2004 USC preview: Special teams

The good news for the Trojans is that Tom Malone returns as the punter. The bad news for the Trojans, as far as Malone is concerned, is that the USC offense is expected to be as powerful as ever and we may not get to see Tom in action too often.

Malone established himself as one of the premier punters in the nation last season and only missed being ranked as a national leader because he did not have enough attempts to qualify under NCAA rules. Such is the life of a punter with Norm Chow directing the offense but it's a problem that Malone and the Trojans are happy to have. Despite his somewhat limited action in 2003 Tom has already been named to several Pre-Season All-American teams for the upcoming year and if he continues to improve there's little doubt that he will go down as the finest punter in school history. The Trojans will bring in a walk-on punter this fall, Taylor Odegard, who was an All-State selection at Mercer Island HS in Washington (same school as David Kirtman) and he will serve as Malone's back-up.

Ryan Killeen returns for his third season handling kicking duties for the Trojans and he showed progress with his consistency last season while working with graduate assistant coach for special teams Dennis Slutak. Killeen has always shown a strong leg, strong enough that he's on the early watch list for the Lou Groza Award, but he will need to avoid the key misses that have hurt him in the past in order to be considered an honors candidate. His back-up will be Mario Danelo, a walk-on who has shown a good leg in practice.

It says something about your team when one of the most glaring weaknesses is the lack of a returning long snapper but it's no joke for a Trojan team trying to replace two solid snappers who had been around for years. It's a rarity for a college program to carry two scholarship snappers like USC did with Joe Boskovich and Matt Hayward yet it paid off with seemingly automatic snaps. In spring ball the Trojans were reminded of how much of a luxury that was when they failed to see any of the new candidates step forward and claim the job. Will Collins has first shot at the starting spot for both punts and kicks with Collin Ashton also seeing a lot of action and Alex Holmes getting a look as well.

Reggie Bush showed last fall that he can be one of the most exciting return men in the country with his dazzling kickoff returns and this year he will add punt returns to his list of duties. There are plenty of other options for the USC coaches when considering punt returners, including Greig Carlson who has been steady if unspectacular in the past, but the thought of using the dynamic Bush in that role is too tempting to resist.

Summary – The Trojans are in excellent shape for special teams this season with two experienced kickers and a top flight return man. We should also see improved coverage and return teams due to the available talent on the roster, particularly at linebacker where key special teams performers are often found. If the snapper position can be settled in a positive fashion the special teams will be a strength for the team in 2004.

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