USC Trojans: Pac-12

Four more spring games are set for Saturday, at which point more than half the Pac-12 will be done with spring ball. You know what that means ... the countdown to fall camp begins!

Here is quick peek at the four games being played this weekend:

Arizona State

Where: Sun Devil Stadium
Kickoff: 11 a.m. PT
TV: Pac-12 Arizona (replays throughout the week)

What to watch: When there are steaks on the line, like there will be in this one, you can pretty much guarantee a competitive atmosphere. Instead of an offense vs. defense scoring system, coach Todd Graham broke up the team with a good amount of starters on each side. Starting quarterback Taylor Kelly will lead the maroon team and Mike Bercovici will quarterback the gold team, but the with nine starters departed off last season's defense, it's that side of the ball that will be worth paying attention to. Running back D.J. Foster, who has battled a minor toe sprain throughout the spring, will see limited action despite a clean bill of health. Former Arizona State quarterback Jake Plummer will serve as the analyst on the Pac-12 Arizona broadcast.

USC

Where: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum
Kickoff: 3 p.m. PT
TV: Pac-12 Networks (replays throughout the week)

What to watch: It would have been a lot more fun if coach Steve Sarkisian waited until after the spring game to announce Cody Kessler as the starting quarterback. That way everyone could have overanalyzed the competition based on one meaningless game. But really, who are we kidding? The overanalyzation will go on regardless -- and Sarkisian did leave the door open for Max Browne to work his way back into the mix. It'll be interesting to watch both Kessler and Browne operate the up-tempo offense Sarkisian brought with him from Washington and how a rebuilt offensive line stacks up against a talented defensive front. The guys from WeAreSC kick around much more to pay attention to in this roundtable discussion.

Utah

Where: Rice-Eccles Stadium
Kickoff: 1 p.m. MT
TV: Pac-12 Mountain (replays throughout the week)

What to watch: It'll be good to see quarterback Travis Wilson back under center in a game-like situation again, and even more intriguing because he'll be running new coordinator Dave Christensen's offense against the Utes' base defense. While the setting won't showcase the depths of the playbook, the Cliffs Notes version should provide enough to develop a better understanding of how things will be different next season. The clock will operate as it would in a regular game during a pair of 10-minute quarters in the first half and will use a running clock in the second half after an eight-minute halftime. If you're planning on attending, a food competition and MUSS football game will be held at 11 a.m. MT, with an alumni football game to follow at noon.

Washington

Where: Husky Stadium
Kickoff: 1 p.m. PT
TV: Pac-12 Washington (replays throughout the week)

What to watch: Is Shaq Thompson the new Myles Jack? It has been a major storyline in Seattle throughout the spring how the talented linebacker -- and former minor-league baseball player -- is working with the offense. And after watching his some of his high school highlights, it's understandable why new coach Chris Petersen is intrigued by letting him go both ways. Any time there's a brand new coaching staff, the spring game carries a little extra sizzle, but it should also be noted those games aren't necessarily always as telling due to the lack of time the players have spent with the staff. It's a lot of fundamentals, a lot of evaluation, and the scope of what is accomplished is different when compared with schools with established staffs that are familiar with their rosters. Petersen has installed about 50 percent of the playbook. With Cyler Miles still suspended, quarterbacks Jeff Lindquist and Troy Williams top the depth chart and will make their cases to replace the departed Keith Price.
Happy Friday!
A week ago, the official trailer for When the Game Stands Tall, a movie inspired by Bay Area football powerhouse De La Salle High was released.

It stars Jim Caviezel as legendary coach Bob Ladouceur, who guided the Concord, Calif., school to a famed 151-game winning streak from 1992 to 2004. The movie is based on the book of the same name written by Neil Hayes, who had unrestricted access to the team in 2002 -- the senior year of future UCLA and NFL star Maurice Jones-Drew.

[+] EnlargeBob Ladouceur
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports Bob Ladouceur coached De La Salle High to a 151-game winning streak from 1992 to 2004.
I grew up 20 minutes from De La Salle and have followed the program since elementary school, so it was an especially intriguing trailer for me, but the storyline should have mass appeal for Pac-12 fans, especially those at Oregon.

What jumped out quickly from the trailer was that the movie does not depict the year in which Hayes, then a Contra Costa Times sports columnist, spent with the team. Instead, it will focus heavily on the circumstances around the 2004 death of linebacker/running back Terrance Kelly, who was shot two days before he was set to leave to begin his college career -- along with De La Salle teammates Cameron Colvin, Jackie Bates and Willie Glasper -- at Oregon.

"It starts with the championship game in 2003 with T.K. and those guys as seniors," said Hayes, who served as an official consultant on the movie. "Then it goes into the offseason, [Ladouceur's] heart attack, T.K.'s death -- it was crushing for the community -- and then goes into the 2004 season."

For more worthwhile reading about Kelly's lasting impact, go here, here and here. His final game was the last of De La Salle's streak.

The Spartans opened the next season with a 39-20 loss to Washington state power Bellevue at CenturyLink Field. I was a sophomore at Washington State at the time, had read Hayes' book, and so had several of my friends. For them -- some from Hawaii, some from the Seattle area -- De La Salle was some sort of mythical creature, and at their urging we made the Pullman-to-Seattle road trip to see the game.

Nearly 300 miles to see a high school football game. As college students. That's the kind of allure De La Salle had.

Seven players currently on Pac-12 rosters attended De La Salle: Cal's Michael Barton and Austin Harper (freshman year only); Oregon State's Tyler Anderson, Terron Ward and Dylan Wynn; Stanford's Austin Hooper; and USC's Michael Hutchings. Three more will join the conference for fall camp: Sumner Houston (Oregon State), Kevin Griffin (Washington State) and Dasmond Tautalatasi (Arizona State).

As with any inspired-by-real-life movie, there are some creative liberties that don't follow reality.

For example, the movie will feature a game between De La Salle and Southern California's Long Beach Poly, the supposed No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country, which actually took place in 2001. Jones-Drew, then sans the Jones, had a game people still talk about, and, of course, re-live on YouTube.

"It's done for dramatic purposes and there are some new characters ... not every character comes from De La Salles," Hayes said. "But those liberties that were taken were done so with pure motives."

The football scenes were orchestrated by stunt coordinator Allan Graf, a starter on the offensive line for the 1972 USC national championship team that finished 12-0. Graf is a fixture in the industry and has been a stunt coordinator on several other football films including Friday Night Lights, Any Given Sunday, Gridiron Gang, The Replacements, The Waterboy, Jerry Maguire and The Program.

"This was some of his best work," said Hayes, in terms of how realistic the football scenes are.

At one point during filming, Ladouceur and longtime defensive coordinator Terry Eidson, portrayed by Michael Chiklis, traveled to Louisiana, where the movie was shot.

"You have all these movie stars there, but when those guys got there, they were the celebs," Hayes said.

Ladouceur retired following the 2012 season after 34 seasons with a career record of 399-25-3, but remains on staff as an assistant to Justin Alumbaugh, a UCLA graduate. Before deciding to remain on staff as an assistant, Ladouceur drew interest from 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh to serve in a consulting role.

USC coach Steve Sarkisian and LSU coach Les Miles have cameos in the movie, which includes some shots at Isidore Newman School, which produced Peyton Manning and Eli Manning.
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LOS ANGELES -- When the day comes that USC football needs a culture change, touchdowns will be worth 10 points, swine will take to flight and I’ll win a Brad Pitt look-alike contest.

USC football is a culture unto itself. It knows what it is with its 11 national championships, 32 bowl wins and six Heisman Trophy winners. Changing coaches doesn't have to be synonymous with changing culture, especially after you won 10 games the previous season.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsNew USC coach Steve Sarkisian is embracing the school's standard for winning.
Perhaps a culture restoration might be in order, however, following a tumultuous 2013 that fractured the fan base and divided the devout.

Enter Steve Sarkisian, a top lieutenant of the Pete Carroll era who left to make his mark in the Pacific Northwest and returns to Troy unfazed by the championship-or-bust mentality.

"All of these guys come here to be the best, and that reminded me why I came back here. I want to be the best," Sarkisian said. "This place breeds that environment, that culture. That jumps out at you the moment you are on campus.

"You can go back 50 years of USC football. Every decade they have gone on a run: The 2000s and the run that Pete [Carroll] had; the 90s and what Coach [John] Robinson was able to do; The 80s, the era there with Rodney Peete and everything, and the early 80s what they were doing into the 70s with Coach [John] McKay and the run that he had and into the 60s, and it goes on. I just feel like now is our time. We’re about due for another run. Here we go, and we’ve got half the decade left to do it. I have a firm belief that we can because history tells us that we should."

Of course, that run can’t start until the Trojans officially kick off the 2014 season on Aug. 30 against Fresno State. In the meantime, there is only so much the new coaching staff can do to win back the hearts and minds of skeptics still smarting the final mediocre months of the Lane Kiffin era.

Public opinion was already down following a massively disappointing 7-6 season in 2012. It crested when Kiffin was fired following a blowout loss to Arizona State in the fifth game of last season. That begat the brief Ed Orgeron era, which included a 6-2 record -- though losses to rivals Notre Dame and UCLA were contributing factors to Orgeron not getting the job. After Sarkisian was announced as coach, Orgeron stepped down and Clay Helton led the Trojans to a 45-20 win over Fresno State in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl. Helton was retained as offensive coordinator, and, at least for now, there is stability in the football office.

With crippling sanctions in the past, Sarkisian & Co. made a huge national statement by landing the league’s top-ranked recruiting class, which included lauded prospects Adoree' Jackson, Juju Smith and Damien Mama. Sarkisian has opened up spring ball to the public and done everything possible to reunite the fan base.

"Ultimately, it’s going on the field and performing and doing what we’re here to do and that’s win football games," Sarkisian said. "Are we going to try to win them all? There’s no doubt we are. Are we going to win them all? I don’t know. I don’t know. The football is shaped a funny way for that very reason. It bounces in funny directions sometimes. But you have to put yourself in position to be successful, and I think we’re doing that."

Helton, one of just two holdovers from the Kiffin era (along with receivers coach Tee Martin), understands the expectations from his time on campus. Even defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, who was Sarkisian’s defensive coordinator at Washington, is prepared for the fact that a 10-win season might not be good enough for USC’s standards. In his mind, those expectations shouldn’t be daunting. They should be embraced.

"If that’s what you’re worried about, then you don’t come here," Wilcox said. "That’s what you sign up for. We expect to win. We should be good. We should win championships. I don’t think about like that [as daunting]. If I did, or if any of us did, we shouldn’t come here. But every one of us jumped at the opportunity to come here. The expectations are extremely high, but that doesn’t change how we operate. That wouldn’t say much about you as a coach: 'Now you’re really going to work hard because you're at USC.' It shouldn’t matter if it’s Division III or high school or USC. You coach to be the best you can be."

Video: USC OC Clay Helton

April, 17, 2014
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Kevin Gemmell talks with USC offensive coordinator Clay Helton about spring ball and position battles.

Simmons an X-factor on USC O-line 

April, 17, 2014
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LOS ANGELES -- USC Trojans fans will be flocking to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Saturday for not only a controlled spring game, but a first-hand look at head coach Steve Sarkisian’s breathless no-huddle offense and new multiple-scheme defense.

In addition, attendees will also have an opportunity to scrutinize the individual progress of the returning quarterbacks, the promised power-running attack, the monster-sized defensive line, and the general intrigue of a new program.

What fans of the Men of Troy won’t be seeing is a finished offensive line product due to a couple “X-factors.” One of those X-factors is returning senior starter Aundrey Walker, who is still recovering from a broken ankle and won’t play on Saturday.

However, there is a perhaps a more captivating X-factor, a young player who could have a major impact in both the offensive line’s immediate future and down the road.


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Video: USC linebacker Hayes Pullard

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
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Kevin Gemmell talks with USC linebacker Hayes Pullard about spring ball and the transition to a new coaching staff.
What is your team's best quarter? Worst? And what does it mean?

While it's probably a mistake to read too much into how a team does quarter by quarter -- the final score is what counts -- it might provide some tidbits of insight.

The baseline, of course, is this: Good teams are going to win most every quarter and bad teams will lose most every quarter. But what does it mean if your team starts fast or slowly? Or owns the third quarter? Or sputters in the second?

The conventional wisdom is teams that do well in the third are good at making halftime adjustments, but coaches often snort at such talk.

Former Arizona State coach Dirk Koetter once painstakingly walked reporters through the halftime process to help them understand the small window for making significant schematic changes. Former Oregon coach Chip Kelly was at his snarky best -- even as he was being flattered -- when asked about "halftime adjustments."

Kelly, however, would admit that the occasional slow start by his offense was due to a feeling out period, where he and his assistants were taking the measure of what a defense was trying to do. That's the nature of football -- punching and counterpunching, reading and reacting.

Still, you probably shouldn't read too much into these numbers. While it's interesting that UCLA and Washington were very good in the third quarter last year while Arizona State -- curiously -- was not, the salient fact is the Sun Devils beat both.

 
  • Arizona, Oregon, UCLA and Washington were the only Pac-12 teams to win every quarter.
  • California was the only Pac-12 team outscored in all four quarters. The Bears gave up 181 points in the first quarter, the worst defensive quarter in the conference.
  • The highest scoring quarter belonged to Arizona State, with 192 points in the second. Washington had 184 points in the third and Oregon 182 points in the first.
  • The best defensive quarter was USC in the first, holding foes to 37 points. Washington yielded 44 in the first and UCLA gave up 44 in the third.
  • Arizona State was dominant in every quarter, other than the third, when it was outscored 109-99.
  • Stanford was dominant in every quarter other than the fourth, which it lost 85-92, suggesting the Cardinal didn't fight for a large margin of victory.
  • Oregon was dominant in all four quarters and, despite that, posted the best fourth-quarter margin of 78 points (137-59), suggesting the Ducks enjoyed producing a large margin of victory.
  • Stanford yielded 60 or fewer points in each of the first three quarters. Oregon did so in the third and fourth (47 points and 59 points). Only three other teams produced even a single quarter with 60 or fewer points: UCLA in the third (44), USC in the first (37) and Washington in the first (44).
  • Colorado was outscored in the first three quarters but won the fourth decisively, 130-70. That suggests Mike McIntyre's team didn't quit.
  • USC won 10 games last year despite being outscored in both the third and fourth quarters. Only Cal and Washington State matched that dubious distinction.
  • Utah was outscored only in the fourth quarter. Oregon State was outscored only in the first.
  • Washington's 119-point margin (184-65) in the third was the largest for any quarter. Oregon's 109-point margin in the first quarter was second (182-73). Arizona State had the largest second-quarter margin at 77 points (192-115).
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

WeAreSC chat, 2 p.m. PT

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
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On Wednesday, WeAreSC reporter Garry Paskwietz will be chatting some USC football. Paskwietz is the publisher of WeAreSC and has been covering the Trojans since 1997. Send your questions now and join Paskwietz every Wednesday at 2 p.m. PT.
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It wasn’t a dramatic decision accompanied by great fanfare, but it was still notable that USC coach Steve Sarkisian named Cody Kessler the Trojans' starting quarterback after Tuesday’s practice.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesCody Kessler, who threw for 2,968 yards and 20 TDs last season, will once again be running the USC offense after being named the starter on Tuesday.
Sarkisian had said last week that he was getting close to a decision and would likely make the announcement before the end of spring practice. There had been hints throughout the spring that Kessler would be keeping the job he held for the 2013 season, including when Sarkisian said that Kessler was improving at a faster pace than the top challenger, redshirt freshman Max Browne.

Considering that Kessler was the incumbent starter, if he was improving at a more rapid rate than Browne it was a fairly clear sign that Kessler was in the lead position to be named the starter. Still, until the actual word came down from Sarkisian there was always going to be a slight bit of uncertainty.

It wasn’t a huge surprise that Sarkisian made the announcement at this time. Even though the Trojans coach was clear to say that the players will still compete throughout the summer and into fall camp, Sarkisian has long stated a preference to have his starting quarterback in place by the end of spring, in large part to help that player transition into the leadership role in summer workouts.

For Kessler, being named the starter now is a contrast to what happened last year when Lane Kiffin didn’t name a starter until the third game of the season. Both Kessler and Max Wittek later admitted that was difficult for both quarterbacks.

One of the variables in the competition this spring was that the quarterbacks were learning a new up-tempo system that Sarkisian was installing, one that could run up to 120 plays each day in practice. Both players had worked out of the shotgun in similar systems in high school so there was some familiarity, but Sarkisian wanted to see them on the field with no preconceived expectations.

Kessler, who was told of the decision early Tuesday by offensive coordinator Clay Helton, went out and had one of his best practices of the spring later in the day. Sarkisian mentioned several reasons he chose Kessler, ranging from decision-making to his presence in the locker room to his strong arm.

It was the natural choice to make as Kessler is simply more advanced than Browne is at this point, although it's clear that Browne has a bright future. For now, though, Browne will have to continue to wait his turn as Kessler will hold on to his job as the starting quarterback of the Trojans.
As the Trojans prepare to wind down spring ball drills, there won’t be a clear-cut answer on whom will be starting at right guard in the fall.

Khaliel Rodgers has been working with the first unit throughout spring and has done a solid job. The redshirt freshman is known for his tenacious and aggressive nature, and he has made progress adjusting to USC's new up-tempo offense.

[+] EnlargeKhaliel Rodgers
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillRedshirt freshman Khaliel Rodgers, a former ESPN 300 recruit, could start in 2014 for the Trojans.
By the time fall camp rolls around, however, there will be competition in the form of experienced senior Aundrey Walker. With 18 career starts under his belt -- including 10 last season at right guard -- Walker has to be considered a legitimate option, but he will also be coming off a broken ankle suffered in the regular season finale. That injury has forced him to sit out spring ball, which includes an important adjustment period to the speedy pace of play.

Walker has never been known as a player with a great work ethic so it will be interesting to see where his strength and conditioning is when he returns to practice. The fact that his injury is an ankle has prevented him from keeping up with conditioning, and there will be no real way to substitute for that until the ankle is ready. Walker is a big guy, listed on the USC roster at 6-foot-6 and 300 pounds, and that kind of frame will need some time to catch up to the work the other players are doing right now in order to get through 120 high-paced plays per day.

Of course, this is the final year of college eligibility for Walker, the last chance to impress the pro scouts for his potential career. Perhaps that will be the kind of carrot that will motivate him to show up ready to go from the moment fall camp arrives.

If Walker isn’t ready to go -- either with conditioning or with mental knowledge of the playbook -- Rodgers is continuing to make the coaches more and more comfortable with the thought of putting him on the field. That previous starting experience will be important for Walker, though, and you know the coaches will factor that into the equation, too.

WeAreSC caught up with Rodgers to get his thoughts as spring ball enters the final week:

Q: How is spring practice going so far?

A: It’s going great. Everyone is adjusting and doing great so far.

Q: What’s your weight at right now?

A: About 300 pounds.

Q: Is that the weight you’ve been trying to maintain through the spring?

A: Yeah, it’s been up and down a lot, been in the [200s], back up to [300], 310 but I’m 300 even right now.

Q: What’s it been like with [offensive line] Coach [Tim] Drevno?

A: It has been an awesome experience. He’s one of the greatest coaches to come out of the NFL. From the technique he teaches and overall, he’s a team coach and a great coach overall.

Q: How has moving around at guard been?

A: I’ve always been a guard, so moving me from left to right hasn’t been a major difference.

Q: You’ve been playing a lot with the first team, you feel pretty comfortable with that?

A: Yeah, me and the guys are gelling well. I took a lot of reps with them, with the first team, last year at practice. We were able to gel back then, so we are definitely gelling now.

Q: There was a lot of talk of you coming in and playing center, was that something you kind of wanted to do, or do you like it at guard better?

A: Whatever position Coach [Steve Sarkisian] wants me to be at, I’ll play.

Q: How much more prepared do you think you are with the redshirt year under your belt?

A: I’m more prepared just knowing the game, sitting back for a whole year and just watching how the game’s being played. Just football knowledge, I gained a lot of football knowledge.

Q: What’s the scheme been like for you? How different has it been with Sark in there?

A: It is totally different, but it is a scheme that will win games for sure, so we are definitely adjusting.

Q: For you specifically, what has been the difference for you? The protections, the calls, is all that different?

A: Wider splits, up tempo, fast, you’ve got to think faster. Everything is fast, that’s how you’ve got to win games now. Football is evolving and we got to be fast.

Q: Do you like the up-tempo style?

A: Definitely. It kills the morale of the defense.

Q: Is there any issues with conditioning for you as far as the up tempo goes?

A: We all have to get used to it as a team, but we are almost to the end of spring, so we are starting to get used to it now.

Q: You guys are running about 120 plays during practice, do you feel pretty good afterwards or are the last few plays hard?

A: It is definitely a lot of work put in so it’s not a bad feeling, but just to know that you can say you ran 120 plays, that’s a great accomplishment in practice.

Q: What do you think the quarterbacks have looked like back there?

A: All of my QBs are great. They’ve done an excellent job this whole spring.

Q: Max Browne came in with you in your class, what do you think of him so far?

A: Max, he works hard, he’s a work horse, in the film room especially. He’s always in the film room and the weight room, he always puts the extra time in. He’s a great guy.

Q: And you came in with Kenny Bigelow too, you get to face off against him. From the same high school, do you guys talk a lot about that?

A: Nah, high school is done with, it’s just like same ol' same ol', we go against each other all the time.
I remember the stupid things, the mood rings, the bracelets and the beads, the nickels and dimes, yours and mine. Did you cash in all your dreams?
And I said "What about Breakfast at Tiffany's?" … Well, that's the one thing we've got.
1. When USC finished practice Tuesday, center Max Tuerk and quarterback Cody Kessler stayed behind to work on snaps. Tuerk, a junior, has started 14 games at guard and six at tackle. But the Trojans need a center, so he’s learning the position this spring. He learned to tape his fingers -- two rings of tape on two fingers, one ring of tape on the other two -- and to carry a towel, all to keep sweat off the ball. He has learned to stay lower and, as he put it, get his feet in the ground faster. “The more reps you take, you don’t have to think about the snap as much,” Tuerk said. “You can think about the blocks.”

2. UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley is working more under center this spring. “It’s different,” the redshirt junior said. “Being under center and being in the shotgun are two different views. When you are under center, you are right there….You have to take your seven-step drop, push up in the pocket while keeping your shoulders (level).” If Hundley has a peccadillo, it is maintaining the balance of his shoulders. UCLA coach Jim Mora said he wants to work Hundley under center to expand the offense. If it helps Hundley in the 2015 NFL Draft, even better.

3. Stanford wide receiver Jordan Pratt will be 29 years old when the football season begins. He enrolled after spending eight seasons pitching in the Dodgers’ minor-league system. “I’ll make a comment, ‘Yeah, I remember, Sept. 11, 2001, I got called out of my high school class,’” Pratt said. His teammates respond, “‘High school? I don’t even remember that. I was in preschool.’ There is this time gap. Sometimes I relate better to the TAs in my class than I do the other students. It’s a lot easier for me to talk to the professors. It’s a little easier for them to relate, too.”

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