On Friday, USC's two leaders in its secondary, T.J. McDonald and Nickell Robey, pulled their teammates aside during the transition between meetings at the Trojans' downtown hotel and shared with them a simple message.
Yes, the defensive backs had lost the services of their position coach, Willie Mack Garza, 48 hours before the 2011 season opener Saturday against Minnesota. (Garza resigned Thursday for personal reasons). No, McDonald and Robey told the group of a dozen or so, they would not let it affect their play against the Gophers.
And, where Garza would normally be Saturday, in pregame warmups and on the sidelines, the Trojans had two ready-made replacements in safeties graduate assistant Sammy Knight and assistant coach Monte Kiffin. The two men have shared Garza's typical duties over the last two days and plan to do so in the immediate future.
"If you think about it, we're in a great situation," said McDonald, who clearly did think about it, admitting he was at first shocked when he found out about Garza. "Not to take anything away from Coach Garza, but Monte Kiffin is a legend in himself and Sammy Knight played 12, 13 years in the NFL. I know we have good coaches, so I'm not worried about it."
"Of course it's something that you don't want to have to deal with, if you're a few days before the game. But for us, really, it didn't matter."
McDonald's comments are no surprise. The junior safety is a team captain and is media-savvy. What was somewhat of a surprise: It really didn't look as if the Trojans missed Garza at all. Saturday's performance by the defensive backs would rank above-average compared to last year's 13 games.
"To tell you the truth, we moved forward the next day," McDonald said. "The next day, it was over. And we didn't even think about it. We had to keep going -- we couldn't look back."
Looking forward, maybe the most pressing question surrounding this team's future is this: Who will take control of the back four? Will it be Kiffin or will it be Knight, or will it continue to be a combination of the two?
Knight said afterward he had no idea. His current title, he said, is "assistant defensive backs coach," and that's all he knows on the subject. But the consensus from the DBs seemed to be he was capable of controlling them on a full-time basis.
"The whole secondary feels good about Sammy coming here and coaching us, because he's been in the league, he's got the experience and he's coming back," Robey said. "Knowing that he's right here coaching us, as an ex-Trojan, is a good thing."
Trojans Lane Kiffin said he wasn't going to address it any time soon.
"Monte and Sammy Knight stepped up and handled all the meetings this week and ran the show on the field today," Kiffin said. "Overall I think it went pretty well.
"I'm just trying to get them to catch the ball. I'll worry about the secondary coach later."