USC coach Lane Kiffin has routinely compared this year’s fall camp to an NFL training camp. He refers to scrimmages as “pre-season games,” conducts walkthroughs during the first part of two-a-day practices and takes care of his smaller than normal roster as if they were a group of veterans who need to be preserved rather than pushed to the brink of injury or exhaustion.
As Kiffin looked over his roster after Tuesday night’s practice, however, he said there was a big difference between his team and an NFL team at this point in camp.
“You actually have more [players] in the NFL with training camp. You have a lot more than this,” Kiffin said of his roster, which has about 53 healthy players at the moment. “During the NFL season you have a 53-man roster and a practice squad as well. We’re actually lower than that. We have to continue to develop mentally but not hamper ourselves physically.”
Kiffin’s diminished roster, which is the result of a rash of injuries and player transfers prior to camp, is actually preparing Kiffin and his coaching staff for the 30 scholarships they will lose over the next three years following NCAA sanctions. The depth USC had prided itself on for years will no longer be a realistic expectation as USC will likely ask some players to play both ways.
It’s something Kiffin has already asked freshman Christian Thomas to do. Thomas started camp at tight end but has since moved to defensive end and has looked capable of playing both positions this season.
“Hopefully I can play two ways,” Thomas said. “I would love to play offense and defense but it doesn’t matter where I play. I’m still learning both playbooks. The more you can learn the more you can play and I came here to play.”
It’s an attitude Kiffin will be looking for from his recruits over the next three years as USC feels the scholarship crunch. As associate head coach and special teams coordinator John Baxter said, “We’re recruiting these guys to be football players, not just a wide receiver or linebacker.”
Another freshman who might be playing both ways this season is Rober Woods, who has been impressive as a wide receiver so far in camp but might be tested out at cornerback. Woods, who will primarily be used as a receiver, had 96 tackles and 8 interceptions at Serra High School (Carson, Calif.) last season.
If there is a silver lining to USC’s scholarship cuts, Kiffin said it might be the ability to promise a player like Woods the ability to play both positions. Woods has talked about wanting to be the next Charles Woodson, who played cornerback and wide receiver on his way to winning a Heisman Trophy at Michigan, and he will likely get that chance now.
“There’s something to be said for that as far as a positive to the reductions,” Kiffin said. “Kids will see there’s more playing time here. There’s less depth. You’ll be able to come in and even play sooner than you would have otherwise.”