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COLLEGE FOOTBALL '87 : COACHES, PLAYERS, TEAMS AND TRENDS TO WATCH THIS SEASON : USC Preview : This Season, a Newcomer, Larry Smith, Will Be on the Hot Seat

September 03, 1987|JERRY CROWE | Times Staff Writer

When he coached at the University of Arizona, Larry Smith packed up his team each summer for a week of training at Cochise College, which is located on the high plains near Douglas in the southeast corner of the state.

On a mountain alongside U.S. 80, which runs through Douglas, vandals rearranged some rocks to give the town what they considered a more appropriate name. H-E-L-L, they spelled out.

"So," somebody suggested to Smith the other day, "you've been to Hell and back?"

There may not be a more appropriate way to prepare for the heat he will surely encounter at USC if he fails to meet expectations.

Namely, if he fails to right the wrongs of the deposed Ted Tollner, who in four seasons as USC coach could beat UCLA only once and Notre Dame not at all, and who, despite taking the Trojans to a New Year's Day bowl game last season, ultimately couldn't hold onto his job.

When last seen at the Coliseum, Tollner's Trojans were booed right off the field. The venom spreading from the stands in the wake of a 38-37 loss to Notre Dame was strong enough to abort the season-ending tradition of presenting the seniors to the student body for one last hurrah.

It was a dark moment for a football program that proclaims on its pocket schedules this season: "Carrying on the proud tradition."

Although the verbal shots were directed mainly at Tollner, quarterback Rodney Peete was affected by them, too. "I'll never forget it the rest of my life," he said. "I hope it never happens again."

Tollner has since been shuffled off to Buffalo, where he is an assistant coach with the Bills.

Left behind is a team that has been picked to finish anywhere from third to sixth in the Pacific 10.

"We've got some catching up to do," Smith said.

But sixth in the Pac-10?

When was the last time USC finished sixth?

Well, actually, it was 1970, when the Trojans were 6-4-1 overall but only 3-4 in the Pac-8. But even that team was good enough to beat Notre Dame and tie Nebraska, which was unbeaten that year and won the national championship.

It is generally believed that this year's USC team won't be making its 25th Rose Bowl appearance on New Year's Day, but some have suggested that the Trojans should not be written off prematurely.

Inside Sports magazine, in tabbing Smith as one of five "coaches on the spot" this season, said Smith inherits a team "that is perhaps a national championship contender."

UCLA Coach Terry Donahue believes that the Trojans will be "totally rejuvenated" under Smith, who turned around losing programs at Tulane and Arizona.

"I've heard it said that it will take him a year or two to get it going over there," Donahue said of his old friend. "I don't think so."

The Trojans do have some talent.

From a team that was 7-5 last season, seven offensive starters return, including Peete, only the third USC quarterback to have thrown for more than 2,000 yards in a season, and 6-foot 5-inch, 280-pound tackle Dave Cadigan, a third-year starter who hopes to become the 23rd All-American offensive lineman at USC since 1964 and the 16th taken in the first round of the NFL draft since 1968.

Six defensive starters return, including Marcus Cotton, a Butkus Award semifinalist last season. Cotton heads a group of talented linebackers that also includes Rex Moore and Keith Davis, the Trojans' top two tacklers last season.

But there are some question marks. The defensive line and secondary are young, and the Trojans may be thin at tailback. Aaron Emanuel has been suspended; Steve Webster may lack the necessary durability, and bruiser Ryan Knight, their leading rusher the last two seasons, may be too slow.

Webster has played in only 1 of USC's last 21 games but won the starting job last spring. He is expected to start the season on the bench, though. An ankle injury he suffered in a pickup basketball game last July has put him on the shelf.

When he returns--he probably will play some Monday night in the opener at Michigan State--Webster is expected to add speed to the lineup. That's an element that was lacking in the Trojan offense last season, when USC's once-vaunted running game averaged only 3.3 yards a carry, its lowest average since 1957.

Smith hopes to re-establish the ground game, implementing more speed in the I-formation attack by using Peete as the point man in what offensive coordinator Chuck Stobart, one of eight assistants who accompanied Smith from Arizona, describes as a "fast-break" offense.

Peete, who passed for 2,138 yards last season, has swift wide receivers in Ken Henry and Randy Tanner, who combined for 72 receptions last season. And Smith has called tight end Paul Green potentially the best he has ever coached at that position.

Peete, who will run out of the option at times, threw 15 interceptions last season but he hopes to cut down on that figure by throwing more often to his backs, including fullback Leroy Holt.

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