After their first two-practice day on Friday, the Trojans were met with some unkind heat as they took the field for the early afternoon Saturday practice. So, it’s no surprise that following the laboring session and temperature that wrung them out, the talk focused on the mental makeup of this team, and especially this defense.
“Just getting better mentally,” said linebacker Scott Felix when asked what he felt he was working on the most to improve upon. “I feel more mature as a player, I feel like I know what to improve.”
The redshirt junior is part of a linebacking corps that has been referred to as an “embarrassment of riches” and touted as the best defensive unit in the Pac-12.
Of course, the mental side of the game is largely affected by the physical side, and it’s one Felix says has been incredibly helped by the influx of numbers in his third year as a Trojan.
“We have more bodies, and a lot of the players have more energy,” he explained. “With that, we’re able to put a lot more effort into the practices.”
The effort has clearly been maximal, but with more players, the performance has remained competitive throughout, especially from the rising freshmen — Osa Masina, Porter Gustin, John Houston Jr. and Cameron Smith — who are a substantial part of why this linebacker group is expected to be so deep and productive.
Early looks and reports seem to indicate that it’s so far, so good. But linebackers coach Peter Sirmon and defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox say it’s a careful, ongoing process.
“You gotta let some of that talent shine through. As that talent shows up, they make mistakes, you correct them, but you don’t try and make them perfect,” Sirmon said of the group.
“Understanding that you have to be on every play, everyday, every meeting every workout,” Wilcox added. “It doesn’t happen overnight.”
To Felix, who says he really likes the young group, they’ve shown a good amount of impressive play, and both he — and the rest of the returning linebackers — have become willing helpers.
“Showing them the culture of how we run things here, just if they have question, [we] help them out show them the ropes,” he explained. “They’re doing good, learning fast and getting competitive with us.”
The level of competition can undoubtedly nurture both veterans and newcomers, and help them be able to contribute effectively once game time arrives. But Sirmon is not just paying attention to their play.
“A lot has to do with mental maturity and emotion and what they’re ready to handle. You know them well, but you’re still learning their competitive personality.”
Sirmon, who is the recruiting coordinator as well, says the freshman still have plenty more to prove, both physically and mentally.
“Until we get some more live and experience and I see how these guys behave when they get tired, when things don’t go their way.”
Things not going the defense’s way was certainly a constant theme during last year’s losses, but Felix and the coaches both believe this year will be different. Specifically, they believe they’ll be getting to the backfield more than last year.
“We’re gonna get a pass rush this year. We’ve gotten better, a lot better compared to last year in the spring,” affirmed Felix. “I feel like we’re going to come out a completely different team.”
“Everyone wants to play aggressive, you want to play an aggressive, physical style of football,” posed Wilcox. “We have rusher-type bodies, we’re gonna continue to push those guys when we get into even fronts … and get to the quarterback.”
READ MORE: Jalen Greene, the Wide Receiver
Wilcox talked about the emphasis on producing negative plays, but head coach Steve Sarkisian, for his part, has been clear about how he wants defensive aggressiveness to materialize in the form of turnovers; 30 turnovers was his exact demand. So, how are the linebackers’ working on making sure they comply to Sarkisian’s request?
“I think we’re coming out with the conscious mindset of attacking the ball,” Felix espoused. “Having that repetition is gonna carry into a habit in-games, and it’s going to help our offense protect the ball, so it’s gonna help both of our sides.”
As talented freshmen are molded and meshed with returning players, helping and mentoring have been constant themes much like the increased depth. That, Wilcox says, is what he wants to see.
“It’s all about their actions. There are guys who have been here a long time, those guys … the way they come to meetings, prepare, how they handle themselves in individual drills and team settings, that’s leadership,” he said. “In their own way, whether they’re vocal or not, [they’re] an example for the younger guys on defense, and I’m glad we have those guys.”