Written by Caroline Deisley and Sarah Bergstrom, USC blog contributors
Just three practices away from the Spring Game, the Trojans notched up the intensity at practice on Thursday testing both physical conditioning and mental toughness.
- The coaching staff ran practice a little differently on Thursday, implementing a game-like simulation with four quarters of live play. The Trojans went through red zone scenarios and different pressure situations at game speed in order to test the team's endurance. Head coach Steve Sarkisian was happy with the overall performance and level of toughness, but feels they have a ways to go before the entire group is in game shape.
- "Practice got hard today," Sarkisian said. "They had to fight through mentally. The guys kept grinding and it was great to see guys keep working. We weren't always perfect fundamentally, especially in the second half of practice. That second half will be crucial for us to be exceptional in the fall. Believe me, these practices are harder than the games. They'll be in great shape when September rolls around, they'll be ready to play."
- Sarkisian noted the endurance of the defensive line specifically, in addition to Tre Madden, Kenny Bigelow and Claude Pelon. According to the head coach and many members of the team, head strength and conditioning coach Ivan Lewis deserves the credit for the extensive physical improvement displayed by the entire team this spring. "Ivan's amazing. He does a great job. He balances guys from a 'build 'em up' standpoint, but also working flexibility, working conditioning and working mental toughness. How important that position is to the success of any college football program is huge. After next Saturday, Ivan's got them until we come back out here for the start of training camp. That's a critical time and I couldn't be more impressed with what Ivan is doing."
- Jabari Ruffin is one player who has seen on-field results from Lewis' conditioning program, noting improvement in his strength, speed and flexibility. The redshirt sophomore linebacker has gained 15 pounds in the offseason and is eager to display his physicality this fall. "Every team has to have some big hitters and I am more than happy to take that role," he said.
- Ruffin has focused this offseason on both brawn and brains, working to excel in all aspects of the game in 2014. "I've changed up my work habits," explained Ruffin. "I'm focused on attention to detail whether it's studying film or applying things on the field. I'm taking a more mature approach this season and I feel the effect. I'm excited to help the team out this year."
- Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox has noted the same serious mental approach across his entire defensive unit throughout the course of the spring. "The mental mistakes have gone down," said the coach. "They are more and more conceptually understanding what we are doing. They've done a really good job in the meetings. I've noticed that the guys are into it, they're asking great questions and they want to learn."
- Wilcox and Sarkisian have both noted the substantial improvement and outstanding play of Antwaun Woods throughout spring practice, especially how conditioned the defensive lineman appears to be. "He has had a heck of a spring," said Sarkisian. "I think Antwaun has really been the standard on the defensive side of the ball all spring long. He's really matured to me. He's a great leader for us. He lives in the backfield, he does an amazing job of making the ball bounce to the perimeter and he does it with tremendous energy."
- A defensive highlight of the day was J.R. Tavai's return to the field after missing some of spring practice due to injury. "It was awesome," Wilcox said excitedly. "It fired me up. It was huge to have him back."
- More notable Trojans were in attendance at Thursday's practice including Rose Bowl-winning quarterback Brad Otton, former linebacker Lawrence Larry and former USC cornerback Daylon McCutcheon.
- Here is Coach Sarkisian's full practice recap...