There was very little coach instruction as the players hit their position group drills running. Standing on the sideline, I couldn't figure out on which group to focus my attention.
The defensive backs might be my favorite story of the coming year, mostly because of the secondary's play last season and partly because Kevin Ellison and Josh Pinkard are two of my favorite players to watch. I settled in on that drill just in time to watch Terrell Thomas sky along the sideline and grab an interception before coming down and tucking the ball away.
But as I watched the secondary, I had a nagging suspicion that I was missing great catch after great catch from the talented and dynamic wide receivers. So sure enough, my eyes darted to the right and were greeted by Dwayne Jarrett bobbling a sharp slant pass off his chest only to reach his left hand toward the ground and grab the ball before it could touch grass – all in one motion, of course. And by that time, the linebackers were running drills to my left and I needed to see who was starting and who was moving well. The offensive linemen were working with three new starters, Chauncey Washington was getting carries at the tailback spot and John David Booty and Mark Sanchez were taking turns firing bullets all over the field.
Really? I'm supposed to take this all in and write about it in a way that illustrates the happenings on the field and my reactions to them in a concise and logical manner? I contend that it isn't possible. But, since a blank spot can't very well run here, I'll do my best.
There aren't many ways that I'd prefer to spend my time than watching the first day of Trojan football practice. If Willy Wonka's factory was a real place or my girlfriend wasn't in Washington D.C., I could probably come up with a few places I'd rather have been at 3:00 on this Thursday afternoon, but it would have been a tough decision.
Of course, watching the 2006 team take the field is such a small part of what being at this practice is all about. This team is already shaping up to be one of my favorites. And every single reason for that is embodied in the transition from Darnell Bing to Kevin Ellison at the strong safety position.
Darnell Bing was a fine player during his career at USC. He was the starting safety for three consecutive years and during that time, I can't count two occurrences where he was beat deep for a touchdown. He was the consummate last line of defense. However, no matter how well Bing played or what his stats read at the end of each game or season, nothing could live up to the hype he brought with him when he entered USC. True, the number 20 was "un-retired" for him, but he wasn't the one writing his own press clippings. He wasn't proclaiming himself the next Ronnie Lott. He just wanted to come play football, and he did it very well. No other safety during the past three years would have played that position better than Bing.
But as we transition from the 2005 Trojans to the 2006 version, Kevin Ellison steps into the spotlight at strong safety. Now, if you as a fan or a coach are expecting the same thing of Kevin Ellison as you were from Darnell Bing, you're making Ellison's job very difficult. And that's on top of the fact that you're flat-out lying.
Ellison should have a solid, possibly spectacular, season and career at USC. He is a fantastic talent. I've already said that he's one of my favorite players and coaches and teammates alike have expressed very high opinions of him. But Ellison is lucky because he's in a position where he is able to overachieve, where Darnell Bing could only either meet expectations or underachieve.
And all of that is all just a long-winded way of saying that the 2006 team is full of promise, possibility and potential, while the 2005 team was truly a victim of its own success. They could do nothing but win the National Title. Anything less would be, and was, something of a disappointment, even though 116 other teams would have traded places with the Trojans in a heartbeat.
So as the first practice of 2006 got underway, I relished in soaking up the uncertainty surrounding this team. From the quarterback duel to the linebacker shuffle, the kicking questions to the revamped offensive line, this fall session will serve as a blank canvas, awaiting individual players to step up and make their mark. I'd much rather have it that way opposed to last year, when the paint on the National Championship mural was practically dry by this point.
Sharing in some of that uncertainty after practice was Jeff Byers, who apparently will be the last person to learn that the starting left guard spot is his to lose. But Byers, in true 2006 Trojan mentality, downplayed his deserved spot. "I wouldn't say that I have a starting spot yet," he said. "We're all rotating and fighting for spots right now. It's just fun to be out here with the guys. There's no better time to spend in August than with a bunch of guys out here sweating."
"The first day has been great," said Byers. "The O-line has been doing a lot of fun stuff together, you know, living in the dorms and things like that."
With the freshmen participating in the morning session today, Byers, like the majority of his teammates, will get his first true taste of them during tomorrow's full-squad practice. "I haven't had a chance to watch many of the new guys. I've just seen them in summer workouts. I really liked Stanley Havili and Emmanuel Moody. Those guys really stuck out, as well as Allen Bradford."
The three open spots along the offensive line look pretty well wrapped-up. But Byers knows that things can happen suddenly and unexpectedly. "I don't think it matters who starts. Everybody on the line knows each other. We're a family and those are great guys. We've grown to know each other and no matter who's out there – a walk-on to an All-American – we all love each other. We're going to jell no matter what."
Byers provided his thoughts on what his individual goal for the year is. "My goal is the team goal," he said. "Win the Rose Bowl."
Let's hear it for the overachievers.