The beginning of the end is near.
He is ready. He’s been preparing for Wednesday’s fall camp check-in since Saturday, the day after the team’s final player-run practice.
“I knew [it was my final season] since January, since the beginning of spring,” Hutchings said. “I approached spring that way and I approached the beginning of the summer the same way. I've known that the whole time. I think that there's a few guys that know that they have to step up.”
With 39 games played, Hutchings is one of the most experienced Trojans, but he has yet to leave a lasting impression with 52 career tackles and one interception while making two career starts. That has driven him this offseason.
Hutchings has been one of the vocal leaders as USC makes the transition to Clancy Pendergast Round 2. With Cameron Smith recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, Hutchings has stepped in as the leading candidate at the MIKE linebacker position. By the end of the summer, Smith was “back doing everything with the team” during conditioning and workouts, according to Hutchings, but Smith did not go during the voluntary player-run practices.
The timetable for Smith’s return is still to be determined, but Hutchings is preparing himself for the role regardless of Smith’s status going forward.
“I think as far as playing ball, I just need to continue what I did in the spring as far as being a leader, being a vocal leader, leading the defense, getting the young guys lined up and calling the plays as far as being the MIKE linebacker on the defense.
“As far as my play, I know that I have to just outplay the guy that's next to me. I don't want to make it seem like that, but we know there is competition in our [linebackers] room. We've had the best competition through the spring and the summer in our room.”
During the spring, Pendergast kept things simple, focusing on installing everything so that the players would be able to continue to work through the playbook during the summer. In the fall, he expects the players to pick up right where they left off in the spring rather than needing refreshers on assignments, alignments and playcalls.
Pendergast wants his veteran defenders playing at full speed immediately. There’s no time to be hesitant when the defending national champions are sitting at the top of the schedule.
“Once we hit camp, we're going to roll because Clancy has installed everything in the spring,” Hutchings said. “The freshmen have got to play a little bit of catchup, which is what we tried to introduce them to at the tail-end of the summer.”
With the focus on installment in the spring, Pendergast didn’t move players around between positions. That could be a more viable option in the fall. Instead of battling for the MIKE or WILL linebacker positions, there is some interchangeability between the two spots, making it a competition for both inside linebacker positions.
“It’s an open competition at both. Nothing is set in stone. I'm going into camp with that same mentality I came into the spring with -- that I have to show my best ball to get one of those two positions.”
If the offseason is an indicator, Hutchings has a great opportunity to grab one of those two spots. He was part of the leadership cadre that produced the strongest offseason of his USC tenure.
“As far as the culture of summer, we went five days a week for 10 weeks, two were voluntary weeks. It was a grind. The leadership, the guys stepping up, all the egos mixing — I think it's one of the best mixes we've had since I've been here. The guys have seen things go wrong and all the guys that have been here are fixing the things that went wrong in the past.”
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