A summary of what's happened since the season ended: five players came in as early enrollees while five departed to various schools around the country. Also, three new coaches accepted positions with the Trojans as two moved on to NFL jobs just days after National Signing Day.
The biggest news that pertains to the spring is obviously the early enrollees. Who will come atop as the one to watch in fall 2012? My early guesses are Scott Starr and Josh Shaw. Starr recently moved to middle linebacker, a role that will give him more opportunity to see the field. Shaw is still waiting to hear the results of a NCAA waiver, but if he is cleared, expect him to seriously compete for that spot opposite Nickell Robey. A third early enrollee to look out for is defensive lineman Morgan Breslin who is getting early praise from his teammates. Many in the program have called him a "workhorse" and "very dedicated." Breslin, a junior college transfer from Diablo Valley (Calif.) College, could be a contributor after three starters graduated or left early in Christian Tupou, DaJohn Harris and Nick Perry.
It will also be interesting to see the new coaches take the field in their first real test since being hired. Marvin Sanders will coach the secondary, Scottie Hazelton the linebackers and Tee Martin the receivers.
The Trojans have been without one defensive backs coach (Sammy Knight and Monte Kiffin combined to coach the group last season) and players have expressed they are more focus and a tighter group than this time last year. Players like Jawanza Starling said Sanders has already given him little tips to help him improve his game.
Joe Barry, USC's former linebackers coach, was like a father to players Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard. Will the leading tacklers in 2011 be able to trust again? Yes, and the answer is two-fold: these redshirt freshmen want to get better and they still have so much unharnessed potential. While they built a great relationship with Barry the past two years, a player's college career is only deemed a success with consistency and improvement. I see the linebackers core adapting to Hazelton, especially if can provide each player the same personal attention as Barry did during his time here.
Martin shouldn't have a hard time with his group either. He said he's already impressed with players like Robert Woods and Marqise Lee's work ethic and "lack of egos." He'll have the southern connection to recent signee and Florida native Nelson Agholor and he's already high on the recruiting trail. The good part is he doesn't have to motivate his current group. The difficulty here will likely be dividing playing time among all the talent. While the final call for playing time will be Coach Kiffin's, USC is expected to use more three-receiver sets in 2012 which will help rotate more players anyway.
This past week Kiffin said he will keep a special eye on the two tackle spots during spring ball, to see if Kevin Graf can adjust to the left after starting on the right side in 2011 and whether Aundrey Walker will be able to play more snaps on the right and maintain his composure in a bigger role after backing up Graf last year. I don't see either being a problem for fall, although there will be kinks to work out this spring. Walker is now down to a slim 315 pounds after enrolling at a reported 378 before fall camp.
Another tackle who changed weight since enrolling is freshman Chad Wheeler. Since arriving in January, Kiffin said the Santa Monica (Calif.) High product has put on 18-20 pounds. Wheeler's weight gain, plus getting time and reps this spring, could lead to a bigger role for the lineman than initially expected.
Thomas told SCPlaybook he has yet to be cleared for contact after having hip surgery three months ago. The sophomore works out with a trainer four times a week but he still can't participate in football activities. He said he hopes to be cleared "towards the end of spring ball, but nothing is guaranteed." Safety Drew McAllister had the same surgery as Thomas and said it took about four to six months for his full recovery.
Harris, USC's starting cornerback for the Trojans' first four games of 2011, was sidelined with a shoulder injury for much of last season. Head coach Lane Kiffin said it was a nerve issue during the fall, more specifically that there was a problem regrowing the nerves in his left shoulder. Harris said this offseason that he still has an issue with the shoulder and has yet to be cleared by team doctors.
And Wilson, one of USC's five early enrollees, came down with a major knee injury last year. Since undergoing open knee surgery in August, the rehabilitation process has taken longer than expected with Wilson telling SCPlaybook that he has still not been cleared for contact. He said he will likely miss spring ball but expects to be ready for the fall.