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USC's football team practices like it plays

USC's football team practices like it plays

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A passing glance at any USC message board confirms Trojan fans everywhere wonder what’s wrong with their football team. After a 2-2 start, they are willing to question everything the coaches do. That ranges from play calling to scheming to the structure of practices. Even the strength and conditioning program is being questioned by angry USC fans.

All for good reason. It’s all fair game. The Trojans shouldn’t be playing this badly, ever. turned to the experts for answers. We asked former USC football players Alex Holmes and Scott Huber for their opinions. We also turned long-time USC reporter Scott Wolf. 

When we asked Wolf about the differences between the way Pete Carroll ran a practice and the way Clay Helton runs practice, Wolf said the two aren’t even comparable.

“He tries to run it like Carroll or what he thinks Carroll did without seeing a Carroll practice,” Wolf said of Helton.

Wolf feels this leads to players wasting time and energy leading up to game day.

“Helton’s practices are a lot less physical and productive,” Wolf said. “There are a lot of people running around but not a lot is getting done.”

Huber said Carroll was excellent at managing his time before a game. The experience he had with Carroll greatly differed from what he had with Carroll’s predecessor, Paul Hackett. Now it seems USC could be falling back into those Hackett-esque practices with Helton.

Huber thinks that might be the case. To him, this team seems too talented to have multiple losses in just four games.

“It wasn’t just the practices,” Huber said of Carroll. “His structure was instituted across the board. Didn’t matter who it was, coach, staff, tutor. If they weren’t giving a competitive effort they were called out. He kept his promises and followed through on his threats, no matter who it was. He brought equity, name meant nothing, past meant nothing, performance is all that mattered.  Maximum effort was expected. A maximum winning effort was rewarded. If you didn’t compete you got embarrassed. Not by the head coach in the newspaper, like Hackett liked to do. By your teammates, they would embarrass you and you would be left behind.”

Helton has used motivation tactics to embarrass his players before, but with some major differences. He’s rarely critical in a public setting, even when the poor play happened in a very public setting. But in private, Helton will do what it takes in an attempt to motivate. According to sources, the USC head coach held a fiery team meeting prior to a 39-36 win over Washington State. But the target of Helton’s ire were players who don’t have significant roles on the team.

That can isolate and upset talented football players. Even if they seem like lost causes for USC, you never know where production will come from in the future. Holmes said he doesn’t ever believe talent is USC’s issue. He thinks it takes the right person to cultivate that talent.

“The success engine to our teams was the environment we practiced in,” Holmes said. “Every day was a battle for those championship teams. It wasn't that there was a huge increase in the talent. It was that guys didn’t want to be embarrassed. You didn’t want to be the guy getting called out in front of the team. So every practice, every drill, every conditioning exercise was a full blown competition.”

The practice field was an equal opportunity judge, jury and executioner for Carroll’s teams. Now Howard Jones Field hosts practices that feel more like youth soccer. It feels like participation trophies are given to everyone, coaches don’t criticize and soccer moms look on proudly of the utopia they’ve created.

Much like what comes after the mini-van (or crossover?) ride home for an elemenary school athlete, outside the walls of Howard Jones field, that utopia disappears. For players who are just trying to develop, that utopia can become a hell in Helton’s office.

Helton’s attitude in private might be justified. USC football isn’t AYSO soccer, afterall. But that attitude needs to be seen in public and with all players, whether they’re the face of the program or a bench riding scrub. 

Because that’s not the case, practices aren’t far off from AYSO level. Everyone knows the old football saying, you practice how you play. The energy level of the Trojan football team shouldn’t feel similar to the energy level on the Simi Valley Land Shark Youth League soccer team.

Unfortunately, that’s just how it’s feeling these days on USC’s campus. And these days means everything after Carroll. The pussyfooting in shorts and t-shirts started with Lane Kiffin. He was afraid his NCAA-sanctioned roster would be decimated by full-contact practices.

That idea was proven to be flat out stupid. Kiffin’s later teams failed. Unfortutnely stupid is contagious and it affected the USC coaches who hung onto the program for years and years after Kiffin left. Those coaches run the program now. 

Maybe that’s why USC players on this team aren’t fit to hold jock straps belonging to players at Stanford and Texas. It’s hard to imagine the Cardinal and the Longhorns don’t hit each other in practice.

It’s also hard to imagine a practice setting that’s less competitve than USC’s now.

“The energy level is lower because the players don’t feel the same sense of urgency to compete,” Wolf said of Helton’s practices compared to Carroll’s.

Physical practices under Pete Carroll where the norm. Now it seems like USC players are regularly in shorts and t-shirts, getting verbal teaching sessions from boring old men.

It’s a stark and clear change.

“Once he got the effort he was looking for in a drill or session, he would immediately move on,” Huber said of Carroll. “I guess that was kind of the reward. We hit full speed, Tuesday through Thursday. Full game speed hitting, but with purpose. All installation and technical teaching happened before practice or in meetings. You were expected to know you assignment when you came out to practice. You were expected to do that on your own time.  It’s the intangible that made the difference. The talent was the same. That extra 10 percent he got from everyone. Simple things, like the strength coach, making protein shakes and forcing you to down them after lifting. Seems small but made a huge difference.”

On top of all these potential practice issues, USC teams don’t only seem less prepared under Helton. It’s not just about focus or energy or a lack of understanding when it comes to the play book. This USC team seems to be smaller and weaker than Trojan teams of the past. 

Scott Huber believes that might be because of a change in the strength of the conditioning program. That change is obviously for the worst.

“When the strength staff came in, the first thing they did was show us the lifting numbers from the Nebraska Cornhuskers national championship team of 1995,” Huber said of Carroll’s coaches. “Considered the strongest team ever at the time. They had  22 guys who had hit 405 bench, 315 clean, and 500 squat. His goal was to surpass that in a year, and we did. It gave us a benchmark for greatness, if we were stronger then the 95 huskers, we could bully anybody. With Carroll we spent considerable less time on the field and in the weight room, yet everyone was getting stronger, faster, better. He arranged practice so that there was no learning curve, or explaining going, only competition and full speed effort.” 

Carroll’s approach led to an immediate change at USC. With a similar roster to the 2000 team that finished tied for last in the conference, Carroll won the Orange Bowl, a share of the Pac-10 and finished in the top five in 2002. 

Maybe USC’s next coach has a chance to succeed then. It doesn’t seem like Helton has enough time to figure it out.

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