Does it matter what the Trojans look like, or what they do, in the summer?

So what if summer workouts look good, the critics say, they always look good. They don't predict anything. Everybody looks good this time of year.

Don't tell them that Ronald Jones is bigger, stronger, quicker, no longer a freshman.

Of course, he is. As to that bigger part, we asked Ronald and he told us. By the end of the spring, he said he'd put on 10 pounds -- up from 185 to 195 -- and he looks a Whataburger or two bigger than that now.

But that's the sort of talk critics hear every year here. And they don't want to hear it any more. Win a national championship and then we'll talk, they say. We don't want to get our hopes up and have them dashed again.

What if these USC players actually are bigger, leaner, stronger, faster, quicker, tougher and still they don't beat Alabama Sept. 3? How do the fans here keep from being all deflated, discouraged, and dispirited?

No, don't tell us these things, they say. We don't want to hear them. We're putting our fingers in our ears. You can't make us listen. We can't handle the good news, such as summer workout reports might be.

Sure, there may be a point to the fact that 75 Trojans regularly turn out for the player-run practices, not counting the new incoming freshmen, more than at any time in the last decade. And yeah, that's just math -- counting heads and comparing numbers. No opinion there at all. Just the facts.

But going all Joe Friday on the summer doesn't guarantee a win over Stanford Sept. 17 so they don't want to hear the numbers and get their hopes up. Wait until USC gets back to the Rose Bowl, they say, then get back to them.

We agree on some of that. The fall is what matters. Summer is just the setup. We doubt you can have a good fall result without a good summer.

But you can probably have a good summer without the fall turning out so well. We know you can. That's pretty much been the story here.

Just two summers ago, the whole emphasis here was on tempo. Sark wanted these guys up to speed. And there they were, running more than 100 plays in 60 minutes. It was tempo, tempo, tempo. And it was as fast as advertised.

Sure, it wasn't always perfect. Or well-designed. But it was fast. And then September arrived. And the roster numbers crunch hit. And after the Fresno State opener, there was no more tempo. No more playing fast. No more practicing fast.

Then somehow, USC dodged a bullet -- or a whole bunch of them -- against a Stanford team on the road that couldn't figure out what to do the seven times it got into USC's red zone and the Trojans won a game they shouldn't have that was played at the speed of slow in Palo Alto. So forget the summer.

Slow would be the way to go.

And then the rest of the season kicked in. Summer, fall, it didn't matter at all. This was a team that didn't know what to do or how to do it when the slow-down games got here and you had to physically inflict your will on your opponent.

So what if they sped through the summer by then. They walked through the fall. And not very well. The summer didn't prepare them for that.

Here's the point. One thing that did happen the last handful of summers was a realization that the veteran quarterbacks and the coaches, the longer they were together, the less they seemed to be on the same page by the time they were seniors. Not that that was obvious until well into the fall. But it was there. And we noted as much, even if they wouldn't come out and say it.

But then in two of the last three seasons, something much more was amiss, much more disconnected.

USC football and the two head coaches who had to be fired in midseason were clearly not on the same page. That's a disconnect with no historical precedent in major college football. No program has ever had to get rid of two head coaches in two of three seasons during the season.

When you have to fire your coach in October, what the team was doing in June and July doesn't much matter.

That's always been the case. We don't get to write about and evaluate the coaches this time of year because they're mostly not allowed to be here. And when they are, we're not allowed to be there and cover the conditioning workouts they oversee.

So what we have are the players doing what they do. And of course they're improved compared to where they were a year ago -- or almost always are. But if we say Rasheem Green is leaner and quicker, that only means that he's leaner and quicker in Year 2 than he was in Year 1.

It does not mean that he's the next coming of Leonard Williams. And while we think that's obvious, maybe it isn't. Could he be? Probably not. But he could be pretty good. And better than the people he's playing against. But not in the summer. No one is.

And sure, we can say that the scheme looks better suited to this team's talents, on both offense and defense, but that's only saying they have a chance to be better. Not that they will be. That's of course to be determined by how they play.

Were the five senior D-line guys in better shape and more ready to play last fall than in the previous season, although without Leonard? They were. Were they still playing the standaround, hold-your-ground two-gap game that Justin Wilcox favored? They were.

Was that good enough? Obviously not. Nothing they could do in summer could make up for what didn't happen in the fall with their coaches.

That's always the caveat here. Coaching counts a lot. Look at 2013. The same team that lost at home against Washington State, scoring just one touchdown, would come back two months later with a new head coach and beat a fifth-ranked Stanford team while playing just 12 on defense.

So yes, Zach Banner and Damien Mama are down 30 to 50 pounds. And Chad Wheeler is up 25.

And the freshmen look pretty good. Hey, they should. This is USC. Good players come here. Year after year after year. Good head coaches . . . not so much.

Now we have another one. We'll report on Clay Helton later in the week. But this is about the players and what we see.

There are more players to look at and talk about. More O-linemen and tight ends and running backs and wide receivers and DBs and LBs and even QB's who look like they can play. And while this isn't a totally veteran, proven cast, it's veteran enough.

That's what we're seeing. Will it be enough against Alabama and Stanford in the first three weeks of the fall? Maybe. Maybe not.

Summer isn't the season. Summer is getting ready for the season. Summer is about the buy-in -- for conditioning, weight work, nutrition, timing, teamwork -- all those things we talk about.

As Clay has been preaching, It's about the four T's for this team. Technique is the first and that's obvious. They're getting lots of it, more 11-on-11 work than in the years we've been here. But without pads, it's just partial technique, just a beginning.

Toughness is next. And while it looks like they're getting more done in conditioning, we're only guess-timating here. We don't have the actual data.

Togetherness seems obvious from the numbers. They're all here. And from watching what they're doing, and talking to them at the end of the spring, there's been a big buy-in on both sides of the ball. Again, what happens when the game goes live is the key. Do they stay bought in then? But we'll say there is far more a sense of family than in the previous two head coaching regimes. Again, more on that later in the week.

And finally, there is trust. Does what they do here build that within the team from player to player, coach to player and coach to coach? We can't know that now.

We'll know more starting Sept. 3. But we can see what we see in the summer and say it looks like they have a chance. Because they do.

But this is a case of summer showing us what they might be able to do not what they will do. 


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