Setting the tone with a music-free spring

This is serious business for a USC team that found some fun under a new regime as it started spring practice Tuesday.

They started way early. Went a little late. Got some things done. And set the tone Tuesday at USC’s first of 15 spring practices.

But that tone was played in a music-free zone. The decision to do so? “Mine,” Clay Helton said. This isn’t about getting hyped up or feeling good. This is about learning football.

O-line coach Neil Callaway wasn’t jumping up and down afterward. “Good overall,” he rated it, then quickly added when he heard how that sounded, added “We’ve got a lot of work to do. “I just think we have a long way to go,” Callaway said. “I’m pleased with their attitude but we need better effort.”

That was echoed by new secondary coach Ronnie Bradford, who as the first defense jogged out to him on the field to start the team portion of practice, interrupted their half-speed trot, sending them back to do it over again – this time running full speed.

So as much as this was about the quarterback battle between fourth-year man Max Browne and most likely redshirt freshman Sam Darnold, or how impressively deep and talented the wide receiver position might be with talented freshman Michael Pittman and Josh Imatorbhebhe looking like Juju Smith-Schuster, something JuJu already has a patent on.

Or on and on through veterans Darreus Rogers and Steven Mitchell Jr., or listening to Chad Wheeler explain his battle to return and what it means to him, it was about setting that tone.

And that tone comes in four parts: The first is “ technique,” Clay said. Do it right not necessarily fast. If you have to slow down the reps to do so, and let the coaches step in and coach, that's what you do. It’s about getting it right. And with all the “install” in coachspeak, there was a lot to learn.

Then it’s about that word that hasn’t been heard here in quite a while: “Toughness,” Clay said, “which comes from the art of discipline.” Words to warm Neil Callaway’s heart.

Then comes “togetherness,” which Clay said they demonstrated by coming together after the defense won the final five competition on the last play and while they were celebrating, the offense, coaches included, had to run a lap. And then they all came together – to celebrate together. Nice.

And finally, something that has been absent around here since the second half of 2013 – “trust.” Trust the process, trust your teammates and coaches, trust what you’re doing, Clay said.

“It’s about focus, effort and tempo,” Callaway said, “and learning the system . . . and playing together,” something he thought happened by the end of the 2 ½-hour practice went. “I thought we communicated better the longer it went.”

But as Clay noted, this was without pads, just helmets and shorts the first two days, shoulder pads on Day 3 and after week off for Spring Break, it’s pads for the final four weeks.

”This is going to be a very physical spring when we get to pads,” Helton promised. So forget that Holiday Bowl stuff. It’s not happening here any more.

But trust must be earned. And that’s one way of earning it. But there’s another that Clay is working at. A nice touch for Tuesday’s first practice was a call early in the day by Clay to donor and alum Brian Kennedy, who came up with the $1 million to make the new state-of-the-art practice field a reality last year. Clay asked him to come by and see it for the first time. And so Kennedy did after not getting that call since his donation.

Working hard to get back

Chad Wheeler attributed his weight gain – he’s over 315 now, he says, although still listed in the media guide as 280 pounds, to human nature: “I’m aging,” the senior said. Indeed.

Since the morning of the first Holiday Bowl practice when an off-campus incident involving the police and his family set him aside for weeks, Wheeler was back Tuesday and not looking ny worse for the wear. “I regret what I did,” he said directly.

”I’m apologizing to my coach, my teammates, the USC fans,” he said of an incident that has never been completely described. “I did have personal issues but I’m coming back strong . . . I’m getting back to work . . . looking forward to it . . . this is the most important thing in the world right now . . . I did have personal issues but I’m coming back strong . . . it took a lot to get back but I’m here and I’m ready to go . . . it’s good competing against Chuma {Edoga] and Zach [Banner] . . . I’m ready to go.”

”We’re so glad to have him back,” Clay said. “He looks great.”

Quick hitters here

Osa Masina out for a week with a hamstring tweak . . . Leon McQuay III has one class he must take to graduate and that conflicts with practice so he’ll be working on his own . . . Adoree’ Jackson, concentrating on track (“He just needs three weeks to be ready to go,” Clay says) showed up in street clothes and hugged Clay when he got here . . . Scott Felix on the spring roster but not on the field as he works out his eligibility issue that Clay assures us he’ll keep us as informed as he can . . . Quinton Powell and Taylor McNamara sidelined Tuesday by a strep throat bug that’s been going through the team . . . Don Hill is not practicing after “a violation of team rules,” Helton said . . . . Former players at practice: Su’a Cravens, George Uko, Tom Malone, Hayes Pullard, Randall Telfer and Soma Vainuku . . . Damien Mama says he’s down to 320, 35 pounds less than he’s listed in the media guide.

*** For more details on today’s practice, check out Tuesday Spring Day 1 Ghost Notes.

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