When your kid lashes out, you give him a time out. When he publicly embarrasses you, like cursing in front of your boss, you do not let him go to the neighbor’s birthday party. When he fails a character test, you let him know such behavior will not be tolerated again.
Because your job as a dad is to set your son up so he has a solid future ahead of him.
Kennedy Polamalu knows the tune well. He is a father of eight boys. Catch is, only three of them are biological. Polamalu is the running backs coach at USC. As the head of a unit that attracts more controversy than a Britney Spears music video, Polamalu finds himself playing the role of dad both at the office and at home.
His eldest non-related child is Marc Tyler, the power back that was the Trojans’ leading rusher last season. He’s the size of this running back group, the older brother that can bully his way out of tackles. But none of the attention the Oaks Christian product has received lately comes from his on the field efforts. Tyler was reinstated to practice Tuesday after being suspended from all team activities when he made inappropriate comments to the media outlet TMZ in July.
But head coach Lane Kiffin said Tyler has earned his spot back with the team and will see action Saturday against Utah.
“He’s been doing things right like he’s supposed to do, [he] has been a good story so far so hopefully he’ll continue to do that,” Kiffin said. “He’s practiced really hard so we’ll mix him in there some, most likely, and see what happens there in the game.
“[Hopefully] he’ll come back and have a successful year and learn from this experience.”
Polamalu’s second-oldest child, in terms of game experience, is that of hyped San Diego, Calif. native Dillon Baxter. Baxter was a Scout 5-star recruit and came in to USC with incredibly high expectations. Despite this, he scored just one touchdown in 2010 and suffered a number of setbacks from a toe injury to a team rules violation.
“The way the media or internet builds these kids up, they haven’t even taken a college snap and then all of a sudden they’re going to do this and do that,” Polamalu said. “I’ve done this long enough. I’ve done it at the college level and at the pro level. You have to earn it. You have to earn it during the week, you have to work hard and be a good person, on and off the field.”
In the Trojans’ season opener, Baxter saw the field just once, in the fourth quarter, where he caught one screen pass for three yards. Baxter was visibly upset following the game. A day later, Kiffin met with the tailback and his family.
“You want to see guys get better, you want to see guys accept criticism, when you tell them what you expect from them and not come out here and pout,” Kiffin said. “We tell our players all the time negativity will never get you more playing time or pouting so you never know what the reactions are going to be.”
Within a year, Baxter’s progression is notable. He’s learned to stop juking and has become a better downhill runner. He’s also grown up mentally.
“Coach Kiffin was talking about how I changed and everything and you know, I thought I’ve being doing the right things. I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing. Hopefully there will be a change,” Baxter said after the Minnesota game.
Continuing on the family tree, Polamalu’s middle children include the tag-team duo that split carries in USC’s season opener, redshirt freshman D.J. Morgan and redshirt junior Curtis McNeal. McNeal didn’t play last season because of academic ineligibility.
But experience might give the older kids an edge. Tyler and Baxter’s game experience could separate themselves from their brothers as the season continues and the Trojans’ opponents get tougher.
“Just like in life, you hope not to make the same mistake but the problem is that might be [a freshman’s] first time making that mistake and then the second time they [identify] it, they see it,” Polamalu said. “They see the pattern and then go ‘okay I saw that before.’ But if they’ve never seen it before it’s hard.”
It may be hard to succeed as a freshman running back at USC, but it’s not impossible. With just a game under his belt, Morgan said he is a more confident back. But with the addition of Tyler and a bigger presence expected from Baxter, Morgan and McNeal will need any confidence they can muster.
“It just makes me have to capitalize on my opportunities when I get the ball to make the best of it because the rotation is going to be a lot better, there’s going to be a lot more people,” Morgan said Tuesday.
Despite this hefty group, Polamalu still has the baby of the tailback family, Amir Carlisle, to look over. Where some little ones have eyes so big you can’t look away, Carlisle’s explosiveness keeps you staring. And his age doesn’t match his maturity. Carlisle, a de-commit from Stanford who joined the Trojans partly because of USC’s strong acting school, has never had a sip of alcohol. His self-reported high school GPA is a 4.3.
Could Carlisle see the field Saturday or somewhere further in the season? It’s doubtful. But not because he isn’t able or because he is young.
“My first year here with Pete Carroll we had three freshmen that played all the way through and they produced and put us all the way in the Rose Bowl,” Polamalu said.
Carlisle might not play because Polamalu has four other kids that require the bulk of his attention and have familiarity with the system. As Tyler once put it, USC is ‘RBU,’ short for Running Back University. Because of this unofficial label, Polamalu will always have a handful of skilled backs that could play, and play well.
But for someone to tear up the holes in front of them-- for someone to play hide and seek with a defensive lineman-- the coach might have to play favorites.
“Someone has got to step up and just dominate in all phases so that the playcaller is not worried,” Polamalu said.
Who will be that playmaker that will ease the quarterback’s fears with his output? Who will stand up (or lean forward) against Utah’s strong trench game? Will Polamalu, Kiffin and the offensive staff go with a tailback committee or stick to two main backs?
Polamalu can get closer to those answers simply by choosing a number: 22, 26, 28, 30 or 41.
The trouble is, these players aren’t just numbers to Polamalu. They’re his kids.