Because they still lost two games, this group gets a B+. It needs improvement--as does any person in their second year on the job--but has still made vast improvement. Lane Kiffin should be in the discussion for Coach of the Year, James Cregg should get some sleep after pushing his offensive line to become what they weren't in fall camp, Coach Helton should get Motivator of the Year Award because Kessler, Scroggins and Wittek would never have seen the field barring an injury yet they were primed to play just in case. Orgeron is Orgeron --great and simultaneously frightening--and this part of the season (recruiting) is his bread and butter anyway. But the WIllie Mack Garza situation could have been handled better and Monte Kiffin and Sammy Knight might need a true defensive backs coach next season.
USC couldn't have found a better quarterback than Matt Barkley. He fits into the system. He's not a dual-threat guy (and why would you be with the Trojans' balanced offense) but can run when you need him to. He set school records for completions in a game (34), touchdown passes in a game (6), passing yards in a game (448), completion percentage in a season (69.1) and touchdown passes in a season (39). He lives and breathes cardinal and gold, the Trojan Tunnel, Traveller, all the USC traditions. There is no way you can give this junior quarterback--who has started three years for the Trojans--anything but an A+.
Imagine if Robert Woods hadn't been injured? Imagine if Marqise Lee played defense? While Woods remained just 80 percent, according to Lane Kiffin, and will undergo offseason ankle surgery, it seems as though the Trojan receivers couldn't get any better. Frankly, they were the best receiver duo in the country, not just the Pac-12. Sure Matt Barkley had accurate throws, and knew where Woods and Lee were most of the time, but they could have dropped the passes--they could have been stopped short of the goal line. But they hardly did either and that consistency is what accounted for their combined 26 touchdowns this season.
Curtis McNeal really became the story of this program during the second half of the season. After Marc Tyler dislocated his shoulder, McNeal--the junior who was academically ineligible in 2010--came on the scene and blew away his tough competition. McNeal, the 5'6 downhill runner, managed to remain reasonably unscathed throughout the 2011 season and it produced. He ended 2011 as the 27th Trojan to amass 1000 rushing yards. But because a backs core needs more than one go-to, this category deserves a B. Tyler didn't rise in the latter half of the season like fans expected. Amir Carlisle showed glimpses, George Farmer got banged up and D.J. Morgan wasn't called upon consistently.
There were few people knowledgeable about USC that weren't concerned with the Trojans' offensive line coming into the 2011 season. After musical chairs for the first few weeks, Barkley's protectors rose to the occasion, settling with a starting five and then kicking up another gear after the California game. Because so few expected so much, this group deserves a B+.
Too many people expected this line to be too excellent. They were great, but they aren't all NFL first-rounders. Nick Perry with his 9.5 sacks, 3 pass breakups, 3 forced fumbles and 54 tackles on the season was close to expectations. But injuries to tackles Christian Tupou and Da'John Harris offset their personal numbers. This group was experienced, and made critical plays when they needed to, but Perry was the only consistent playmaker of the group. If these three things happen: Armond Armstead returns, Devon Kennard and Wes Horton assume their veteran status and become huge playmakers and George Uko can fill the void left by Tupou and Harris, this group could be an A or even A+ in 2012.
Not one, but two linebackers led the team in tackles. And they were both freshmen. Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard inserted themselves as huge threats early in 2011 and continued to stand out with impact play after impact play. Bailey, named the Pac-12's Defensive Freshman of the Year, was converted to linebacker from safety and the position change reaped dividends. With the addition of starter Lamar Dawson late in the season, the future is not bright for USC's linebacker corps; it's blinding.
The only glimmer of hope here is sophomore Nickell Robey. And Robey didn't even have the season he wanted to. He got better late in 2011, sure, but the Trojan's cornerback situation looked scary with injuries and the second safety spot looked uncertain with poor performance. Torin Harris and Anthony Brown both suffered season-ending injuries while safety Jawanza Starling didn't start playing up to expectations until the California game. If T.J. McDonald departs for the NFL this spring, this position will become the most uncertain in 2012 and the one that needs the most help.
Kicker Andre Heidari and punter Kyle Negrete had nearly perfect seasons. Heidari (15-17, including a 50-yard field goal), came up big at critical times and Negrete's 1, 562 punting yards (averaging 40.1 yards a punt) was consistent enough to make any coach happy. Very little complaints with the two, except for that weird temporary kicking substitution at Notre Dame. Overall, this group gets a B+ for allowing De'Anthony Thomas to return a kickoff for a touchdown and making that Oregon game close late.