The last few years of NCAA sanctions robbed the USC Trojans of many key attributes, things like national championships, celebrities on the sidelines, and the ability to tackle. At first, the team purposely avoided tackling during practice to prevent injuries to an already limited roster. Unfortunately, they then avoided tackling during games, because they weren’t accustomed to playing all out.
For most of this spring, the team played at full-speed and paid the price, but at the team’s spring game last Saturday, tackling was absent once again.
“There just weren’t enough bodies out there,” USC head coach Lane Kiffin said, insisting that the last-minute decision was not a sign they were “backing off of being tough and aggressive.”
Kiffin was the first to admit that something would have to change on defense in 2013, and for most of the spring, he shoved his concerns aside, rolled the dice and risked injuries in order to help his team get ready for next season. His misgivings about losing key personnel were justified as the list of injured Trojans grew after nearly every practice and scrimmage: quarterback Max Wittek, receiver George Farmer, safety Su’a Cravens, running back Silas Redd were just a few of those affected.
Still, Kiffin seemed to feel it was necessary to develop a defense that would play harder and finally stop someone in 2013. He was determined to stay the course until partway through fall practices, when any further injuries would significantly impact the Trojans gameday lineup.
“I think we’ll start fall camp this way but we won’t be able to finish fall camp this way,” Kiffin said after a practice in early April.
As it turned out, with twenty players out hurt, they couldn’t finish spring workouts that way, either.
“If we would’ve tackled today and lost a receiver or tight end we just wouldn’t have been able to continue to play throughout the day,” he said after the game. The team was especially thin at tight end, recruiting former lineman Jeremy Galten to fill in for the day to give the Trojans a second healthy player at the position.
Finding a balance between keeping players on the field and training them to play hard will be the recurring theme for the duration of the scholarship reductions. As much as the team might want to go hard all the time, it’s just not feasible, and despite his initial claims that his experience in the NFL helped prepare him to work with a smaller roster, Kiffin still hasn’t figured out how to practice full-speed while protecting his players.
It’s just one more thing to add to the to-do list for what could be his make-or-break year at USC.