For once, the veterans of the USC defense only needed to listen. This week, the younger players have run team meetings, relaying lessons from film sessions to the rest of the Trojans.
“I was actually impressed,” defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said.
The switch was made by the coaching staff to give the younger players more responsibility. Coach Clay Helton targeted players on the border — those who are one injury away from being a starter but must improve to be ready.
Helton said players on the cusp have stepped up. The extra repetitions during USC’s off week have provided lessons that are normally limited when the team’s attention is trained on the immediate opponent.
Coaches have demanded more of younger players while resting older ones, who lack breaks in a defense pressed for experienced depth.
“Hopefully those young guys are growing from this,” Helton said. “You can see it, really, on tape, and we can coach off of it.”
Helton said linebacker Cameron Smith and safety Marvell Tell are “hard to take off the field” for their role in directing the defense. This week, those two as well as essential seniors can recover without the urgency of game preparation. USC next plays on Oct. 13 against Colorado at the Coliseum.
“I think it is the most depth we’ve had from the last three years, so let’s just put it that way,” Smith said. “And that’s making us a lot better.”
Fatigue has been an issue for the defense because the offense has struggled to maintain possession. The defense has been on the field for 17 more plays per game than the offense — about three minutes per game on average.
The defense was on the field nearly 10 more minutes than the offense against both Texas and Washington State.
Since returning from a knee injury, linebacker Porter Gustin said he had not taken a break. He has never fully recovered, caught in the week-to-week grind of games.
He did not take any reps Wednesday and has spent extra time this week icing his knee, doing rehabilitation and riding the stationary bike. He expects the break will pay off in improved explosiveness and sprinting.
“It feels the best that it has,” Gustin said of his knee. “And I think that’s gonna be huge.”
As part of the off week, USC’s coaching staff has extra time to address patterns of weakness with the team.
“Kind of breaking us down like an opponent would break us down,” Helton said.
That includes readjusting ineffective plays and cleaning up fundamentals. Helton said he tasked each position coach with deciding on one technical area where his group needed to grow.