USC Football Team Begins Spring Practice On Saturday

March 25, 2009

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As the 2009 USC football team begins spring football drills this Saturday (March 28) at 10 a.m. for 15 sessions, it is safe to say that the Trojan football program under ninth-year head football coach Pete Carroll has found its groove.

In each of the past 7 seasons, the Trojans have registered an AP Top 4 finish (including national championships in 2003 and 2004), played in a BCS bowl (an NCAA record), captured a Pac-10 crown (a league record) and won at least 11 games (also an NCAA record).

Carroll has turned out 33 All-American first teamers (including 3 Heisman Trophy winners in a 4-year span, plus winners of the Walter Camp, Chuck Bednarik, Johnny Unitas, Doak Walker and John Mackey Awards) and 42 NFL draft picks (including 11 first rounders).

Continuing that 'groove' in 2009 will certainly be challenging, but Carroll--whose mantras are 'Win Forever' and 'Always Compete'--likes nothing better than a challenge.

'We always have high expectations at USC, and 2009 is no exception,' said Carroll, college football's winningest active coach (88-15 for an 85.4% mark). 'Every season presents new and different challenges, as is certainly the case this year, but we do have the ingredients to have another very good team. That's why we're excited to get onto the practice field this spring. It'll be a very competitive time.

'It all starts with our approach during spring ball. The key is to recapture the competitiveness and intensity that we've always played with. I loved how our players worked in the off-season to get ready. Their conditioning and focus was phenomenal, and that should carry over at a high level to spring practice and then into the fall.'

The dates of USC's spring practice are : March 28-31-April 2-3-5-7-9-11-14-16-17-18-21-23-25. Tentative practice times are 4 p.m. on weekdays and 11 a.m. on weekends (except 10 a.m. March 28). The Trojan Huddle scrimmage in the Coliseum is at 1 p.m. on April 25, with tickets available on or through the USC Ticket Office.

USC is coming off a 12-1 season in 2008 (8-1 in the Pac-10) that featured a big early-season home win over No. 5 Ohio State and culminated in a dominant victory over No. 8 Penn State in the Trojans' record fourth consecutive Rose Bowl appearance. Troy ended up No. 3 in the final AP poll.

The Trojans--who have been ranked in the AP Top 25 for their past 91 contests, a school mark--enter 2009 riding some winning streaks: 8 Pac-10 games, 10 overall games, 12 non-conference games, 13 non-conference home games, 27 November games and 28 night games.

USC returns just 12 starters from last fall's squad (9 on offense, only 3 on defense and neither the kicker or punter). In all, 87 squadmen are back from last year, including 68 who saw playing time (58 were lettermen and 39 were on USC's season-ending 2-deep). On the roster are 28 Trojans who have started at least once in their career.

Joining them in 2009 will be 18 new scholarship players, including 1 who enrolled at USC this semester so he could participate in spring practice. For the seventh year in a row, USC's recruiting class was ranked in the Top 10 nationally by the media.

The Trojan offense, despite losing the veteran throw-and-catch combo of quarterback Mark Sanchez and Patrick Turner, is well-stocked in 2009. Last year, USC ranked 11th in total offense (454.7), 14th in scoring offense (37.5) and 20th in rushing offense (194.9) in the nation.

USC's top 4 rushers from 2008 return, including tailbacks Stafon Johnson (1,058 all-purpose yards in 2008, including 705 on the ground with 9 TDs), Joe McKnight (905 all-purpose yards last fall including 659 rushing) and C.J. Gable (875 all-purpose yards with 10 TDs in 2008, with 617 yards coming on rushes), as does 2-year starting fullback Stanley Havili (45 career receptions). All but 2 of Troy's top 11 pass catchers of 2008 are back, including dynamic wide receivers Damian Williams (58 catches, 869 yards, 9 TDs last year) and Ronald Johnson (982 all-purpose yards in 2008 and 33 receptions) and steady tight end Anthony McCoy (22 receptions in 2008). And 2008's offensive line returns intact: All-Pac-10 first team center Kristofer O'Dowd, guards Jeff Byers (a 2-year starter who was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA) and Alex Parsons and tackles Charles Brown and Butch Lewis (tackle Nick Howell and guard Zack Heberer also have significant starting experience).

Still, the loss of Sanchez and Turner can't be discounted. Sanchez, who passed up his senior season to enter the NFL draft, completed 65.8% of his passes for 3,207 yards and 34 touchdowns with 10 interceptions last year. The 2008 All-Pac-10 first teamer led the Pac-10 in passing efficiency (a school record 164.6) and total offense last fall. He wound up ninth on USC's career passing chart and 15th in total offense. Turner, who caught 49 passes for 741 yards and 10 TDs in 2008, finished 10th on the school's all-time receiving ladder with 138 grabs and 30 TDs as a 2-year starter.

The Trojan defense must be revamped after heavy personnel losses. The 2008 unit led the nation in scoring defense (9.0, USC's best mark since 1967), pass efficiency defense (85.8) and pass defense (134.4, USC's best since 1977), plus it was second in total defense (221.8, USC's best since 1967) and fifth in rushing defense (87.4).

Taylor Mays, USC's marquee player, returns for his fourth season as the starting free safety. The hard-hitting 2-time All-American first teamer was a Thorpe Award finalist in 2008 while recording 53 tackles and 9 deflections. Joining him in the secondary is 2-year starting cornerback Josh Pinkard, who has 108 tackles and 3 interceptions in his career (he can also play safety). Like Byers, he was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. USC's only other returning defensive starter is nose tackle Christian Tupou. But there are a number of other defenders available who have starting experience, including end Everson Griffen, safety Will Harris and cornerbacks Kevin Thomas and Shareece Wright.

Those gone from USC's dominant 2008 defense read like a Who's Who. Ferocious middle linebacker Rey Maualuga was a unanimous 2008 All-American first team pick and won the Bednarik Award while notching 79 tackles (he had 273 in his career). Fellow 3-year starting linebacker Brian Cushing also was an All-American first teamer in 2008 while making 73 stops, including 10.5 for losses. And linebacker Kaluka Maiava (66 tackles in 2008) became the third consecutive Trojan to win Rose Bowl Defensive Player of the Game accolades (joining Maualuga and Cushing). Also departed are strong safety Kevin Ellison (a 2-time All-Pac-10 first teamer) and tackle Fili Moala (a 2008 All-Pac-10 first team selection), both 3-year starters, plus both ends--2-year starter Kyle Moore (he was USC's 2008 sack leader) and converted linebacker Clay Matthews--and 3-year starting cornerback Cary Harris, who had 5 career picks.

The Trojans will be breaking in new specialists in 2009, as both 2-year starting placekicker David Buehler and 3-year punter Greg Woidneck have graduated. The strong-legged Buehler--an All-Pac-10 first teamer in 2008--was not only a consistent point scorer (117 PATs and 26 field goals in his career), but he was a weapon as 58.3% of his career kickoffs pinned foes within the 20-yard line. Woidneck--who doubled as Buehler's holder--averaged just 37.7 yards in his career, but that number is deceiving as he punted for hangtime and placement.

But both snappers (long snapper Cooper Stephenson and short snapper Chris Pousson) return in 2009, as do the primary returners, Ronald Johnson and Gable on kickoffs (fifth and 11th, respectively, on the all-time USC kick return chart) and Stafon Johnson and McKnight on punts. USC was second nationally in kickoff returns in 2008 (26.5).

Besides the changes on the USC roster in 2009, there also was some movement within the Trojan coaching staff. There are 3 new fulltime assistants, each who came to USC from the NFL: quarterbacks coach and assistant head coach of the offense Jeremy Bates (Denver Broncos), defensive line coach Jethro Franklin (Houston Texans) and special teams coordinator Brian Schneider (Oakland Raiders). Wide receivers coach John Morton added the offensive coordinator duty, secondary coach Rocky Seto took on the additional role of defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. added the title of assistant head coach of the defense. Justin Mesa went from recruiting and operations assistant to wide receivers graduate assistant. Plus, Mark Jackson (senior associate athletic director) and Matt Capurro (director of football operations) joined the staff from the Raiders' front office.

As usual, USC's schedule is imposing, as half of the teams on the 2009 slate played in bowl games last season (5 won their bowl) and 5 opponents posted at least 8 victories in 2008. After opening 2009 by hosting San Jose State on Labor Day weekend, the Trojans travel to Ohio State for the first time since 1990 for a Sept. 12 clash. Troy then opens its Pac-10 season the following week at Washington, now coached by former USC offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. Two more league contests (versus Washington State and at California) and a bye follow before USC makes its biennial trip to Notre Dame on Oct. 17 aiming for an eighth straight win over the Irish. The Trojans return to conference play on Oct. 24 to host Oregon State, the only team to defeat them in 2008. Games at Oregon and Arizona State follow before USC concludes the regular season with a 3-game homestand: versus Stanford (the Homecoming game on Nov. 14), UCLA following a bye and Arizona on Dec. 5.

Whether at home or on the road, USC football has been a popular attraction lately. In the past 5 years, Troy has averaged at least 85,000 fans in the Coliseum and 72,000 for any game. During Carroll's tenure, USC has set Pac-10 records for home total and average attendance and school standards for overall total and average attendance.

'All 12 games we play are as challenging as ever,' said Carroll, who has won a league record 85.1% of his Pac-10 contests (57-10). 'We know each team will be ready for us. That's why spring practice is vital. It's when we need to start developing our competitive edge.'

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