How USC football’s new coaches have emphasized competition to transform the Trojans

Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy
Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy /

USC football needs to turn the ship around after 5-7. Clay Helton, Aaron Ausmus and Graham Harrell have emphasized competition and discipline to get it done.

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In 2016, Notre Dame went 4-8. The next year, head coach Brian Kelly engineered a 10-3 bounce back season.

In 2018, when USC football floundered to a 5-7 record, athletic director Lynn Swann and head coach Clay Helton both referenced their rivals’ ability to recover from what was an unacceptable slip up. If the Irish could do it, so could the Trojans.

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But how did Notre Dame manage that feat? It wasn’t by sticking with what wasn’t working. And they left a road map.

So far in 2019, the Trojans have done their best to follow it. That much was clear at Pac-12 Media Day on Wednesday.

After the Irish completed their turnaround, Sports Illustrated and others detailed all the ways Notre Dame fixed their problems. First, Kelly gutted his coaching staff, bringing in new coordinators and assistants. He even axed his long-time strength and conditioning coach.

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The new S&C hire was arguably most impactful move because it allowed the Irish to change the way they emphasized competition in the locker room. They split the team into eight groups who vied for points, which they could earn for performance in the weight room, classroom and community.

USC’s new strength and conditioning coach Aaron Ausmus, who replaced Ivan Lewis after his departure for the NFL, has his own competition-centric approach.

Ausmus has divided the squad into four teams with an even mix of players from different position groups. Every day they compete for points. Make your weight? You earn points. Set a personal best? You earn points. Turn up late? You lose points. Accountability, not just to yourself and the coaches, but to your teammates is key.

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Then there’s what Ausmus calls the “phone booth fight.”

The “phone booth” is the weight room rack. Four players go in the booth and complete power lifts like front squats, back squats, overhead presses, bench presses and more. There are four to five sets of eight to 10 reps.

Except it’s not a standard lifting session. It’s a competition for points and it’s grueling.

“So you have four people in your phone booth. And then he rings the bell. And it’s next guy up and it’s very little break,” defensive end Christian Rector explained. “So you’re kind of getting conditioning in while you’re lifting. And then you go outside and run on top of that. And by the end of the phone booth. You’re dead.”

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Being “dead” after workouts has become a theme of USC’s offseason under Ausmus.

“It brings the best out of us,” Rector said. “I don’t think we thought we could go that far, to push our bodies that far.”

“Some of those workouts, I never thought in 10,000 years I’d be able to do,” wide receiver Michael Pittman said. “And that’s what coaches do, they take you places that you can’t take yourself.”

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Ausmus is helping the Trojans to get the most out of their bodies, but he’s not the only new staffer who has done his part to encourage competition. Other staff changes have given the team new perspective as well.

After 5-7, Helton followed Kelly’s example, sort of. He fired offensive coordinator Tee Martin, offensive line coach Neil Callaway, defensive backs coach Ronnie Bradford and defensive line coach Kenechi Udeze. Quarterbacks coach Bryan Ellis left for a promotion elsewhere. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast managed to save his job, but that came along with a change in approach with adjustments to the defensive front and rotation.

More than anyone, new offensive coordinator Graham Harrell has has an immediate impact. Not only has he simplified the offense to give USC’s athletes the opportunity to go out and play without thinking, but his energy has impressed even the defensive players.

“He’s running around and always chirping ‘here comes the Air Raid’ ‘Air Raid’s coming’ and ‘here come them Trojans’,” Rector said, enjoying the lively nature of a younger coach in the building and on the field.

Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy
Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy /

Harrell isn’t just a rah rah figure though. He insists on toughness and discipline.

Pittman shared an example of what happened when a player missed a class. Harrell made the offense run six gassers, running the length of the field, with 25 up-downs in between each.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Pittman said, who thinks missing classes is no longer on the table for the Trojans. “Anybody misses class, they better watch out because we’re coming for them.”

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When it comes to addressing the issues that plagued USC in 2018, Helton has undoubtedly taken positive steps. Ausmus and Harrell’s emphasis on competition and discipline has resulted in a culture change in the Trojan ranks. Whether at change will result in wins is another question.

The players themselves seem to understand their role in all of it.

“[Ausmus] has said it before, that the change comes from within us as players,” Rector said. “It starts with us.”