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Column: Who took the wind out of Kiffin's sails?

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Column: Who took the wind out of Kiffin's sails?

School officials at Southern California fired a student manager after he admitted taking the air out of some footballs before last week's home game against Oregon.

Good. Now they can resume searching for who took the wind out of Lane Kiffin's sails.

Just kidding about that last part, if only because Kiffin hardly needs help. Most coaches are lucky to land even one dream job, but the former boy-wonder is fast wearing out the welcome at his third.

Kiffin's entree into the coaching business came early and his pedigree likely had a lot to do with it. Monte Kiffin currently works as defensive coordinator for his son as USC, but built a reputation as a defensive genius in the NFL and college ranks stretching back to before Lane was born. They became a package deal at Tennessee in 2009, when the Volunteers threw Lane a lifeline right after the late Raiders owner, Al Davis, fired him (with a 5-15 record) in Oakland. How much longer father and son stay together at USC remains to be seen.

That's the funny thing about these shenanigans. A solid defense is the one thing USC probably counted on when it hired the Kiffins to clean up after the NCAA punished the program for the mess Pete Carroll left behind two years ago. That was likely what the student manager thought, too, believing a deflated football would be easier for the Trojans to throw and catch. He didn't count on Oregon finding it easier, too, or imagine the Trojans would turn in their worst defensive performance ever in a 62-51 loss.

But bad defense alone doesn't explain how a loaded team that was No. 1 in plenty of preseason polls finds itself stumbling to 6-3. The Trojans also happen to be the most-penalized team in major college football, in no small part because of late hits and retaliatory fouls that a few players have chalked up to ``brotherhood.''

``Guys are looking out for each other, (but) you need to play within the rules,'' is how All-American receiver Robert Woods put it recently. ``We've made dumb mistakes. I retaliated and got a penalty, too.''

That's a funny thing, too. Part of the reason USC was supposed to be back in contention was Lane Kiffin's new-found maturity. He did a good job holding the program together last season, despite the crippling sanctions the NCAA imposed, but suddenly it seems he's up to some old tricks. He bailed on a post-practice news conference a while back after a harmless question. Not long after, USC was called out for having a player switch jerseys in a game against Colorado to run a trick play. So if you're wondering where the players got the idea that it's OK to retaliate after the whistle, or how a student manager concocted a scheme to deflate some footballs after the game officials had checked, the top might be a good place to start looking.

It seems Kiffin can't stop being cute. At Tennessee, he named a just-born son Monte Knox Kiffin, then said he'd be called ``Knox,'' a reference to the Vols' Knoxville location. When he left for the USC job, the joke was that he could spare his next child similar embarrassment by giving him the middle name: ``Mercenary.''

At his introductory news conference at USC, he tried to reassure a fan base that he would run a ``clean, disciplined program.'' But even as he was speaking, his recruiting coordinator, Ed Orgeron, who followed Kiffin from Tennessee to USC, was busy getting back in touch with some Volunteer recruits to tell them how much more fulfilling the coursework is at Southern California. The tone was set. USC is still clean, but after back-to-back humiliations by Oregon and Arizona, especially on the defensive side, ``disciplined'' is in question and the blame is being passed around.

``They can control the rest of their season,'' Kiffin said. ``There's a lot of teams in the country that can't after everything that's happened.''

But it's not just the players who need to step it up. Already, there have been a few calls to fire Monte, a possibility his son dismissed after last week's debacle.

``You can't make major changes in season,'' Lane Kiffin said. ``That never works.''

Of course, neither did taking the air out of the football. Better get back to the drawing board and fast.

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.

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5 questions facing the Redskins as the Case Keenum/Dwayne Haskins QB battle begins

5 questions facing the Redskins as the Case Keenum/Dwayne Haskins QB battle begins

The Redskins have a quarterback battle. Repeat, the Redskins have a quarterback battle. This is not a drill. It is an open competition. 

When the team gathers in Ashburn on Monday for offseason training activities, it will be the first time that veteran passer Case Keenum and first-round rookie Dwayne Haskins will be on the field at the same time. Incumbent backup QB Colt McCoy should be present as well, but not active as he works back from multiple leg surgeries this offseason. 

The team has plenty of questions for the 2019 season, and the answers will start coming as early as this week. No question is bigger than the signal caller though.

  1. QB Battle - Every major factor in the Redskins organization has been clear that Haskins will get a chance to compete for the starting job. That means every throw between Keenum, the presumed starter after the 'Skins traded for him in February, and the Ohio State rookie will be over analyzed. If McCoy was healthy, he would have a jump start in the competition because he knows head coach Jay Gruden's offense. McCoy isn't healthy though, and that means more reps and work for Keenum and Haskins. This battle will be ongoing throughout the summer, but on Monday with the media present, it will be very interesting to see what player gets more work with the first-team offense.
  2. Who's still hurt - Speaking of the first-team offense, a number of players will be working back from offseason surgery. Will Paul Richardson be out there? Trent Williams? How healthy is Jordan Reed, and what about Derrius Guice? Brandon Scherff? There are a lot  of questions, and some of them will be answered simply by seeing guys run around. Second-year wideouts Cam Sims and Trey Quinn both finished the 2018 season on the injured reserve; will they be ready to go? There are a lot of people to watch out for. 
  3. STARTING DEFENSE (LATIMER VOICE*) - Landon Collins was the prize of free agency, and Monday he will be on the field barking directions at teammates. How will he fit in with Josh Norman, and how does Quinton Dunbar look? When Dunbar went down with a leg nerve injury last season, the Washington defense fell apart. If he is all the way back would be big news for Greg Manusky's defense. There's also Reuben Foster. This will be the first time for the media to see Foster on the field in a Redskins uniform after his controversial acquisition last November. Presumably Foster will answer questions after the OTA session, stay tuned for that.
  4. Camp is over for the rookies - Beyond Haskins, the Redskins have nine other draft picks taking part in OTAs. The rookies went through their own private minicamp last week, but this will be quite different. Rookie minicamp is about letting the new players get acclimated to the new facility and team; OTAs are about real work. Will Montez Sweat take the field with the Redskins first-team defense? What about the two rookie receivers in Terry McLaurin and Kelvin Harmon? There will be hiccups for the rookies, that's inevitable, but now is the time to prove they belong. With all the injuries on the offensive line, Wes Martin has the inside track on a starting job. 
  5. Absent, but not hurt - Never forget that OTAs are voluntary for players, and usually a handful of guys don't show up. That will likely happen tomorrow and some fans might react negatively. Don't be one of them. 

* If you don't get that reference, go watch The Program. 

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Potential coaching staff changes rocket into discussion for Wizards

Potential coaching staff changes rocket into discussion for Wizards

We can begin free agent watch with the Washington Wizards way before July 1.

This isn’t about players. Coaching changes can happen whenever.

News broke Saturday out of Houston that the Rockets would not retain associate head coach Jeff Bzdelik. Considered one of the league’s top defensive minds, Bzdelik’s relationship with Scott Brooks along with comments made by the Wizards head coach at the NBA Combine makes this transaction interesting.

Bzdelik, 66, gave Brooks his first NBA coaching job when the then Denver Nuggets head coach hired the former player in 2003.

"I'm thankful for coach Bzdelik," Brooks told the Houston Chronicle in 2016.  "He gave me my first NBA coaching start. One of the best coaches I've ever been around. He has great understanding of the game, both ends of the floor.”

Fast forward to Thursday inside Chicago’s Quest Multisport facility. Amid 5-on-5 games involving 2019 draft prospects, players holding court with media members and the general convention vibe that comes with the NBA Combine, Brooks spent a few minutes chatting with reporters.

Among the non-draft or general manager search topics, whether any changes to the coaching staff were forthcoming.

"I’ve talked to Ted. I definitely talked Ted,” Brooks began his reply, referencing Wizards owner Ted Leonsis. “I have a lot of respect for our organization. I have to get better, first and foremost…Will the staff remain the same? Every year, staffs change. Every year staffs change. We're probably going to make some changes. I don't know if it's for sure. Everything is still up in the air.”

Brooks also noted change could come from members of his staff seeking opportunities elsewhere. Tony Brown, Brooks’ lead assistant during his three seasons with the Wizards, became a coaching free agent following Washington’s 32-50 season, according to NBC Sports Washington’s Chris Miller.

Two days after Brooks’ comments came news of Bzdelik’s exit in Houston.

Bzdelik, a former Bullets assistant from 1988-94 and three-time college head coach, retired following the 2017-18 season. He returned to the Rockets in November following Houston’s slow start. The associate head coach is credited with guiding the team’s defensive improvement as the Rockets rose up the Western Conference standings.

The Houston Chronicle reported Bzdelik, whose contract expired after this season, remained uncommitted to returning. The Rockets announced Saturday they would not renew his deal.

The Wizards do not want a repeat of their defensive struggles. Only the Atlanta Hawks allowed more points per game than the 116.9 Washington surrendered last season. The Wizards ranked 28th in opponent field goal percentage (48.0) and 27th in 3-point shooting percentage (37.0).

It’s unclear how the Wizards fix those defensive concerns based solely on personnel. The current roster with five healthy players does not include any forwards or mobile big men. Point guard John Wall is expected to miss the majority of the upcoming season following February’s surgery for a ruptured Achilles. Wall, an erratic defensive presence in recent seasons, was previously selected to the NBA’s all-defensive team in 2015.

Coaching strategies could become the primary driver of change on the defensive end. The man who brought Brooks into the coaching fraternity would make for an obvious addition if both sides are interested.

"The accountability that [Jeff] taught me with the coaching staff and the players is second to none,” Brooks told the Chronicle in 2016. “I learned about work. I learned how to transfer my playing career into a coaching career with his help."

News of the next front office leader likely comes before coaching staff tweaks.

Nuggets President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly was offered the same position with the Wizards Saturday after Denver granted Washington permission to meet. In the interim, the Wizards sent a contingent of scouting personnel along with Brooks to Chicago as the team conducted player interviews and watched scrimmages.

“Ted is going to make a decision and I trust that I going to be the best for the program moving forward,” Brooks said Thursday. “As of right now, (interim GM Tommy Sheppard) is doing a great job leading the group. We all feel comfortable with what’s going on. Hopefully, things work out and we move forward as an organization. We all have to get better, myself included.”

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