When Pete Carroll hired Brian Schneider to run the Trojan's special teams, many thought it could be a quick fix to an area that often lagged behind other parts of the Trojans game. After finishing last in the Pac-10 in punting and second to last in punt returns in 2008, the punt unit has seen a turnaround into the sixth-best punt return unit nationally and the forth-best in the nation at covering punts. The kickoff units have not fared as well, as the Trojans rank in the bottom tenth nationally in kickoff coverage and kick returns.
In the face of all that, Schneider's job has gotten even harder as several injuries have hit the team. Punt returner Damian Williams sprained his ankle against Arizona State, and despite Ronald Johnson's return to the kick return team, his backup Curtis McNeal is day-to-day. Other special teams mavens like Jarvis Jones, who played on four special teams, have been in and out of the lineup the past few weeks.
"Every year it's that way. You lose guys, and some guys are out for a little bit," Schneider said. "You've just got to keep going with the next guy, and that's where really your training comes in. Hopefully, we've given a lot of guys opportunities so that when their chance does come, they can go step in there and do it."
The biggest hit for the Trojans may be Williams, who has shown the ability to break open games with his electrifying returns, including two for touchdowns. Schneider is hoping Joe McKnight can provide the same tackle-breaking ability to the return game.
"He brings a lot of the same things Damian does," he said. "He's got great vision, he's a good open-field runner, and when we had both those guys (back there), Joe was just as good as Damian."
Schneider has been pleased with the play of punter Jacob Harfman as well. Since replacing Billy O'Malley, Harfman has averaged nearly 40 yards a kick and had a long of 59. Schneider thinks that while Harfman has been doing many good things, he is still getting better.
"It's always a process no matter what position you're playing when it's your first year," Schneider said. "We didn't want to put too much on his plate early. We've slowly been bringing him along, and he's responded every week and keeps improving."
Harfman may also add long-range kicker to his list of duties after Jordan Congdon missed his third field goal from beyond 40 yards last week.
"We've been practicing (him kicking long field goals) all year," Schneider said. "When that situation comes up, we'll definitely be ready for that."
The decision to let Congdon attempt the long field goal at Arizona State was based primarily on the good conditions in Tempe that allowed the ball to travel well during warm-ups.
"Jordan was kicking the ball well pregame," Schneider said. "We said anything inside the 30 we'll let him try because that where he was making it from, and we felt good about that. He just didn't hit a great ball."
The biggest special teams challenge this week however might not even be on the Trojans. Stanford's Chris Owusu is forth nationally in kickoff return average and has run three back for touchdowns.
"He's very good, he hits the hole and has a great cast around him," he said. "They're very disciplined and very physical in how they do it so it's a great challenge for us. You always have to think about how you're going to stop him, and they also do a nice job when you do kick away from him. They have a nice plan for that.
"They're very well coached, and it will be a challenge for us."