Trojans say 'Hello' to San Diego

It's 'transition' time for a USC team that doesn't feel all that far from home as it goes bowling down San Diego way this week.

The word of the day for the Holiday Bowl-headed Trojans Wednesday was "transition."

"Transition" to San Diego, from the hotel to San Diego State, where Sark said the Aztecs have thrown out the welcome mat for USC.

"It was like practicing at home," Sark said and he wasn't kidding. With all the USC bags and dummies that had been trucked down for practice and the entire squad of more than 100 players including all the Scout team guys, this didn't at all seem like an away practice.

The second "transition," Sark said, would be coming right after practice "to the fun of the bowl activities." The world-famous San Diego Zoo would come first, Wednesday afternoon. Then on Thursday the two teams head to Sea World after practice. On Friday, there's a luncheon for the teams on the USS Essex, an 844-foot-long Wasp Class amphibious assault vessel with a crew of 1,800, at the San Diego Naval Base.

With a two-hour loud and thorough practice in shorts, shoulder pads and helmets, the Trojans got off to the kind of start in San Diego Sark seemed to be hoping for.

But just in case anyone needed a reminder, Cody Kessler provided it. "It feels a lot like last year . . . you get two to three weeks to prepare." Which explains Cody's chance to work on his pooch punting. Not always a great deal of time to do that during the season.

Much of the attention here from the local and Nebraska media turned to Leonard Williams, as you would guess it might. But even from Sark, that was the focus as he singled out the work of the quartet of possible early NFL defectors -- "Buck [Allen], Leonard, Cody [Kessler] and Nelson [Agholor]," Sark ticked their names off and talked about his conversations with them on how and when to make the call to return -- or not.

"Embrace the game," Sark said he told them, although making it clear he probably didn't have to. "They've been great."

But he reminded them of something else: They don't have to make a decision this week. "They have plenty of time," Sark said. Decision day for declaring is Jan. 15 "and our game is Dec. 27."

And those conversations, for all sorts of reasons, "are all different," Sark says. "Leonard is obviously different," Sark said, because of where he's being projected in the top three or four spots overall. But that doesn't make it a slam dunk.

"Leonard loves USC and loves his teammates," Sark said. "I don't think it's as cut and dry as people assume."

One way to make it at least a discussion is to be able to have USC offer, as Florida State and Texas A&M have done this season for star players contemplating leaving, by anteing up thousands of dollars the NCAA permits to pay for injury insurance if a player returns. The limit for a school is $75,000. Players can also obtain their own insurance if they stay in school.

"Obviously Pat [Haden] has been really supportive," Sark said if needed here in terms of players getting help for the insurance to stay in school.

But that wasn't the only talk here. Why is Leonard so good, Sark was asked. Easy answer: He loves the game, high football IQ and a motor that never quits. Not even for one play, Sark said, even when he's been hurt.

What about Buck? No worries about Buck, Sark said. "His numbers have come down the last month because we've been passing the ball more." But against Nebraska, Sark said USC can't afford to be turned into a one-dimensional team. So look for Buck to be a big part of the USC gameplan.

One more tight end in the mix

Senior Chris Willson, out with a foot fracture all season, says he's definitely submitting his paperwork to the NCAA in January requesting a sixth season of eligibility due to a medical hardship. He'd already missed a year at Wake Forest where the West Covina product doubled in baseball and football.

"No baseball any more," he said. "It's all football now." Not that the 6-foot-5, 265-pounder who figured seriously in USC's plans before his injury will never return to baseball, It's just going to have to wait "until I'm through with football," he said. He can still throw a baseball in the 90s but "I can't come back and do it day after day, maybe once a week."

That's a result of bulking up the way he has for football. "It'd take five or six months," he says, to reshape his body for baseball. So no baseball this spring. He plans to lose 10 pounds, work on getting his 40 time down to 4.8 and see where that takes him.

"I love to block," he says. And he catches the ball like a baseball player. And USC needs a veteran tight end. So what's not to like here. Now if the NCAA only comes through for him. Then USC would be able to offer the two-year walkon a scholarship for grad school. He has his undergrad degree in religion and will study non-profit organizations next year.


Trojans will work out at San Diego State at 11:15 Thursday on Christmas Day then enjoy a team dinner together . . . But when asked what the day will mean for this team, Sark said "It's Thursday, two days before the game" . . . USC players and coaches all very pleased with the reception of Trojan fans awaiting them at the team hotel Tuesday . . . San Diego State's Tony Gwynn Stadium next to the football practice field is an impressive baseball venue . . . Sark said Ajene Harris' hamstring made him "doubtful" for Saturday's game but that Uchenna Nwosu coming off a sprained ankle has a real chance after practicing the past two days . . . Former USC and San Diego State head coach Ted Tollner, a member of the Holiday Bowl Committee, seemed to really enjoy catching up with familiar Trojans here at practice.

For a wrapup of Wednesday's practice, check out WEDNESDAY HOLIDAY BOWL PRACTICE 11 GHOST NOTES.

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