by Garry Paskwietz
Clay Helton has made no secret of his desire to increase the physical intensity for the Trojans, particularly on both sides of the line and in the run game.
“When we had our opportunity to take over at the middle of the season, we wanted to produce toughness,” Helton said after practice last week. “We wanted to be able to run the ball when we had to at the end of games. At Cal, we ran it six times in a row to end that football game. Against UCLA, an 11-play drive, and 10 out of the 11 plays were runs to finish the game. That’s the belief you have to have. We were not a finished product, and that’s what I challenged them with. We went up against a Stanford team in the Pac-12 championship game and didn’t get it done against a team that was more physical than us. That’s what this spring is about, getting that offensive line as physical as humanly possible.”
While this goal is certainly welcome, it’s also notable when it needs to be addressed at a program like USC, which has been known through the years as a bastion for blue-collar toughness. That reputation has taken a hit in recent years, however, with offenses designed by Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian that seemed more intent on trying to beat teams with scheme rather than physical dominance, and it resulted in a shift in perception, and reality, about the Trojans.
“Somewhere along the road we kind of lost that edge that USC has been known for,” said tailback Justin Davis. “At USC, we put those banners up from playing hard-nosed physical football and coach Helton is looking to bring that back. And I think he hired the perfect group of coaches. Tommie Robinson, our running backs coach, is all about physicality. Our o-line coach is all about physicality. We’re building the right recipe to bring physical football back.”
For those playing on the USC offensive line, those accustomed to being the biggest and toughest, it’s definitely something new when others are saying the level of physical play needs to be increased. It’s one thing when those calls are coming from the outside but when the message is being sent internally as well it resonates loud and clear.
“You have to take it in a positive way,” said Zach Banner. “If people within our walls, our coaches, say we need to improve our physicality then we need to do a better job and it starts with us up front. The main message from the coaches has been that we need to improve the consistency of our intensity. I think we’ve done a good job so far this spring because the offense is 5-2 in the competition drills and that’s a reflection of us.”
That intensity was certainly evident last Thursday in a competition drills at the end of practice. The team was in full pads and it had been a hard-hitting practice that continued with all runs in the competition period. At one point, Banner stood tall at the line of scrimmage before the ball was snapped and announced to the defense that they were going to run the same play again as the one that had just gained a first down. The defense ended up stopping the play, but the offense finished off the drill after that with a couple nice runs.
The Banner incident spoke volumes, one former player watching from the sidelines said it was reminiscent of something Fred Matua would have done, as there are definitely times when it’s nice to see a little fire and emotion come from the line like that. Helton saw it as a teachable moment, noting that while he loved the passion Zach showed, he also wanted it to come with a quieter confidence.
“Coach Helton said there are different ways to show passion, he applauds it but I just need to be less vocal, and he’s right about that,” Banner said. “When we’re up there kicking butt it just improves everything about the offense. It gives us a chance to show that we have some really good running backs, really good receivers and a really good quarterback. We just need to do our job putting defenders on their backs and everything will fall into place.”
Whether he is vocal or not, Banner is one of the key pieces of a veteran Trojan offensive line that would appear well suited to the style of play that Helton and new position coach Neil Callaway are looking for. You have a pair of seniors at the tackle spots, a pair of guards who are each entering their third year as starters, and a center spot that could go four-deep in the fall. Davis is one who sees the potential of the group in front of him.
“I love it,” Davis said. “For a running back to have his whole offensive line back is like Christmas every day. We’ve been working together, building that chemistry, and it’s the perfect time now to get that running game going.”