This spring ball session was new territory for USC head coach Lane Kiffin.
For the first time in his young coaching career, Kiffin is in charge of a program that isn’t rebuilding and isn’t looking to the future. This USC team has the ability to win now -- Kiffin knows it, the players know it and the public knows it. And that means the level of expectations have increased dramatically for a guy who is still one of the youngest head coaches in the country.
There aren’t too many questions anymore about wondering if Kiffin can coach. The finish to the Trojans 2011 season pretty much took care of that. The way Kiffin guided his team through a bowl-less season was recognized as proof that the “coach with potential” had finally arrived.
When watching Kiffin during spring there weren’t any signs of unease with his new status and he seemed very much in control of what was going on. He brought in three new assistants and they seemed to fit right in. He made a risky position switch –- Tre Madden from LB to RB –- and it was working like a charm before Madden got hurt. He also stuck to his guns with the left tackle situation by going with Aundrey Walker based on a feeling that the move will eventually work out.
Kiffin has shown that he isn’t afraid to do things his way. He’s a coach with a plan for all of this and USC fans found out early on that this is definitely a guy who is going to stick with what he believes is right.
When Kiffin was hired at USC, he followed one of the most popular coaches in Trojans history in Pete Carroll. It would have been very easy to keep the Carroll program in place and maintain as much of the previous regime as possible. After all, Kiffin had experience in Carroll’s way of doing things while as an assistant coach, and things had worked out pretty well in those years.
That’s not what Kiffin did. He came in and immediately showed the players that this was his team and he was going to do things his way. There was some backlash as many players -- and even more fans -- questioned his coaching style and wondered if he was the right man for the job.
It took a 10-2 finish last season, and a slew of offensive records along the way, to prove that maybe Kiffin did know what he was doing. Now, there is absolutely no doubt that this is his show.
One example of his growth is that he fought any desire to do too much with Matt Barkley this spring. Barkley is the cover boy of college football this year and it would have been very easy to focus too much on him, especially since he never really got on track during the spring ball sessions. Kiffin didn’t panic –- he reminded everyone often of the many injuries at the skill positions around Barkley and stuck with his plan of getting extended work for backups Max Wittek and Cody Kessler. The one time he did give Barkley a ton of work was the spring game and his reasoning was understandable, as Kiffin knew the fans would like it.
Kiffin uses the word “excited” a lot these days when talking about the Trojans. He knows how good his team can be once all the injured players get healthy and a new crop of talented incoming players arrive. This is the kind of scenario he’s been groomed for ever since he talked strategy at poppa Monte’s dinner table as a kid.
Of course, ever the savvy coach, he is quick to point out that the high preseason ranking will not effect how his team prepares. Kiffin sees the rankings as a sign of national respect but he also questions how a team can be ranked that high when (due to roster limits) they will have at least 10 scholarship players less than everyone else. Never let it be said that Kiffin doesn’t know how to get his talking points out to the media. That’s part of his job -- a job that he’s looking very comfortable at these days.