During the past several years, it's been fairly easy to dismiss those college football fans claiming that ESPN possessed a serious bias toward the USC Trojans as simply delusional. Obviously, the "worldwide leader" was going to follow the most compelling, most noteworthy news and for nearly six years now, the majority of that has taken place between the sidelines at the Coliseum as well as Brian Kennedy and Howard Jones fields. The Trojans were a national story, and as a result, the cameras rolled.
With two USC losses in 2006 and a Florida triple-title sweep in football and basketball, it seemed as if those people mumbling about a Trojan media bias would give it a rest. But heading into the 2007 season, it appears as if those conspiracy theorists could be at it again. And this time, I'm one of them.
This has nothing to do with ESPN, Fox Sports or ABC pumping USC football news out at a prodigious rate. I don't expect Trojan games to be televised 24 hours a day or in place of the nightly national news with Katie Couric introducing the offensive starters.
No, actually this media bias has nothing to do with the sports world. Instead, my focus is solely on Hollywood. You see, in real life, guys don't lose their job for several years, watch their former company hire younger replacements and then return dramatically to steal their jobs back while thousands of people cheer them on. So while sitting in the Coliseum this past Saturday afternoon watching Hershel Dennis join Chauncey Washington and Desmond Reed with his own remarkable story of battling back despite tremendous odds, I could only search the sidelines trying to find Steven Spielberg dressed as Pete Carroll, darting in and out of huddles, making sure everyone was up to speed with their blocking assignments and dialogue requirements.
One fan base getting three guys (all playing the same position) who have overcome so much and are so incredibly easy to root for just doesn't seem like it could happen naturally. These are three guys who have spent a combined 13 seasons at USC and have been able to go full speed all season long for about four. They are each entering their final season at USC and there are seven other tailbacks trying to keep them off the field. And yet, there I sat, watching Dennis, Washington and Reed dart around the Coliseum turf looking every bit capable of filling the first three spots on the tailback depth chart come fall.
It's so easy to get caught up in the Trojans' recruiting hauls season after season and lose sight of the guys who fall through the cracks. Heading into spring, I feel like Hershel Dennis' name was thrown into the discussion of the crowded backfield by most people simply to bump the number to ten, but not as a true contender for playing time. But that's exactly why watching him break out during Saturday's Huddle was such a fantastic experience. Watching a player fight off two years of injuries and come back looking like he's at the top of his game is one of the greatest sights you can witness as a sports fan. Of course, it also might be the reason Paramount studios just ordered a truck load of #34 cardinal and gold jerseys.
Sure, one of the freshmen or sophomores could come in and blow the coaches away during fall practice, or a recurring injury could come back and take a bite out of one of the three seniors. But at this point, those look like variables. And as long as this story is ending up in Hollywood, let's just stick to the script.
A Rivers Runs Through It:
At the conclusion of last season, linebacker Keith Rivers called a press conference to announce that he would be returning to USC for his senior season. There was a belief that he did it to bring some national media attention his way in hopes of landing on some pre-season awards watch lists. As it turns out, the press conference was unnecessary. Had he waited a few months, tape of his spring practice, highlighted by his performance at the Huddle, would have sufficed as All-American propaganda.
I still think there is too much talent spread throughout the Trojan defense (especially at linebacker) for Rivers to put up a 110 tackle season or the numbers required for the Butkus or Bednarik Awards. But based on his acrobatic interception, sack and numerous tackles on Saturday, he looks well on his way toward being named an All Pac-10 player and an All-American.
Brian Cushing may have a Rose Bowl Defensive MVP Award and Rey Maualuga's hits may end up on more highlight reels, but Keith Rivers will be the leader of the linebackers, and maybe the entire defense.
Speaking of defense, the Trojans' defensive secondary looked great on Saturday. The silly thing about that is you could argue that not a single starter on Saturday's first team (Cary Harris, Shareece Wright, Taylor Mays and Mozique McCurtis) should be a starter once the season rolls around. Okay, so you'd have to argue pretty hard to keep Mays off the field, but what's wrong with throwing Terrell Thomas, Kevin Thomas, Kevin Ellison and Josh Pinkard out there?
Personally, I feel like Pinkard is such a good free safety that you have to plug him in there and build a secondary around him. If I'm filling out the other three positions, Ellison slides next to him while Terrell Thomas and Cary Harris (being pushed hard by Wright) line up at corner. Of course, that leaves Taylor Mays out of the starting line up, which I'm sure would cause some head shaking among the Trojan faithful. But I really like the idea of using Mays as something of a wildcard on defense. He can do so many different things with so many different skills, why not keep opposing offenses unprepared? There were times the last few years when Dallas Sartz would drop back as a third safety, which Mays would seem a natural for. Not to mention, I would pay good money to see a freshman quarterback try to read the defense with Mays standing up along the line of scrimmage outside of Lawrence Jackson, or walking up from 15 yards deep to come set alongside Rey Maualuga.
If you want to argue that Mays should stay at free safety and Pinkard should fill one of the cornerback spots, I'll have no problem listening. I mean, how do you argue with getting Mays and Pinkard on the field at the same time and putting that kind of talent out there? Pretty much every conceivable defensive line up would put 11 extremely talented players on the field. Why not illustrate how deep this team is and have a little fun with it?
Defensive Ends Have Moore Fun:
I'll admit that I play favorites with upperclassmen. At times, I do it so much that I should probably have a Heisman vote. Don't get me wrong; I love watching a freshman come in and light things up. But there's something to be said for putting in your time learning the playbook and being rewarded for years of hard work with a starting spot.
Enter Kyle Moore. Or, more appropriately, enter Everson Griffen.
It looks as if Moore will be going head to head with the freshman from Arizona this fall, and I've probably made it pretty clear where I stand on the matter. Now, if Griffen comes in and makes Sam Baker look like Josephine Baker during every session of fall practice, you won't hear a peep from me if he's penciled in as a starting defensive end. But at this point, I'd really like to see Moore get his shot.
On Saturday, Moore may have made the play of the scrimmage when he intercepted a pass a good 20 yards downfield after running stride for stride down the sideline with Fred Davis. I don't think I could name another defensive end who could make that play.
And skill level aside, Moore is just another easy-to-root-for Trojan. When Brian Cushing occupied that defensive end position for the entire 2006 season, Moore could have easily packed up and headed to a school back home. But he didn't. And now it looks like he's going to be involved in one of the toughest position fights of 2007.
It's His Turner:
On the offensive side of the ball, all eyes will be on the Trojan wide receivers this season, and with good reason. Losing Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith is a huge blow to the USC passing game, but there is talent waiting to emerge.
One of the guys who will get a huge amount of attention this season will be Patrick Turner. A lot of Trojan fans have been waiting for Turner to explode onto the scene since his arrival two years ago. And now that Jarrett is gone, the expectations will be there for Turner to become the go-to, dominant receiver for the USC passing game. I'm not sure that is a necessity, however.
Turner has the ability to show up big in some games, evidenced by his huge game against Washington last season, but I'm not sure about the "need" for him to become The Guy. During the Huddle, we saw both David Ausberry and Vidal Hazelton make some serious plays. Ausberry looks like a guy who is going to love out muscling defensive backs and making physical catches, while Hazelton's play-making ability with the ball in his hands looks to be off the charts. That doesn't even consider guys like Travon Patterson (who had three touchdowns on Saturday) and Jamere Holland, who could be the two fastest guys in the bunch.
I feel like the Trojans will be more than fine if Turner continues to pull down three or four passes per game instead of a Dwayne Jarrett-like eight or nine. Now, I'm not saying that Turner won't or can't cash in with a huge year statistically. I'm just saying that I don't think it's the necessity that some people are making it.
Overall, the Trojan Huddle was a fantastic display of what the 2007 Trojans should bring to the table. The running game was working, John David Booty looked comfortable leading his offense, the defense was absolutely swarming to everything in sight (despite four starters sitting out), and the second teams on both sides of the ball could give some teams in the Pac-10 a serious run. It's now time to dig in and start the long wait until fall practice. Get your tickets now and make sure to catch that season-opening matinee.
Erik McKinney is a columnist for WeAreSC.com and he can be reached at email@example.com.