As the Trojans prepare for this edition of spring practice, they are facing a challenge that has never yet been conquered. Up to this point in time, no team has ever won three consecutive NCAA Football Championships. However, I don't think it is a stretch to say that USC is actually being given a legitimate chance to accomplish that very goal. But, before any more laurels come the way of this Trojan team, several questions will need to be answered. Obviously every fan and coach has his own ideas as to what those questions really are, but in my opinion, the following come to mind right away. Will the coaching changes have a positive, negative or neutral effect on this team? When Norm Chow left for the Tennessee Titans of the NFL, USC lost one of the best offensive coordinators, if not the very best, in the history of college football. Will the team and the new coaches be up to that challenge? Despite the vast amount of talent that returns on offense, one must still wonder if the prolific drives and huge scoring binges will continue under the new leadership. When Ed Orgeron left to take over the head coaching job at Ole Miss, USC lost one of the most dynamic and well respected defensive line coaches in the college game today! How will that affect the overall defense and will the new coach on the block be able to motivate and mold the new defensive line into a unit that challenges for national honors? Will the new defensive starters play at a level that the fans and staff have grown accustomed to seeing on the field in the Shaun Cody, Mike Patterson and Matt Grootegoed era? Will a new backup quarterback emerge, one who could take over the team on a minutes notice if something were to happen to Matt Leinart, if he should be hurt or unavailable? And speaking of the Heisman Trophy winning quarter back, will he be back at full strength come fall camp? Although reports are that the surgery went well, I can say from many years experience, when it comes to elbow surgery, few things are a certainty. All these questions as well as many more have come to my mind and it should be fun watching how the answers unfold.
Over the past four seasons, Trojan fans and players alike have grown accustomed to the wide open and prolific offense orchestrated in some large part by Norm Chow, though Head Coach Pete Carroll is always quick to point out that the offense was not Norm Chow's, it was the USC offense. With Norm gone, the offense is reportedly going to be run by the combination of returning Coach Steve Sarkisian and remaining Coach Lane Kiffin. Of course, it goes without saying that Pete will always have the final say and veto power, but most of the time, it will be that duo of Sark and Kiffin who call the plays and implement the game plan. It surely seems fair to wonder aloud exactly how the dynamics of that situation are going to unfold. How will everyone get along? Will the quarterback communicate only with Sarkisian during the games? Will Matt say to himself, ah who cares, I know this offense anyway and audible very frequently? For those who feel that this team can function at a high level on offense based on the sheer talent alone, I say not so fast. There has to be chemistry and the players have to be comfortable with the system in which they are playing and with the coaches. I believe it is somewhat unfortunate that this spring, many if not all of the anticipated starters in the backfield either won't be participating or will be limited in Playing Time. On the other hand, it should be a great opportunity to see kids like Chauncey Washington, Desmond Reed and the new kid on the block, Michael Coleman at tailback. After making some interesting predictions, Michael will get his chance to back up the talk and walk the walk, so to speak. John David Booty will actually be the guy who gets most of the snaps this spring and it will be fun to watch how the coaches and the offense flow under his guidance. Will the new coaches connect with JDB and will he have the attention and respect of his peers? Only time will tell.
Another huge coaching loss is named Tim Davis. When he left for the Miami Dolphins, Pete wasted little time in bringing in a guy who might be every bit as fine an Oline coach--namely Golden Pat Ruel. It won't take very long at all to see if the Oline not only maintains its edge, but actually gels and continues to improve under Ruel's watch. Of all the units expected to be at full strength this spring, the Oline is at the head of the class. Almost the entire unit returns, having lost only John Drake from the starting unit, and so does a kid who just might be the best of the bunch---Winston Justice. From all reports, Winston is in terrific shape and he is ready to take back his right tackle spot. Yet if he does that, what happens to Kyle Williams and Deuce? Will Radovich or Deuce take over the Right Guard position from Fred Matua? Will Jeff Byers move into the starting left guard position? Will Sam Baker be healthy and back at full strength and weight? And how about future star Chilo Rachal? Is he another one of the Trojans oline prodigies that is simply too good to sit? We will get some preliminary answers to these questions very shortly. Then who will step it up at tight end? Dominique Byrd, he of the one handed catch fame, is one of the nation's best. Yet, in this offense, the Trojans need three or more reliable guys? Is Fred Davis an answer? Will Jimmy Miller and/or Dale Thompson step up big this spring? And of course, one cannot forget the guy with the all world potential--Chris Barrett. The coaches have decided to keep him on offense, after preliminary leaks pointed to Chris moving back to the defensive side of the ball.
As the offense practices this spring, how will the receiving corps perform? Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith would appear to be about as lethal a duo as one might expect to find anywhere in the college ranks and they are both still young. Whitney Lewis is scheduled to return for spring ball and one can only wonder if the former high school phenom is in shape and ready to take his place amongst the top three receivers or even overtake one of the top two? And one should not forget steady Chris McFoy and senior William Buchanon. It is never really too late to make a move if one produces in practice. If there is one thing missing from this talented group, it is a pure speed burner. Although Lewis is reported to be fast, it will be quite a site to behold if at a reported 230 pounds he can move anything like the jets of past years. And right along with the receivers, it will be lots of fun watching the fullbacks as well. David Kirtman made huge strides last year and he gets my vote as one of the least heralded guys around who simply did just about everything asked of him quite well. Brandon Hancock's return adds another dimension to the offense and there are reports that Jody Adewale is probably ready to contribute if called into action. Yet, despite all the talent that has been mentioned, I am still anxious to see if it all runs smoothly without Norm Chow leading the offense and with Lane upstairs and Steve Sarkisian on the sideline. This spring we should get some partial answers at the very least.
The offense is seemingly settled compared to that other unit that we are all waiting to see--the USC defense. The defensive unit that takes the field this spring will be very interesting indeed. Gone from the starting unit on the back to back champs are a mere four All-Americans and a free safety who was about as cool and steady as one could hope for--the underrated, and perhaps underappreciated Jason Leach. When the defense takes the field, Manny Wright won't be available. So who will play the inside on the dline and will they be able to play at a level anywhere near that which we have gotten spoiled watching. For the past two years, USC has been one of the best at stopping the run. Will the new unit be able to stop the USC offense? Inside, one looks for Sedrick Ellis to make a move. But how about at the other inside position? Is Fili Moala the man? Is he quick enough to satisfy Pete Carroll? Will the dline have the ferocity that Orgeron was so well known for instilling? Or might we be surprised and will the kids learn some altogether new tricks from the new dline coach, Jethro Franklin. Some early information that has come my way indicates that the kids really like this new guy and that he is teaching them some techniques that he taught in the pros. I will say this, the return of Manuel Wright would be a huge plus for this team come fall and a healthy LaJuan Ramsey would provide much needed relief both in the spring and in the fall. He was awesome against Auburn but has not shown that level of play since. If healthy, I think he is a huge key. I also think that Travis Draper might surprise and become a force on the defensive line quite early. He seemed to be the one guy from the Oline side of the ball that has the speed and athleticism that Coach Carroll really likes on the D-line so this move made lots of sense. Based on other moves that Coach Carroll has made with players, one has no reason for anything other than optimism. The defensive ends should be a plus with the likes of LoJack, Schweiger, Stuart and Goodrum scheduled to see minutes this spring. And of course, on passing downs, it's anyone's guess just who Pete might line up where to go get the quarterback.
Having lost Lofa and Groots, the linebackers this spring should be in for some nice battles. Rocky Seto and new permanent Coach Ken Norton Jr. do a great job with this unit. It sure seems like we will see lots of Keith Rivers, Thomas Williams and Dallas Sartz on the field with the first unit and backups such as Ryan Powdrell, Colin Ashton and Oscar Lua should get their shots as well. However, there does not appear to be great overall depth and I think that the newbies who show up in the fall will get a real shot at immediate playing time. Of course, things are not always predictable and it could turn out that there is more athleticism and speed amongst the starting three backers this spring than there was for on the field at linebacker for much of the time against the Sooners in the Orange Bowl. And of course, there is the group of defensive backs. Scott Ware and Josh Pinkard should see lots of playing time at the safety spots while the corner play will likely go to Wyatt, Eric Wright and Terrell Thomas. When healthy, some say that TT was actually ahead of Eric Wright and we all got to see just how good Wright is. I am not sure about Darnell's status at this time. I am not sure if his shoulder has healed though I do believe his time will be limited at most.
Finally, practice begins on March 22nd and the answers will start to appear. Despite the loss of the talented defensive players, I actually think the single biggest issue facing the team this spring is one of chemistry and mindset. It is imperative that the kids bond with the new coaches and that they develop the necessary relationships and mutual understanding to allow this team to continue to improve and reach its potential. As we all know, special teams are huge and I believe that terrific coaching is the key when it comes to that aspect of the team. Losing one key guy such as Chow is a big enough obstacle to overcome, but when one adds to that the loss of the immensely popular Ed Orgeron and the fiesty Tim Davis, one is faced with a potentially devastating administrative type problem. Fortunately, the CEO of this whole football organization just happens to be the best in the business. When it comes to college coaching, I think Pete Carroll has now proven himself to be the absolute best in the business. Under his leadership, the team has won three consecutive BCS Bowl Games and back to back National Titles. If there is one guy who can lead this team through a smooth transition and keep SC on top it's Pete Carroll. The proof of that statement starts in a few short days.