football
{{ timeAgo('2017-09-16 14:20:00 -0500') }} ago

Maya Tenfold

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Welcome to another edition of the Tenfold, where I unleash 10 things from my membrane ...

1. THUNDER

A few months before I completed my degree I got a job at the campus bookstore to help pay off my student loans. One of the gifts I got for myself was a No. 21 jersey, which still hangs in my closet today. I’m not old enough to have watched the brilliance of Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson, Anthony Davis, Ricky Bell, Charles White and Marcus Allen in person. But I got a front-row seat to Reggie Bush and LenDale White, whom I always believed was the better tailback of the two (although clearly not the better player).

It was difficult to read through this week’s L.A. Times’ profile on LenDale (which was wonderfully done by rising star Zach Helfand). I know LenDale. Not well, but I know him. He made himself easy to know (and love) while he was at USC. I can’t think of any athlete I’ve covered over the past 15 years that’s been more transparent. One part that concerned me from the story — there were a few — is how LenDale seems to believe not converting on fourth-and-2 defines his legacy at USC. That play is really one of the last things I think about when I think of him.

He arrived the year I started covering the team and he left just as I graduated. Over these three years he became my go-to interview after each game and practice. He was the first player I remember getting to conduct a private sitdown interview with on campus. He told me how his father had passed away when he was in junior high and that he and his two siblings were raised by his mother, uncle and grandmother, who was fighting to stay alive at the time. The entire family lived just outside Denver, and he would make the trip east any chance he got. But before I could even get into the meat of my first big interview, I had to ask him about a kid he kept talking to in the locker room following a recent game. It struck me how engaged he was and the gentle tone he took with this young boy. You’d think he was already a father himself. I came to find out it was Ryan Davidson, an 11-year-old from Wisconsin who had beaten brain cancer twice only to have it return just a few months prior. Ryan worshipped the Trojans and especially loved LenDale.

“It touched my heart to death,” LenDale would tell me of meeting Ryan, a topic that unsuspectingly dominated our conversation and therefore served as the lead to my feature.

At the 2006 Rose Bowl, before I rushed down to the field for the frenetic final minutes and with Texas on the verge of cutting its deficit to five, I had to fill out my ballot for MVP since it’s collected before the conclusion. I wrote down two names: Vince Young and LenDale White. This was a no-brainer. By the time I reached the sideline, USC was approaching midfield and would soon face the dilemma of fourth-and-2. We all know what happened next. For what it’s worth, Reggie’s whereabouts on that play didn't cross my mind as it unfolded. White, just like he did the previous year vs. Oklahoma, was putting up a monster effort and was probably the best short-yardage back in college football. Bush, meanwhile, was having an uneven game and was often hit-or-miss when running between the tackles. LenDale was the easy choice (except maybe it wasn’t the best idea to line up in a goal-line formation, essentially begging the Longhorns to load the box). USC, of course, seals the game with that conversion, but that play was merely one of a dozen (and not the last) where the Trojans win if it broke their way. Fourth-and-2 is not even the most memorable play from the final two minutes.

Something I’ll never forget is how LenDale sat in the locker room for about an hour after the game in complete disbelief. He might have been the final player to leave. Since I wasn’t on deadline and had nothing else to do, I just sat there with him. Neither of us said much. I guess the previous three years spoke for themselves. It never dawned on me until reading this recent story on him how he might have been internalizing that fateful play while he sat in the locker room, not to mention over the years.

This week I went back and found the long feature I’d written during his sophomore year and came across two quotes that I believe encapsulate LenDale and serve as a fitting reminder of what he did at USC for anyone who needs one (LenDale included).

The first is from LenDale himself:

“I want to look back 20 years from now, where my kids are sitting down, and 1 can show them what I did as a Trojan. … I want to be recognized as a legend. When the smoke clears, I want to be one of the guys, when they think Trojan football, my name pops up in their head.”

It’s been over a decade since he said this and I’d say mission accomplished. The second is from then-assistant coach Ed Orgeron:

“He’s what a USC tailback should be."

These are my lasting images of LenDale White.

2. QUIET ASSASINS

Player comps are fun, if not especially useful or accurate. In that vein, I’d like to make one for Deontay Burnett: Damian Williams. I’ve been trying to put my finger on Burnett, a player who Coach Clay Helton often reminds is not the biggest, fastest or most athletic receiver. He’s just USC’s best, which is a space Williams quietly occupied for two seasons last decade. I realize Williams was slightly larger—he’s an inch taller and played about 20 pounds heavier—but neither of their games are predicated on physicality. Instead it’s about everything else. Burnett catches everything, is really instinctive, a strong route runner, adept at finding crevices in defenses, demonstrates an acute awareness of his surroundings, and he’s proving to be a gamer. It’s all reminiscent of Williams, who as a sophomore had his own MVP-like performance in the Rose Bowl vs. Penn State (10 catches, 162 yards, 1 TD) that was ultimately overshadowed by his quarterback. Moreover, neither has the diva personality you’d associate with a No. 1 receiver. Williams’ humility was a big reason he was voted a team captain in 2009 and I could see Burnett earning the same distinction next year. It’s almost like he doesn’t know he’s a star.

3. REROUTED

For weeks we’ve wondered what’s going on with the rotation among the wide receivers and why veterans we’ve seen before are firmly ahead of promising underclassmen. Well, a recent conversation with quarterbacks coach Tyson Helton has provided some insight. I was asking him about how he manages Sam Darnold, whose improvisational nature often lends itself to a crucial mistake or two each game but also a half-dozen plays only he can make.

Now read Helton’s response.

“To be honest with you, a lot of the way the routes are set up, they’re set up because of his style of play. To give you a great example, I don’t know if you remember where he scrambled to the right and Steven Mitchell, he hit him way down field on the right-hand side. We’re running vertical routes and there’s a point and time where Steven’s running that if he looks over his shoulder and he knows the ball isn’t in the air, he knows he’s going to hit the brakes and come back immediately because Sam is on the move or whatever. So there’s a lot of things we do knowing that Sam is going to move a little bit to give him a lot of opportunity throws. So like the first touchdown where he threw it in the back of the end zone to Steven, he had multiple opportunities there. It wasn’t open in the flat but he was going to be open in the back of the corner. Because we like to move him, a lot of the routes are built that way.”

It occurred to me as Helton talked that this wrinkle in their passing game — these hot routes, if you will — might be a bit heavy for first and second-year receivers. Helton instantly nodded.

“Those guys have a lot on them,” Helton added. “It’s an NFL deal; there’s a lot of ball plays. We’ll only do what the guys can handle but the guys can handle a lot. And the younger guys, they’re trying to catch up and it’ll take a little longer but we try to give them an amount they can handle and use them how we can use them.”

At the same time, Helton said we’ll see some of these guys emerge “the more they play.” Reps in practice and mental reps in games aren’t going to get them there.

4. NITPICKING

Darnold has thrown four interceptions this season after throwing just nine all of last season. In his last six games, he’s been intercepted twice four times and has nine interceptions overall. Compare that to his first six starts when he threw just three interceptions. The more comfortable Darnold has gotten, the more brilliant plays he’s made. But it’s come at the expense of more turnovers. Every interception has its own story, so part of my conversation with Helton was about the two he threw against Stanford. He said the first one, a pass intended for Deontay Burnett over the, is an example of Darnold still learning to discern whether to take a shot or tuck it.

“Everybody in the stadium could see Tay, but he has to understand, hey, I can’t step, I have a guy on me, I’m not going to be able to get all the way through,” Helton said. “And that’s a split instant decision where he has to say I can’t do it. Tay (Deontay Burnett) is coming open and Sam had a guy in his face and he just couldn’t get enough to follow through. But you’re going to live with that because if you want to throw for four touchdowns, you’re going to get some of those throws too. We’ll always constantly work on that, to manage those throws. It’s a point of emphasis but we’re not going to play scared, we’re not going to hold the ball. So take it with a grain of salt.”

Helton absolved Darnold from the second interception, a deep throw down the sideline to Tyler Petite in which an unsuspecting cornerback left his receiver and jumped in front of Petite. Later, when he reviewed the tape, Helton saw that Darnold executed the play exactly as he was instructed and the pass was going to fall right into Petite’s hands and past his defender. The interception had more to do with the inherent risk than it did Darnold.

“We had a one-on-one, man-to-man route and we got hung up with the outside receiver. They did a nice job with the corner, he was able to jam up the receiver. The receiver was working hard but he was able to jam him up a little bit. Sam was going to go throw that ball to Tyler (Petite) and the corner was able to come off of it because he was underneath the throw, he saw the ball thrown. So really, call it by design, a play, or whatever, one for the defense. We just weren’t able to get free access on the route like we wanted to. So that one was not on Sam at all, to be honest with you. The decision was perfect, he had a one-on-one, man-to-man shot and the corner came off underneath and Sam never expected the guy to be there. Call it us, call it just playing good defense.”

Understood. We know throwing some interceptions is inevitable, especially when you’re constantly making plays downfield. With Darnold, the good has obviously far outweighed the bad. Yet it just seems like he is either off balance or throwing off his back foot far too often, which was the case with both of his latest turnovers. So my final question for Helton was about Darnold’s lower body mechanics and if he needs to step into more of his throws. Helton’s answer was surprising.

“He doesn’t have to step into anything,” he said. “He’s like a Brett Favre, that kind of player, Aaron Rodgers. Those guys, just so long as their feet are on the ground and they have good balance, that’s all he really needs.”

OK, good talk.

5. STEPHEN+CARR=STARR

The ceiling for Stephen Carr is rising by the carry. For months I said he would ultimately become USC’s No. 2 back this season. I just didn’t see that happening in the second half of the first game. Now I’m starting to wonder if there will be games in which he has more carries than Ronald Jones II this season. Or perhaps that’s already inevitable. So, how soon? Carr’s success is as unstoppable as the ocean tide, and apparently it’s something first-year running backs coach Deland McCullough saw immediately.

“The first day that I worked with him in the summer, he’ll tell you, we sat in the lunchroom and I said, be ready for what’s coming,” McCullough said. “You’re going to have to work for it but I can see some great things coming. And it’s continued to be a work in progress. He’s a young man, he’s a freshman, at USC, had a couple of nice games. So I text his mom and just make sure everyone is grounded in what’s going on here and not let it get to his head. I said, you can be your own worst enemy if you allow that happen. So, on my watch, I’m not going to allow that to happen. When he’s in my presence, this guy is going to be locked in and doing what he’s supposed to do.”

6. LIGHTNING RODS

It’s fitting that we’ve been talking about LenDale White and Reggie Bush this week since the Trojans easily have their best backfield duo since those two were running through the Pac-10 and everyone else. A constant conversation in their time was whether each guy was getting enough carries, and it was’nt always rosy behind the scenes. LenDale and Reggie were competitors with one another as much as they were friends. It’s the nature of the position but also their dual standing as elite backs. The biggest difference today with Carr and RoJo is the two-year gap. It’ll be fascinating to see how each responds to the day when Carr gets more touches. Clay Helton made the point repeatedly in the offseason he wanted RoJo to carry the ball about 20-25 times a game. (His 23 carries last week tied a career high.) I asked McCullough if he has a magic number in mind for Carr’s carries.

“No. I don’t think about it that way. Just get the guys in and they’re going to get their touches. That’s part of whatever the process is and part of the game and everything will take care of itself. And they know that. I told them, when you have the ball in your hand, there’s an urgency about making plays. There’s a high urgency of making plays. So when RoJo was in that last drive or so, him and Stephen, I said you guys need to roll, let’s go, we need to get after it. And you saw RoJo on that last drive he was rolling now. I was in his ear saying let’s go out and make something happen. It was probably going to be the last time we got the ball, so we needed to get it done and that’s what we did.”

7. ROJO’S MOJO

Hearing McCullough explain the competition in the running back room makes you wonder how Carr’s presence motivates RoJo. He’s run with a ferocity this year that didn’t seem be there on a consistent basis in the past. I believe part of that is him feeling secure as the No. 1 guy, which dates back to the middle of last season. But having Carr on his heels has pushed him as well. The rookie’s sublime start to his career has somewhat overshadowed the incredible run RoJo is on. He’s rushed for 1,072 yards over the past eight games. It’s the most yards over an eight-game stretch for a USC tailback since Reggie ran for 1,167 to close out the 2005 regular season. It’s worth noting this was Reggie’s only eight-game stretch that topped RoJo’s and LenDale didn’t match it either. Ricky Ervins might have topped RoJo over eight games during the 1989 season. The last instance we know surpassed RoJo (and Reggie) was from Marcus Allen in his 1981 Heisman season. In other words, don’t sleep on RoJo.

8. GOING STREAKING

Helton has won 11 consecutive games. While that doesn’t seem otherworldly for USC, what with its standing as one of the best programs in the history of the sport, this run isn’t as common as you’d think. Pete Carroll did it three times, including the unforgettable 34-game winning streak between the 2003-05 seasons. John Robinson also did it three times, the longest being a 15-game streak between 1976-77. John McKay did it four times, though his longest was only 14 games. Howard Jones did it twice, including a 25-game winning streak from 1931-1933. And then Elmer Henderson did it from 1919-1921. To recap, Helton’s streak is only the 14th of its kind and it includes only the best coaches in the program’s 125-year history. Jones, McKay and Robinson are all in the College Football Hall of Fame, with Carroll is set to join them eventually. That quartet is also responsible for all 11 of USC’s national championships.

9. UNDERCLASSMAN TO WATCH

It looks like Porter Gustin will not play vs. Texas after fracturing a toe and injuring his shoulder last week. Helton wouldn’t rule it out completely, so if Gustin somehow does get on the field, it won’t be on an every-down basis. Therefore, we’re going to see sophomore Connor Murphy more than we ever have before. Murphy had already elevated on the depth chart because of how he’s practiced going back to spring. You just wouldn’t know it because of Clancy Pendergast’s light rotations. At 6-foot-7, Murphy is super long and disruptive near the line of scrimmage.

“His ability to lock out on tight ends and in the running game is probably one of (the) best things that he does,” Pendergast said. “From a pass rush standpoint, he’s a very good power rusher and he can also work edges with his long arms. We feel better about putting him out there.”

I don’t think he’ll have a choice.

10. UPPERCLASSMAN TO WATCH

We haven’t heard Toa Lobendahn’s name much since he became the starting left tackle, usually a good thing for someone at that spot. He’s been part of a unit that was one of the team’s biggest concerns in the offseason and has been one of its strongest through two games. His biggest test to date could comes in the form of Texas’ Malik Jefferson. The explosive outside linebacker is expected to go in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, maybe even the top half. Lobendahn, while not the prototypical build for a left tackle, was moved outside because he’s a technician and a plus athlete for a lineman. Helton said his instinctiveness is a key asset for recognizing blitzes, and he’ll surely see them Saturday. Longhorns DC Todd Orlando loves pressure and Jefferson knows how to bring it. Keep an eye on No. 46.

***

BONUS: PREDICTION

USC 38, Texas 33. Just kidding. (Still too soon?) Let's say, USC 45, Texas 20.

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