USC Spring Report

Serving their last year of an NCAA post-season ban the Trojans won't be able to capture the inaugural Pac-12 South crown, but can still be a significant factor in dictating which squad will earn those honors. SCPlaybook.com's Dan Greenspan provides us in this article a snapshot of the USC football team coming out of spring practice.

Quick Facts

Head coach:

Lane Kiffin (2nd year)

USC record:

8-5

Overall record:

15-11

Returning starters:

13 (6 offense, 7 defense)

Lettermen lost:

23

Offense

Returning offensive leaders

Passing: Matt Barkley (Junior, 6-foot-2, 220 pounds)

236-377, 2,791 yards, 26 TD, 12 INT

Rushing: Marc Tyler (Redshirt senior, 5-foot-11, 230 pounds)

171 carries, 930 yards, 9 TD

Receiving: Robert Woods (Sophomore, 6-foot-1, 185 pounds)

65 receptions, 792 yards, 6 TD

For all the growth quarterback Matt Barkley showed in his second season as starting quarterback at USC, it's still hard not to regard it as a disappointment. Barkley improved in almost every statistical measure, notably throwing 26 touchdowns against 12 interceptions after managing just a 15 to 14 mark as a freshman.

But it could have been better, stalling out late in the season as the Trojans failed to capitalize with a 10-win campaign. In his final five appearances – Barkley did not play against Notre Dame with a high ankle sprain – he had six touchdowns against eight interceptions.

There were the missed throws late against Washington, the lack of accuracy on deep balls.

Coach Lane Kiffin summed it up best, saying Barkley needs to take the next step to put USC back in the top echelon of the conference. The benchmarks have been set: 65 percent completions, 30 or more touchdowns, 10 or fewer interceptions.

Those are realistic goals for Barkley, second only to Andrew Luck of Stanford in terms of pro potential for quarterbacks. He has the size and media savvy. He has already demonstrated remarkable poise and leadership, emerging as the face of the program during the turmoil of Pete Carroll's departure and sanctions.

All he needs now is production worthy of a USC signal caller and top five pick.

Beyond his own experience, the biggest asset is Barkley's favor is wide receiver Robert Woods, now a known commodity after earning Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honors. With his tireless work ethic, savvy route running and underrated physical skills, he posted 65 catches for 792 yards, both team highs, and six touchdowns barely out of high school.

It's no coincidence that Barkley's best games in conference play, against Stanford and Cal, when the freshman had 19 receptions for 340 yards and five touchdowns. Nor that the passing offense was abysmal in the USC spring game with Woods sidelined after rolling an ankle in a pick-up basketball game the day before.

Adding about 10 pounds of muscle in the offseason, he was absolutely dominant during his first spring. Even with defenders knowing what was coming, Woods continued to make so many plays that Kiffin ran out of superlatives.

Kiffin and Barkley know that Woods is so good that he will demand a huge number of targets, regardless of what kind of coverage he draws. A common refrain was not involving Woods enough last season, impressive totals be damned.

The question seems to be not whether Woods can vault ahead of a deep crop of wide receivers to earn Pac-12 first-team recognition this season, but All-America honors as well.

Opposite Woods is reliable senior Brandon Carswell, but the real excitement concerns a pair of freshmen. At 6-foot-5, Kyle Prater is cut from the same cloth as Mike Williams and Dwayne Jarrett, who set records under Kiffin in the glory days of the last decade. With the kind of body that draws comparisons to Dez Bryant and Andre Johnson, George Farmer starred at Gardena (Calif.) Serra with Woods, winning a state title together.

Woods called Farmer a bigger, stronger and faster version of himself, a frightening prospect considering what Woods did in his first season.

There are also four tight ends with the tools to play in the NFL someday, led by senior starter, Rhett Ellison.

The biggest impediment to continued development by Barkley would be the offensive line, a sieve all throughout spring manned by walk-ons, junior college transfers and other ne'er do wells. Only left tackle Matt Kalil, a possible top 10 pick in the next draft, is guaranteed playing time of those that participated.

Things are so bad that Khaled Holmes (neck) and Kevin Graf (shoulder surgery) were installed as starters on the depth chart at center and right tackle, respectively.

True freshmen Cyrus Hobbi and Aundrey Walker could end up playing significant roles as starters or key reserves.

If assistant coach James Cregg gets the line to gel quickly, resulting in consistent play, Barkley's experience and the wealth of skill around him will give USC an offense capable of matching the heralded attacks of Oregon and Stanford.

Defense

Returning defensive leaders

Tackles: T.J. McDonald (Safety, junior, 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, 89 tackles)

Sacks: Nick Perry (Defensive end, redshirt junior, 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, 4 sacks)/Wes Horton (Defensive end, redshirt junior, 6-foot-5, 260 pounds, 4 sacks)

Interceptions: Nickell Robey (Cornerback, sophomore, 5-foot-8, 165 pounds, 4 INT)

After running out of gas at the end of Pete Carroll's remarkable tenure, the USC defense continued its regression last year. Despite the arrival of legendary defensive guru Monte Kiffin, they gave up a touchdown more (26.7 points per game) than they did the year prior and the bottom fell out on the pass defense.

With complete turnover in the defensive backfield, some drop-off was expected, but nothing like surrendering 259.5 yards per game through the air, last in the Pac-10 and No. 109 nationally.

Even more troubling were the breakdowns in critical situations with games on the line, allowing Washington, Stanford and Notre Dame to move down the field with seeming ease for winning scores.

But with seven returning starters, an influx of new talent, and coaches simplifying the scheme this spring, there are some reasons for optimism.

The defensive line overwhelmed their young counterparts on offense, so frequently blowing up plays in the backfield that it became a running gag among observers, led by a dominant showing from end Nick Perry.

Not exactly an unknown entity after earning Freshman All-America honors with a team-high eight sacks, the Michigan product was never able to get on track last season because of a lingering ankle injury. Perry was able to close strong with 4.5 tackles for loss in his final five games and took that momentum into the spring, where he was basically unstoppable.

Touted by Lane Kiffin for his world-class athleticism, Perry looks ready to recapture his dominant form and should flirt with double-digit sacks. It would shock no one around USC if Perry has been drafted in the first round a year from now.

Joining him on the edge will be senior Armond Armstead and redshirt junior Wes Horton. Despite missing the spring with an unknown medical condition that left him hospitalized for several days, Armstead has rare size for a 4-3 end at nearly 300 pounds. The older brother of Scout's top recruit in 2012, USC committed Elk Grove (Calif.) Pleasant Grove lineman Arik Armstead, Armond can also be called upon to play tackle, with 29 career appearances along the line for the Trojans.

Horton was off to a tremendous start last season before suffering a back injury at Washington State, but offers well rounded play against both the run and the pass.

On the inside, redshirt seniors Christian Tupou, who missed last season with a torn ACL he suffered in the spring game, and DaJohn Harris will join rising redshirt freshman George Uko in a three-man rotation.

After years of standout linebacker play, injuries and recruiting misses caught up with USC, resulting in poor play with no other options. But by not having starters Chris Galippo and Devon Kennard available for the spring, it created depth.

Hayes Pullard stood out, but former safety Dion Bailey and walk-on Will Andrew also proved to be capable options. And with three touted incoming freshmen, with Lamar Dawson of Kentucky ticketed for big things as the recipient of the famed No. 55 jersey, coaches will have the ability to make changes this time around.

A one-time defensive end, Kennard's move to linebacker remains a controversial one among fans given his lack of familiarity with the position and its demands, especially dropping into coverage. However, he lost his place in the starting lineup to Galippo for the final five games and indicated on Twitter he might not play in the middle this season.

Managing Galippo, with his history of back injuries, and Kennard will be the biggest challenge on defense.

Last year's struggles produced two stars in the secondary capable of pushing for All-America recognition in safety T.J. McDonald and cornerback Nickell Robey.

Son of Trojan All-America and longtime NFL stalwart Tim McDonald, T.J. showed off his bloodlines with a fine campaign, often playing as the eighth man in the box against the run. He was also adept in coverage, finishing second on the team in interceptions and passes defended.

A native of the Sunshine State, Robey played with an undeniable swagger once he got his feet wet, finishing with four interceptions. Generously listed at 5-foot-8, Robey's guile and activity allows him to challenge any receiver.

The other corner is likely to be Tony Burnett, a former walk-on who performed well at safety in rivalry games against Notre Dame and UCLA. Pulling double-duty in the spring, Burnett delivered with big plays on the practice field and as a triple- jumper for the track team.

USC must still settle the strong safety position, where Marshall Jones holds a tenuous lead. Former starter Jawanza Starling, physically gifted sophomore Demetrius Wright and ballhawking redshirt junior Drew McAllister will also have their say during fall camp.

As Lane Kiffin said several times last season, even slight improvement from awful to mediocre, notably in two-minute defense, might have been enough to push USC to an 11-2 record.

With a year under the belts of both coaches and players and improved depth across the board, the defense should aspire well beyond mediocrity in 2011.

Special teams

Highly regarded former Fresno State assistant John Baxter more than lived up to his billing as one of the nation's best and most innovative special teams' coaches, directing a major turnaround for the Trojans in his first year on staff.

By the end of the first month of the season, wide receiver Ronald Johnson returned a punt for a touchdown at Hawaii, corner Shareece Wright blocked a field goal in a 17-14 win over Virginia, and Woods scored on a 97-yard kick return to spark USC at Minnesota.

Baxter's work also delivered the game-changing play in a thrilling, bizarre 34-33 win over Arizona State, Harris took a blocked extra point the other way for two points, to set up Joe Houston's game-winning field goal on the ensuing possession.

That kick was one of the few high lights for Houston, who made 10 of 16 field goals last season, but was just 1 of 4 outside of 40 yards.

Early enrollee Andre Heidari, Scout's No. 2 kicker in the Class of 2011, showed plenty of leg and sound technique during the spring, often booming field goals from well beyond 50 yards. Despite struggling in the spring game, where he was 1 for 3, Heidari sits atop the depth chart and could be a difference-maker by consistently nailing long-range kicks.

Another true freshman, Kris Albarado, should be given every opportunity to win the vacant spot at punter.

After 25.6 yards per kick return last season, Woods will again be allowed to flash his skills as the main kick returner, and could be in the mix to replace Johnson at punt returner.

Robey and McNeal will also challenge for that spot, where Johnson averaged 14.1 yards per return, second-best in the conference.

Given Baxter's track record and the talent he will have at his disposal, USC should again field one of the better special teams in the conference. Having made the difference in close games last season, further improvement could help push the program back to double-digit wins.


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