The Starter: Andre Heidari (Fr., 5-10, 210)
The Number: 1-4; Departed senior Joe Houston was just 1-4 on field goals of 40 yards or longer, with one of those misses in a 1-point loss to Washington.
The Position: Punter
The Contenders: Kyle Negrete (Jr., 6-0, 210) or Kris Albarado (Fr., 5-11, 200)
The Number: 84; The Trojans allowed only 84 punt return yards last season on 12 returns. Nearly half that total came on a 41-yard return by Oregon corner Cliff Harris.
The Storyline: Consistency, consistency.
Pete Carroll never invested much time, energy or scholarships on kickers, perhaps to the program's detriment given the number of close losses later in his regime that prevented USC from returning to the BCS title game. Lane Kiffin, backed by special teams coach John Baxter, immediately reversed course from his predecessor by using scholarships to bring in a new kicker, punter and even a long snapper.
Heidari, a strong-legged early enrollee who had his ups and downs in the spring, is already penciled into the starting lineup and new arrival Albarado will be given every chance to join him. Kiffin won't be asking for punts that die at the 1 or 55-yard field goals every time, just reliable play. That threshold might have been enough to push the Trojans back to 10 or more wins, given the number of close losses the team suffered.
USC had an unfortunate knack for saving its biggest special teams gaffes for the most unfortunate moments, with Joe Houston missing a 40-yard field goal with 2:34 to play against the Huskies and Jacob Harfman hanging up a punt that allowed Harris to cover 41 yards, setting up a touchdown in the final minute of the first half.
Steadiness from both kickers can put an extra few points on the board or avoid those momentum-stealing plays.
The Position: Kick Returner
The Starter: Robert Woods (So., 6-1, 180)
The Number: 971; Woods set a single-season school record with 971 kick return yards last season.
The Position: Punt Returner
The Contenders: Robert Woods (So., 6-1, 180) or Nickell Robey (So., 5-8, 165) or Curtis McNeal (Jr., 5-7, 180)
The Number: 14.2; Departed senior Ronald Johnson averaged 14.2 yards per punt return last season, second-best in the Pac-10.
The Storyline: Bulls on Parade. Now that's commitment, putting the three best performers from the spring, among them USC's elite wide receiver and top cover corner, in the mix as return specialists. While there is risk associated with the moves, as the Trojans don't have a proven No. 2 at either receiver or defensive back, it shows how Kiffin values the importance of special teams after his time watching Urban Meyer and Florida in his one-year stint in the SEC.
That belief was reinforced with the role two critical returns for scores played in non-conference wins last season, along with the fantastic field position created by Woods and Johnson.
Now USC will look to push that advantage in 2011. Woods, who sparked the Trojans at Minnesota with his 97-yard kick return touchdown, needs as many touches as he can get to give him chances to create explosive plays. Robey is perhaps the team's fastest player, while McNeal is adept at using his diminutive stature and burst to his advantage.
Any one of those names is enough to cause panic, but potential for using them in different combinations – Robey is already expected to pair up alongside Woods on kickoffs – should put Trojans special teams among the best in the nation.