The tribe has spoken, USC-style.
In two practices, associate head coach John Baxter has more than lived up to his billing as one of the nation’s best special teams coach and an innovative mind.
It showed Thursday with nothing more than a kickoff-kick coverage drill at its heart, but the way Baxter added new competitive dimensions, it was impossible not to get caught up in the action.
Four drill tribes – Zeus led by Michael Morgan, Aries led by Rhett Ellison, Valkyrie led by Stanley Havili and Atlas led by Allen Bradford – were determined to execute the seemingly simple tasks.
Run past somebody.
Tag him out with a two-hand touch.
One member of a tribe would act as the kick coverage team, an opponent lined up opposite him as the wedge; the cover man trying to run past the blocker before he got set and stopped him.
When Brice Butler blazed past Marquis Simmons before he could even attempt to get set, the whole team went ballistic. Michael Morgan bested Ronald Johnson in another memorable duel.
“Outhit, outplay and outsmart,” Baxter said was the motto of his new game, “Survivor: Troy.”
For a team that struggled immensely on special teams despite a considerable talent edge, this new approach represents a way to get players invested.
“The fastest times, the fastest guys move up in the standing and we’re just looking for ways to motivate them to practice extra hard,” coach Lane Kiffin said. “That’s the hardest phase to get them to do that, special teams.”
“It’s like team bonding,” said Bradford, carrying the tribe flag that offensive lineman Martin Coleman drew. “It’s a fun activity. We get work done and we compete against each other.”
It also serves as an exercise to build chemistry, though some captains chose potentially questionable strategy when picking their teams.
“My first pick was Shareece [Wright],” Bradford said. “I had to go with Colton guys.”
Said Baxter: “I hope they didn’t draft on friendship because that’s not going to win them many games.”
When Ellison’s recent bout with mono, an illness that could limit him through all of spring ball, was brought up, Baxter has a simple response. “Somebody picks up the flag.”
Through sessions that covered almost one half-hour both Tuesday and Thursday, that motto has rung true. The whole team has practiced everything from blocking punts to proper pursuit angles. Even offensive and defensive linemen were called on to fair catch simulated kickoffs from the JUGS machine.
From All-American to walk-on, any man on the roster will be ready to contribute.
“Right now, they’re getting the concept,” Baxter said.
Citing one-time SEC rival Urban Meyer and the Florida Gators, Kiffin has made special teams a major point of emphasis.
Last season was representative of the Trojans’ often mixed results. Damian Williams led the Pac-10 in punt returns and scored two touchdowns. At the same time, the team averaged just 18.86 yards per kick return, finishing 111th out of 120 FBS teams.
Because of that, “Survivor” will carry on for the next few weeks.
The games, Baxter cautioned, do have an ending.
“Once we get to this fall, there’s only one flag that matters and it’s the one with SC on it.”
Allen Bradford carried the flag for Team Atlas.
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