It’s the spring practice mantra around here -- even if we don’t focus on it so much. And why would we? It's spring. Nothing but high hopes right now.
But that “We’ve got a long way to go,” line that Clay Helton, Clancy Pendergast and Neil Callaway repeat every chance they get – and then some -- isn't just coachspeak. it's where this is for USC.
And the coaches know it. Maybe not so much the players. The players will tell you how far they’ve come. That’s their focus. And it’s true. From scheme to the daily drill of practice, they have come a long way.
No question the 2016 Trojans are much closer to the 12 spring practices already in the books, and the winter workouts, than they are to the Alabama and Stanford games five months away.
But that’s for then. What about now? Just how far away is this USC team? And what exactly is the distance from the team we see today and the team we’ll need to see show up in September?
Here are some of the ways where we better see a good deal of progress as the Trojans make that long journey from 2015 to 2016:
*** PERSONNEL: It’s pretty much just been in the background, but there are lots of front-line folks who will have to get up to speed this summer. “I’m just coaching the guys who are here,” Clancy says. Although Adoree’ Jackson does stop by on occasion. And we think he’ll be able to concentrate on his full-time sport soon after a spring of long jumping.
But Adoree’s not alone. Chris Hawkins, out every day rehabbing from ankle surgery, has some catching-up to do after finishing his degree this spring, as does John Plattenburg, still not back from his spring ankle issues. Add in five-star Jack Jones and that’s an entire starting secondary, maybe as good as any in the Pac-12, not here this spring. So by definition, they have some distance to make up.
Then look inside. Cameron Smith hopes to be back by August and it looks like he could be. And by then, John Houston’s fall rust and back problems could also be worked through. But that’s a freshman All-American and a five-star freshman with catching-up to do.
Up front, they’re waiting for Josh Fatu but with the return to action Saturday of Noah Jefferson after his back issue, they’re not too far behind – considering of course the loss of Kenny Bigelow, who is not coming back in 2016. Clay’s call for these guys says it all: Get healthy, get better, get lucky.
On offense, Toa Lobendahn and Khaliel Rodgers have to get back in the mix, find a position if it’s not center, and get with the program. The fact that each of these former starters is rehabbing on the field and snapping in noncontact drills ought to help – even in the shotgun snaps that have been problematic.
By our count, that’s eight possible starters not working this spring. Great for fall depth. Not perfect for spring cohesion.
But even for the guys here, do we know yet who the wide receiver or two or three who are going to push Juju Smith-Schuster are just yet? Or what can we depend on the tight ends to do? Or the fullback? Or how the running backs are going to rotate? Or even exactly how the quarterback combo works out? None of this will be decided by Saturday.
*** SCHEME/TECHNIQUE: Defense seems to be there already or maybe we’re just more accustomed to seeing what it is Clancy does from his 2013 season when USC went from halfway-to-worst to first in the Pac-12. These guys seem to fit what Clancy does pretty well, much better than they did in what USC was trying to do the last two seasons.
However, with the scheme come the techniques to carry it out. “They’re all different,” from last fall says every defensive back we’ve talked to – hand placement, feet, eyes, you name it. Ditto for the D-line guys. As Malik Dorton says, much of his spring is "breaking bad habits from the last two years." Breaking bad takes time.
On offense, they’re certainly working on what we need to see: the ability to wedge people out when they most need it in the power run game. Without that ability, and without the ability to be a true run-first offense, this pro-style “gumbo” offense isn’t going to work. We don’t see that ability yet. We see the work. And the commitment to it will take time. Alabama and Stanford didn’t get there overnight.
Saturday’s third-and-two goal line situation when the three times they tried to go left were snuffed makes that clear. Now they did get in on the fourth try going right with Ronald Jones but with three 200-pound give-or-take tailbacks, a new fullback most recently a walkon linebacker, and three tight ends we’re only discovering now if and how well they can block, the offense does indeed have “a long way to go” in this most crucial aspect.
Can they line up and in the games when they absolutely must, blow people off the line of scrimmage when those people know they’re coming? And while the D-line guys talk about getting past their bad habits, it’s an O-line that’s not been thinking like this for years that really must do so. Not going to happen overnight.
*** SPECIAL TEAMS: They’re farther along than in most previous springs here. For example, they have done some live team punting if not coverage. And there’s no doubt this team is going to block some kicks. Iman Marshall and Leon McQuay have shown they can be lethal coming off the edge. But since this is a zero-sum game, what does that say about the protection?
And we have no sense whether USC will be able to kick the ball, or punt it, in any improved way. Or do it as well as they have been in recent seasons, which was just OK at best. Will they be able to flip the field with Aussie Chris Tilbey, who seems more of a rugby placement guy than a big bomber? Haven’t seen it thus far.
And can Matt Boermeester get his gyroscope squared away and kick it between the posts? Or do we wait until big-legged blueshirt Michael Brown gets here in August? Either way, long way to go.
And while we’re disposed to assume that with the arrival of both John Baxter and increased depth as we get farther away from the sanctions, we’ll know about improved kick coverage when it happens. And that will be the fall.
*** COACHING: As much as we focus on the players in this, as we should, getting the coaches comfortably working with one another in ways that are smart and efficient and natural and able to come together in game-planning and in-game adjustments at the most crucial of times is another place where the next five months are crucial.
We say this because it didn’t happen all that much over the last five years when the head coach – and a number of the assistants he’d hired – ended up in different places. That happened most notably on defense the last couple of seasons. And it showed.
And while there’s no chance this staff ever ends up on different pages, and is more cohesive than all but that 2013 group for the final nine games -- especially on defense, there’s just a lot of ground to cover, especially on offense.
Lots of good ideas. Lots of good input. Lots of smart thinking. But it all has to go together. And that takes time. Which is good because, as they say, this team “has a long way to go.”
Starting with Arlington, Tex., Sept. 3 and Palo Alto, Sept. 17. Good thing there are five months to get there.
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