Tro­jans get pun­ished

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Zach Helfand zach.helfand@latimes.com Twit­ter: @zhelfand

It’s a far cry from the old days, but USC has one of its long­est ses­sions of the sum­mer.

Quar­ter­back Sam Darnold lay on his back, brac­ing for an­other sit-up. The strength eluded him. He swung his legs up and out and used the mo­men­tum to lever him­self up­right.

His team­mates called out a num­ber, and then they slunk back down again.

Tues­day was pun­ish­ment day at the eighth prac­tice of USC’s train­ing camp. At the end of one of the long­est ses­sions of the sum­mer, ap­proach­ing three hours, the team did 20 pushups in full pads, fol­lowed quickly by a 60sec­ond plank, 20 sit-ups, 20 squats and about 20 burpees.

“Oh, that was won­der­ful,” of­fen­sive line­man Toa Loben­dahn said. “I was lov­ing it. If you would’ve got­ten a close-in on my face, I would’ve been smil­ing the whole time.”

Such a scene oc­cu­pies a hal­lowed place in the foot­ball psy­che. Play­ers of a pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion grew up on it. Foot­ball movies prac­ti­cally re­quire it. In real life, such pun­ish­ment . . . doesn’t re­ally hap­pen any­more, es­pe­cially at higher lev­els of foot­ball, and es­pe­cially un­der coach Clay Hel­ton at USC.

Play­ers do con­di­tion­ing work with the strength coach, which can in­deed be gru­el­ing (for some pro­grams, on rare oc­ca­sions, dan­ger­ously so). But coaches re­serve ac­tual prac­tice time for ac­tual in­struc­tion.

Hel­ton pos­sesses an op­ti­mistic tem­per­a­ment, quick to cor­rect but al­most never volatile. He usu­ally yells at the end of prac­tice — but al­most al­ways be­cause he is happy or ex­cited.

Yet Darnold called Tues­day’s the tough­est prac­tice ses­sion he’s had at USC.

“It kind of re­minds me of Pop Warner, high school days,” Darnold said. “It’s su­per tough. Some­thing I haven’t done since then.” So why the shift? “You’re go­ing to have to ask coach Hel­ton about that,” Darnold said, smil­ing.

Hel­ton has spo­ken of be­gin­ning the sea­son with more fo­cus and dis­ci­pline. Penal­ties and men­tal er­rors marred last sea­son’s start. Be­fore train­ing camp be­gan, Hel­ton said he would em­pha­size proper hand po­si­tion­ing in prac­tice and film study to min­i­mize hold­ing penal­ties. He would pun­ish off­sides penal­ties with quick cal­is­then­ics, like pushups, up-downs or a sprint.

And missed as­sign­ments or con­fu­sion with the play­book would be more force­fully cor­rected.

Rarely does Hel­ton com­pel team­mates to par­tic­i­pate in the pun­ish­ment: Only once last sea­son at a prac­tice open to the me­dia did the en­tire team run light sprints af­ter prac­tice. The coaches par­tic­i­pated then too.

Hel­ton de­clined to say whether the ses­sion Tues­day stemmed from his ef­fort to en­force more men­tal dis­ci­pline. He said it would re­main “in­house.”

“Typ­i­cal of any team,” Hel­ton said. “At some point in time you have some team dis­ci­pline. That was that time. So I’ll leave it at that.”

Sweat drip­ping from his head af­ter prac­tice, Darnold ex­plained his trou­ble with the sit-ups by say­ing that his “core is su­per strong.”

“But, he added, “I have a long torso.” Go­ing full bore

Darnold has played clean foot­ball since USC’s first fully padded prac­tice on Fri­day. He has made de­ci­sions more quickly, com­pleted passes with no hes­i­ta­tion and without an in­ter­cep­tion in four prac­tices.

It has marked a shift from ear­lier in camp, when Darnold had three passes in­ter­cepted dur­ing one ses­sion.

Hel­ton of­fered a rea­son for the change: Darnold was bored.

“It’s one of those things that I told him com­ing into camp, ‘You’re go­ing through your third train­ing camp, it’s the same in­stall that you’ve had be­fore, don’t get bored,’ ” Hel­ton said. “Af­ter the first cou­ple of prac­tices, he’s re­ally set­tled in.” Quick hit

Re­ceiver Deon­tay Bur­nett was limited by a sore an­kle.

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