Lane Kiffin has been relatively quiet since returning to USC, but his actions and words at Trojans practices are loud and clear:
The status quo is not going to cut it.
Kiffin reiterated that point Saturday after a 93-play scrimmage. Matt Barkley’s five touchdown passes were offset by an ineffective running game.
“Our running backs need to learn how to run it because we don’t have a clue right now on what we need to do to be a championship running team,” Kiffin said.
That might sound harsh, but that’s Kiffin.
After three months on the job, and three weeks of spring practice, it’s clear that the former USC assistant is not concerned about anything other than revitalizing the Trojans after a disappointing 2009 season.
If that requires insulting the crosstown rival, alienating a portion of the Trojans’ fan base, publicly criticizing his players and taking veiled shots at the former coaching staff, well, so be it.
“He’s not sugar-coating anything,” senior fullback Stanley Havili said. “And that’s good.”
Kiffin does not shy from controversy — he did, after all, offer a scholarship to a seventh-grade quarterback in February — but he has mostly avoided the attention-grabbing declarations that characterized his one-season stint at Tennessee.
Kiffin’s penchant for stirring it up, however, remains.
In February, Kiffin appeared to be in familiar form, firing a shot across the bow at UCLA, saying he did not know why USC wasted its time recruiting players who signed with the Bruins.
USC fans, for the most part, rejoiced.
But the day before the Trojans opened spring practice in March, the school announced that practices once open to virtually anybody under Pete Carroll would be reserved for players’ families and recruits. Everyone else requires a reservation 24 hours in advance. The change in policy ostensibly was made in reaction to the NCAA’s pending decision regarding possible sanctions against USC, but the move was quietly pushed forward by Kiffin.
Once spring drills opened, Kiffin did not miss an opportunity to zing players to get them to perform.
Early on, he questioned the severity of injuries when a large group sat out team scrimmage drills because of physical ailments.
He also has publicly chastised individual players, which is nothing new for Kiffin.
In 2006, after Dwayne Jarrett underperformed in the season opener against Arkansas, Kiffin went on a Nebraska radio show and criticized the receiver for not playing like an All-American.
It was a startling breach of coaching etiquette. But Kiffin got his point across and Jarrett went on to become the Trojans’ first two-time All-American at the position.
That’s how players seem to be responding to the new regime, with most saying they are embracing the change from the previous staff, which often mirrored Carroll’s upbeat disposition and approach.
“It’s not about cheering and dancing and doing that stuff,” senior tailback Allen Bradford said. “It’s all about do what you have to do.”
Kiffin retained only two coaches from USC’s 2009 staff, and might have been hinting why recently when noting that sophomore Devon Kennard was making a play to unseat junior Chris Galippo as the starting middle linebacker.
“He looks like an NFL player right now,” Kiffin said of Kennard, adding, “One of the few of our guys that look like we used to look when we were here.”
That was Lane-speak for “What happened to recruiting while we were away?”
Though USC’s classes were highly rated in 2008 and 2009, Kiffin was unnerved upon his return after stints with the Oakland Raiders and Tennessee. Where were the future NFL first-round draft picks, the kind of players he and Ed Orgeron had identified and signed as USC recruiting coordinators?
Last week, Kiffin turned up the heat. He stripped cornerback T.J. Bryant and receiver De’Von Flournoy of jersey No. 1 because they were not performing to the standard set by former All-American receiver Mike Williams, who wore No. 1 and was Kiffin’s first big national recruit.
Kiffin said the players would have the opportunity to earn back the number but he made no guarantees.
Jerseys aside, one thing remains certain as USC prepares for its first season under Kiffin:
It won’t be by the numbers.
Freshman receiver Kyle Prater had the highlight play of the scrimmage when he made a one-handed grab for a 40-yard touchdown. . . . Barkley completed 21 of 30 passes for 291 yards with no interceptions. He threw two scoring passes to Prater, and one each to Havili, wide receiver Brice Butler and tight end Jordan Cameron. . . . Defensive end Nick Perry had four tackles for losses and Bryant intercepted a pass by Mitch Mustain, who was seven for 14 for 104 yards.