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A special type of emphasis

LOS ANGELES -- When Lane Kiffin was hired as USC's head coach, his addition of John Baxter as special teams coordinator and associate head coach was overshadowed by the return of USC heroes Ed Orgeron and Kennedy Polamalu. But as the Trojans prepare for their third spring ball under Kiffin, it's tough to overstate how important Baxter has been to the Trojans success.

While Kiffin, Orgeron and Polamalu could draw on their history at USC in explaining their vision of what it means to be a Trojan, Baxter found the same vision almost immediately. Under Kiffin and Baxter, USC has found a passion for special teams and competition in all areas, both on and off the field. Baxter's Academic Gameplan, built around the Seven Success Ts -- Attitude, Terminology, Training, Tools, Technique, Time and Teamwork -- has USC players focused on the practice field, in the meeting room and during class.

Special teams was often an afterthought during former head coach Pete Carroll's tenure at USC. One of Kiffin's first moves at USC was to change the culture in that arena, and hiring Baxter was the biggest statement he could make.

"I can't speak to what it was like before, because I wasn't here," Baxter said. "I just know this. Lane, in the hiring process, said that he wanted me to come here and for us as a staff to put an emphasis on this phase of the game and really teach and demand this. One, as our style of play. And two, it's the ultimate team phase of the game, because you have guys from both sides of the ball playing together. And we've done that as a staff."

It wasn't exactly smooth sailing for Kiffin and Baxter, as the 2-point formation after virtually every touchdown was adopted and didn't find much success in its early stages. Many USC fans continued to deride the constant 2-point look through the 2011 season, although there was nothing but cheers when the Trojans ran it successfully against UCLA -- and added a touchdown out of the formation -- in the season finale.

"I think one thing here is that we're educating our fans about how to be aggressive in that phase of the game," Baxter said. "We aren't going to play it by the book -- whoever wrote that book. We're going to play to win, and we're going to do what it takes. Those things help you win."

USC special teams helped decide games against Utah, Oregon and Washington last season. The Trojans blocked seven kicks and returned a kickoff for a touchdown. Attention on that phase will only increase as the staff and players become more comfortable with it.

"Everybody is part of it; everybody sits in on the meetings," Baxter said. "It's part of Lane's vision on how to build a team."

It was something of a culture shock to many of the veteran players when Baxter was brought on board. But the tide has turned to the point where a majority of the team was recruited with the Academic Gameplan in place.

"Anytime you have a new regime, a new way of thought, it's going to take some time during the feeling out process, as they're thinking, 'Are these guys serious?' " Baxter said. "But like we say here, this is college football, not football college. Their academic achievement here and their growth as men is a big deal to us."

The constant when it comes to Baxter and the USC coaches in reaching out to the players is that everything is a part of a bigger picture. Baxter stresses the complete plan offered by the staff for every member of the USC team.

"That means football, school, spiritual and social," Baxter said. But we also realize they're in a mistake-making phase of their life. I don't know anybody who has learned anything mistake-free. They are learning decision-making, responsibility and accountability. We're here to support them and teach them life skills and it's a day-by-day process.

"It's like watching the stock market. You don't really ride the roller coaster. You just keep your eye on where you're going, and as long as the overall trend is up, that's a productive stock. There are up days and down days, but overall, I would say the trend is up."

Erik McKinney is the recruiting editor for WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 2004. He can be reached at erik@wearesc.com.