Grading the 2010 USC Football Season: Special Teams


Grade: A-

Coordinator: John Baxter (Year 1)

After a lackluster performance in 2009, the special teams unit left its mark in several contests under the direction of John Baxter. In total, the Trojans blocked an astounding seven kicks over the course of thirteen games, including two punts. That number surpasses the six blocked kicks accrued by USC over the previous two seasons. Opponents missed four extra points during the course of the season, two of which were blocked. The fact that the Trojans contested every kick was a welcome sight and helped give them momentum in certain games. Most notably, the Trojans victory against Arizona State was due in large part to a huge swing on special teams. Trailing by 4 with 7 minutes left in the game, USC blocked a PAT and Torin Harris scooped it up and ran it in for to points. The three point swing allowed USC to kick a field goal late and emerge victorious in a one-point game.

Jacob Harfman didn’t punt the ball particularly far, but the coverage was so good that he ended up with the same net average as opponents despite kicking the ball on the fly 17 yards less on average. Perhaps this spike in coverage can be attributed to changing from the traditional punt formation to the new one gaining steam with a spread out line and three men protecting the punter.

In the return game, USC consistently churned out productive returns. Ronald Johnson averaged 16 yards per punt return and the two kick returners gained roughly 26 yards per return. Although the kickoff team only turned in one touchdown, it was a big one. In a tight game against Minnesota, Robert Woods took the ball 97 yards to the house to give USC breathing room and confidence to pull away. Likewise, Ronald Johnson only returned one punt for a touchdown, but it also allowed USC to widen a narrow gap at Hawaii.

Opponents averaged 23 yards per kick return, and never really did damage to the Trojans. Unfortunately, the only important return against USC came in the fourth quarter against Stanford. With the game tied late in the fourth, the Cardinal returned the ball into the red zone and parlayed it into a go-ahead touchdown.

The main hole in USC’s special teams game was placekicker Joe Houston. The senior finished the season 10 for 16 after beginning a dismal 2 for 6. Although the loss to Washington wasn’t his fault, it was disappointing when he missed a 40 yard field goal that would have forced the Huskies to score a touchdown on their final drive. After such a poor start, Lane Kiffin’s hands were tied and he was often forced to go for it instead of kicking a reasonable field goal because he simply couldn’t trust Houston. On the bright side, he nailed all 43 of his PAT attempts.

Special teams are effective if they remain anonymous. As long as teams don’t allow big returns or miss PATs, the unit has done its job and set up the offense or defense to go to work. The fact that USC’s special teams were so active and productive speaks volumes about the job John Baxter did.