Defensive End: Wes Horton, Greg Townsend Jr.
While Nick Perry has left for the NFL, two-thirds of the Trojans' starting ends will return, in Wes Horton and Nick Perry. On the left look for Wes Horton to have a breakout season, somewhere around the 10-sacks range. Looking at who will backup Horton, there's a bit of a dropoff as no fourth player had a similar level of production.
Will Greg Townsend Jr. step up after his redshirt season? We know he's had the teaching all his life (see: Greg Townsend Sr.), but the question now is will he be ready for the primetime on his own.
Or perhaps soon-to-be junior Kevin Greene will get the opportunity he's longed hoped to have. I'd expect Townsend to compete with Greene for this backup spot, as Kiffin likes to let younger players with potential challenge his veterans.
Nose Tackle: J.R. Tavai; Antwaun Woods
True freshman J.R. Tavai had a significant year on USC's defensive line, one which was full of veterans and experienced players. He will have tough shoes to fill, but I think the taste of last year will be enough to give him this starting spot.
Redshirt freshman Antwaun Woods will likely come behind Tavai here, but Woods is still a work in progress and while he says he's lost some weight, we haven't seen much from him yet. He seems extremely focused this offseason, though.
Defensive Tackle: George Uko, Christian Heyward
Uko was a significant player for the Trojans in 2011, and I'd expect this to be his breakout season. He will likely start every game and be asked to take on more responsibility both as a vocal leader and in his assignments.
We haven't seen much from Christian Heyward. A redshirter in 2011, look for Heyward to make some noise next season. The defensive line is just thin enough for him to have early opportunity; he just needs to capitalize on it early, because one of the freshmen linemen could compete for this spot.
Defensive End: Devon Kennard, Leonard Williams
In 2012 USC will be a force with redshirt senior Devon Kennard on the edge. The lineman turned linebacker turned lineman had his best year yet last season and is facing his biggest year ahead of him, as he'll be a full-fledged starter rather than the third man in the Trojans' strong three-man rotation last year.
Kennard is fast. And smart. He doesn't have the same size as Perry (XXX versus XXX) but he has the same intelligence. Perry is just an incredible athlete, you can't expect Kennard to do what the likely first-rounder did in 2011. But you can expect Kennard himself to have set goals for himself and to do whatever it takes to accomplish them.
I could picture Williams becoming more of a pivotal player as the season progresses, especially with the hype Kiffin gave him on National Signing Day. I don't know if he'll have as big a role as the three-man rotation of Horton, Kennard and Perry last season but he will likely be on the two-deep behind either starters.
Strongside Linebacker: Dion Bailey, Tre Madden
You couldn't have predicted a better freshman season for Bailey. The safety turned linebacker tied a team-high 81 tackles, along with fellow outside linebacker Hayes Pullard.
Tre Madden was the Trojans' fifth linebacker, after the freshmen trio of Pullard, Bailey and Lamar Dawson and senior Chris Galippo. With that experience in 2011, Madden will likely be utilized more in the coming year.
Middle Linebacker: Lamar Dawson, Scott Starr
Who will backup Lamar Dawson will be one of the main questions buzzing around Trojanland come fall. The Kentucky native is good (No. 55 jersey worthy good) but can't play every snap. Trouble is only Will Andrew (and Devon Kennard, but that isn't happening) are current players who have played middle linebacker for the Trojans. After the departure of Chris Galippo it will be interesting to see whether Anthony Sarao or Scott Starr moves here. Talking to both freshmen in the offseason, Sarao has the mental reps advantage over Starr and is more body-ready right now but I'm not sure he wants to play middle over weakside. To add to the confusion, Starr said he's more comfortable at strong side.
When it comes down to it, though, one's comfort level will be determined by how often they see the field. And players often have to make sacrifices in order to get there.
Weakside Linebacker: Hayes Pullard, Anthony Sarao
Pullard is a lock here, and it's likely Sarao will back him up. Sarao, who earned Scout Team Player of the Year, is an incredibly hard worker and doesn't seem to ever complain.
Growing up in New Jersey, Sarao seems like the guy who will grit his way to the top and has no problem if his route isn't as flashy as the other guys. He's tough, and smart and looks to be a great player for the Trojans when given the opportunity.
Cornerback: Nickell Robey, *Isiah Wiley
Nickell Robey is one of those guys that would appreciate a National Championship, but you'd find on the field the following day. Coming off two solid seasons, he's approaching his junior year with the mentality that he wants to be the 'Matt Barkley of defensive backs' (his words, not mine). He fully expects to up his game and emerge a lockdown corner next season.
While Isiah Wiley started half of the 2011 season opposite Robey, it wasn't entirely on purpose. Injuries to Torin Harris and Anthony Brown forced the junior college transfer there, but he held his own and made some big plays.
*I think he would start under all but one circumstance: if Florida transfer Josh Shaw gets his hardship waiver accepted by the NCAA. If that doesn't happen, expect it to be a cornerback tandem of Wiley and Robey.
Free Safety: T.J. McDonald, Drew McAllister
McDonald didn't have to return. But now that he is, he's out with a vengeance. The Pac-12 conference struggled with McDonald's fierce style of play at times but I think he's better equipped to handle those personal fouls and not let them get out of hand or affect him too much mentally. He's set up to have an incredible season.
McAllister has proved himself a legitimate ball hawk, even recording a start during the 2011 season (while McDonald served a half-game suspension) where he played well. He has one more year left to build some film for NFL scouts; it'd be a mistake not to play him.
Strong Safety: Jawanza Starling, Gerald Bowman
Starling will see some competition from Scout's number one junior college transfer Gerald Bowman, but I'd expect it to happen as the season progresses. Because Bowman wasn't an early enrollee, Starling will likely assume his old role as a starter opposite McDonald.
Still, Bowman looks polished and ready to play. He'll just have to grasp the playbook more and actually enroll. If he doesn't become a starter, look for him to get serious time as a backup.
Cornerback: *Josh Shaw, Anthony Brown
*See my Shaw note on opposite cornerback spot.
Anthony Brown isn't fully healthy, but expect him to be by fall camp. Still, there's a ton of competition here and it's likely Brown will backup either Shaw, Robey or Wiley.