The great thing about football, American college football especially at this time of the year when the other football from Copa America has just hit our shores, is that your “own goals” don’t do great damage – if you get them right.
Which is kind of a big deal this week when USC’s Trojans get back to working out just 87 days before the kickoff against Alabama in Texas.
Goals matter. Just ask an own-goaling Uruguay in that 3-1 loss to Mexico.
Get your goals right, we say. Here's what we’d like to see for this USC team at this point in Trojan football history.
*** TOUGHNESS BEFORE EVERYTHING: If this Trojans team builds up anything over the summer, carries it on from the winter workouts and spring football into August and September, it has to be this. No opponent comes into any game with more physical and mental toughness than USC does. Not Alabama in Game 1. Not Stanford in Game 3. Get that right and everything else falls into place. Like it almost always did in the Pete Carroll years. Those teams weren’t necessarily always more talented than the teams they beat but their toughness allowed them to compete at levels their opponents could not match. And developed for USC a confidence the Trojans could call upon when most needed – a confidence USC’s opponents did not have. No bigger challenge with the way this USC schedule opens. No bigger opportunity.
*** IT’S ALL ABOUT TEAM: But toughness doesn’t do the job all by itself. Or just here and there. This is a team deal. It has to be. It can’t happen on occasion. Or for some of the guys. The buy-in has to be complete, including all the new arrivals we haven’t seen, some of whom could well be on the field a bit in Texas Sept. 3. The more this happens, the more of those team-bonding things that didn’t happen much the last five seasons under the dismissed coaches, the better. And not just one ice cream truck visit. It takes work but the payoff is big. And when we talk about "team" here, we're talking about the entirety of USC Trojan football going back as far as we can with Trojan alums now a regular part of practice attendance, something that has to just keep on keeping on.
*** COACHES COUNT AS TEAM, TOO: And they have to factor in on the toughness meter. It starts with Clay and goes from there. No excuses. No easing up. No coasting in prep work when you won’t be able to coast in the games. This summer is when it has to happen as the Trojans amp up from the team of the last couple of years that was always trying to figure out how to get through practice and get to game days with enough players -- not that that didn't make a certain sense thanks to the NCAA. No more of that. This is about stepping on to the field at AT&T Stadium with the absolute certainty that there’s no way Alabama is ready to play with the toughness USC is going to bring. The vision of that 2003 game at Auburn against a really talented Tiger team is what jumps out here. Or how after the next season, it happened again in that Oklahoma Orange Bowl game where so many of the “smart” folks thought that the Sooners were really too physical for the fun-loving Trojans who we now know were having such a good time because they knew what was coming. Or the two Ohio State games where the Buckeyes just weren’t sure they were tough enough. Or all those UCLA games that have to become an every season feature. Toughness=USC. Or at least it had better.
*** SMART IS ALMOST ALWAYS BETTER: The use of technology and telemetry should help USC get up to speed on the toughness meter as it gauges how hard and tough the Trojans are going. It’s going to be a big part of this, we understand. But it’s not always about just being smart – or at least thinking you are. No more believing you can outsmart opponents when those big moments come. You have to dominate them.
*** IT ALL STARTS AT LOS: Never forget that. Obvious, you say? But from some of the recent coaching, scheming and practicing, it seems that USC head coaches hadn’t really understood that basic rule of football. Or thought they could somehow sidestep it. You can’t. And that’s one of the more difficult things about summer workouts and the player-run throwing sessions. They’re not much about the LOS, especially the D-line. This USC team must remember that. Nothing is more important. Figure out a way.
*** 2 LINES MUST GROW TOGETHER: One lesson Kenechi Udeze says he learned from his years at USC playing alongside and against All-American teammates was how the O-line and D-line guys helped one another get better every day. They were in this together and they knew it. They’d mimic the next week’s opponent for one another. They’d ask one another what they needed. That’s the kind of smart tough love teammates can bestow on one another.
*** GET HEALTHY, GET BACK: For returnees like Cameron Smith, Toa Lobendahn, Khaliel Rodgers, John Plattenburg, Ykili Ross and Chris Hawkins, all of whom were mostly missing in spring for health reasons, and Adoree’ Jackson, who is still long jumping, this has to be a time to get them up to speed. Much better in June and July than waiting until August.
*** GET THE OFFENSE DOWN: No waiting until the end of summer. Get the playbook completely down by the end of July, however many reps it takes. This offense that looks smart and cutting-edge and multiple and diverse while still running power-first and last, has a lot going for it. But it depends on quick quarterback decisions getting the ball to explosive players wherever they are in space and the ability to run power when your opponent knows you’re going to run power. Timing and assignments have to improve over the last couple of seasons. This isn’t rocket science. It’s a collision, contact sport and you can’t move people out or get the ball to exactly right place if the timing is off.
*** GET TEAM/INDIVIDUAL DEFENDERS UP TO SPEED: For Smith, Jackson, Hawkins, Plattenburg and Ross, this is their first time out in this defense. It might be more important for them than for the offensive guys what happens this summer. Get comfortable with it. Get the timing down since it’s mostly about that in a defense where they have you going on almost every play.
*** GET BIGGER/SMALLER/FASTER: It happens every summer. Some guys have to keep losing weight like Zach Banner and Damien Mama, or keep it on like Chad Wheeler, Malik Dorton, Quinton Powell and Ronald Jones. Speed has to keep improving as a team. It could be one of the Trojans’ big edges again after disappearing for far too long. This team will be big enough. No question there. And fast enough if they keep working at it and plays to it. We’ll let you know on the weight battle by August. It’s at least trending in the right direction. And it’s a part of the whole team toughness gauge. It’s not just one or two guys here but what they do for their teammates.
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