Ellis Johnson believes the NCAA has 'ruined' spring practice for major college football teams with its potpourri of rules and regulations designed to limit contact and the time coaches may spend with players.
Still, USC's new defensive coordinator feels it's been a productive stretch for his unit heading into the final practice Friday and the annual Garnet and Black game Saturday at 1 p.m. at Williams-Brice Stadium.
"I moan and groan about spring practice every year," Johnson said Monday night following the latest workout at Williams-Brice Stadium. "We don't have enough time. Every other sport has tremendous amount of time with their athletes. If it's an injury factor, they haven't stopped them. All they've done is move them into the season."
Johnson's loudest message to his players this spring has been this one: teams that play the most physical and are the toughest mentally are the ones that win in the SEC.
"We've challenged them. We've told them we have to have a tough mental attitude and we have to be a tough ball club physically if we're going to be successful in this league," Johnson said. "They've tried to respond. A lot of players have made a giant step. But we have a long way to go, too. The fall will be critical, too."
Since he's arrived, Johnson has been stunned by how young the USC defense is. The four top tacklers last season were sophomores, while the pre-spring depth chart listed just eight seniors among the 33 players named.
In fact, there are an equal number of freshmen listed on the depth chart. If you delete Dustin Lindsey, who has supposedly moved to tight end, that gives USC just seven scholarship seniors on the defensive side of the ball.
"Overall, we're a young football team," Johnson said. "Other than a couple of those defensive linemen, they're all babies. They've really had a good spring, growing up maturity-wise. They're making less mistakes mentally."
Because of the youth, Monday night's non-tackling scrimmage wasn't the best scenario for his defense, Johnson said, but they made the best of it.
"Hopefully, we got something out of it," Johnson said. "By creating a game-like scenario, I'm hoping we picked up on some things since we're going to have to keep going back to some of these inexperienced players. Hopefully, it will be something that will help them down the road. The defense always wants to tackle and have a full (contact) scrimmage. When you can't tackle, you're obviously not working on the most important aspect of defense."
Several players targeted as starters in the fall won't play in the spring game because of injuries, including middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley (knee), defensive lineman Nathan Pepper (Knee) and strong safety Emanuel Cook, who recently suffered a broken thumb.
"When you've reached the point where those guys are and you've proven yourself in the SEC, those guys missing spring ball doesn't really bother me from a physical standpoint," Johnson said. "But when you come in with a new scheme, you want all of them to learn it and get it down. Cook only missed about (20 percent) of the practices, so he'll be fine."
Johnson has coached long enough to realize that the spring game often has little impact on how well a team plays in the fall.
"I don't put much stock in it," Johnson said. "I don't get all turned on by spring ball stats. The most important thing is what we do everyday when we come here. I want to see them play with intensity and tackle well and not make mental mistakes. There are some individuals who need to make a statement about where they going to fit in on the depth chart, but none of it will be in ink. There are no specific goals other than that."
One of the most important decisions made by Johnson this spring was shifting Eric Norwood from defensive end to outside linebacker.
Norwood, expected to be named on numerous pre-season All-America lists when the 2008 season gets underway Aug. 28, had been one of USC's most productive and energetic players as a defensive end (69 tackles in 2007, school record 19.5 for loss), so the move was a calculated gamble.
But Johnson felt Norwood's size (6-foot-1) and speed fit squarely into the skill set required of an outside linebacker. It's also projected to be his best position at the next level.
All Norwood must do now is drop about 15 pounds and he'll be ready to terrorize opposing quarterbacks as a pass rushing linebacker and cover running backs and tight ends when he has to.
"(The move) was something that's going to help us and something that's going to help him down the road," Johnson said. "He's done a good job with it. He has to drop 10 or 15 pounds, and he will, to get more comfortable with the standup spot."
Norwood's progress has been slowed slightly, Johnson says, by a spring semester class schedule heavy on afternoon classes that has limited his film study time.
"He really hasn't been in film session with me enough," Johnson lamented. "he's repeating the same mistakes. That aside, physically he's in the right place. He's bright mentally, so he can handle it. He can learn both the linebacker spot, then switch up and be a rush (end) in the dime package."
Without Brinkley, the spring has featured a heated battle between sophomore Melvin Ingram and junior Rodney Paulk at middle (Mike) linebacker.
At the moment, Paulk has the advantage. The former star at Richland Northeast High School has started 22 games over the past two seasons, which ranks third among returning starters behind only WR Kenny McKinley and OL Jamon Meredith.
Paulk enjoyed a solid season in 2007 with 64 tackles, fourth highest on the team.
"Rodney has probably had the best spring of all the Mike linebackers," Johnson said. "That doesn't surprise me, since he's more intense, more focused and he works harder. I'm not sure that he studies the game harder.
"But right now he's the next best (behind Brinkley), that's for sure."
Ingram appeared in all 12 games last season as a true freshman, finishing with 15 tackles and a sack. He currently weighs about 270 pounds, which is too heavy as far as Johnson is concerned.
The third-string middle linebacker this spring has been junior Vandaral Shackleford, who appeared in four games last season as a seldom-used reserve.
"Melvin has had a pretty good spring, but he has to lose some weight," Johnson said. "He has to get more consistent. He makes too many mistakes. He has to get his work habits and intensity straightened out. Shackleford is about the same way, He'll have three good plays and then he'll take a play off and doesn't finish. Until they reach that point, they won't be able to play Mike linebacker in this league."
Brinkley's recovery from torn ligaments has forced him to miss valuable reps this spring absorbing the new scheme, but Johnson is confident he'll be able to master it by the start of the season.
"I'm not concerned about Jasper, but he's really missing a lot of time in our scheme and seeing how things fit and understanding all the calls," Johnson said. "He'll be fine, but he's going to need two-a-days to get back in the swing."
Even without Norwood, the defensive line has continued to progress rapidly in the eye of Johnson. It may also be the deepest position on the defensive side of the ball with a two-deep depth chart filled with experienced players.
"They've played pretty well," Johnson said. (The defensive line) is probably the strength of the defense, no question about it. Fortunately, we've kept all of them healthy except for the ones we didn't have coming into the spring (Pepper). Nobody has gotten hurt since we started. I think the progress there has been really good. We're looking at (the defensive line) as a building block we can start with."
Cook's absence means sophomore Chris Culliver and redshirt freshman Mark Barnes, both of whom are converted wide receivers, should see significant snaps in Saturday's spring game.
Culliver and Barnes both played defensive back in high school, so they should be familiar with the physical and mental demands of the position.
"They're in the right place," Johnson said. "There's no question what they can do physically. They're making a lot of mistakes right now because they came over about halfway through. They've been a little lost, but hopefully they're learning. We needed them back there and we needed the depth. Both of them have a chance to be good players."
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