LOS ANGELES — We’re seated outside the John McKay Center, USC’s football headquarters, in front of which is a statue of its namesake, who won four national championships.
His teams never had a lot of trouble running the ball.
“We’ve got to be able to run the ball,” says offensive tackle Kevin Graf. “That was a huge emphasis in the spring.”
The message was pounded home in meetings and on the practice field. Graf began naming coaches who reinforced it, and then said, “It’s from all the coaches.”
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USC, which trademarked Heisman Trophy tailbacks, unable to run the ball? That’s as much of an anomaly as this: Partly because of an underachieving 2012, the Trojans enter the 2013 season sort of lying in the weeds, a bit overlooked. For instance, Pac-12 media selected them third in the Southern Division.
“We can’t worry about last year,” says linebacker Devon Kennard. “But for the players who were here last year, there definitely is a burn inside of us.”
So much of what frames the Trojans in 2013 had to do with last year. There were the big expectations, the talk of a national title, the Sports Illustrated cover blaring that Matt Barkley “didn’t come back to go to the Holiday Bowl.”
His team didn’t, of course. It went to the Sun Bowl, suffered an unseemly loss to Georgia Tech and completed a 7-6 season marked by some high school-level hijinks by coach Lane Kiffin, who is squarely in the spotlight after a 25-13 record at USC.
In fact, just before Pac-12 media day last month, USC athletic director Pat Haden deflected inevitable questions about Kiffin by airing an unusual school-produced video expressing his support.
“I deal with Pat on a daily basis,” Kiffin says, “so I’ve felt Pat and Max’s (president Max Nikias) support the whole time I’ve been here. I’ve felt they’ve always looked at the big picture of things.”
Kiffin means the Trojans’ ongoing campaign to accommodate NCAA sanctions, which have one more recruiting class (cap of 15 signees) to run. This year, USC trotted out only 69 scholarship players for the first day of fall camp.
“I don’t talk about it very much,” Kiffin said. “I don’t want our players hearing a lot about it.
“Two years ago, we were able to play really well (10-2) by staying healthy with our star players. If you have a bunch of injuries and you’re already low (in numbers), it’s going to impact you.”
Last year was the first since 2001, Pete Carroll’s first at the school, that USC was outrushed. But not since 1960, McKay’s first of a 16-season tenure, did the Trojans have fewer rushing touchdowns than the 12 they totaled.
The problems were never more glaring than the Notre Dame game, when USC had a late, embarrassing sequence near the goal line, bringing howls of criticism not only upon the run game but Kiffin’s play-calling.
Overall, says Kiffin, “The number of times we didn’t make it on third-and-one or third-and-two was ridiculous.”
Kiffin will rebuff critics and continue to call plays, but he says the offensive line likely hasn’t yet “gotten there. That may be another (recruiting) class.”
The biggest change is on defense, where Kiffin replaced his dad Monte with Clancy Pendergast, whose first two Cal defenses (2010-11) led the league. That means a multiple, 3-4 scheme.
“He’s going to put every player on the defense in position to make a play,” says Kennard. “You can see everybody’s excitement and intensity level raised.”
Most of Pendergast’s heavy lifting in camp has been developing a secondary where all four 2012 starters have departed.
A kind early schedule makes it fashionable to foresee a USC rebirth in 2013, but this is a team without a proven quarterback. Cody Kessler and Max Wittek are battling, Saturday’s depth chart showed them deadlocked, and primo receiver Marqise Lee said a few days ago that “It’s crazy“ the Trojans don’t yet have a starter.
Whoever that is, he gets to throw to Lee, probably the college game’s best receiver in years.
“I believe we’re still relevant in college football,” Kiffin says.
Relevant, no doubt. Feared, that’s another question.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org