How USC football is addressing 'the elephant in the room' with its offseason training program

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 02: USC Trojans defensive end Braylan Shelby.

Braylan Shelby starts his mornings with a five-egg scramble, waffles, Powerade and fruit. The USC defensive end especially likes parfaits and bananas. It’s just the first of up to five meals he’ll consume each day.

Each bite is a step toward transforming USC’s maligned defense.

The Trojans packed on the pounds during their offseason training program, hoping to carry out first-year defensive coordinator D’Anton Lynn’s vision for a revamped unit that requires bigger bodies and more physicality up front. Coach Lincoln Riley called the offseason regimen a “philosophical change” for the program that will put its work to the test in the physical Big Ten conference next fall.

Read more: Lincoln Riley has a new outlook as USC opens spring practice

“The whole defense, [we’re] just having that mentality like we’re going to go out there and we’re going to mess something up,” said Shelby, who added 20 pounds to his frame this offseason and is listed at 6-foot-5, 250 pounds. “We’re going to go out there and we’re going to go wreak havoc. … That’s what we need to do this year, that’s what we need to change, that’s why we need to come different this year.”

Even though the Trojans finished the year on a high note by dominating Louisville in the Holiday Bowl, they still went into the offseason understanding that the team’s lack of size, especially on the offensive and defensive fronts, was “the elephant in the room,” defensive end Jamil Muhammad said.

“I’ve heard here and there that I’m too small or I’m maybe too weak,” said Muhammad, who had 10.5 tackles for loss and a team-leading 6.5 sacks last year. “So I took that personally.”

Read more: USC's Jamil Muhammad dedicated his life to being a QB. Now he's taking them down

Like Shelby, Muhammad was eating four or five times a day during the winter, which helped the 6-foot-1, 255-pound redshirt senior put on nine pounds of muscle. Just two days into spring practice, Shelby noticed how much more powerful he feels coming off the edge. Even without pads on, Muhammad was marveling at the sight of USC’s offensive linemen.

“It looks different in drills," Muhammad said. "It looks different translating from drills to the practice field or different team periods. It looks awesome so far, I can't wait to see it progress.”

The goal of getting bigger up front is not new to the Trojans. Riley said the same thing heading into last season, when USC went heavy on offensive and defensive line transfers. Along with Muhammad, USC brought in Bear Alexander, who was listed at 6 feet 3 and 300 pounds last year, Kyon Barrs (6-2, 290) and Anthony Lucas (6-5, 265) on the defensive line.

But the quick-fix transfers didn’t work miracles. USC allowed 186.5 rushing yards per game, 116th in the country. The offensive line, which tried to add three transfers to the starting unit, never jelled.

USC defensive lineman Bear Alexander celebrates after tipping a pass against Stanford in September.

Strength and conditioning coach Bennie Wylie and USC’s director of sports nutrition, Rachel Suba, went back to the drawing board with instructions from Riley to bulk up. The emphasis on nutrition, rest and recovery was the biggest change for the offseason program, Muhammad said.

“The weights are going to be the same wherever you are around the country, for the most part,” the former Georgia State transfer said while sipping a protein shake right after practice. “It’s really all about the buy-in. I used to have an old coach who used to say everybody does the same thing for about two hours, it’s just what you do with the other 22. I think that’s what we got better at as a team.”

The strength staff diligently weighed every player every day. If anyone missed, there was extra conditioning. Watching the numbers tick up steadily became fun, Shelby said.

The defensive line collectively added 340 pounds, Riley said on USC’s "Trojans Live" radio show this week. Freshman defensive lineman Elijah Hughes made one of the biggest jumps, weighing in on USC’s spring roster at 285 pounds, 15 pounds heavier than last year when he flashed his potential with six tackles in eight games off the bench. Alexander added 13 pounds, according to USC’s official roster, and Lucas jumped by 10.

Read more: Four things to watch as USC begins spring football practice

The edict of size doesn’t just stop in the weight room with the current players. Stretching the goal in the coach’s recruiting philosophy, the Trojans targeted lengthy defensive backs in the transfer portal such as 6-foot-2 cornerback John Humphrey, who followed Lynn from UCLA, and 6-3 DeCarlos Nicholson.

Nicholson, a transfer from Mississippi State, lined up with the No. 1 defense at cornerback in a walk-through period at practice Thursday. Jacobe Covington, who started two games last year, was the other starting cornerback as USC must replace four of its top five defensive backs from last season.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.