November 4, 2008

Practice Insider: Trojans picking up tough yards

For most of the early parts of the football season, the USC offense had no problem piling up yards.

Runs from Joe McKnight passes to Ronald Johnson or plays designed for any other of the myriad of offensive weapons helped pick up yards in big chunks.

The problems, though, came when USC needed one yard.

USC just couldn't seem to get it.

But dating back to the Trojans' win over Arizona State, USC has unleashed some new options in short-yardage situations.

Instead of relying heavily on Stafon Johnson or any other member of the stable, USC has begun to use fullback Stanley Havili on quick-hitting runs and Mark Sanchez on quarterback sneaks to keep defenses guessing.

"They can't key on anything," offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said. "The more things you do well in any situation, the better off you'll be.

"Having a fullback that can carry it and a quarterback who can sneak it are luxuries, and it puts less pressure on our tailbacks."

Sanchez has rushed for goal-lines touchdowns, and according to Pete Carroll, he's naturally gifted at the play.

"Mark's really good at it. He's got a knack for getting out his stance quickly," Carroll said. "He's got a knack for getting out of his stance quickly, and he's really aggressive. It's the quarterback that makes those things go.

"He's not just making it by inches. He's making yards on his sneaks."

Sanchez boasted he's averaging three yards per sneak, a stat Sarkisian wasn't willing to sign off on.

The timing of the increase in sneaks has nothing to do with Sanchez feeling healthier, he said. It's just something the Trojans have gone to more in recent weeks because it's worked.

"It adds a little to our game knowing we can usually sneak it for a couple of yards," Sanchez said. "The o-line usually gets a great push on those plays."

Havili also adds another dimension to the Trojans' short-yardage package.

"With Stanley in there, we can get that quick punch," Sanchez said. "That's helped us out a lot."

Carroll said the principles between the fullback run and the quarterback sneak are a lot alike.

"They're similar types of plays," Carroll said. "The fullback play Stanley runs works a lot like a sneak. Stanley's very good at it also. He's got a real knack, and he's broken a lot of stuff from that fullback zone play."

A new confidence has emerged when the Trojans' line up, needing only three feet for a first down or a score.

"You just got to get the first down, and it was kind of difficult," Stafon Johnson said. "You knew what's coming and they knew what's coming. The defense won't know what's going to happen."

The Breaks

Wide receiver Damian Williams participated in full-contact drills for the first time since injuring his shoulder in the Trojans' 69-0 win over Washington State.

"It's getting there," Williams said. "That's not the kind of thing that goes back to normal is a week or two."

The bigger concern Tuesday for Williams was the slick surface with a wet Howard Jones Field.

"We're beating up the field now. Today it was all wet. It's a little muddy," Williams said. "We have to concentrate now more and make sure we're really precise with our routes. We can't be leaning back when we get out of our breaks."

Williams said the Trojans are likely to encounter cold and wet weather somewhere along the way before the year is over, making Tuesday's experience valuable.

"It's good to practice in it," Williams said. "Once we see this come game time, it should be second nature for us."

Extra Points

• Practicing in full pads has been a hallmark of Carroll's "Competition Tuesday's," but in November, Carroll said he'll have his players working in just shorts and shoulder pads.

"This is that time of year," he said. "This is how we have always done it. It's a bit of reward for the hard work. This is how we've done it for a long time. The guys look forward to it.

"We're still practicing full speed. This doesn't change that."

• Havili returned to practice Tuesday after missing Monday's workout due to illness. Blake Ayles didn't participate and Michael Morgan was limited.

• Carroll said safety Kevin Ellison received four different rounds of treatment on his surgically repaired right knee before USC took the practice field.

• McKnight looked to be moving normally, as he's continuing to battle turf toe. McKnight said the toe's still bothering him, but he's confident he'll be able to play.

• Defensive tackle Averell Spicer is close to returning from a sprained ankle.


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