Another summer afternoon, another routine scrimmage at USC training camp.
Except the defense runs an odd-looking blitz that sends tackle Bernard Riley--all 315 pounds of him--backpedaling into coverage. Not only does Riley intercept the pass 15 yards downfield, he takes off along the sideline, doing his best imitation of a cornerback.
Cheers and laughter ripple.
"That's Pete Carroll and his defensive genius," associate head coach DeWayne Walker says. "You'll see some funny-looking stuff."
As the new USC coach, Carroll has promised to transform a program that could use some magic after a disappointing season. Presto change-o, he has brought in a spread attack and a defensive scheme reminiscent of his days as coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers.
Moreover, Carroll has made dramatic personnel adjustments.
First, he switched Kori Dickerson from linebacker to tight end, giving the Trojans a deep threat where none had existed.
Then, looking for speed and aggressiveness on defense, Carroll moved safeties Matt Grootegoed and Frank Strong to outside linebacker. He shifted outside linebacker Mike Pollard to the middle and put cornerback Antuan Simmons at free safety, where the senior can take advantage of his nose for the football and knack for making big plays.
No one seemed to mind.
"As a senior, I just want to win," Dickerson said. "I don't care if I've got to be kicker."
If anything, the changes appear to have brought energy to players who were doubting themselves a few months ago.
"It seems like the coaches are doing a good job of assessing talent," said Charlie Landrigan, who remains at fullback but takes on a host of new duties in the spread offense. "They're putting players in position to be successful."
The team by position:
Last summer, the buzz around Carson Palmer was Heisman Trophy and an early departure for the NFL. Now, it's make or break.
The junior gets to work with offensive guru Norm Chow, who nurtured a succession of top quarterbacks at Brigham Young over three decades. Throwing quick passes from multiple-receiver sets, Palmer has looked more and more comfortable with Chow's system. Still, he must show he can throw touchdown passes without the interceptions of last season.
Matt Cassel and heralded freshman Matt Leinart will play in reserve roles.
Sultan McCullough is still the man, coming off a 1,163-yard season, but his role may change as USC shifts from Tailback U. to something west of BYU.
"If they throw the ball to me, if I'm a decoy, it doesn't matter," McCullough said. "I just want to be in the game."
The plan was to use him in conjunction with Malaefou MacKenzie, an all-purpose back who catches the ball well. But MacKenzie, who struggled with injuries last season, hurt his knee in training camp and may not be in top shape for the opener against San Jose State. If not, Chris Howard will get the call.
Kareem Kelly and Keary Colbert return as starters, and Marcell Allmond is trying to work his way back into the rotation after missing much of last season with an injury. He should get plenty of opportunities in multiple-receiver sets.
The surprise of training camp, though, has been Grant Mattos, a junior college transfer who is tall and strong and could play a key role as a possession receiver. Another transfer, Devin Pitts, and freshman William Buchanon are also in the mix.
Arriving at USC, Carroll saw Dickerson and imagined a big man who could get downfield quickly on pass routes. The question remains, after a shaky scrimmage last week, can he become a dependable receiver.
"It's just working at getting better every day," he says.
Sophomore Alex Holmes, with soft hands and game experience from last season, will play too.
The core of the line is solid with center Lenny Vandermade and guards Zach Wilson and Faaesea Mailo. Jacob Rogers and Eric Torres appear to have nailed down the tackle positions. With an injury keeping Mailo out of practice last week, the multipurpose Norm Katnik and redshirt freshman Joe McGuire will get playing time.
Riley and Ryan Nielsen provide size inside, but this defense is designed to pursue the ball. So ends Lonnie Ford, Kenechi Udeze and Shaun Cody should grab most of the headlines.
"Everyone on this defense is so fast," the freshman Cody said. "I just try to fly with them."
Another experiment. With a corps of inexperienced, undersized linebackers, Carroll rolled the dice by moving Pollard to the middle and flanking him with Strong and Grootegoed.
"Everybody understands that speed kills," lineman Riley said. "We knew we needed to be quicker."
But the lineup isn't set in stone. Aaron Graham or Lee Webb still could win the starting spot in the middle.
The cause of so many headaches last fall appears to have been addressed.
Strong safety Troy Polamalu showed he could be an anchor last season and he should be even better this fall. He will be paired with Simmons, who returns after sitting out a year to recover from life-threatening surgery.
At cornerback, Kris Richard appears sound after having played with injuries most of last season. If there is a question mark, it is the other corner, where senior Chris Cash must show he has matured.
Another bugaboo last season, the kicking game, might have found a savior in junior college transfer David Davis. A week into camp, Davis was nailing 40-yard field goals.
John Wall, who made all five of his attempts as a freshman last season, is recovering from knee surgery.
Senior David Newbury is slated to kick off and senior Mike MacGillivray returns as punter.
Carroll's best sleight of hand might have been hiring Chow away from North Carolina State, where he spent a season after his long tenure at BYU. Chow not only brings USC an exciting offense, he frees Carroll to focus on defense.
Almost as important, assistant coach Kennedy Pola has switched from running backs to special teams, which last fall had to share a coach with receivers. Now Pola is devoted to his squads and players say that is emblematic of the most important change this season.
"If a coach fosters a great attitude, the players have a better chance to play well," said MacGillivray, who has had three head coaches at USC. "You can see a difference with Coach Carroll. The attitude is great."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
At A Glance
Coach: Pete Carroll, first season, 0-0.
Last season: 5-7, 2-6 tied for eighth in Pacific 10 Conference.
Key losses: LBs Zeke Moreno and Markus Steele ranked as two of the team's best tacklers. Ennis Davis was the anchor of the defensive line. Brent McCaffrey and TE Antoine Harris brought experience to the offense.
Returning starters: QB Carson Palmer, now a junior, is looking to make good on all the hype that surrounded his arrival at USC. He has plenty of speed around him in TB Sultan McCullough and WR Kareem Kelly. A veteran secondary--with Kris Richard, Troy Polamalu and Antuan Simmons--could be the strength of the defense. Ryan Nielsen and Lonnie Ford return along the front four.
Top newcomers: DE Shaun Cody will get substantial playing time as a freshman. Junior college transfer Grant Mattos looks like a solid possession receiver. Another transfer, Devin Pitts, has also worked his way into the rotation at receiver.
Offense at a glance: Palmer now operates from a spread attack, lots of shotgun and multiple-receiver sets, lots of quick passes to Kelly and another fast returner, Keary Colbert. Tailbacks McCullough and Malaefou MacKenzie will be asked to catch the ball out of the backfield, as will fullback Charlie Landrigan. "The offense is fun," Landrigan said. "It's designed to get the ball to whoever is open." It is designed by new coordinator Norm Chow, who groomed a string of top quarterbacks--including Steve Young and Jim McMahon--at Brigham Young. Chow hopes that quick plays can take some of the pressure off an offensive line with new tackles.
Defense at a glance: Carroll has remade the Trojans. Safeties are now playing at outside linebacker. The defensive ends are lighter and faster than last season. It's all about playing aggressively, pursuing the ballcarrier and trying to force turnovers. The scheme is similar to the one Carroll oversaw when he was defensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers.
Intangibles: Carroll has a reputation for being a player's coach, something that critics used against him in the NFL. But his personality might be better suited to the college game and, so far, it seems to have worked wonders with the Trojans. "This staff is good at listening to the players and the players are responding with 100% effort," punter Mike MacGillivray said. "There isn't a guy on this team who doesn't want to play for Coach Carroll. It makes a difference."
Key to the season: Palmer and his receivers must get comfortable with the rapid-fire pace of Chow's offense, a combination of quick thinking and patient, ball-control drives. The receivers, in particular, will be asked to gain yardage from short receptions. On defense, the secondary is a year older and must act like it, improving from a shaky performance last season. Also, the Trojans must be consistent on special teams, especially in the area of field goals.
Final Regular Season
TEAM USC Opponent First downs 259 219 Rushes-Net yards 452-1,843 485-1,509 Yards passing 3,148 2,607 Passing 446-245-18 359-184-7 Int.-yards ret. 7-131 16-210 Plays-Net yards 898-4,991 844-4,116 Punts-average 63-36.2 80-2,981 Punt ret.-yards 26-239 33-491 Kickoff ret.-yds 45-877 27-521 Fumbles-lost 26-18 26-10 Penalties-yards 113-977 98-801
Rushing TCB NYG Avg. TD McCullough 227 1,163 5.1 6 MacKenzie 41 284 6.9 0 Papadakis 63 153 2.4 8 Pierson 31 133 4.3 1 Allmond 2 46 23.0 0 Landrigan 8 34 4.3 0 Nickels 2 18 9.0 0 Kelly 5 8 1.6 0 Palmer 63 5 0.1 2 VanRaaphorst 10 -1 -0.1 0 Totals 452 2,218 4.1 17 Opp. 485 1,509 3.1 22
Passing PA PC PI Yds TD Palmer 415 228 18 2,914 16 VanRaphorst 28 17 0 234 3 Holmes 1 0 0 0 0 Team 2 0 0 0 0 Totals 446 245 18 3,148 19 Opp. 359 184 7 2,607 17
Receiving No. Yd. TD Kelly 55 796 4 Colbert 33 480 3 Nickels 32 408 3 Harris 28 353 5 MacKenzie 27 249 0 Allmond 16 244 0 Stevenson 15 283 2 Pierson 10 147 2 McCullough 9 25 0 Landrigan 8 47 0 Holmes 7 53 0 Butler 4 52 0 Papadakis 1 11 0 Total 245 3,148 19 Opp. 184 2,607 17
OTHER LEADERS: PUNTING--McGillivray, 58-2,267, 39.1. PUNT RETURNS--Richard, 13-98, 7.5. KICKOFF RETURNS--Strong, 25-540, 21.6. INTERCEPTIONS--Polamalu, 2-43; Hill, 2-12; Cash, 2-9. SCORING--Papadakis, 48 points. TD--Papadakis, 8. FG--Wall, 5-5, 100%.