Trojans are ready for some football
Dillon Baxter knew a big change was coming when news broke in January that Pete Carroll was bolting USC for the Seattle Seahawks.
Baxter still signed a letter of intent with the Trojans and enrolled early, but the last seven months have been a blur for the freshman running back from San Diego.
“I didn’t think it was going to be this much of a crazy experience,” Baxter said this week, adding, “I’m happy it’s just football now.”
So are the rest of USC’s players and Coach Lane Kiffin, who will preside today over his first training camp practice as the Trojans begin preparations for their Sept. 2 opener at Hawaii.
“We get to do what we’re here to do: to coach football,” Kiffin said.
Players reported to campus Tuesday, checked into their dorms and were put through physicals and a series of meetings about compliance and other issues.
When Kiffin and his staff step onto the field, they hope to leave behind tumult that has included:
The announcement of severe NCAA sanctions, including a two-year bowl ban and reduction in scholarships; the departure of running backs coach Todd McNair; the transfer of six players and the release of two recruits, including offensive lineman Seantrel Henderson; the exit of Mike Garrett as athletic director and the arrival of Pat Haden as his replacement, and the Tennessee Titans’ lawsuit against Kiffin and USC over the eleventh-hour hiring of offensive coordinator Kennedy Pola.
Other than that, it was an uneventful off-season.
Player defections and releases have left USC with 70 scholarship players -- the NCAA limit is 85 -- as it prepares for a season that includes nonconference games against Hawaii, Virginia, Minnesota and Notre Dame, and a Pacific 10 Conference schedule that features road games at Washington State, Stanford, Arizona, Oregon State and UCLA.
USC’s depth issues could be exacerbated by injuries and the possibility of more transfers. The two-year bowl ban handed down by the NCAA includes a provision that allows juniors and seniors to transfer, at any time, without having to sit out a season.
Kiffin noted that he and several assistants have worked in the NFL where rosters are smaller, and he intends to call on that experience.
“We’re going to have to kind of be more NFL-oriented about the way we practice because of our reduced numbers,” he said.
Senior center Kristopher O’Dowd did not sound concerned about what has transpired since Carroll’s departure.
Though the Trojans are ineligible for a bowl game and the Bowl Championship Series title, O’Dowd said that “there’s been a fire kind of relit under us all.”
The goal, O’Dowd said, “is to prove to the conference, prove to the nation and prove to ourselves how good we are and how good we want to make this program. You know, put it back on top.”
Baxter hopes to play a big role in the equation after an impressive spring and eventful summer.
After the NCAA sanctions were announced in June, a USC compliance official sent a letter to the Pac-10 alleging that Baxter had been improperly contacted by Florida, Washington, Oregon, Fresno State and Alabama.
The schools denied the allegations and Garrett last month sent letters of apology to their athletic directors.
Baxter has declined to comment about the matter. Instead, like his teammates, he said he’s focusing on what’s ahead.
“Everyone can just work hard and get better and get hyped for the season,” he said. “I’m excited.”
Receiver Brandon Carswell, who tweeted last month that he was bound for Cincinnati, decided to remain at USC. “It was just new beginnings, the chance to be out there in a new system, a new place and just start off fresh,” Carswell said of his near-departure to a program where former USC receiver Vidal Hazelton plays. Carswell, a fourth-year junior, said that regardless of how the season plays out for him he would not transfer next season. “I’m staying here,” he said. . . . Running back Marc Tyler said he weighs 223 pounds, 10 fewer than during spring practice when he was coming off toe surgery. . . . Kiffin said that all players reported, with the exception of incoming freshman fullback Soma Vainuku, who is still trying to qualify academically. ... Practices are closed to the public, except for immediate family members of players, USC executive employees and their escorted pre-approved guests and other pre-approved guests.