on a fake punt.

Later on, Robey was hit in the stomach on third down, leaving Baxter without anyone to return the upcoming punt.

"I turn around and start yelling for Robert Woods. ‘Where's Robert Woods, where's Robert Woods?' And Robert Woods is already in the game, already lined up, already knew where to be."

Woods returned the punt 17 yards, helping turn field position late in the game and showing the kind of dedication Baxter seeks.

The sophomore also showed it on a seemingly mundane play earlier. With Utah keying on Woods, he found himself out of position to return a kickoff, without blockers in front of him. Instead of risking bad field position or a turnover, Woods simply downed the ball for a touchback.

It wasn't taking the play off. If anything, it was showing how important the play was.


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