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Bruise Days With the Trojans

Carroll's 'Competition Tuesday' concept brings out the beast in his players, creating an intense, game-like atmosphere at midweek practice

November 18, 2005|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

By the time Pete Carroll walks into Wednesday afternoon's meeting, his team is abuzz, players chattering, assistants jawing at each other. The USC coach says, "Listen up!" more than once, but as the lights dim and game film flickers over a big screen, the room grows louder.

Hoots and whistles. Laughter. It's like a kids' matinee and when the film shows a rusher charging the quarterback, defensive line coach Jethro Franklin leaps to his feet: "We'll take that one."

The sheer volume of this proceeding suggests the Trojans are reliving their victory over California, or maybe the last-second win at Notre Dame. In fact, they are watching highlights from the previous day's practice.

"Competition Tuesday" has become a hallmark of the USC program, a weekly contest between the offense and defense, the outcome dictated by which unit gets the best of one-on-one drills and scrimmages.

"Either you kick someone's butt or someone's going to kick your butt," guard Fred Matua says. "It's a good way to get riled up."

And on Wednesdays, Carroll screens a tape of the best, and worst, performances to a raucous audience.

"If you don't show up, don't win your one-on-ones, the whole team gets to clown you," defensive end Frostee Rucker says. "That's definitely not cool."

This isn't rocket science or some coaching magic. The players know that "Competition Tuesday" won't necessarily affect their position on the depth chart. It's simply a gimmick to liven things up over the course of a long and sometimes grinding fall.

The result? On Tuesday, as the team prepares to face Fresno State at the Coliseum, practice is conspicuously intense for the 11th week of the season.

Matua and defensive lineman LaJuan Ramsey get into a shoving match during drills. Running around left end, Reggie Bush ducks his shoulder and slams into cornerback Cary Harris with a thunderclap that makes everyone look up.

A few minutes later, on a similar play, Bush and Harris go at it again.

"That's what it's about," the tailback says. "Teammates getting after each other."

Carroll came up with the idea during his year away from football, after he was fired by the New England Patriots and before taking the USC job. He was looking for a way -- something more tangible than a pep talk -- to reinforce the idea of competition.

At the team meeting before Tuesday's practice, his players crowd into a small auditorium, the walls adorned with floor-to-ceiling color photographs of former Trojan stars and an aerial shot of the Coliseum.

Carroll reminds everyone that the offense and defense have split the previous two weeks.

"This is 'settle the issue' day," he says.

The coach works the room like a talk-show host doing his monologue, pacing, singling players out.

"Sedrick, time to get back at the center because he's getting a little edge on you.... Hey Sammy Baker, it's about time.... Johnny Walker, you back in action?"

Each comment brings a vocal response, oohs and aahs. Baker says, "He razzes guys. He knows how to do it."

At this point in the season, with some players nursing injuries and others tired, practices are a little shorter, but in the meeting Carroll goads them not to let up. His assistants, sitting along the wall, act as a chorus chiming in.

"It's kind of hard not to get ready for practice when they're screaming like that," linebacker Collin Ashton says.

This attitude carries over to the field.

With coaches maintaining a constant chatter through drills, fullback David Kirtman dives into a pile and remains down, stung by the impact. After his tussle with Matua, Ramsey trades words with another offensive lineman, Chilo Rachal.

When the scrimmaging begins, linebacker Kaluka Maiava chases Matt Leinart out of the pocket and linebacker coach Ken Norton Jr. yells, "We're going to win." Moments later, Dwayne Jarrett catches a pass for good yardage.

Ostensibly, the coaches keep track of every snap, awarding points for sacks and good blocks, catches and tackles. Carroll waves his arms at one point and says, "I need to know the score.... Eight to four? ... Defense?"

Leinart answers with a short throw, the kind that gets Ashton complaining about cheap points.

"Five-yard slant routes? C'mon," he says.

After the final horn, he and his defensive teammates celebrate at midfield, prodding the offense.

Then comes Wednesday's screening -- right before they're let loose for another practice -- and a feeling that every player knows.

"You're thinking, 'Please don't show my bad play,' " Ashton explains. "Or, 'What? You didn't show my good play?' "

When Bush misses a block on-screen, or freshman receiver Patrick Turner drops a pass, teammates let them hear about it. The tenor of their comments is clear, even if it's hard to pick out individual comments amid the rabble of voices, players rocking in their seats.

"We're far from understanding," defensive lineman Sedrick Ellis says.

But, as Carroll says, "This isn't about crushing guys." He and his video staff have stocked the tape with as much good as bad.

Baker, chided the day before, fends off a rusher and Ellis makes a play. The collisions between Bush and Harris elicit all manner of animal sounds.

Every so often, a scoring update pops onto the screen. Defense + 4. Offense +1.

As is frequently the case, Carroll declares the final tally too close to call. A few weeks ago, director Spike Lee visited the Wednesday meeting and got to decide. He chose defense.

This time, Carroll points to the back of the room, to Michael Sylvester, a well-liked Athletes in Action representative. The coach says, "You want to be the judge here?"

Sylvester hesitates a moment and, for the first time all afternoon, the room falls quiet.

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