It's a "Prove It" Year for USC

by Tim Tessalone

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SUMMONING UP VERNACULAR perhaps more commonly heard in the law school, USC head coach John Robinson is challenging his 1997 Trojan football team to provide the burden of proof.
“This is a ‘prove it’ year,” says Robinson, in his 12th season at USC (and the fifth year of his second head coaching tenure at Troy). “This team has potential. But we must prove it by our play. We have a number of players who simply have to prove that they can up their level of play. If they do, we can be successful in 1997.”

INDEED, THESE TROJANS have a lot to prove after going 6-6 in 1996 (the first time that a USC squad under Robinson hasn’t won at least eight games) and finishing in a fifth place tie in the Pac-10 at 3-5.
As disappointing as that 1996 record was, keep in mind that two of the losses were in double overtime (to Pac-10 champion Arizona State and cross-town rival UCLA) and two others were by a touchdown or less (to the bowl-bound duo of California and Stanford). And the Trojans did finish the season on a high note that could provide a springboard of momentum into the 1997 campaign: a thrilling 27-20 overtime victory versus Notre Dame, Troy’s first win over the Irish in 14 games.
Consider, too, that the 1996 Trojan squad was a young group. Just six seniors started (there were only 13 scholarship seniors on the roster). Ten first-year freshmen played, including two who started most of the year (and three others who started at least once). In 1997, that inexperience should yield to experience – and Trojan tradition.

BASED ON PREVIOUS performances, last year was an aberration for a Robinson-coached USC team. After all, during the past four years (1993-96) since Robinson returned to Troy, the Trojans have won more overall games (31) than any other league team while capturing two Pac-10 co-championships (USC also finished second once), ranking in the final Top 25 poll three times, and winning three post-season bowls. They did all this while playing schedules that were ranked among the nation’s Top Five most difficult in three of those years.
In fact, a .500-or-below season is a rare occasion at Troy, one not likely to be repeated in 1997. USC has had back-to-back non-winning seasons just 11 times in its 104-year gridiron history, most recently more than 35 years ago (1960 and 1961).
“The inexperience of last year now gives way to players who are more mature, bigger and stronger, more competitive and more experienced in 1997,” says Robinson, Division I-A’s seventh winningest active coach (minimum five years experience) at 78.8 percent, with an 11-year record of 98-30-4 (he’s two victories shy of joining the century club). “We must rely on those players to be efficient this season. We have to win with efficiency.
“Going into 1997, this team doesn’t have any obvious strength or any obvious weakness. It also doesn’t have any obvious star. This team has more players who are competitive with each other and fewer who are well known and who will make the covers of magazines. There is no ‘go-to’ guy. We’ll have to win through team success. So leadership and cohesive team play are the ingredients that will drive this team.”
USC returns 75 players from 1996 (21 are seniors). Starters return at 14 positions (eight on offense and six on defense), plus last year’s punter and placekicker are back. All but 12 players on the two-deep from the season-ending Notre Dame game return. And add to that a Top 10-ranked recruiting class of 18 high schoolers and two junior college transfers (including 16 All-Americans).
Troy might have the best pair of cornerbacks in the country in Daylon McCutcheon and Brian Kelly, both candidates for All-American acclaim. Combined, they have 10 interceptions and 210 tackles in their careers. McCutcheon, who was an All-Pac-10 first teamer in 1996 as a sophomore, has already been named a 1997 pre-season All-American (he might also be used as a slotback on offense and as a kick returner in 1997).
Joining them on defense as returning starters are linebackers Chris Claiborne (a 1996 Freshman All-American who was second on the Trojans in tackles last fall with 116) and Mark Cusano (USC’s number three tackler in 1996 with 74), and defensive end George Perry (second on Troy last season in tackles for losses at 13 and sacks at five). Linebackers Grant Pearsall, who started at strong safety in 1996, and Taso Papadakis, a three-game 1996 starter, likely will miss the 1997 season after tearing knee ligaments in 1997 spring practice. Defensive tackle Cedric Jefferson also returns after starting five games on the line last fall. Claiborne and Perry could garner All-Pac-10 honors in 1997.
But the defense will have to plug big holes at linebacker and up front. Starters gone are All-Pac-10 first team linebacker Sammy Knight, who led Troy in tackles the past two years (121 in 1996 and 89 in 1995) and in interceptions (five) and fumble recoveries (three) last fall, defensive tackles Darrell Russell (56 tackles in 1996, including team bests of 19 for losses and nine sacks), an All-Pac-10 first teamer who as a junior was the second pick in the 1997 NFL draft, and two-time Academic All-American first teamer Matt Keneley (66 stops in 1996), who went in the seventh round of the NFL draft, defensive end Willie Lowery (a three-year starter), and cornerback Ken Haslip, who likely will be academically ineligible.

ON OFFENSE, three key starters from 1996 are gone: quarterback Brad Otton (196-of-370, 53.0 percent, 2,649 yards, 20 TDs and 10 interceptions in 1996), who is fourth on USC’s career passing (410 completions) and total offense (5,123 yards) charts, wide receiver Chris Miller (a team-best 43 catches and five TDs in 1996), who was a seventh round NFL draft selection, and tight end John Allred (27 receptions in 1996), a second round NFL draft pick. “The most asked question I get is, ‘Who’s going to be your quarterback?’,” says Robinson. “We won’t make a decision until a decision is called for. Remember, we’ve had some success using two quarterbacks, so we might not play just one guy.”
Meanwhile, the answer began to play itself out in 1997 spring practice and will continue into fall drills as three untested youngsters – sophomores Quincy Woods (1-of-3, 33.3 percent, 24 yards, 0 TDs, 0 interceptions in 1996) and John Fox (0-of-2 with 1 interception in 1996) and redshirt freshman Mike Van Raap-horst – battle for the job. For the first time since 1991, Troy will enter a season with no experienced signal callers on the roster. The trio has a total of just 22 career snaps and five pass attempts (with one completion) under their belts. Whoever is chosen to replace two-year starter Otton will be baptized under fire.
“There has been and will continue to be a spirited competition between three fine young players,” Robinson says. “There is no favorite. The most important thing for us to do is to allow them to compete and show their skills. Each of them performed well at times in spring practice and each of them performed like rookies at times, too. Each player has some very strong qualities. Woods is quick and elusive. Fox has a natural passer’s arm. Van Raaphorst is very bright. They’re inexperienced, but they’ll all be right in there competing for the starting job.
“So, with a new offensive coordinator [Hue Jackson] and an untested quarterback, ‘new and exciting’ is the best way to describe our quarterback situation.”
Elsewhere in its offensive unit, USC welcomes back starting tailback Delon Washington (20th on USC’s career rushing list with 1,649 yards), co-starting fullbacks LaVale Woods (a team-best 601 rushing yards in 1996) and Rodney Sermons (Troy’s number two receiver and number three rusher last year), and co-starting wide receivers Mike Bastianelli (24 catches in 1996) and Billy Miller (17 catches in 1996). And last year’s entire offensive line – guards Travis Claridge (a 1996 Freshman All-American) and Chris Brymer, center Jonathan Himebauch, and tackles Ken Bowen and Rome Douglas – returns, as does 1995 starting guard-now-tackle Phalen Pounds (a shoulder injury sidelined him all of last fall). That’s quite a turnaround from last season, when no starters from 1995 returned up front. Claridge and Brymer are All-Pac-10 candidates in 1997.
Jim Wren, whose 45.6 punting average last year ranked seventh nationally and established a new USC season record, is back and will contend for All-American honors in 1997 (he has already garnered pre-season All-American honors). Also returning is placekicker Adam Abrams (13-of-21 field goals and 33-of-36 PATs in 1996).
Several dangerous return specialists are back, too. R. Jay Soward, who returned a pair of kickoffs for touchdowns last fall (he also caught a school-record 97-yard scoring pass as a wide receiver), is one of college’s most exciting players. Wide receiver Larry Parker is 18th on Troy’s career punt return list, while safety Chad Morton topped the Trojans in punt returns in 1996.

USC AGAIN is faced with a daunting schedule, opening against powerful Florida State, which played in the national championship game last season, and closing with UCLA, which has beaten Troy six games in a row. In between, the Trojans must travel to Notre Dame, Washing-ton, Arizona State, California, and Oregon State, and host Stanford, Oregon, Washington State and UNLV (besides welcoming the Seminoles and Bruins). Five of USC’s 1997 foes were in bowl games last year.
“The motivation for what we’re doing this year comes from the six losses in 1996,” says Robinson. “We’re angry about that and disappointed. We’re trying to correct things that we didn’t do right. We’re starting with a real aggressive nature. We’re doing things harder than last year because with more experienced players, you can ask them to do more. And we’re asking them to play all year with a sustained intensity.”
Tim Tessalone is director of Sports Information at USC.

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