USC Trojans: Soma Vainuku
For longtime USC fans, this is music to their ears. The Trojans offense in recent years, while certainly capable of putting up points and yards in bunches, has seen a reduction in the reliance on the philosophy of “big man on big man football.”
It was legendary USC player and coach Marv Goux who made that statement popular, reflecting the tough, blue collar image that defined USC football through the years. USC was known as “Tailback U” for a reason with a seemingly endless supply of quality tailbacks and a pipeline of offensive linemen that were destined for the NFL. It was a pretty good formula that served USC well for a long time.
In recent years, however, the balance of the USC offensive identity has shifted to feature the passing game more. Kiffin has a background as a quarterback who later coached wide receivers, so it’s no secret that he likes to throw the ball around. But Kiffin has always maintained that he wants to have a balanced offense that starts with the run game. You only have to look back as far as LenDale White and Reggie Bush to see how well that can work.
In his first season as head coach of the Trojans, Kiffin did run the ball more than he threw it -- 477 rush attempts to 453 passes. The last two seasons have trended the other direction; 392 rush attempts in both 2011 and 2012 compared to 447 passes in 2011 and 461 in 2012.
Boyd Ivey/Icon SMID.J. Morgan is in the mix for backup carries behind leading rusher Silas Redd.
Running the football is a mentality as much as anything. It takes a commitment that starts with the play calling but ultimately rests with the players, which bodes well for the Trojans in 2013. The USC running back stable is deep and talented -- Kiffin calls it the best overall RB group he’s had at USC -- and it appears ready to go if called upon.
The leader of the group will likely be Silas Redd, the senior transfer from Penn State who led the Trojans in rushing last season. If there is one thing Redd proved in 2012, it’s that he’s a tough runner. That should come as no surprise considering his background in the Big Ten, but his physical running style was also reminiscent of USC running backs from the past. Redd underwent surgery on a torn meniscus during spring ball but is expected to be back for fall camp.
Assuming Redd is the lead ballcarrier, the competition for the primary backup spot is wide open. Right now there would be three primary candidates; Tre Madden, Justin Davis and D.J. Morgan. Madden and Morgan have battled injuries in their USC careers but each possess the kind of skills which could allow them to break out. Madden brings a power game at 225 pounds while Morgan is the speediest of the backs. Davis opened a lot of eyes in spring ball as an early enrollee with a smooth and weaving style of running that was very effective.
There will be others in the mix, as Javorius Allen was much improved this spring and Ty Isaac will arrive this fall bringing a physical element with his 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame.
On top of that, the Trojans have a pair of fullbacks in Soma Vainuku and Jahleel Pinner who will be entering their sophomore seasons while the offensive line features a veteran starting lineup and a new coach in Mike Summers who preaches toughness in the run game.
The ability to run the football as part of the offensive identity will only be one part of the Trojans' offense in 2013, but it might be the most telling in terms of overall success.
Cody Kessler, Max Wittek and Max Browne all had their moments this past spring, but after 15 workouts, USC head coach Lane Kiffin decided that this was a battle that simply needed more time. It was Kessler, right from the get-go, who made the biggest statement with his play, most notably in the scrimmages. Wittek suffered a MCL sprain that caused him to miss a week of workouts, but with tremendous physical skills, he showed enough when he was healthy to keep this competition too close to call. Showing flashes of the talent that made him such a prized commodity coming out of high school, Browne isn’t out if it yet, either, and there’s no telling how far he just might take his game in the coming weeks. And that goes for all three quarterbacks, because with almost three months remaining until the start of fall camp, how they develop this summer will play a key part in determining who will ultimately line up behind center in 2013.
With Nickell Robey declaring early for the NFL draft and Josh Shaw making the move back to safety, the Trojans entered spring ball needing to find two new starting cornerbacks. On the post-spring depth chart, Anthony Brown was listed first on one side, with Torin Harris and Kevon Seymour sharing the other. But with Kiffin openly expressing his disappointment with the performance of this unit, it’s safe to say that both starting jobs remain open for the taking, with Chris Hawkins, Devian Shelton and Ryan Henderson also factoring into the conversation. Additionally, there’s a very real possibility that Shaw will switch back over to cornerback, where he started seven games in 2012. He’s still been lining up at safety during the offseason throwing sessions, though. Kiffin has also opened up the possibility of using star receivers Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor here.
Taking the place of three-year starters T.J. McDonald and Jawanza Starling -- now in the NFL -- for the majority of the spring was Shaw at strong safety and Demetrius Wright at free safety. Two impressive veteran athletes, both ultimately wound up sharing the top spot at their respective positions on the post-spring depth chart with a couple of early entrant freshmen who made a lightning-quick transition to the college game in strong safety Su'a Cravens and free safety Leon McQuay III. Complicating matters further, Dion Bailey and Gerald Bowman are set to return later this summer from injury, and both figure to challenge for a starting role -- particularly Bailey, who will make the transition from linebacker to strong safety. With so much talent, the potential move of Shaw back over to cornerback certainly makes sense on a number of levels.
RB Justin Davis (6-foot-1, 215 pounds, Fr.)
It’s not as if Davis, an early entrant who enrolled at USC just this past January, arrived on campus without plenty of accolades. But with veterans such as Silas Redd already entrenched at tailback, he didn’t figure to make an overly significant immediate impact. Taking advantage of the increased opportunity that came with injuries to both Redd and D.J. Morgan, the Stockton (Calif.) Lincoln product was arguably the top tailback of the spring. Showcasing a fundamentally sound north-south running style with plenty of physicality, USC head coach Lane Kiffin has stated that the young freshman has the ability to start right off the bat this fall, and listed him along with Redd and Madden atop the post-spring depth chart Monday.
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Still, if you ask running backs coach Tommie Robinson which player has made the most pronounced strides this spring, it’s not one of those highly regarded tailbacks. It’s a fullback -- Jahleel Pinner.
Coming off a freshman season that saw him garner significant playing time as the season wore on, Pinner has carried that momentum into this spring. With 2012 starter Soma Vainuku sidelined with a PCL injury since the team’s second scrimmage, he’s taken full advantage of the extended opportunity to make an impression.
“When Soma got hurt, I just realized that it’s my turn to show the coaches what I can do,” Pinner said. “I just got it in my mind that every play is a battle for me."
Standing 6-foot tall and weighing 238 pounds, Pinner has brought a perfect blend of physicality and athleticism to the fullback position this spring. More than anything, however, it’s his work ethic that has caught everyone’s attention. As one of only two healthy fullbacks on scholarship – along with recently converted linebacker Simione Vehikite -- the former Mission Viejo (Calif.) standout has been relied upon heavily, and he’s answered the call time and time again.
“The kid ran 65 snaps today, and that doesn’t include all of the other periods,” Robinson said following Tuesday’s practice. “Not one time did he say a word about getting tired. I’ve never practiced a kid to run that many snaps in a practice. He’s very unselfish, he’s doing an outstanding job and he never complains. He has a mentality where he just shuts up and goes to work.”
With that unwavering drive and determination, it’s no wonder Pinner has come so far in such a short period of time. In particular, it’s his growth in terms of understanding his role within the playbook and in reading defenses that he attributes most to his rapid improvement.
“I've come a long ways in the mental part of my game," Pinner said. "I know a lot more about what the defense is going to do with their blitzes, and what they're going to do based on their alignments. It’s definitely helped me on the field."
Still, Pinner isn’t a finished piece of work just yet. And with coach Lane Kiffin stressing the importance of getting more offensive production out of the fullback position, Pinner is more focused on that aspect of his game than ever.
“They’re putting me in the offense in little wrinkles here and there, so whatever they try to put me in, I’m going to go 100 percent,” Pinner said. “As a football player, you always want to prove yourself. And especially as a fullback, we don’t get as many chances as the tailbacks or receivers, so when I get the ball in my hands, I have to make the most of it.”
With Pinner’s mindset, not to mention his recent uptick in production, there’s reason to believe he might be making a case for more playing time next season. But as Robinson points out, there is a whole offseason, as well as fall camp to get through before thinking about that. But if Pinner does continue to work hard and develop, there is no denying he might have a very bright future ahead of him.
“Am I gaining confidence that I can put him out on the field, knowing that I don’t have to worry about him? Yes, I am,” Robinson said. “Does he have work to do? Yes, he does. But he’s getting there. This was his 13th practice, and we’ve got two more -- he has two more opportunities to get better before we head into the fall. He is growing up right before our eyes, and if he’ll continue to make that kind of progress every day, this kid is going to be all right.”
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It’s been a familiar theme of spring to see the defense playing well, and that’s a sign that the players are picking up on the schemes being installed by new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast.
“We’ve got a long way to go but we like what we see so far,” Pendergast said. “We want athletic guys with football instincts. Guys who are smart, tough and competitive players.”
Garry Paskwietz/WeAreSC.comLinebacker Lamar Dawson was named MVP of Tuesday's practice session by USC coach Lane Kiffin, who called Dawson the most improved player on the team.
Another standout player from the day was cornerback Torin Harris, who had multiple pass breakups. Torin also had an impressive interception when Cody Kessler tried to hit George Farmer deep down the middle of the field, but Harris tipped the ball and came down with the pick. With Kevon Seymour out of action on Tuesday, Harris was one of the second-unit corners with Anthony Brown and Chris Hawkins running with the first unit.
“I feel healthy right now and that’s the key,” Harris said. “You can play free when you are healthy, and I feel good. This new defensive system is perfect for me because it allows the corners to be aggressive. It’s a simple defense, so we picked it up quickly but it causes a lot of problems for an offense.”
Along the defensive line, there was a lineup at one point that featured a big interior grouping of Antwaun Woods and Cody Temple as the defensive ends and Kenny Bigelow as the nose tackle.
“We just wanted to see how they looked together to get a feel for who we have,” Pendergast said. “Those are the things you look at in spring.”
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Polamalu was a popular running backs coach -- he also held the title of offensive coordinator but did not call plays -- who was in his second coaching stint with the Trojans. He had a reputation as a coach who cared about his players and preached a physical style of football while also having the credibility of being a former USC player who had coaching experience in the NFL.
To say that the loss of Polamalu from the staff was a shock to the players he had coached would be an understatement. As word began to spread over the weekend that Polamalu was gone, many of the players took to their Twitter accounts to voice their thoughts and support:
• “Not only did we lose the best coach, we lost the only Trojan who was on staff. Real sad day” -- fullback Soma Vainuku (@somavainuku)
• “Disappointed” -- recent tailback signee Ty Isaac (@TyIsaac)
• “U dont get rid of coach P now how ignorant was that smh he is the best coach there” -- former tailback Stafon Johnson (@stafonjohnson26)
• “Now why would they do that smh” – former wide receiver Robert Woods (@robertwoods)
Part of the reason that Polamalu struck a chord with so many players is because of his deep USC ties. The school represented so much in his life after coming to the United States from American Samoa at age 12 as a young man who did not speak English. Yet five years later he was student body president at Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei with a football scholarship to USC.
Polamalu was a hard-nosed fullback for the Trojans from 1982-85. He was part of the 1985 Rose Bowl title team and had career totals of 681 rushing yards (he never lost a yard carrying the ball) along with 23 receptions and a 65-yard touchdown pass. Polamalu earned his bachelor’s degree in history from USC in 1987.
With signing day now in the books, here’s a look at where the current USC depth chart might stand on the offensive side of the ball with the new additions factored in.
Max Wittek (6-4, 235, RS So.) OR
Cody Kessler (6-1, 215, RS So.) OR
Max Browne (6-5, 215, Fr.).
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Max Wittek's career began somewhat like Matt Leinart's ended, squeezed by the extraordinary frustration of not being able to pick up a few inches on fourth down.
That was an improvement over how things might have wrapped up for Matt Barkley, who walked down the tunnel to the field for the last time at the Coliseum -- in the most electric atmosphere this season -- without a helmet. He walked up it a few hours later in a sweat suit, struggling to keep his gear bag from slipping off his injured right shoulder.
What do the three Trojans quarterbacks have in common, aside from having attended the same Orange County high school? For much of their college careers, they relied on Lane Kiffin to call plays for them. And USC fans will be howling about the way Kiffin handled the end of Saturday's epic opportunity against top-ranked Notre Dame.
On first-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Kiffin tried to sneak Wittek in. He got nowhere.
Kiffin tried the same thing on second down. Wittek got nowhere.
After burning a timeout, Kiffin tried giving the ball to Curtis McNeal, who got -- yes, that’s right -- nowhere.
Finally, eschewing a field goal try that likely would have made it a one-score game, Kiffin allowed Wittek to attempt a forward pass. The redshirt freshman with the big arm got a bit flustered, throwing it a little too low, a little too firmly, to fullback Soma Vainuku. It was incomplete ... and a disappointing season got just a little more disappointing.
Judging from the mutterings of some USC fans streaming out of the stadium Saturday night, Kiffin’s iffy decision-making will be what a lot of people take away from the 22-13 loss that allowed the undefeated Fighting Irish to try their luck in the BCS title game.
Let it sink in for a while, though, and outrage shouldn’t be the only takeaway from Saturday’s events. The Trojans showed plenty of fight, with the defense stuffing Notre Dame at key times to force field goal tries.
And Wittek looked like a guy who could keep this program from falling off the cliff everyone has been dreading, what with Barkley’s departure to the NFL. Then again, the way this season fizzled, perhaps we can expect more from USC in 2013 than we got in 2012. The Trojans will go into the season with about half the expectations, so they’ve got that going for them.
You can’t expect a 19-year-old making his first college start -- against perhaps the best defense in the country -- to play mistake-free football. You probably can’t expect him to play any better than Wittek did, either.
And although it will pain some USC fans to admit it, Kiffin deserves some of the credit for getting a team led by a first-time starter into the final minutes of a game against the No. 1 team in the country with a shot to win it. He established the run early, allowing Wittek’s receivers to find some room to work and letting Wittek get his heartbeat under control.
He let Wittek use his most formidable weapon, a strong arm, to take some deep shots at times when an interception wasn’t going to swing the game’s outcome.
Wittek and Kiffin -- presuming athletic director Pat Haden keeps his word and retains the coach -- are going to be the pivotal figures for this team again next season, so you might as well settle in and see what kind of chemistry develops.
Wittek completed 14 of his 23 passes for 186 yards. He threw for a touchdown, and he tossed two interceptions (only one of which was truly a mistake). Those certainly aren’t spectacular numbers, but, under the circumstances, this was a performance that suggested more promise than peril for this program.
When it was over, Barkley, whom Wittek has known for about six years, put his arm around his understudy and told him how proud he was.
“I don’t regret anything at all,” Wittek said. “Obviously, the circumstances of Matt not being able to play in the game is what really sucks about it.”
Barkley didn’t want to talk to reporters after the game, at first ignoring them, then muttering he wasn’t in the mood to answer any questions. That left the people around him to interpret the emotions he was dealing with. He returned for his senior season intent on a national title run and got this laughably mediocre season. He might be healthy in time for the Holiday Bowl or Sun Bowl, USC’s likeliest destinations, but neither of those games will have a fraction of the audience Saturday’s game had. You come back to college for big moments, and Barkley had practically none this fall.
“The week was tough, and he’d already kind of lost it earlier at one point today,” Kiffin said. “I just felt for him. My heart just felt for him, because I can take it. That’s my job. That kid didn’t deserve for it to end like that.”
Nor did USC’s fans.
But there’s always another game ... and another quarterback trying to find a happier ending.
“It was a really good practice today,” Trojans coach Lane Kiffin said. “I thought the offense came out and was really crisp in both the running game and the passing game, and it was good to see. It’s obviously going to be needed to get back on track, and we fully expect that to happen on Saturday.”
That offensive crispness was immediately evident early on when the quarterbacks were working with the tight ends and wide outs. USC quarterback Matt Barkley was in-synch with his receiving options all day, and it wasn’t just the usual Marqise Lee and Robert Woods show either -- tight ends Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer made their share of receptions too.
Garry Paskwietz: The key to beating Stanford will be Matt Barkley being in sync with Robert Woods and Marqise Lee. If that happens, it stands to reason that the USC offense is going to be able to put up some numbers. The Cardinal pass defense has given up close to 300 passing yards per game so far this year in games against San Jose State and Duke. I’m not sure who those two schools had throwing and catching the football but I’m guessing they weren’t Barkley, Woods and Lee.
Greg Katz: The key to beating Stanford will be opening up the offense full throttle. That means a vertical passing game down field with Woods, Lee, and the tight ends; throwing to fullback Soma Vainuku; an exceptional running game blocking and pass protection performance by the offensive line; and Lane Kiffin calling a good game and not going conservative. If they can accomplish all these necessities, then they’ll simply outscore the Cardinal. If they rely on just bubble screens and conservative play-calling, they won’t.
Johnny Curren: Contain the Cardinal ground game. So far in 2012, Stanford has relied heavily upon its rushing attack to allow quarterback Josh Nunes to get his feet under him as a first-time starter. If the Trojans shut down running back Stepfan Taylor and company, the pressure shifts to the new signal caller who’s had his ups and downs -- he passed for just 125 yards in a close call to San Jose State in the opener. To do this the Trojans will need a big-time effort from a front seven that looks to be more than capable of pulling it off. Led by Morgan Breslin, the defensive line has been a pleasant surprise, while Hayes Pullard and Dion Bailey have been stellar as usual at linebacker.
USC head coach Lane Kiffin was particularly pleased with how the defense performed today and looks for them to have a strong showing against a Stanford offense that the Trojans have had problems containing as of late.
“I think that, going back to Saturday, our players weren’t pleased with the way that they finished in the second half,” said Kiffin. “So, its good to see not just the coaches, but the players take ownership in it. I think we’re going to play really well on defense.”
This is a tough break for Morgan -- who was forced to rehab during his redshirt year in 2010 after having knee surgery at the end of his senior year in high school. He has shown limited flashes of big-play ability over the past year but has also shown issues with fumbles. Morgan was looking for a breakout year to show the coaches that they could count on him as an explosive player. Now those plans have been delayed for a few weeks.
As far as the Trojans are concerned, this is one more reason why the transfer of Silas Redd came at such a needed time. Without Redd, the Trojans would be looking at a reserve group behind Curtis McNeal that would consist solely of Buck Allen, a redshirt freshman who has never carried the ball for the Trojans. The presence of Redd not only gives USC an option, it’s gives them a really good one and it allows Morgan the opportunity to get this issue taken care and return for the last half of the season.
Soma Vainuku is also available to get extended work in Morgan's absence.
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“A lot of mistakes today for our guys coming out and really being exposed for the first time,” said Kiffin. “It’s good that it happened today and not tomorrow, and I would expect it to be a lot cleaner tomorrow.”
When pressed afterward about what the team needs to do tomorrow to regain momentum, Kiffin brought up the mental errors that he felt plagued today’s practice.
“Not repeating plays, things are really crisp, the personnel is going in and out, they know their assignments from A to Z," he said, "and we’re not there yet, so it’s good that we have some time.”
• Watching defensive backs during individual drills, Nickell Robey practicing is really a sight to behold -- not just because he’s so naturally gifted, but because he goes 100% all of the time. There wasn’t one rep that he took during the session where he wasn’t giving it his all.
• The running backs spent a lot of time working on their pass routes, and from Curtis McNeal, to Silas Redd, to Soma Vainuku, it’s safe to say that Matt Barkley has some nice options out of the backfield.