Spring 2015: All about the run

Trojans must develop the ability to run the ball and stop the run this spring in order to be the team they hope to be in the fall.

So what are the priorities here? What does this Trojans team have to get out of Steve Sarkisian's second spring? Where should this team be April 11 after the Spring Game? And how should it get there?

We're going to make this simple. The formula hasn't changed from the last time USC made its run to the top more than a decade ago.

Two things first above all else. Two things that go together. We'll call them Priorities 1 and 1A coming out of spring. USC must be able to:

*** Run the ball, and defend the run It's that simple, that basic. The two go together. But we'll put the ability to run the ball first because it brings everything else with it.

If you can run the ball, by definition, you're physical, you have that "bully' mentality that Steve Sarkisian says this team must develop.

Had USC been able to run the ball last fall, it beats Boston College no matter how unprepared USC was to defend the option. It beats Arizona State with a single first down at the end. ASU would never have had the chance to throw the "Jael Mary."

And had USC been able to run the ball on third and 2 or fourth and 2 at the Utah 27 in the final minutes, that first down wins that game. Utah never gets that last chance.

So do the math there. That 9-4 could have been 12-1. If only USC could have run the ball when it had to. Coming out of the spring, even with Buck Allen gone and Tre Madden not all the way back, this team must know it can run the football when it has to.

That's how Pete Carroll did it. When Justin Fargas came on line, healthy at last, everything changed for Pete's Trojans in 2002. Sure, during that time, quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart would win Heismans for throwing the football.

But the passing game was made possible because USC could run the football. If you couldn't stop the run, you were in big trouble against the Trojans. But if you sold out to stop the run, as Oklahoma did in the title game in the Orange Bowl, look out for the bomb squad.

So with a big, strong, athletic offensive line returning intact, despite its youth, it's clear what USC must do. Be simple, basic, tough, efficient, smart and relentless. Not too fancy. No more run attempts getting blown up in the backfield because of the complexity of the schemes.

How many times did Buck have some defender grabbing him by the ankles before he could take his second step? How could a USC team average just a mere 3.99 yards a carry, good for only No. 66 in the nation and in the bottom half of the Pac-12 behind Oregon, UCLA, Washington, Utah, Arizona and Arizona State?

That cannot happen in 2015. New O-line coach Bob Connelly, the "run game coordinator," may well be the most important Trojan this spring.

On the flip side, and even without Leonard Williams, Hayes Pullard, Gerald Bowman and J.R. Tavai, four of last fall's top six tacklers, the second edition of Justin Wilcox' defense must figure out a way to play team defense as they keep opponents' offenses one-dimensional.

This defense must be active, confident, playmaking and not content to stand in place and wait for something good to happen.

The two go together. If you can run the ball, as USC did in its last two signature wins at Oregon and Notre Dame in 2011 and will be required to do again in 2015, your defense doesn't have to spend as much time on the field as last year's thin numbers were required to do too often.

And as USC did in the second halves of both those big road wins, especially at Notre Dame, if you can run it and run the clock and keep it away from the home team, you quiet the crowd and keep their offense on the sidelines, something USC could not do this past fall.

Then there's this. If this team can run the ball, with a senior Cody Kessler and a host of talented wide receivers, it surely will be able to throw it. The ability to run the ball takes pressure off the pass-blockers since opposing defensive fronts have to play the run first.

Has there ever been a USC team that could run the ball that couldn't then throw it?

Sure, there are plenty of other things USC must make happen this spring. Players who have yet to step up, or are returning from surgery, must be given the chance to see what they can do.

Players who know this is their time must show that it is. After losing three of the top four receivers from last fall, it's time for the next crew to develop the rapport with Cody all the way through the ranks. That can only happen here.

Same for a defense that will be looking for leaders at every level. Who will they be? Now is the time for that to happen. Show us what you got.

Which gets us to the one overarching thing we believe has to happen this spring -- practicing how to practice. Sure, USC talked about doing that last year, even took a day to close practice last spring for that very purpose.

But as the fall proceeded, the numbers-limited Trojans seemed to move from full-speed-ahead to the pro-style semi-walkthroughs that caught up with Lane Kiffin in the end.

And here's where we harken back to those Pete Carroll teams. Not a single player from that era doesn't talk about the daily competition at practice and the confidence that built for those teams. They knew they were being challenged more in practice than by anything they would face in games, they will all tell you.

And they will tell you how they knew when the time came that they would be more prepared to make the big play than the team they were playing They just knew. When crunch time came, it was going to go their way.

That was the missing piece last fall. The Trojans didn't know. In fact, they played as if maybe they knew it wasn't going to go their way. That has to change.

And no better time than spring for that to happen. But not just for the players.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.

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