Freshman year of college is all about acclimating: learning to navigate campus, establishing a routine, forming bonds with peers. By sophomore year, all facets of being a college student feel just a little more comfortable.
Apply that feeling to the USC football team. Last season, Trojans head coach Steve Sarkisian relied heavily on first-year players in a variety of roles across all three phases. The offense featured such freshmen as wide receiver JuJu Smith, and at one point, three started on the line: Damien Mama, Viane Talamaivao and Toa Lobendahn. Defensively, the secondary was rife with first-year players like Adoree' Jackson. On special teams, newbies Uchenna Nwosu and Olajuwon Tucker handled kickoff coverage.
In total, 11 products of USC's 2014 signing class saw the field last season.
Learning on the job, side-by-side with other freshmen, helped the young Trojans build a bond that will play a central role in USC's 2015 aspirations. Smith explained following last month's spring game.
"I can truly say we’re closer as a team," he said. "We’re more together than last season and last summer [in preseason camp, when the freshmen first arrived]."
The Trojans hope to parlay their newly gained familiarty into more fluidity on the field. USC suffered from bouts of confusion that cost it games, such as the poorly covered Hail Mary attempt on which the Trojans lost to Arizona State.
A more cohesive unit means a more communicative unit, and one that recognizes each players' strengths and weaknesses, thus adjusts accordingly.
The first signs that the youngsters were really jelling came late in the campaign. After the regular-season finale rout of rival Notre Dame, Mama credited the freshmen's collective desire to "contribute to the team in any way we could" for USC's strong finish. The Trojans were 4-1 in their final five games.
Last year wasn't just a debut campaign for many of the players: much of the USC coaching staff endured its own version of freshman initiation. Though Sarkisian retained assistants Clay Helton and Tee Martin, holdovers from Lane Kiffin's tenure as head coach, most of the 2014 staff was new.
That wasn't lost on the players, one of whom said the growing bond between players and coaches is evident.
"I see it a lot, coming in as new guys and coaches, makes us a lot closer in the second year," Jackson said.
Building those relationships starts on a micro level. The first phase in bringing a team together is each invidual unit finding its rapport first.
That's the mindset Sarkisian espoused in his first season as USC head coach.
"It’s a real credit to the assistant coaches and the job they’ve done with the position groups," he said.
Once the assistants' work is started, Sarkisian's job is bringing each group together—a process that extends with activities beyond the field.
"We were at the beach a week ago," he cited as one example. "Just doing different things with these guys that I think, at the end of the day, make [players say] ‘that’s something I want to be a part of.’"