USC Coach Ted Tollner can’t project how many games his team will win this season, or whether it will return to the Rose Bowl.
But he says he feels better about this team than he has his two previous ones.
In Tollner’s first season as a college head coach in 1983, the Trojans floundered to a 4-6-1 record, the school’s first losing season in 22 years. Tollner and the Trojans turned it around last year with a 9-3 season, the Pacific 10 championship and a 20-17 victory over Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.
“From a standpoint of depth, ability and proven winning experiences, we’re in the best shape going in that we have been,” Tollner said Tuesday. “Across the board, we’re getting a little bit better each year, although there could be a drop-off at certain positions.”
But Tollner isn’t sure that his team can improve upon, or even match, last year’s record because, he says, the road schedule is more difficult this season.
USC will open against Illinois Saturday at Champaign, Ill. Illinois has national championship aspirations.
The Trojans also will play Notre Dame at South Bend and Washington at Seattle, places where visiting teams usually aren’t very comfortable.
Tollner said that since summer practice began nothing has changed his perception of the strengths and concerns--he didn’t say weaknesses--of his team.
“We look to be consistent in the offensive and defensive lines. When we are able to put Tony Colorito, Matt Koart and Brent Moore together as the three down guys on defense, we are pretty good on defense whatever the combination of linebackers.
“Offensively, it’s the same thing. If we put James FitzPatrick, Jeff Bregel, Tom Cox, Tom Hallock and Dave Cadigan together, we can make some soft spots in the defensive front to run the football. So our strength is still there in the trenches.”
Tollner has been concerned about the perimeter of his defense with new starters at cornerback and outside linebacker.
“Our young outside linebackers have played well in practice,” he said. “But three of the four--Greg Coauette, Marcus Cotton and Garrett Breeland--have been hurt with Ron Brown the only one who has practiced every day. But they appear to have the ability to get it done.
“The same thing at the corner. Louis Brock and Martin French have been hurt for a while. But Brock, French, Matt Johnson and Elbert Watts will all play at corner and, by tying them in with safeties Jerome Tyler and Tim McDonald, we could be a good secondary.”
Tollner doesn’t question the ability of his cornerbacks but, unlike Tyler and McDonald, they’re unproven. More will be learned about them Saturday when they’ll be scurrying to cover Dave Williams, Illinois’ All-American wide receiver.
USC has other obvious strengths, including a talented corps of tailbacks, an experienced wide receiver in Hank Norman and, in Tollner’s view, improvement at quarterback.
Sean Salisbury, a fifth-year senior, won the starting job from sophomore Kevin McLean and redshirt freshman Rodney Peete.
“All of them have improved, and I feel better about the position than I ever have,” Tollner said. “If the situation arises, all three of them can win football games for us.”
Salisbury was inconsistent--as was the rest of the team--in 1983. He injured his knee in the second game last year and Tim Green, who was expected to redshirt, suddenly became the starting quarterback.
Tollner condensed his offense to accommodate Green, relying mainly on the running game and a robust defense.
Now he said that USC has the potential to get some big plays from both the passing and running game. USC wasn’t a big-play team last year, usually scoring on grinding, time-consuming drives, or favorable field position provided by the defense.
As for USC’s status going into the Illinois game, Tollner said:
“We need to find out where we are. I’m not sure where we are. We haven’t lost anyone by injury for a prolonged period of time. But 19 of our potential 24 starters, including kickers, have missed at least two days of practice.”
Only two projected starters, inside linebacker Rex Moore and offensive tackle Gaylord Kuamoo will miss the Illinois game, while tight end Joe Cormier is available but may not play.
Moore has a hamstring injury. Kuamoo has a strained Achilles’ tendon and Cormier, the tight end in motion in the single-back formation, has been inactive with a sprained ankle.
Fred Crutcher, USC’s starting tailback, was held out of two scrimmages because of a sore left shoulder, but he will start against the Illini.
“I don’t know how long Freddie will play, but he always gives 100%,” Tollner said. “He is able to run but he hasn’t taken any punishment.”
Considering Crutcher’s condition and the anticipated 80-degree temperature and high humidity in Champaign, Tollner said he might use as many as four tailbacks.
Ryan Knight will be the first replacement for Crutcher and according to Tollner, the sophomore tailback “gets better every day.”
USC also has a potential big-play tailback in redshirt freshman Steve Webster, who has been impressive in practice with his slithering runs. Webster will return kickoffs, along with sophomore flanker Randy Tanner.
Zeph Lee and freshman Aaron Emanuel are also available at tailback. But Emanuel, the highly regarded freshman from Quartz Hill High, hasn’t had contact work because of groin and back injuries.
“Aaron is going to a tremendous player for us, though,” Tollner said.
Kennedy Pola, the strong blocking senior fullback, will start Saturday, although Tollner has held him out of some scrimmages to reduce the wear and tear on his tender knees, a chronic problem.
Todd Steele, a junior, will share the position with Pola. Tollner said that Steele is more durable and stronger than he was last year when he was bothered by an ankle injury.
A quick look at the rest of the team:
Wide receiver--Norman needs to catch 33 pases to move ahead of Jeff Simmons and become USC’s leading pass receiver. He will go into the season with 73 catches. Tanner is regarded as a sure-handed receiver. Gene Arrington is a promising freshman.
Tight end--Eric McKee, a junior, is regarded as a typical USC tight end, a strong blocker who can catch short, ball-control passes. Tollner says that Paul Green, a sophomore, is one of the best athletes on the team.
Inside linebacker--Sam Anno, a junior, and Keith Davis, a sophomore, are starting for the first time, but they’re experienced players. Davis was projected as a starter in 1983 before a season-ending knee injury.
Punter--Troy Richardson, who has been USC’s punter the past two seasons, and freshman Chris Sperle have been engaged in close competition for the job. Richardson had problems getting the ball airborne at times in 1984 but has been more consistent in practices.
“We’ve been getting better distance, better hang time and getting the ball off quicker from both punters,” Tollner said.
Placekicker--Don Shafer, a freshman, has made some long-range field goals in practice. He replaces Steve Jordan, who holds nearly every USC placekicking record.
Punt returner--Tanner and wide receiver Al Washington, a transfer from Long Beach City College, are the entry in this department.
Summary by Tollner: “Nothing has changed from three weeks ago until today. We are still consistent in the areas we thought we would be. In the areas of concern, we believe we have improved. But now is the time to line up to find out if we have or not.” USC SCHEDULE
DATE OPPONENT TIME Sept. 7 at Illinois 11:00 a.m. Sept. 21 *Baylor 6:00 p.m. Sept. 28 at Arizona State 7:30 p.m. Oct. 5 *Oregon State 1:30 p.m. Oct. 19 *Stanford 1:30 p.m. Oct. 26 at Notre Dame 11:00 a.m. Nov. 2 *Washington State 1:30 p.m. Nov. 9 at California 1:00 p.m. Nov. 16 at Washington 12:30 p.m. Nov. 23 *UCLA 1:30 p.m. Nov. 30 Oregon at Tokyo TBA
* at Coliseum. All times PDT or PST.