Offense – I'm going to go with Sam Baker. At what point are we taking this guy for granted? As a freshman, he was a Freshman All-American. Last year, he was an All-American. This year, he has already been named to the Playboy pre-season All-American team and is expected to be one of the top tackles in the country. Sam is a rock on the line at a spot that becomes more important now that he is protecting the backside of a right handed quarterback again.
Defense – Coming in to camp we expected one of the fiercest position battles to be between Rey Maualuga and Oscar Lua for the starting middle linebacker spot but shortly after the start of camp we saw Rey get moved to the first unit defense and he hasn't left since. Pete Carroll hasn't officially declared the competition over but there really isn't anything to decide. Oscar is a terrific football player who has done NOTHING to lose his job, the fact that he was named a captain tells how much his teammates think of him. However, he is going up against a guy who is simply a monster. Rey is a big, fast, aggressive, hard hitting and ferocious player in the middle of that line-up and there just isn't a way to justify having him on the bench right now.
Surprise – We knew coming into camp that Terrell Thomas pretty much had one corner spot sewn up with Kevin Thomas having a decided edge against Cary Harris for the other job. Kevin ended up getting hurt at the start of camp and Harris took advantage of that opportunity to show us a physical side of his game that we didn't knew existed. We knew he had speed but his ability to lay some big hits has helped put him in position to be the starter. Harris has been a big time player on a consistent basis this fall and that has extended all the way to special teams as he returned a kickoff for a touchdown in a scrimmage and was later named the kickoff return starter.
Freshman – I have to go with the four tailbacks. As we inch closer to the Arkansas game it's becoming more and more clear that these guys are going to play a vital role in the running game with one of them probably being the starter. The good news for Trojan fans is that all four are legit and they all bring a different style. One longtime USC observer commented this week that this is the best class of running backs he has ever seen come to the school (and that includes the Bush, White, Washington class) and it's hard to find an argument with that statement based on what we've seen so far.
Offense - Offensive guard Chilo Rachal. This guy is so athletic and physical, he reminds me of former Trojan All-America guard Roy Foster, especially the way he pulls and traps.. The way that Rachal moves and the attacking style he generates reminds me when I saw this kid play basketball for Compton Dominguez. His athletic grace for such a big man on a basketball court alerted me that Chilo could be something special. I just can't help remembering a few weeks ago starting fullback Ryan Powdrell telling me that if needed one yard, he would want to run behind Chilo because of his strength, speed, and aggressiveness.
Defense - Linebacker Brian Cushing gets the vote here. There is no question after watching a now healthy and experienced Cushing, we find this kid a Bill Romanowski clone in ability and aggressiveness. Brian is so intense and so competitive and his outstanding athletic ability tells me Trojan fans are going to see the "real deal" this season. Now that he has jettisoned his fear of contact after his shoulder surgery, Cushing is a main reason the Trojans are in their hybrid 3-4 defense. Watching him in practice roaming sideline to sideline with such ferocity is almost as exciting as watching the young Trojan tailbacks.
Surprise - To our way of thinking, it has to be Desmond Reed. Sitting at Notre Dame Stadium last season and watching this talented back helped off the field and the later diagnosis was just plain sickening. To come back the way Desmond has done and watching the way he has gotten better and better with each practice has been stunning. Who would have ever thought this kid would ever run again, yet alone score on a punt return touchdown during the open Coliseum public scrimmage? It is truly remarkable. I can't help but recall that Coliseum scrimmage punt return as he ran by me on the sidelines. I said to myself that this is absolutely a combination medical miracle and miracle of the heart.
Freshman - Well, this is a hard one because so many of the freshmen have demonstrated talent and poise well beyond their football years. I want to say Allen Bradford and C.J. Gable, but I am not surprised by their ability. The freshmen that have been the most surprising to me are wide receiver Travon Patterson and tight end Anthony McCoy. Although those that follow recruiting were well aware of the physical talent of McCoy, I don't think many people realized just how good Patterson was and how impressive he has been in camp. So in answer to the question, for me, it's too close to call, but if I have to select one big difference maker down the line, the unlimited potential of Bradford as a tailback would probably get my vote.
Offense: I chose Ryan Kalil because he appears to be the most irreplaceable player on offense. When he is out, the offense sputters, snaps are dropped, and we are, in general, not an efficient team.
Defense: Cary Harris has been very impressive with his coverage at CB, his tackling – which he has improved significantly from last year, and his kick returning. I think he is going to be a big time player for us.
Surprise: Travon Patterson is a surprise to me. I knew he was fast but he has shown an ability to get open and to hold onto the ball beyond my expectations. Once he has the ball in the open field, or even semi-open field, he is tough to stop and gains big yards after the catch.
Freshman: Vidal Hazelton showed up ready to play. He, more than any other freshman, is ready to step in and contribute.
Offense – Steve Smith. After requesting an evaluation from pro scouts at the conclusion of last year, it's obvious that Smith has made a full-fledged effort to improve on every single aspect of his game. From staying late after every practice to running each drill out completely to practicing the fundamentals on every single one of his repetitions, it's obvious that Smith is going after perfection this season. With Dwayne Jarrett across the way, Smith's commitment to himself as well as the team should be evident this year as he should have a better year statistically than last season.
Defense – Keith Rivers. Rivers has looked like a man on a mission during fall practice. After two years of working his way into the system, he is poised for a dominating year as one of those linebackers who can take over a game. His confidence level is sky high as are his leadership and intensity levels. The 3-4 defense seems to be suiting Rivers as he lines up behind Brian Cushing and has been cleaning up anything that gets by Cushing.
Surprise – Who is going to be punting for the Trojans? Surprise! It's Greg Woidneck. The unknown heading into fall camp has demonstrated a booming leg and the ability to create great hangtime with each of his punts. It's still a question if he will be able to duplicate that success with a true punt rush on him, but for the moment, Woidneck has looked solid in replacing Tom Malone. A mention must be made of Cary Harris in this category as well. He was obviously going to be a good player, but he has been downright outstanding during fall camp. While stepping in for an injured Kevin Thomas, Harris has shown the coaching staff that they have three bonafide stars at cornerback.
Freshman – Anthony McCoy. With all the hype surrounding the incoming tailbacks and wide receivers, it's been McCoy who has had the best all-around camp. With his outstanding frame and soft hands, McCoy will be an instant contributor this season. He has been a presence all over the field, but has really made his mark in the endzone, providing a great target for the Trojan quarterbacks when the offense gets deep into the red zone.