LOS ANGELES- With the influx of new coaches continuing to sprinkle throughout the program, up-and-coming talents like Michael Hutchings get another set of eyes to watch them grow and develop over the course of their careers.
Spending most of last season behind veteran captain Hayes Pullard, the now sophomore linebacker feels much stronger heading into his first full session, trusting that the system currently in place can transform him into an immediate contributor.
"Its starting to come along a lot," Hutchings said, finishing last season with 19 tackles mostly on special teams. "I get to use my speed in space, so I feel like I'm in the perfect opportunity to succeed."
After working his way through the positive freshman season that even featured a promotion to second team after Lamar Dawson was lost for the season due to injury, Hutchings has put in the added work this offseason. He's gained 10 pounds in the weight room, feels smarter than ever about the game, and reaps all the benefits here in practice.
"You feel a lot more comfortable out here practicing, and I feel better even with just a little bit of experience under my belt," Hutchings says about adjusting to the faster tempo at practice. "I’m a lot more comfortable in all aspects. We are all close right now, as you see us joking around all the time in practice."
That camaraderie off the field has not only translated into more intense competition on the field, but a more sound dedication towards assessing the film. Everyone in this unit obviously looks up to captain, and have taken especially close notes to what coach Sirmon has had to say, but Hutchings took that passionate dedication one step further.
"I’m starting to fit into the mold a little bit, I work out with Hayes three days a week so I’m just trying to work my body into that position, if that doesn’t already fit," Hutchings said, whose now up to a stronger and more lean 215 pounds.
Building off that point for a second. Take into account that Hutchings is destined to slot into that starting role during his junior season, and this upcoming season could be a perfect time for the middle line backer to develop his craft directly after the Second-Team All-Pac-12 selection from last season.
"I'm taking in everything I can from him, as in and off the field knowledge," Hutchings said. "(From) how to carry yourself, how to be on the field. I mean he's been here for five years, so definitely a lot of experience under his belt and things he's learned from the older guys here before. So I'm just trynna soak as much in as I can while he's here."
Growing up, as the 4-3 MLB for California powerhouse De La Salle High School, Hutchings transition from pure run stuffer to hybrid pass-coverage menace playing anywhere from on the line to 10, or even 15 yards deep in pass coverage, has been crucial to what should be increased playing time in USC's defense.
"If he keeps the mindset of improving and making himself so valuable that I can't keep him out of the game, he'll play," linebacker coach Sirmon said. And as the Trojans continue to implement another transition on defense from Clancy Pendergast to Justin Wilcox, every level on this unit has to be ready for whatever is thrown their way.
That was certainly the case on Saturday, when the defense broke away from the rampant pace on Howard Jones Field to have an entire period on dissecting read-option attacks. From the menaces on the defensive line, to the young guns like Hutchings up the middle, along with some secondary work, everyone got involved in the antics.
While it would be nearly impossible to get the entire defense acclimated before this Saturday's spring game, it seems clear that Hutchings knows his role will be vastly improved and filled with rising expectations in all aspects of the game.
"We've been playing multiple (defenses). We are installing fast. I know they want to get a lot of stuff done before summer," said Hutchings, understanding of what's to come in the closing three Spring Football sessions. "Not even to get it correct. Just to get it down and get it on film, so we can see how it looks for our personnel."
So when Saturday's spring game comes around, or as coach Sarkisian is calling it "a high impact scrimmage," expect plenty more opportunities for the next great USC linebacker to roam around the field making tremendous plays.