If last Tuesday was the technical start to spring practice, Sunday afternoon was when things actually started heating up. Wearing full pads, the players were finally allowed to really hit one another and that intensity clearly carried over into Tuesday's practice.
"It was just a total culmination of what we learned through the whole week," senior defensive tackle Fili Moala said. "It was the first day we got to be real physical. A lot of guys were flying around, delivering hits. We wanted to show that we could play high quality football year round."
These recent practices have given the coaching staff an opportunity to evaluate every player.
"Some times it's difficult to get a good look at some guys when we're just in jerseys and shorts," he said. "So much of our game is throwing our shoulders in there, but when you're out here in full pads you can get a real good feel for what you should be doing and tailor your game to get better.
"And that's what it's all about."
Fresh off his first real contact of the spring, Moala is already focusing on his development.
"I'm never satisfied," Moala said after two disruptive practices. "I honestly always think I could have done something better. For as many good things that I can bring to a team, there are that many more that I know I can do better.
"Everyday I come out here and help myself improve, which helps the team, and I thank God for giving me the opportunity to do it."
Moala's philosophy of improvement is such an asset to a USC team that lost quite a bit of senior leadership after the Rose Bowl victory over Illinois in January.
"Sometimes getting better is just helping the younger guys," he said. "Maybe taking an extra rep to show everyone how it's supposed to be done. It's all about getting better, and it's all about improving as a team.
"I believe the best football players in the country are on this field, so if you can beat them you can beat anybody.
"That's what we're all about."
If Moala has gone underappreciated over the last two years it was because of the huge shadow that departed senior Sedrick Ellis cast over the defensive line – it was a shadow he was happy to learn from while under.
"You can't replace a player like Sedrick Ellis, you can only find the next best thing," Moala said. "If that's Averell Spicer or Christian Tupou, then that's what we're going to go with.
"But as far as bringing his (same) work ethic and intensity to the field everyday, that shouldn't be a drop-off. The guys are getting better and they're picking up the small things.
"I think the biggest thing for us on the defensive line is building that camaraderie and trust within one another.
"When things are solid like that nothing will break us."
As if Moala's leadership on the field was not enough, he is also proving to be an example – and some might say a trend – of how successful Polynesian players can be at USC.
"Our people are so small, and we come from such a small part of the world that it's pleasing to see that Polynesians are getting recognition," Moala, who is Tongan, said. "And not only that, but getting the opportunity to play at big-time universities and if I can somehow lead the way, or just be an instrument to lead the way, then I'm more than happy to do that."
Certainly the departure of Ellis is painful to Trojan fans. But without the hole he left it, a player like Moala might never get the opportunity to prove how dynamic and charismatic he really is.
More Practice Notes (Slightly More Off the Cuff):
• Can't stress enough how physical Kevin Ellison was Tuesday. In addition to shoving Patterson into the wall, he launched C.J. Gable into the offensive sidelines as well. He was talking trash to PT from the sidelines, and stalking about the secondary between plays like a lion.
• That being said… there's apparently a dog on the defensive line, whatever freak-superlative you choose for Everson Griffen, Cushing and Maualuga speak for themselves, Ellison and an ever maturing Taylor Mays who somehow looks even bigger than before …the defense is frightening.
• How quickly things change with the 180 at linebackers. Just goes to show how quickly a depth chart can change… so maybe Marc Tyler isn't that far off after all.
• I think the talent level is as high as it has been in the Carroll era, which could possibly mean ever, as well. I think the difference is the distance between the starters and the guys behind them. Colin Ashton and William Buchanon used to be back-ups… Now it's Chris Galippo and Ronald Johnson. Obviously this list could go on and on, but the talent occupying the lower rungs of the depth chart is striking. As a result of that there is some serious pressure and competition and plays are being made all over the field because of it. For instance, even Nick Garrett had an unbelievable diving interception Tuesday in 11-on-11s… Nick Garrett.
• Aaron Corp – as a testament to the 2nd- and 3rd- string arm-strength theory – was actually rocketing balls around Howard Jones Field today.
• Up and down day for Joe McKnight. He fumbled and muffed a screen pass that led to a pick, but he also looked amazing tracking the ball on a wheel route and made the defense look silly with a series of stop-and-gos that left the crowd in awe.
• Luthur Brown was not included in the list above because he's on his own level of frightening.
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