USC football corrects key mistakes in enthusiastic practice

The encouragement and intensity from the Trojans’ sideline was a recurring theme from Wednesday’s practice.

A photo of Jaxson Dart throwing

Whichever way you look at it, 2021 has been a disappointing year for USC football. The team is 3-4, its head coach was fired two weeks into the season and it suffered an extremely frustrating defeat at the hands of Notre Dame last Saturday. Despite all this, there was no lack of enthusiasm for football noticeable in the way the Trojans practiced on Wednesday in preparation for Saturday’s game against Arizona.

This practice was as high in energy as any that USC had participated in all season, which was clear in everything from warm ups to kick return drills. Everyone, players and coaches alike, were shouting and cheering for just about everything the team did. Players on the sideline during drills even waved towels in the air to help contribute to the overall practice environment.

Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando explained that the increase in intensity was no accident.

“I think [head] coach [Donte] Williams is just making sure that guys understand that you can have a role on the team as far as the 11 guys who are on the field, but you can have a major effect from the sidelines too,” Orlando said. “That’s something that you really don’t, sometimes as a coach, sit there and say, ‘You know what, that’s something that you may need to practice too’ … Those guys have to understand that they’re not out there just to spectate, to just be fans and have the best ticket in the house. They’re there to try to help the team and to create energy, good or bad.”

The intensity of practice did not only come in sideline encouragement, but also in the nature of the drills themselves. With everything the Trojans did on Wednesday, the focus was on doing things quickly and bolstering their workloads from previous weeks.

One example was in the way the USC offense practiced the two-minute drill. While properly executing various passing and running plays is always important, it was just as important to run those plays efficiently in terms of time. Junior quarterback Kedon Slovis needed to get all his teammates set to the line of scrimmage without a huddle as quickly as possible and get the play off. This focus comes off very poor execution of a two-minute situation at the end of the first half against the Fighting Irish, where bad clock management caused the half to run out before the Trojans, who were in field goal range, could attempt a kick.

Another tangible difference could be seen in the way Williams decided to run red zone drills. Usually, these drills had matched one receiver against one defensive back in scoring range, giving coaches a chance to see which player could outperform the other with the ball in the air. This time, the team ran reps with two pass catchers against two players from the secondary.

This adjustment added difficulty for everyone involved. Offensively, it forced Slovis to scan more of the field, instead of locking in on one receiver, while still getting the ball out quickly. Doing so can help neutralize struggles on the offensive line and create more opportunities to score inside the 20-yard line.

This drill also provided a chance to improve the chemistry of the secondary. Defensive backs had to communicate with each other and work together in order to respond to the route combination the receivers ran. For a unit that is becoming increasingly youthful, more complicated drills can be a way for the coaches to get the young players up to speed quickly.

In Saturday’s game, freshman safeties Jaylin Smith and Calen Bullock both got their most substantial playing time so far this season as a part of a less experienced defense. Both players recorded five tackles in the game, career highs for each.

When asked about the performance from his two young safeties last week, Orlando responded, “We thought the environment would kind of overwhelm them a little bit, but it didn’t. They both did a good job in terms of playing some man-to-man, and one of the reasons why we wanted to put them out there is to let them cover. They’re only gonna get better … You’re going to see those guys a lot.”

One last area that increased intensity could be seen was the attention to detail the defensive coaches preached with each drill and rep. There was no tackling during the practice, but that did not mean coaches did not expect cornerbacks to drive toward the ball if receivers caught them short of the end zone. Even when players made interceptions in drills, they were reminded to properly tuck the ball away for maximum ball security during a run-back.

On the quarterback front, freshman Jaxson Dart looked as comfortable as he has since he suffered a torn meniscus in September. Dart continued to wear a knee brace, but participated fully in all drills. He was able to move around inside the pocket and scramble out at full speed in order to extend a play. While it is unlikely that Williams will name a starting quarterback prior to Saturday’s game against Arizona, it appears that Dart will be more than ready to play if and when his number is called upon.

With an intensity among players at its highest level yet and coaches preaching improvement in key weak points from previous games, the Trojans are as locked in as ever to earn a win at home on Saturday afternoon.