USC Football: New Coaches Contribute To Solid Spring
“I’m very, very pleased with all three,” Lane Kiffin said. “All three coach very hard.”
That was evident after Saturday’s spring game, which the defense won 34-27. With key stops by cornerback Isiah Wiley and a pair of interceptions from safety Drew McAllister and corner Brian Baucham, Sanders’ secondary shined. Hazelton-led linebackers Hayes Pullard and Dion Bailey combined for 11 stops. Budding receiving star Marqise Lee had a few flashy catches, and receiver De’Von Flournoy finally showed off his athletic ability, leading Martin’s receivers with 69 yards.
The hardest coaching, of course, will happen come August, when the Trojans’ fall training camp begins. USC will be eligible for the postseason this fall after a two-year ban, and is already entertaining national championship hopes. That put this year’s spring session, and especially the new coaches, under an unusual amount of scrutiny. But Sanders said they’re not fazed.
“We’ve gotta make sure we continue giving a great effort and cleaning up the small details,” he said. “That’s what’s really big coming into fall camp.”
Between some solid practices and Saturday’s game Sanders’ secondary already had a big spring. He credited returning starters T.J. McDonald and Nickell Robey with helping encourage the younger players to “step up.”
“Anthony Brown has done a tremendous job, and Tony Burnett was doing great [before he switched to linebacker],” he said. “There’s a lot of guys giving a great effort, and that’s all we can ask for.”
“I came in with no expectations, because that’s unfair to the guys,” Sanders said. “They’ve put in incredibly hard work through the course of the spring.”
Kiffin echoed Sanders’ praise of the unit.
“It’s obvious there’s been a lot of improvement there,” he said.
Hazelton’s young group of linebackers has also shown some obvious development in the few short weeks of spring practice. His defensive ends combined for three sacks in the spring game, and linebacker Hayes Pullard, who led the team in tackles last season, topped the squad with six.
“From the time I’ve been here, Hayes has taken the leadership reins,” Hazelton said of the redshirt sophomore. “He gets the guys going and has been a good vocal leader.”
Hazelton also cited another sophomore, middle line backer Lamar Dawson, as a guy who has stepped into a leadership role. The Trojan front seven is young, but after a strong 2011 showing, coaches hope they’ll make up in physicality what they lack in age.
“They’re playing very aggressive, and tackling better,” Kiffin said.
Hazelton has something of a learning curve himself. He came to USC after five seasons at FCS school North Dakota State. Hazelton said while the athletes at USC might be better, the expectations are the same.
“That was a place that was the top of its level, and this is a place that’s at the top of its level now,” he said. “Everybody expects to win, we expect to play in a bowl game, we expect to have success on the field.”
Sophomore Robert Woods and freshman Marqise Lee broke USC’s records for receptions and yards by a pair of receivers in 2011. They’re widely considered to be one of the most dangerous tandems in the country. Martin admitted the opportunity to work with such talented young athletes was a “big” part of his decision to leave Kentucky and head to Southern California.
“They already make me look good, and my job is to take them to the next level,” he said.
It was a bit of a struggle this spring, with Woods out after having ankle surgery for an injury that plagued him much of last season. Another promising freshman, George Farmer, was also limited with a hamstring injury. The lack of depth made it tough to get a clear picture of what the receivers can really do on the field.
“[They’re] harder to evaluate,” Kiffin said. “But [Martin] has done a good job with guys like De’Von Flournoy, who really hadn’t done a lot before.”
Flournoy, in fact, led the team in receiving yards at the spring game. Redshirt freshman Victor Blackwell also saw a lot of reps this spring, and figures to battle for a spot in the rotation. Despite not being able to work with Woods and Farmer on the field, Martin said he’s been able to lay the foundation for a strong relationship with his athletes.
“One thing that’s good about [the lack of depth this spring] is that the guys who were there had a lot more attention to detail,” he said. “I think we got better because of that.”
Martin’s NCAA resume alone has been enough to encourage the championship whispers surrounding this year’s Trojans. He won a title quarterbacking theTennessee Volunteers in 1998. After a productive spring, Martin said that winning mentality is in the air at USC.
“We don’t have to be the best team in the country, but if you’re the best team every Saturday, you end up where you want to be,” he said. “That’s how we thought in my national championship-winning season, and hopefully we can do the same thing here.”