USC's John Baxter has special talent
LOS ANGELES -- During his nine seasons at USC, Pete Carroll had six different coaches assisting with special teams at one time or another and went nearly five years without having a full-time coach specifically assigned to the group. Then again, it's easy to basically ignore one-third of the game when you're recruiting five-star athletes on offense and defense.
USC coach Lane Kiffin, however, knew that philosophy wasn't going to work when he took over the team in January.
One of the first calls Kiffin made after taking the USC job was to John Baxter, who had been the associate head coach and special teams coach at Fresno State since 1997. Baxter, who has been coaching special teams for the past 20 years, accepted a similar position with USC in March and has made special teams an emphasis of the program with Kiffin's blessing.
"We hired the best guy in the country by going out to get John Baxter and his resume proves that," Kiffin said. "I can already tell a difference in the emphasis and in our players and their response. We're going to need to be good on special teams as we look at [the team] in the long run if we're going to be limited scholarship-wise with these penalties. We're going to have to play great special teams because we're not going to be better than everybody else with limited players. Not only are we losing out on 10 [scholarship] players a year that we can get but that's 10 a year that's going to the rest of the conference."
The added practice time dedicated to the kicking game was one of the biggest changes of this year's team and coaching staff, which immediately stuck out to USC quarterback Matt Barkley.
"There's a lot more emphasis on special teams for sure," Barkley said. "It seems we're spending more time on it and hopefully that's going to pay off this year. I know in meetings they talk about how we're improving on special teams so that's a big change."
Baxter, who molded Fresno State into one of the best special teams units in the country (blocking 84 kicks and punts during his time, including a national-best 49 from 2002 to 2009), says he believes he can have even better success at USC and plans to use more starters on special teams than USC ever did in the past.
"I'm hired to do this and for the first time in 29 years I can just focus on this and nothing else," said Baxter, who also doubled as a wide receivers and tight ends coach during his career. "Lane really wanted to make sure our guys understood the technique, fundamentals and details of that facet of the game. I didn't watch one second of USC film before I got here because they weren't doing anything structurally that matches what I do."
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One of the biggest position battles during camp is on special teams where senior Joe Houston is battling senior Jacob Hardman, the team's punter, for the kicking job.
"After a couple weeks we'll decide it," Baxter said. "There's no doubt that Jake's the punter and kickoff guy."
Kiffin said he wasn't in a rush to choose a kicker early in camp and feels confident both players can handle the job.
"I've been pleased with the punting and kicking so far. Joe has shown a little more range than I thought that he had," he said. "Every position can be different. We may be able to make a call on a position today and we may not until the week of the game. It just depends on how close it is and if we've seen enough to make a decision. It's still early and we haven't had live rushes yet."
Kiffin's career in the NFL might not have been very long (he went 5-15 in a little over one season with the Oakland Raiders), but he has routinely compared his first fall camp at USC to an NFL training camp. Citing a lack of depth at certain positions, he isn't planning on pushing his players as hard as Carroll did and will hold four scrimmages which he's calling "preseason games" during camp. The first of these will take place Sunday.
"It really goes to the next level of things," Kiffin said of the scrimmage. "It's one thing when you're not in any pads at all and then you put on half pads and then guys start to fall off and disappear a little bit. It'll be interesting to see what happens. The hardest thing for guys to do when it gets live is to maintain their technique and things right because they try to get into a game mentality. It will be very valuable for these freshmen who we've never seen in a live situation."
Freshmen receive praise
Two freshmen Kiffin will pay close attention to during the scrimmage will be wide receivers Markeith Ambles and Robert Woods. Ambles, a 6-foot-2, 215-pound receiver from McDonough, Ga., and Woods, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound receiver from Carson, Calif., have stood out so far in camp, but Kiffin and offensive coordinator Kennedy Pola want to see how their skills transfer over in a scrimmage.
"Markeith and Robert have stepped right in and done a phenomenal job," Kiffin said. "They don't look like freshmen. They've had a bunch of reps and a bunch of big plays. They're not screwing up alignments. We're really excited about those two. Robert most resembles Steve Smith from guys who were here before. Coming in he's actually faster than Steve was so we're excited about both those guys."
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Kiffin's first job as an assistant when he came to USC in 2001 was as a tight ends coach, and he spent a good part of Saturday's practice going back to his roots. He worked with senior tight ends Jordan Cameron and David Ausberry, who have the inside track on the starting job, and extensively with his three freshman tight ends, Xavier Gimble, Randall Telfer and Christian Thomas.
"We're trying to bring those guys along with three highly recruited freshmen that have a bunch of talent," Kiffin said. "It's a harder position to come in and play right away than it is at receiver because of the blocking side of it especially in our practices with the big physical defensive ends. We're just trying to bring those guys along and figure out which guys will be playing for us."
When Kiffin was asked which player has been the biggest surprise so far during camp, he didn't waste any time singling out redshirt freshman James Boyd, who moved from defensive end to quarterback and back to defensive end before the start of camp.
"James Boyd has played really well at defensive end for us," Kiffin said. "It's a new position for him and he's looked more comfortable over there. He's still a baby. He just finished up his freshman year. He's been a real pleasant surprise over there because we didn't know much about him. He was throwing touchdowns the last time we saw him."
While Boyd starred as a quarterback at Jordan High in Los Angeles and wanted to play the position in college he realized his best chance to get on the field at USC was on defense.
"He came to me and asked if he could move because he thought that's where his future would be and so I moved him," Kiffin said.
Tight end Blake Ayles, who has a hamstring injury, didn't practice for the first time this camp. Freshman receiver Kyle Prater was limited for the second day because of a strained hip and pulled out of practice early. Offensive tackle Martin Coleman suffered a concussion and didn't participate in any contact drills.
Arash Markazi is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.