Haven't been to a Trojan Jock Rally since they moved outside renovated Heritage Hall and do miss the sound clanging around inside. But it was more comfortable Friday the way there's room for the players and fans, families and friends, to hang out together as they enjoy the end of another week's game prep.
And getting this team away from the practice field, just hanging out after their Friday walkthrough, makes you realize a number of things. They're young -- except of course for the solid nucleus of seniors, many of them fifth-year guys like Cody Kessler, whose teammates challenged him, when he got up on Art Bartner's ladder to give a little bit of a pep talk, to "Take it off, take it off," of his sweaty USC t-shirt. Showing that Cody has learned a lot in his time here, he did not. But he had fun with it.
That's how these things go. An out-of-town visitor watching the players wanted to know "if Adoree' is as cool as he looks?" Yeah, he is.
And yeah, Juju Smith-Schuster and his buds do have that much fun, breaking up Steve Sarkisian as he watched them and listened to Clay Helton, after he climbed the ladder, give the day's most serious pep talk take about restoring USC's dominance -- and not just for a day. The crowd seemed to like that prescription.
But as much as we focus on the freshmen, USC has more senior scholarship players, 15, many of them fifth-year guys than all but one Pac-12 team. That says a lot for USC and this class. They've been here for all the sanctions, the slim rosters, the bowl-less postseason, and now this is their chance -- to play and lead.
One more comes back today -- Lamar Dawson, the quiet Kentuckian. He'll have lots of senior company out there with him on defense -- and in the classroom where nine Trojans have graduated and are in grad school this semester with another 14 set to graduate this fall.
There's a parallel here. It happened in 2002 when seniors Carson Palmer, who was playing under his fourth offensive coordinator, and Troy Polamalu decided they'd had enough. This was their team. It belonged to those Trojans who had gone through so much and had earned the right to make it their team.
The genius of Pete Carroll, in his second season at USC, is that he let them. Let them make it their team and yet allowed the standout young guys -- we're talking Mike Williams -- make it their team too.
The combination allowed those Trojans to finish in the top four and get to the Orange Bowl where the rout of Iowa caused a consensus that by January, that Trojan team was the best in the nation.
Right now, all you can say is that this team has a chance. If it can make it happen. Starting today against Stanford at 5 p.m. (ABC) at the Coliseum.
Questions answered: Stanford Vs USC
Mark DeVaughn of Stanford's Scout site, The Bootleg, asked us a number of questions about the USC-Stanford series as he wrote in his "Opposing Questions" column this week that: "The return of USC’s dominance over Stanford is closer than you think. A win Saturday would be the Trojans’ third straight against the Cardinal, a series first for Troy since the height of the Pete Carroll Dynasty (2004-06). Cody Kessler seeks to beat Stanford for a third time in as many starts, just as Sean Salisbury and Matt Leinart – symbols of USC’s historical upper hand – did before him."
He asks however if there are "any expectations by USC fans of a decisive Trojan performance?" our response was how “There’s really not too much giddiness here. There's a great deal of respect for Stanford's physicality, discipline and toughness.”
Here's the rest of our exchange:
The Bootleg: Who are the key additions to/losses from the USC team that beat Stanford last year?
DW: Senior tailback Tre Madden and grad student middle linebacker Lamar Dawson are back after missing last year with foot and knee surgery, respectively. It's the first game of the year for Dawson, who missed the first two with fractured ribs. Madden will start and at 225 pounds, giving USC a dimension it didn't have last year. All three tight ends – Oklahoma transfer Taylor McNamara, true freshman Tyler Petite and walk-on Connor Spears – are brand new this year. They’ve performed better than expected. Freshman middle linebacker Cameron Smith is USC's leading tackler and freshman Iman Marshall will probably start in place of injured Kevon Seymour at cornerback. Three speedy freshman tailbacks who will all get their chances: leading rusher Ronald Jones II, along with Dominic Davis and Aca'cedric Ware.
TB: Given Stanford's vulnerability and Troy's No.6 ranking, are USC fans "smelling blood" and expecting a decisive win?
DW: Maybe a little bit. But the way this series has gone recently, and realizing the game is still being called by Pac-12 officials, USC fans will probably never get their hopes up and "smell blood" when Stanford is involved. This is still a USC team with lots of young talent, many in their first big game.
TB: Is this a rivalry? Can you put into words how a win over Stanford feels for a USC fan? How about a loss?
DW: A win for USC probably doesn't feel as good as a loss feels bad in what is probably USC's No. 3 rivalry behind Notre Dame and UCLA. Because USC is one of the few programs in the nation with two true archrivals, Stanford is a bit down the list at No. 3. When USC upset a No. 4 Stanford team two years ago in the Coliseum with an interim coaching staff and suffering from the worst of the NCAA sanctions after Lane Kiffin's firing, it was easily the best USC win since Pete Carroll left. I never saw USC fans rush the field before anywhere.
TB: What are Steve Sarkisian’s strengths as a coach?
DW: Sark has shown some quick-footed ability to fend off what comes his way, sometimes good, sometimes not so. He handled his first season with limited scholarships with limited success at USC in a season where had he been able to coach every game the way he did at the end against Stanford, he'd have finished 11-2. But he didn't. And his luck ran out a couple of times. If he can stay the course this year with the veterans beefed up by two top recruiting classes and help them stay physical and focused, this could be the year he shows he's up to the job of coaching USC. It's still in the balance. But his recruiting is not. He knows USC. He knows its strengths and hasn't missed much in closing his two classes here.
TB: After two easy wins, what have you learned about USC?
DW: We know the freshmen are pretty good. A total of 14 true freshmen have played thus far from the nation's No. 1 recruiting class. We know there's much more depth than a year ago with 23 newcomers playing the first game and 81 players in all in the second game. We know USC can go two–deep (and more in some places) on offense and three-deep (in many places) on defense. We also know they can focus and fix things from Week 1 to Week 2. Whether they can do that from Week 2 to Week 3 is the question. We know they're better at tight end than we thought they'd be. We know the three freshman running backs, especially Ronald Jones, can play.
TB: How does Kessler compare to the greats at QB who preceded him?
DW: Cody is a different type of guy. He doesn't have Carson Palmer's big arm or Matt Leinart's 6-foot-5 size. But he manages games and his players well. He's very comfortable making the big play as he showed against Stanford two years ago. He's a grad student now in communications management and uses that as the fifth-year leader. He's maybe the most accurate quarterback USC has had, especially on the move with his eyes downfield. At 6-2, he's a bit undersized compared to the others who preceded him. If he gets to New York (as a Heisman finalist), as Leinart and Palmer did, it will be more as a game manager and on the strength of his team leadership abilities and mistake-free play. That said, we maybe underrate his athleticism. Here was a kid who could dunk a basketball in grade school and averaged something like 29 points a game in high school basketball as a junior.[
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