Spring Preview: Making USC 'special' again

Trojans special teams have dropped way off; John Baxter is back to change all of that with a mostly new cast of characters.

When it comes to rejuvenating special teams, John Baxter has been there and done that. As recently as last year, he got his Michigan guys to go from 96th in special teams efficiency ratings the year before to No. 13 his first season in Ann Arbor.

This year, back with the Trojans for the first time since 2013, he’ll find a team that’s almost entirely new to him after he was last here -- and mostly new from a year ago. And a team that finished 91st in overall special teams efficiency rankings. Compare that to 2016 rivals Notre Dame at No. 6, Washington at No. 8 and Stanford at No. 11 who combined to beat USC four times last fall.

USC was No. 78 in field goals, with Alex Wood departing, and No. 61 in punting, where Kris Albarado also graduated. But thanks to returning return man Adoree’ Jackson, the Trojans finished 24th in punt returns and 34th in kickoff returns.

USC finished in the top quarter of the nation in punt return average (9.7 yards) and kickoff returns (22.1) but while blocking two field goals, also had two blocked. The Trojans finished in the bottom five in punt return defense (16.3 yards), bottom 25 in net punting (35.0) and bottom 30 in kickoff return defense (22.5).

USC’s last game makes the case for a special teams unit stuck in place. No field goals in the Holiday Bowl. No kickoffs into the end zone. A total of one yard on one punt return for Adoree'. A 38.2-yard average on six punts although no punt return yards allowed.

Of this new USC coaching staff, Baxter says that "Clay [Helton] is putting together a staff of known quantities." But that’s not the case for Baxter's special teamers. Only senior long snapper Zach Smith returns from Baxter’s last season.

Now it’s up to Baxter to do what it is coaches do, he says. The job of a coach "is to figure out who a kid is and then what it takes to build around him for him to succeed.”

Baxter’s track record says he can do just that. In 2013, Soma Vainuku earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors as a special teams player and Nelson Agholor was an All-American punt returner. That USC team blocked six kicks, amazingly returned three punts for TDs in a game to tie an NCAA record and in eight games, allowed no punt return yards.

USC ranked ninth nationally in special teams efficiency in 2012. In 2011, Baxter was named FootballScoop.com Special Teams Coordinator of the Year when USC ranked No. 8 nationally in special teams efficiency.

Before that, his Fresno State blocked 84 kicks and punts (including a national-best 49 from 2002 through 2009) and scored 39 special teams touchdowns (with three safeties). The Bulldogs topped the nation in fewest punt return yards allowed in 2004 and 2005.

So the resume is right. And looking at the talent on the board in his office, so are the players. “We didn’t have players like that at Michigan,” he says.

Players like Jackson, who returns for a third year as a three-way player -- and two of those good enough for All-Pac-12 on defense and special teams -- although his time this spring will be severely limited by his track and field duties. Adoree’ finished second in the nation with two punt return TDs and is seventh all-time in USC career totals with 1,374 yards.

He’s not alone. Three Trojans back him on kickoff returns -- Justin Davis, Juju Smith-Schuster and Dominic Davis. The punt return backup is Mitchell.

So the return game is in pretty good shape. Defending punt and kickoff returns must improve.

So must kickoffs where Matt Boermeester will get the spring to show what he can do after taking over the last 22 kickoffs of the season but with just one touchback. He’ll also get the first shot at succeeding Wood as the placekicker on field goals and extra points. “Consistency,” is the watchword there, Helton says. Competing for a spot will be second-year kicker Wyatt Schmidt.

As far as punting goes, Chris Tilbey comes from Melbourne and the Aussie kicking school that has sent so many rugby-style guys to American college football. He’s 6-foot-5, athletic and can get to the edge but he’s not a boomer from his redshirt season at USC in the fall after playing a year at San Francisco CC. Can he flip the field, something USC has badly needed in recent years. If Baxter can have the effect on him he had with Kyle Negrete, this could work out. Walkon redshirt Reid Budrovich has a live leg and will be in the mix.

With Conner Sullivan off making videos after graduation and Cody Kessler his backup, there will be a new holder. And with the backup snappers gone, Jake Olson returns to that spot after a redshirt freshman season when the blind snapper from Orange Lutheran learned the ropes of college football.

SPECIALISTS

Matt Boermeester, Jr., PK

Reid Budrovich, So., P

Dominic Davis, So., KOR

Justin Davis, Sr., KOR

Adoree’ Jackson, Jr., KOR/PR

Steven Mitchell, Jr., PR/KOR

Jake Olson, RFr., SNP

Wyatt Schmidt, So., PK

Zach Smith, Sr., SNP

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Jr., KOR

Third in a series of spring position previews for the 2016 Trojans. Next: running backs.

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.

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

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