CHICAGO, August 28, 2013 — It would be hard to describe last season as anything but a nightmare for USC and their fans. The team entered the season ranked number one in many polls and was finally free of the bowl ban imposed by the NCAA. These high expectations were tempered after a loss to Stanford in their third game and were abandoned after the team’s loss to Arizona in their eighth game.
The biggest question facing USC this year is one that will be answered in the opener against Hawaii on August 29. Who will be the starting quarterback? This position at USC has been one of prestige since Carson Palmer won the Heisman in 2002. Matt Barkley graduated last year after being a four-year starter. The battle to replace him began in the spring between Max Wittek, Cody Kessler and Max Browne.
This battle continued through the fall, but the only thing the public has learned is that freshman Max Browne will not be the starter. Head Coach Lane Kiffin has said that both Max Wittek and Cody Kessler will take snaps under center in the opener against Hawaii, but it will not be on a strict rotation.
USC’s running back depth should be better this year despite the loss of Curtis McNeal. Silas Redd, DJ Morgan and Buck Allen return. They will be joined by freshmen Ty Isaac and Justin Davis while Tre Madden will return from a knee injury that caused him to redshirt last year. The depth will be tested early, as Redd and Morgan will not travel for the opener. Davis has impressed in camp. He enrolled for the spring semester last year and will likely become USC’s first freshman starter at running back since CJ Gable in 2006.
Although USC lost three-year starter Robert Woods to the NFL draft a year early, there are hopes that his loss will be minimized. Heisman candidate Marquise Lee, who posted amazing numbers last year with 118 catches, 1721 yards and 14 touchdowns, returns to lead the receiving corp. It will be a challenge for him to repeat those numbers and it is possible that USC may be better served by spreading the ball around a bit more.
Opposite of Lee will be sophomore Nelson Agholor who showed flashes last year including six catches for 162 yards and a touchdown versus Oregon. Darreus Rogers, Victor Blackwell and De’Von Flournoy will also need to contribute as George Farmer and Steven Mitchell will both miss the season with injuries. Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer return at tight end and should find a larger role in the offense as both seemed to be underutilized in the offense in 2012.
The offensive line was a large question last year, but performed well allowing only 17 sacks last year, which was good for 26th in FBS. The line loses only Khaled Holmes among last season’s starters. If the line can continue to grow and gel under new offensive line coach Mike Summers then USC should improve its running game this year allowing for the new quarterback(s) to develop.
On the other side of the ball, there have been a great deal of changes as Monte Kiffin and his Tampa 2 are gone. They have been replaced by Clancy Pendergrast and his 5-2 defense. Anytime there is a scheme change in a defense, there will be questions of how well the personnel will match up. The answer after fall camp seems to be that USC’s defense matches up surprisingly well.
The defensive line will be led by sophomore Leonard Williams, who broke out last year, while being named PAC 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year. Williams will be joined on the interior defensive line by Gearge Uko and Antwaun Woods, while Devon Kennard and Morgan Breslin will line up on the outside. The depth may be tested as USC lost four verbal commitments on the defensive line for a variety of reasons.
Hayes Pullard and Lamar Dawson will line up at linebacker in the new defense. Dawson has failed to fulfill the high expectations placed on him when he was given the number 55 jersey upon enrolling at USC, but Lane Kiffin said that he was the defensive MVP of the fall camp. Pullard is the leading returning tackler, totaling 107 last year, and should be freed up to roam sideline to sideline with the defensive line allowing him to again make a lot of tackles.
The defensive backfield will have a lot of new faces as TJ McDonald and Jawanza Starling graduated and Nickell Robey chose to enter the NFL draft early. Torrin Harris and Anthony Brown will likely get the first chances at cornerback, but the coaching staff may not be very patient as there are many players like Kevon Seymour, Chris Hawkins and Devian Shelton all seem to have a great deal of potential but very little experience.
Lining up at safety will be Josh Shaw, who seems to have settled in at safety, and Su’a Cravens. Cravens, last year’s USA Today High School Defensive Player of the Year, impressed coaches and looks to continue the history of great USC safeties by starting from day one.
Andre Heidari, kicker, and Kris Albarado, punter, will handle the kicking duties for USC. This was part of Kiffin’s plan to endure the sanctions as both were brought in on scholarship prior to the sanctions hitting so that the special teams would be taken care of throughout and that plan appears to be working.
Ultimately, this season will determine the immediate fate of Lane Kiffin. After the team disappointed last year, Kiffin found himself incurring most of the wrath for his play calling and a variety of antics that reflected poorly on USC. If USC can bounce back and win 10 or more games, it is likely that Kiffin will be given 2014 to see what he can do, but if USC struggles again and wins eight games or less, it is likely that USC will spend the offseason looking for another head coach.
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