There’s a lot to like about how this Trojans team is approaching the summer. Of course, even in the toughest of times for scholarship numbers in recent seasons, there always seemed like there was something to like at this time of year.
Because there was.
Mostly it was the talent on the roster. Often it was a new guy. Leonard Williams came on to remind us of all the All-Americans who had preceded him the previous decade. There was that Robert Woods to Marqise Lee to Nelson Agholor to JuJu Smith-Schuster succession at wide receiver.
There was Matt Barkley stepping in and then handing things off to Cody Kessler. And Adoree’ Jackson and Buck Allen, all by themselves, following no one.
Sometimes it was the different approach -- for a time, anyway. That happens with new head coaches although the hard work of summer would often evaporate into the reality of the schedule and practice decisions and gimmicky game planning geared more to survival than anything when stuff started hitting the fan.
So saying what the summer showed wasn’t always all that predictive when the season kicked off. This isn’t exactly an exact science under the best of conditions – which it hasn’t been for at least a half-dozen seasons.
We’re talking football practice here. And where this Trojans team seems to be after the first two summer workouts or player run practices -- PRP’s they call them. And with no ability to talk to the players this month, there’s some guesswork going on here.
But here we go – and this isn’t a guess: This is the best summer work we’ve seen. For a number of reasons.
*** There are more players here than we’ve ever seen in any summer. Some 75 staying for the sessions after an hour of conditioning with the coaches. And that’s without the eight out-of-town incoming freshmen yet. Think of last summer when starting tight end transfer Taylor McNamara didn’t get here until August.
*** There is more of a plan in place with Max Browne, Zach Banner and JuJu the player-coaches on offense while Jabari Ruffin, Michael Hutchings and Chris Hawkins doing the same for the defense.
*** But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The organizing of the workout that had the full defense and the O-linemen heading over from Cromwell Field to Howard Jones/Brian Kennedy Fields for a quick review and walkthrough and then returning in stages for seven-on-seven and 11-on-11 work is something we haven’t seen -- ever.
*** Not to this extent. And for a team morphing into a different approach on offense and transforming itself entirely on defense, this is the only way to do it. This is how the game is played – 11 on 11. And this is how they’re doing it.
*** Then there’s the talk. It’s constant. A mix of good-natured competitiveness carried over from those offense-vs.-defense finishes in the spring and of veterans coaching up the kids at their positions. And the kids asking for help. Every catch or bat-down or juke or forced fumble gets the sideline guys high-fiving from one side or the other.
*** There’s a giggling “Game over” call out from the sidelines when linebacker-turned-fullback Reuben Peters easily pulls in the first pass that comes his way after a rough receiving start Tuesday. They keep going back to him. That’s how this offense works. If you’re open, the ball is supposed to be coming your way. And now he’s catching it. That’s what summer is for.
*** The word is that by the 14th and final summer session in July, the offense will have run every play in the book four times. This does not have to be an offense in transition.
*** It helps that there are two quarterbacks battling to be the one to step in. Max Browne is what we expected him to be. Smart. Solid. Serious. Makes all the throws. As experienced as anyone could expect of a player who hasn’t played. And yet, not a day goes by that Sam Darnold doesn’t make a really tough throw into a tight window look so easy and natural you just shake your head. This is going to be interesting. Pete Carroll’s competition commentary comes into focus here.
*** But it’s the sheer numbers that really call out the competition theme. Every position group but the defensive line has it. And with the 11 on 11 work, everyone gets a chance to play. That hasn’t always been the case.
*** Healthwise, the guys in knee braces – Cameron Smith and Toa Lobendahn – look like they’ll be ready to go in three months. They may be dragging their surgically repaired knees a bit right now and sitting out the team stuff but it looks like they’ll both be back as will Khaliel Rodgers. Hawkins already is back as are John Plattenburg and Michael Pittman. Not sure where Ykili Ross stands but the redshirt freshman is doing work with the true freshmen. Again, about as good as anyone could hope for.
*** Then there’s the conditioning that we don’t see. From the sweat-stained gear of the players – and their coaches – this looks like a group whose workouts are much influenced by Coach Callaway.
So yes, from a lot of ways to look at it, this is the way you’d want it to be if you were a USC fan. Can it carry over? Can the coaches sustain it when they start keeping score when the other 11 in the 11-on-11 competition is an Alabama or Stanford?
That’s the question that only can be answered then, not now. But now matters.
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