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Making a good impression

3/13/2012 - USC Trojans

LOS ANGELES -- There can often be a period of transition when a new position coach enters a program, as players adjust to his style and methods while he learns the habits and abilities of his new charges. Then there can be times where it feels as if the new coach has been in place for years, hitting full speed seemingly within minutes of donning his new school colors.

The latter is certainly true for USC defensive backs coach Marvin Sanders, as there was almost an audible 'click' when he snapped into perfect place al little more than a month ago.

"We were kind of nervous because we didn't know the character of the coach we were going to get," said junior cornerback Nickell Robey of the coaching search. "We didn't know if we were going to have to start all over from square one. But when we felt out Coach Sanders, all the guys thought he was cool. You can tell that he's a hard worker and he has a great personality. We got an instant connection."

Sanders said his indoctrination into USC has been something of a whirlwind. After being out of coaching for nearly a year, Sanders accepted a position at Florida Atlantic this past December before deciding to move across the country to USC just two months later. He called the process "hectic," but added that it has also been exciting and the players have responded well to him.

There was some familiarity with the USC roster for Sanders. As the secondary coach at Nebraska, he was given the responsibility of recruiting Southern California, which allowed him to develop relationships with USC players Hayes Pullard, Dion Bailey, Jesse Scroggins and Joshua Shaw. But after accepting the position, Sanders quickly familiarized himself with his two standouts, Robey and T.J. McDonald, through film study.

McDonald said it didn't take long for Sanders to make an impact with him.

"He came in and knew who I was -- watched film and knew I was a captain," McDonald said. "He pulled me aside and we had a one-on-one conversation about what he expects and making sure I lead the way along with Nickell in the secondary. That mutual respect between him and me was established right away."

Robey said he had a similar experience.

"I sat in his office and we talked for a good hour or so," he said of Sanders. "We just talked about life. I got to know about him and he got to know about me. Once we filled that void of knowing each other, we have a lot more respect for each other, which starts a great relationship. He's a great person to talk to."

Despite an improved record and plenty of buzz built up by the way they finished the 2011 season, the USC Trojans still ranked No. 102 in the country in pass defense last season -- a number that almost certainly much improve if a potential national championship run is to be expected. Sanders understands where the Trojans are currently as well as the expectations from head coach Lane Kiffin and defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron.

But Sanders is also confident in knowing that his biggest impact will come off the field. While there is plenty of talk about quick feet, hand placement and no wasted movement on the field, the first step for Sanders is getting his players up to speed off it.

"I want to be a teacher," Sanders said. "I talk about football IQ. I want guys to try to understand the game because it makes you a faster player when you understand the expectations or how offenses are going to attack you."

Football IQ has obviously been a buzzword for the USC defensive backs, as Robey commented that Sanders main point since he arrived is developing the group's football IQ. McDonald drove the point home as well.

"He teaches us like it's a classroom," McDonald said. "In the meeting room, it's a discussion and we're talking and conversing and really learning. We're talking football -- not just what we're supposed to know, but the whole game. That language is something everyone needs to speak and that's what we're doing."

While the defensive backs have been quick to latch onto Sanders' words in the meeting room, it's tough for all practice goers not to hear them on the field. An animated coach in every way, Sanders is active, talkative and hands on in his approach. With plenty of returning coaches, it was Sanders who led the first drill of spring ball, working with almost the entire team on the proper technique to turn and run.

Sanders has also demonstrated an ability to switch between fun-loving coach and serious teacher, something his group very much appreciates.

"The secondary coach is supposed to be like that," McDonald said. "We're that way. We're real lively and try to play with a little extra swag. When your coach reflects that, you can be you on the field. That's just who we are as defensive backs and definitely who he is as a coach, so it fits perfectly with us."

McDonald said he feels the defensive backfield is ready to take a significant step forward this season. With him and Robey returning, along with safety Jawanza Starling and cornerback Isiah Wiley, as well as cornerbacks Anthony Brown and Torin Harris -- who also have starting experience -- it is a veteran and experienced group. But McDonald and Robey, as returning first team All-Pac-12 honorees, are expected to lead the way, and Sanders hasn't shied away from proving his point on expectations.

"When it comes to me, he's extra tight on me," Robey said. "He doesn't want me dropping anything, no extra false steps, no thing. He's always making sure I have those little details down pat, because that's going to be the difference in the game."

"Me personally, he's set a high standard for me," McDonald said. "And he's holding me to that high standard every day in practice. He just had me do pushups for not jogging the final two steps off the field. He's holding me to a high standard and I appreciate that. I wouldn't want it any other way."

Erik McKinney is the recruiting editor for WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 2004. He can be reached at erik@wearesc.com.