USC Football Practice Report: Opening prep for Ohio State

Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images /

USC Football was back in full pads for the first time in over a month as preparations for the Cotton Bowl against Ohio State launched.

As USC Football returned to Howard Jones Field to get ready for the 2017 Cotton Bowl, the Trojans are treating this like a “typical work week,” head coach Clay Helton said on Tuesday.

In that sense, USC’s prep for the bowl game will look somewhat familiar. As they did ahead of the Rose Bowl, the Trojans will look to get in a week of practice as though they were preparing for a game on Saturday. Tuesday’s full pads practice will give way to a shells practice on Wednesday, then no pads on Thursday and a walkthrough on Friday.

However, that doesn’t mean everything will be the same. Unlike last year, the Trojans lost a week preparing for the Pac-12 title game, then took a week off for finals. Looking ahead, the Christmas holiday looms. That means this “typical” week will give way to atypical preparation.

Next week, USC will undergo two physical practices on Monday and Tuesday, according to Helton, then players will be given time to go home at the the end of the week to spend time with their families before flying out to Dallas on Dec. 23.

This week of practice is the start of it all, and a key period for the Trojans.

INJURY REPORT: Ankle Injuries Dog Jack, Velus and Ronald Jones

“Whenever we have a bunch of time to prepare, we try to come out here really hard in the first couple weeks of practice,” quarterback Sam Darnold said. “Then get what we need to get in the last week and by then we’re ready to go.”

As-Is Playcalling

Trojan fans may be wondering what USC’s offense will look like with quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator Tyson Helton gone after accepting a position at Tennessee, but the Trojan coaches present at Howard Jones Field on Tuesday had a common refrain.

“We’re not changing,” offensive coordinator Tee Martin said. “I’ve been calling the plays all season so I’ll continue to do that.”

“Tee makes the calls,” Helton echoed. “I’ll always throw out a suggestion or two, if it’s a particular shot, but Tee does a tremendous job.”

According to Martin, the gameplan won’t be heavily affected by the younger Helton’s leaving either. Most of the plan was formulated before his departure and the process will remain the same.

Back to Texas

For some Trojans, like McKinney-native Ronald Jones II, the Cotton Bowl offers a rare chance to play in front of hometown family and friends.

The running back was excited to hear the Trojans would be playing in Arlington rather than their assumed destination of Glendale, Arizona for the Fiesta Bowl, but USC’s reaction wasn’t all joy.

The last time the men of Troy traveled to Texas, the results were nightmarish, losing to Alabama 52-6 at AT&T Stadium in the 2016 season opener.

With the Cotton Bowl bid, the Trojans must return to the scene of the crime.

“We weren’t necessarily wanting to go back there, just because of that bad taste,” Jones II said. “But we have an opportunity to get that taste out of our mouth.”

Ohio’s Deland McCullough

Deland McCullough may be less familiar with AT&T Stadium, having joined Helton’s staff just this year, but he is the only Trojan who can claim familiarity with USC’s Cotton Bowl opponent.

McCullough grew up in Ohio. He went to high school in the state. He went to college at Miami, Ohio. He played pro ball with Cincinnati. He started his college coaching career at his alma mater in Ohio.

Moreover, he coached against Ohio State while serving as the running backs coach at Indiana.

SEE MORE: Teaching Background Helps McCullough Mold Future Backs

“I played these guys for six years,” McCullough said, citing his knowledge of coaches on the staff and players on the roster who he recruited for the Hoosiers.

In fact, McCullough found out about USC’s bowl fate in Ohio. He landed in Akron for a recruiting trip, decked out in Trojan gear, and didn’t understand the looks he received from Ohio natives until he turned on his phone and saw a load of texts announcing and reacting to the USC-Ohio State matchup.

Despite being deep in Buckeye country, McCullough wasn’t completely alone though. As he picked up his rental car, the man behind the counter was a Michigan fan in enemy territory. He expressed his desire to see the Trojans best the Buckeyes, just with more colorful language.

Luckily for the Michigan fan, the Trojans are in a better position to succeed than McCulllough’s Indiana teams, which were 0-6 against Ohio State during his time on staff.

“We’ve got a little bit more bullets than what I’ve had in the past,” McCullough said.

Playoff Matchup

There’s no denying the overriding narrative for the 2017 Cotton Bowl. Both teams feel aggrieved and will be looking to take it out on the other.

“Two teams in this game could have been argued to be the No. 4 team in the country in the playoff,” offensive coordinator Tee Martin said. “It’s going to be that kind of matchup, that type of game.”

It will also be USC’s biggest test of the season, by far.

Though Notre Dame was ranked in the Top 5 when they played, the Irish have since fallen in the rankings to No. 14. In light of the Alabama connection, it’s worth noting that the Trojans 49-14 loss to Notre Dame was their worst since being embarrassed by the Tide at AT&T Stadium.

FLASHBACK: Studs and Duds from USC’s Loss to Notre Dame

Ohio State’s No. 5 ranking now makes the Buckeye’s USC’s highest-ranked opponent of the year.

A Familiar Defense

Ohio State may run a 4-3 defense, schematically different from Clancy Pendergast’s 3-4 hybrid, but USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin doesn’t see a huge difference between the Buckeye front and the one his Trojans go up against everyday in practice.

According to Martin, both defenses boast athletes on the defensive line who do well against the run and can get after the quarterback.

“They’ve been getting after the quarterback all season, those guys are relentless in terms of that,” Martin said.

The good news? Martin points out that USC’s pass rush leads the nation in sacks this year. It’s hard to find a better simulation.

All-American Tesla

What does it mean to Jones II that his name will go on USC’s All-American walk?

“It’s a great honor,” the junior running back said. “When you look at the running backs who are on that wall, to be in that same class, at least in the same category, means a lot. It’s just another thing that I came here to do.”

CHECK OUT: 10 Best USC Running Backs of All-Time

Jones II stature as an All-American was no sure thing with the likes of Bryce Love, Saquan Barkley and Rashaad Penny commanding plenty of attention in various All-American votes. However, Pro Football Focus put speculation to bed right away, named the electric Trojan runner to their first team thanks to his exceptional advanced stat grade.

Ask McCullough and there’s no doubt about his back’s worthiness.

“You can’t control what people evaluating him say, but when the season is completely over, I think when you look at it in it’s totality, you’ll see that Ronald Jones is easily one of the top two or three running backs in the country,” McCullough said.

Hectic Early Signing Period

This year’s bowl prep comes with the added pressure of heightened recruiting needs thanks to the addition of the early signing period on Dec. 20-22.

More from Reign of Troy

“It’s made me a really tired person,” Helton laughed on Tuesday.

“We made a commitment to our football team to win a Pac-12 title, so that first week when you’re allowed out, we committed to our players and our team,” he added. “So this last week we’ve been grinding all the way through the country.”

Helton actually presided over USC’s bowl practice on Monday, caught a flight out for a home visit with a recruit that evening then flew back in the morning to get back in time for Tuesday afternoon’s practice.

TRENDING: Tracking USC’s All-American Honors for 2017

“That’s part of the job,” Helton said. “It’s made it, for coaches, a little hectic, but players win games you better get your butt on the road and go.”