The scene on Howard Jones Field Wednesday afternoon was something we hadn't seen in quite some time. The Trojans took the field largely focusing on installing techniques on special teams for the first time since Spring Football.
Through three days of Fall Camp the emergence of some "leaders in the club house" at certain positions has made for some interesting talking points leading up to the Trojans season opener against Fresno State on August 30th.
Hearing the former coach sure brings back memories, besides his recent book documenting the errors in today's education system, leaving behind a legacy filled with questions waiting to be answered but definitely worth discussing.
Can Andre Heidari find his stroke to convert big kicks throughout the season? Can Kris Albarado return to form leading the Pac-12 in pinning teams inside the 20s? More importantly, can USC block punts, limit big returns and spark enough life in their own return game to mirror great special teams units of old under coach Pete Carroll?
What that entails is an all-out approach placing the best athletes in positions to succeed. Whether it be Soma Vainuku charging up the middle on punt block, Quinton Powell rushing from sideline to sideline covering kicks or possibly Adoree' Jackson, Darreus Rogers and Nelson Agholor returning kicks; players will have chances to flourish.
"I hate to be redundant but I didn't expect anything. I came in really with a clean slate," Sarkisian said about assessing his depth on special teams. "You know in spring, we didn't really install any teams...We taught fundamentals for 15 practices, and now we are getting into implementation of schemes."
Coach Sarkisian has preached the necessity for competition at every position and the Trojans newfound depth on special teams add an extra dimension to Fall Camp practices. Senior Andre Heidari, who despite a somewhat subpar season (15-of-22 field goals), nailed the biggest kick of them all beating Stanford at the Coliseum.
But as we roll through camp, the sudden emergence of junior college kicker Matthew Boermeester as a significant threat to the true senior has made elements like accuracy and mental toughness vital during this healthy competition.
Why is that important right now, well think back to the supposed open competition between Andre Heidari and walk-on Alex Wood during the middle of the season. While it was rather obvious Wood did not have the intangibles to surpass Heidari in the kicking department, things may be different this time around.
"There's going to be a point this season when where going to have to kick a game winning field goal or a game-tying field goal and it's going to be uncomfortable," Sarkisian said. It goes without saying that competition can bring out the best and worst in your roster. For the major of USC's special teams, the best stuff is yet to come.
Soma Vaiunku described it best when he surmised that versatility would be the biggest key to their overall success. Speaking from a broader sense, that's true for the entire 68-man scholarship roster. But having competition, and more importantly invested interest across the board, makes for better focus come opening kickoff.
But lets not forget that Kris Albarado has begun to find his form once again, booming punt after punt in those tight spirals. The redshirt junior earned Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week against Utah State and pinned opponents inside the 20-yard-line on about 34% of his punts last season. Sarkisian believes that if Albarado continues to do what he's been doing in camp, he will earn First-Team All-Conference honors.
Following a heavy instillation based practice on Wednesday, the Trojans have finally begun laying down basic fundamentals to succeed on special teams. Dropping back into space, playing tight with your man step for step, even jamming the flyer; all these major teaching points will be barked out by coach Johnny Nansen over the next few weeks.
In someways special teams is becoming ever specialized. For starters, the timing on the field and the health-related rule changes are marginalizing the position. Keep in mind that many of USC's greatest feats last season didn't come from sacks or completed passes but blocked punts, big kick returns or even missed kicks in very close games.
Vast changes in the NFL have begun to trickle down which means you have to maximize your roster to find the right athletes to make plays all over the field. One underrated part of this entire conversation is that sanctions have ultimately prepared this program to succeed (maximizing the roster) in special teams more than anything else.
While USC still has plenty of work to accomplish, the Trojans are finally beginning to plant the seeds that will one day grow into the third --and sometimes forgotten-- unit of the game. You can't necessarily win a game because of special teams but you can very easily lose or put yourself way behind the sticks if things go haywire.