USC focused on improvement ahead of Saturday’s game

In Wednesday’s practice, Donte Williams preached consistency, not complacency.

Sophomore defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu in a white jersey flexing after USC's defense made a play in the backfield against Colorado.

In the 2021 football season, the USC Trojans have only been consistent in their instability. They have not won two games in a row yet this season, and suffered a pair of blowout losses at home. Interim head coach Donte Williams seemed quite aware of this reality as the team prepared for their upcoming home matchup against Utah on Saturday.

After the Trojans completed warm-ups in Wednesday’s practice, a frustrated Williams gathered the entire team and emphatically told them they looked flat. He challenged each member of the team, but in particular their leaders, to step up and bring more energy.

Following Williams’ direction the remainder of practice appeared lively. Players were showing increased intensity in drills, and coaches getting hands-on in their corrections of mistakes. The theme from the coaches throughout the day was that the small details still matter.

The sentiment that the Trojans still had a great deal of improvement to do was echoed by defensive coordinator Todd Orlando when asked about his thoughts on the team’s tackling.

“It’s not great, I mean watch the film,” he said. “Collectively we got to get better in space, and that’s where we’ve been struggling right now, just taking angles and just being confident. I think there’s a confidence level that goes into ‘I’m not the only guy out here on the field. There’s gonna be people running to the football.’ And when you have two or three people at the football the percentages go way high up in the air, but when guys are one-on-one there’s some hesitation. We just have to eliminate it.”

The Trojans still have a lot to fix on both sides of the football following last Saturday’s 37-14 victory over Colorado. On the defensive side, the team continued to work on rushing the passer, following the unit’s best performance this season. USC recorded five sacks in the game, more than doubling its output through the first four games of the year. The front seven drilled pass-rushing by shedding blocks as quickly as possible, but as Orlando noted there is a whole lot more that goes into getting pressure on the quarterback.

“I think it all goes back to guys covering,” Orlando said about why the pass rush had so much success last week. “They’re all skillful enough, they’re all taught well enough to be able to get to the quarterback, but it always seems in the past it’s just half a second late. It just goes back to the back end, they did a really good job… Any time those guys do well up front, maybe Drake [Jackson] once in a while will beat someone really really clean, but most of the time it just goes into the quarterback having to get off his first and second read, and you have time to go get him.”

Members of the secondary, in addition to practicing interceptions, did a great deal of work practicing coverages against a mix of offensive packages. They did this work with the understanding that the longer they did their job on the back end, the more time the players up front had to get after the quarterback.

On offense, the big story was freshman quarterback Jaxson Dart’s return to the football field. Two weeks after his meniscus surgery, Dart wore a knee brace, and resumed on-field work with the rest of the team. In Wednesday’s practice, Dart threw to his receivers in individual drills, but did not participate when the drill involved a live defense. He sat out a drill facing an individual receiver against an individual cornerback in short field and red zone situations, meaning he is likely still far away from a return to game action.

In the red zone drill, junior quarterback Kedon Slovis continued to work on timing with all of his receivers in critical situations. The Trojans were better in the red zone last week, scoring touchdowns in three of their four trips inside the 20, but that did not stop the coaches from continuing to try and improve. The drill was very competitive, and Williams often personally intervened after reps to improve the technique of both the receivers and defensive backs.

This practice was certainly an energetic and intense one, as coaches and players aim to do something they have not done all year: build momentum.