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Squad Serves Them Well

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Times Staff Writer

Practice is barely half an hour old and, already, John Griffin, running up the middle, has taken hard hits. He is not especially big, not especially shifty, so tangling with linebackers can be a painful proposition.

Still, he takes another handoff and charges into the line.

“Every day is a constant battle to dig down,” Griffin says. “My job is to give it my best.”

No one on the USC football team is working harder to prepare for Texas in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 4. Yet Griffin knows he stands only a slim chance of getting on the field against the Longhorns.

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The sophomore tailback plays on the “service” squad, a group of underclassmen and veterans far down the depth chart who devote themselves to helping the starters get ready. Their main job is mimicry.

All this month they are pretending to be Longhorns, running plays that Texas runs, wearing tattered black jerseys that bear the numbers worn by key Texas players.

“You don’t get to play on Saturdays, but when you see the team tearing it up [in games], you know some of it has to do with the service team and how hard we worked,” freshman Jim Abbott says. “You know that you’re helping out.”

The effort begins with assistants such as linebacker coach Rocky Seto and David Watson, a graduate assistant working with the offensive line. They have broken down Texas film, noted details and tendencies, then sketched hundreds of Longhorn plays and defensive calls onto cheat sheets the service team uses during drills.

This is how detailed it can be: If the other team has a tall pass rusher, or perhaps a short running back, the coaches pick service team members with similar body types for those roles.

Before the game against California, coaches noticed that the Golden Bears’ defensive line tipped off a certain kind of rush. So they pointed it out on film, then had the service team act accordingly in practice.

Before the Notre Dame game, freshman quarterback Mark Sanchez watched film of Irish quarterback Brady Quinn, “just so I could get his footwork down.”

For Texas, tight end Fred Davis -- a regular in games -- has been tabbed to stand in at quarterback because of his physical resemblance to the Longhorns’ Vince Young.

“He’s giving our starters some great looks,” Seto says.

Practices are structured so that the service team faces the first- and second-string units during the first hour. This stretch can be grueling for the black-shirted players, who must be ready to go 30 or more plays with little break.

The service team includes some potential stars, such as Sanchez and tailback Michael Coleman, but there are plenty of fourth- and fifth-stringers getting knocked around by more-experienced teammates.

“It’s tough,” Sanchez says. “Completions are hard to get.”

Sanchez still talks about a shot he took from his roommate, linebacker Brian Cushing, on a blitz this season. His tooth was chipped by another linebacker, Collin Ashton.

“After that, I started wearing a mouthpiece,” he says.

When USC goes on the road, taking a limited travel squad, service team players often stay home. They watch on television, like anyone else.

Why do they put up with it?

Sanchez, for one, likes playing every day, rather than standing around as a backup. Plus, he gets to work against the No. 1 defense and his coach, Pete Carroll, who doubles as defensive coordinator.

Others accept the grunt work because it might be their only shot at climbing the depth chart. They take inspiration from the recent past -- tailback Justin Fargas, now in the NFL, spent a year on the service team after transferring from Michigan, and Ashton began as a walk-on before moving into the rotation at linebacker.

But for some, the chances of success are remote.

“I’ve come to understand my role here,” says John Zilka, a junior receiver. “I don’t get to play on Saturdays so I get my kicks during the week, from Tuesday through Thursday.”

The starters seem to understand how much they need the service team. This week, when Sanchez fumbled a snap, safety Scott Ware barked, “Give us some good reps.”

Ware and others are just as quick to praise, however.

Zilka says the coaches also are good about handing out compliments. That’s especially true for Seto, who spent time on the service team when he played linebacker for USC in the late 1990s.

“These guys are working so hard,” Seto says. “I know what it’s like.”

And every once in a while, on Saturdays when the score grows lopsided, the service team members get their moment to shine.

In the final seconds of a 51-21 victory over Stanford, Carroll sent Abbott onto the field to return a kickoff.

“And don’t you dare take a knee,” the coach told him.

The kick sailed into the end zone, and although teammates yelled at him to down the ball, Abbott came running out and was tackled on the 14-yard line.

He laughs about that night, saying, “It might never happen again.”

The memory will last him through any number of bumps and bruises as USC prepares for the Rose Bowl.

“I’m having fun,” he says. “Even if you’re not on the field, you still want to win that national championship.”


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