Trojan time just a week away

Spring football starts next Tuesday and USC fans can't wait to see what a new staff will bring to a program that could use a jump start.

Bear Bryant may have said it as well as anyone, how exactly it is you build a winning football team.

"It’s not the will to win that matters – everyone has that," Bear said. "It’s the will to prepare to win that matters.

In just a week, next Tuesday to be exact, Clay Helton's Trojans start preparing. And showing what sort of will there is to win here.

They'll go for a week with sessions Tuesday and Thursday at 3 p.m. and Saturday at 10 a.m. Then it's off week for Spring Break after getting everybody familiar with what this new/old staff wants to do.

And then back for four straight weeks, same schedule, finishing up with the Spring Game April 16 at 3 p.m. at the Coliseum. Clay likes the schedule better than past year's when it was two weeks of practice before Spring Break and then a final three. He thinks that finishing with four straight weeks works better with the continuity and ability to build from one practice to another that it allows.

With 44 players who participated in the Holiday Bowl returning, the Trojans are in pretty good shape talent and experience wise. Check out ESPN's evaluation of Pac-12 2016 position groups. The Trojans have all but the young D-line (a "Wait and see" rating) and the new quarterbacks ("In good shape") listed as "In great shape," something no other Pac-12 team can say.

But the number every USC coach we've talked to mentions is "15." They're going to make use of the every allowable chance to get to know one another and yet, as O-line coach Neil Callaway makes clear, spring practice is just the start.

It will continue through the summer workouts, through August practice, through the September start of a season that opens with the Bear's and Callaway's alma mater, national champion Alabama, to begin the nation's toughest schedule.

"Murder," returning special teams/tight ends coach John Baxter calls it. But also a great "opportunity" for a team with the kinds of players the Trojans have listed on Baxter's big board, he says.

That is, if they play with the attention to detail Callaway says must morph into the kind of "toughness" it will take -- a toughness USC teams were noted for a decade ago.

But one thing is clear. This isn't the Holiday Bowl here when the Trojans seemed on a glide path just to get to the game.

This is essentially a whole new year with a nearly whole new -- at least for 2016 -- coaching staff. And as much film as the coaches have been watching, no way can they make all the decisions that must be made without seeing them in action in person.

On defense, Clancy Pendergast has said he has ideas as to how he'll work his aggressive 5-2 defense but not until he sees the pieces in place will he know for sure. Which is why he was so pleased when he finally got to see them on the field for conditioning work, Who will go where? Can they make the plays needed to get after teams the way Clancy hopes?

Unfortunately, the players who will suit up in the fall won't all be here, especially in the secondary. We'll know more by next week when the official roster comes out. But safeties Chris Hawkins and Ykili Ross are still injury- and surgery-limited. Then there's Adoree' Jackson, hoping that his track and field concentration can turn him from a long shot to an Olympics long jumper headed to Rio.

Inside linebacker Cameron Smith, the Pac-12's defensive freshman of the year, is still rehabbing his knee after ACL surgery. But that just means more reps for others if you take the glass-half-full approach.

On offense, where Tee Martin has been spending most of his time coordinating the input from quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator Tyson Helton as well as Callaway, running backs coach Tommy Robinson and tight ends coach John Baxter, constructing the new playbook is a classic "work in progress.

Among the missing at times on offense will be rehabbing centers Toa Lobendahn and Khaliel Rodgers along with another track and field guy, slot back Dominic Davis.

Count Adoree' as a missing offensive piece as well. One returnee to the offense will be senior Jordan Simmons, back from the D-line where the 6-foot-4, 325-pound senior, looks to be in the best shape of his life after doing double duty on the D-line last fall.

And on special teams, there will be a new placekicker, punter and holder for starters. Lots of work for Baxter here.

Over the next week, we'll detail each position group individually. For now, we'll talk about where this appears to be headed. The big focus, of course, will be on quarterback, where for only the second time in six seasons, USC will have a new face under center.

Big-armed grad student Max Browne, going into his fourth spring and no longer the backup, has the experience edge over athletic redshirt freshman Sam Darnold, in what will be a true competition, Helton says, to replace three-year starter Cody Kessler.

Playmaker Jalen Greene, back from wide receiver at least part of the time, and early entry freshman Matt Fink will also be in the picture.

But first things first. If this spring is about anything, it's about this coaching staff that's been well-received by USC fans the way it's come together already, it seems, in ways the last staff never did.

Holdover Johnny Nansen shifts over to linebackers, his college position, from running backs. He's joined on defense in the secondary by 10-year NFL vet Ronnie Bradford, who is reunited with Pendergast. And then there's the rookie, USC All-American Kenechi Udeze, who is getting his first D-line gig after an NFL career and extensive strength and conditioning background.

But if there's one big difference here, there will be a head coach here who wants to be a head coach, not an offensive coordinator/playcaller as has been the case the last six seasons. And that matters. The assistant coaches will coach the Trojans players. The head coach will coach his coaches.

That's how it's supposed to be. And with this staff, five of whom were here in 2013 after Lane Kiffin's firing, when the assistant coaches took over under interim Ed Orgeron, that worked out pretty well.

Unlike the past two years, the coaching chemistry appears to be in place. Spring will be the first test.

Here's the spring practice info:

*** The dates of USC’s 2016 spring football practices are: March 8-10-12-22-24-26-29-31-April 2-5-7-9-12-14-16.

*** Spring practice times: Tuesday and Thursday practices at 3:30 p.m., Saturday practices at 10 a.m. (except the April 16 Spring Game at 3 p.m.). All practices will be held on Howard Jones Field/Brian Kennedy Field on campus, except for two practices at the Coliseum (March 26 and the April 16 Spring Game).

*** All of USC spring practices will be open to the public for viewing from a designated area on the east side of Howard Jones Field (north of Goux’s Gate) or from the south stands at the Coliseum.

*** USC's Spring Game will be Saturday, April 16, at 3 p.m. in the Coliseum. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at the door (or online on USCTrojans.com.

*** USC's Pro Day is March 23 at 10 a.m. on Loker Stadium’s Cromwell Field. It is closed to the public.

*** Next up in our Spring Practice Preview series: the offensive line.

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


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