Has there been a more consequential spring for USC football in the last decade than the six weeks that start next Tuesday?
Ten years ago, USC was still on top, still holding on to the Pete Carroll Era with some awfully good talent even as its assistant coaching roster struggled to replace those who were leaving.
And even though there have been a couple of moments of opportunity the past 10 years, before and after the NCAA sanctions, there may never have been the potential upside that this team as a whole -- and so many untested young talents individually -- have to take that final step back.
But the next six weeks of spring football, with five weeks of practice and a week off for spring break, will be unlike last year when it was a get-acquainted run for a new staff trying to set the tone for a team that really didn't figure it out until after September.
That's not the case this time around. Spring is for figuring it all out, getting everything and everybody in place for what has to be a summer of rounding into shape and a September with big games against Stanford, Texas and Washington State, where there will be no margin for error.
That we're looking at the largest number of young, untested talent trying to move up into the two-deep rotation makes this even more critical. We'd put at least two dozen Trojans into that category.
So there's a lot to get done, a number of questions that won't be answered here. The beauty of the way this works is that the answers are up to these Trojans to work out for themselves.
We'll start out with the top 11 questions we have for the offense. Tomorrow we'll match these with our top 11 for the defense and special teams. But first there's this overall question.
How do Clay Helton & Co. evolve from the smart and solid scramblers who avoided implosion early, found their quarterback, stood steady and pulled it all together to a veteran staff that can handle the pressure of the expectations to not only dominate the Pac-12 but make a run at a College Football Playoff spot. It's a different way of coaching. And a first for this group. Can they pull it off?
*** 1) Might as well start with Sam Darnold. Everybody else will. But not a question about how well the San Clemente Kid will play or how much he can lead and inspire. That's not really the question. But how does he handle the fact that he just might be the most famous, most talented -- and talked-about -- football player in an LA that will line up a pair of NFL teams in town next fall? How does he handle the word from the NFL talent people at the Combine in Indy this week that he's the guy they all want to talk about even though at the earliest, he won't get there for another year or, as USC fans hope, another two years. The answer, USC fans hope, is that all Sam wants to do is go out and play and not play the role. Does that protect him from the lure of being the big star in a town that worships big stars and celebrities with red carpets and spotlights like nowhere else?
*** 2) But the quarterback questions don't end with Sam. As both USC and UCLA proved last season, you'd better have a No. 2. USC did. UCLA not so much. So the focus this spring will be on improving redshirt freshman Matt Fink, on talented early entry recruit Jack Sears and multi-positioned veteran Jalen Greene. How does that trio work itself out so there's a plan in place for the next man up in every circumstance. Should be interesting to watch play out.
*** 3) More important than whether junior tailback Ronald Jones will be wearing Joe McKnight's No. 4 that he wore in the Rose Bowl or his old No. 25 is whether RoJo, under new running backs coach Deland McCullough, will hit the ground running right away in a September when you think teams will have to focus on stopping Sam Darnold, whatever that means exactly?
*** 4) And maybe just as important as RoJo is how the rest of the running back contingent shakes out with the arrival of the multi-talented duo of freshman Stephen Carr and redshirt freshman Vavae Malepeai into the mix on top of the tested toughness of Aca'Cedric Ware and the untested speed of Dominic Davis. So how does that all go together for McCullough who has been able to develop one really strong ball-carrier each of his last three years at Indiana?
*** 5) Going hand-in-hand with the run game development obviously is the way the offensive line shapes up, down three veteran multi-year starters (Zach Banner, Chad Wheeler, Damian Mama) and two key long-time backups (Khaliel Rodgers, Jordan Simmons) who might have been able to return but will not. Can it replace them? Will it? And how does that happen with the likes of the multi-positioned Toa Lobendahn not fully cleared for spring and a postoperative Nathan Smith shooting for August?
*** 6) To fill in the rest of that picture, does Chuma Edoga establish himself at one tackle and does the other go to Toa, who could also become the alternate center for the established Nico Falah? And does Chris Brown end up at tackle next to veteran starter Viane Talamaivao in the fourth season for both?
*** 7) And which if any of the other offensive linemen -- Roy Hemsley, Jordan Austin, Frank Martin, Cole Smith, Clayton Johnston or early-enrolling freshman Andrew Vorhees -- make the leap to the two-deep? The opportunity is there. Who makes it happen for himself now? Or will that fall to the talented trio of incoming freshmen (Austin Jackson, Brett Neilon, Alijah Vera-Tucker) arriving this summer?
*** 8) As a corollary to the new-look O-line's makeup, this team, with its smaller-sized guys, will have to become the athletic, physical front that can get those tough yards running the ball when, as Clay likes to say, the other team knows you're going to be running it. Last year, despite the size and experience, they could not always and had to rely on Sam to bail them out. Can this group take that next step?
*** 9) Moving over a spot, we ask how seamlessly and soon does redshirt freshman tight end Cary Angeline join the immensely talented Daniel Imatorbhebhe to give Darnold a pair of tight end throwing targets from the get-go? Make that a trio if junior Tyler Petite gets it going again as well so that teams must defend USC's tight ends, opening the way for the run game and the wide receivers. And can this trio block the run? And finally, will USC make opponents pay for neglecting them by throwing to the tight ends right away like they're wide receivers -- which they pretty much are?
*** 10) And then there's this. How does the quiet, unassuming Deontay Burnett handle no longer being the under-the-radar guy after his breakout Rose Bowl game that validated what many of us felt about his talent to be the successor to Robert Woods, Marqise Lee, Nelson Agholor and JuJu Smith-Schuster. It's a different deal as each of those guys discovered when you're the target the defense knows it has to take out. Does Deontay keep developing in speed and strength to take on that role?
*** 11) And finally, do the rest of the guys in this mostly young, talented wide receiver corps, the ones who must step up to succeed Darreus Rogers and De'Quan Hampton, have what it takes to contribute right away after putting in the time last fall n the Scout team and as backups in practice? We'll include a post-surgical veteran Steven Mitchell here as the senior speedster fights back from his second ACL surgery, something he can certainly do if healthy. This is also the chance for the five-man group of sophomore Michael Pittmen and redshirt freshmen Josh Imatrobhebhe, Tyler Vaughns, Velus Jones and Trevon Sidney to set itself in place before the arrival of talented recruits Joseph Lewis and Randall Grimes this summer. Lots of size, speed and hands in this bunch. Should be fun to watch.