USC Football 2012: Season Preview for the Trojans

Amy LamareSenior Analyst IAugust 26, 2012

USC Football 2012: Season Preview for the Trojans

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    This year’s Trojan squad enters the season with the motto "Unfinished Business," alluding to, of course, the sanctions that made them unable to compete for a National Championship title the past two years. Finally free of that albatross, USC looks to make a run for the title with just 75 scholarship players on the team, another remnant of the NCAA sanctions.

    The Trojan offense is loaded with four-year starter Matt Barkley lining up under center for his senior season. Barkley has a pair of 1,000-plus yard receivers—possibly the best in the nation—to throw to in standout junior Robert Woods and sophomore Marquise Lee. The team also has a pair of 1000-plus yard running backs in Penn State transfer Silas Redd and senior Curtis McNeal.

    If there is a glaring weak spot on this Trojan team, it is the overall depth due to scholarship restrictions. The Trojan faithful like to say “Our 75 is better than your 85,” and while that may be true, they’ve already suffered a significant loss with the injury to CB Devon Kennard.

    Coming off a 10-2 season in 2012, the Trojans (and their fan base) are looking for more. “Prep not Hype” has been painted onto the sideline of the practice field, but it is hard not to buy into the hype surrounding this team. 

    It is amazing what Coach Lane Kiffin has done over the past two years—attracting top talent and creating a culture where many have foregone an early exit for the NFL in order to return to USC and play for the National Championship that many feel is theirs to lose. 

    The Trojans enter the 2012 season as The Associated Press’ No. 1 ranked team in the nation.  They are the odds on favorite to win the Pac-12 title (but will likely have to beat Oregon twice in order to do so), and quarterback Matt Barkley is among the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy.

    Don’t look now, but USC is back with a vengeance.

Off Season Synopsis: Silas Redd, Robert Woods' Ankle & Academic Ineligibility

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    USC has until Monday (the official start of classes) to get their roster down to the 75 scholarship players they are permitted to have.  Kiffin is no fool—he has proven himself to be a master manipulator of the restrictions placed on the program.

    The biggest off-season news is the transfer of RB Silas Redd to Troy from Penn State in the wake of the NCAA sanctions placed on the Nittany Lions.  It says something about the strength of this Trojan squad that a player would transfer from one sanctioned program to another.  Redd is expected to make an immediate impact on the Trojans ‘running game.

    Redd, a 5'10", 200-pound junior running back from Norwalk, Connecticut led Penn State in rushing last season. He gained 1,241 yards on 244 carries, scored seven touchdowns and rushed for more than 100 yards in five consecutive games last October. As it turns out, Redd played Pop Warner football in Connecticut with backup QB Max Wittek. Redd is listed as the second RB on the depth chart behind red-shirt senior Curtis McNeal.

    Of some concern all spring and summer was the health of standout WR Robert Woods’ ankle. Woods was hampered with an ankle injury for much of the 2011 season. He had surgery during the offseason, and coming into the fall camp, he was still not at 100 percent.  In the past couple of weeks, however, the standout receiver who had 111 catches for 1292 yards and 15 touchdowns, has shown that he is back to his impressive form on his healed ankle.

    Senior DE Devon Kennard suffered a season ending pectoral muscle tear during the offseason and will sit out the 2012 campaign.

    On Friday, senior cornerback Isiah Wiley was declared academically ineligible and lost his football scholarship. This is not as big a loss as it could have been, as the Trojans had been practicing under the assumption that he would not be eligible. 



Offensive Preview: Fully Loaded and Ready to Roll

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    The Trojan offense is loaded, to put it mildly. Barkley is back for his senior season and looks to improve on the impressive numbers he put up last year when he threw for 3,528 yards and a conference-record 39 touchdowns.  He enters the season sitting at the top of nearly all early Heisman lists. Matt Barkley enters 2012 as the best quarterback in the nation and he has plenty of talent surrounding him.

    Robert Woods enters his junior season as the top wide receiver in the country.  The numbers simply don’t lie. He caught 111 passes for 1,292 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2011. He is a fast, physical receiver that defenses will have a hard time covering.  But that’s not all—sophomore Marquise Lee had a phenomenal freshman year. The Los Angeles native caught 73 passes for 1,143 yards and 11 touchdowns.

    The Trojans’ running game got a big boost from the transfer of former Penn State RB Silas Redd.  The junior has two years of eligibility left—plenty of time to get his name in USC and Pac-12 record books if he doesn’t pull a one-and-done and bolt for the NFL after this season. But USC isn’t called “Tailback U” for nothing—the presumed starting RB is senior Curtis McNeal, who is fresh off a 1,000-yard rushing season.

    The offensive line is in good shape with four starters returning. The left tackle position vacated by first round draft pick Matt Kalil will be the least experienced slot in the group.

Defensive Preview: T.J. McDonald & Replacing Devon Kennard

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    The Trojan defense is led by All-American safety T.J. McDonald. His decision to return for his senior season could be the factor that helps this young defense gel. Fortunately, with the powerhouse offense the Trojans are fielding this year, the defense won’t have as much pressure put on it.

    Overall the defense returns seven starters, with McDonald being the most important factor. Last season, the other No. 7 had 67 tackles and three interceptions.  Senior safety Jawanza Starling will pair with McDonald and offer an experienced and balanced defensive attack.

    With CB Isiah Wiley being ruled academically ineligible on Friday, Nickell Robey will have to work with a new CB. Robey is a junior who had 63 tackles last season including two sacks.

    The linebackers have three sophomores starting who all started as freshmen. Dion Bailey, Hayes Pullard and Lamar Dawson lead this group.

    If the defense has a weakness (and it does), it is up front. Only senior Wes Horton returns with any experience. Sophomores J.R. Tavai and George Uko will line up at tackle, and four players are in position to replace the injured Devon Kennard.  Kevin Greene is a redshirt junior who could step in for Kennard, but redshirt freshman Greg Townsend, Jr., juco transfer Morgan Breslin and incoming freshman Leonard Williams could also replace Kennard.

Special Teams Preview: Heidari & Negrete Return

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    Robert Woods and Marquise Lee were the Trojans’ go-to kick returners last season, with each receiver averaging more than 23 yards per return. Woods also returned 13 punts with a 9.1 yards per return average.

    Sophomore place-kicker Andre Heidari returns and brings with him his amazing leg.  In camp, he nailed some field goals from 55 and 57 yards, respectively.  In 2011 he was 15-for-17 on field goals. 

    Punter Kyle Negrete also returns, bring with him his 40.1 yards per punt average. All in all, the Trojans’ kicking game is in great and capable hands (or feet, as the case may be). In fact, ESPN’s USC beat writer Pedro Moura reported Sunday evening that Negrete has earned a scholarship for 2012. He punted last year as a walk-on.

Coaching: New Faces & Old Friends

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    Since the end of the 2011 season, USC lost linebackers coach Joe Barry and wide receivers coach Ted Gilmore to the NFL.  Kiffin brought in replacements for those two, as well as Willie Mac Garza, who resigned last August and had been replaced in the interim by graduate assistant Sammy Knight.

    Marvin Sanders, the former Nebraska secondary coach, was brought in to replace Willie Mac Garza/Sammy Knight.  Sanders is a good fit, as Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini was mentored by Monte Kiffin. In his time at Nebraska, Sanders improved the play of the defensive backs markedly. In 2007, the Cornhuskers DBs had eight interceptions. Sanders got to Nebraska in 2008 and the defensive backs had 12 interceptions that year. In 2009, the DBs caught 20 interceptions and in 2010, they hauled in 19.

    Tee Martin steps in to coach the wide receivers and make no mistake, this is a huge hire for USC. Martin is a former Tennessee QB who helped the Volunteers win the National Championship in 1998. Martin was most recently wide receivers coach at Kentucky. Martin is known to be a formidable recruiter which, added to the fire power of recruiting that Kiffin and Ed Orgeron have, it is frankly scary for anyone competing with USC for recruits. These three men know how to go into a living room and close the deal.

    Scott Hazelton steps in as the linebackers coach for the Trojans, hailing from North Dakota State. This seems pretty random until you factor in the Monte effect: NDSU head coach Craig Bohl is a Nebraska alum, putting Hazelton firmly on the Monte family tree of coaching influence. (Seriously, someone map this out—it would be fascinating.)

    And, of course Lane Kiffin enters his third season at Troy alongside his dad Monte, Ed Orgeron, Kennedy Polamalu et al. The full list follows:

     

    Lane Kiffin – Head Coach

    John Baxter – Associate Head Coach/Special Teams Coordinator

    James Cregg – Offensive Line Coach

    Scottie Hazelton – Linebackers Coach

    Clay Helton – Passing Game Coordinator/QBs Coach

    Shawn Howe – Defensive Line Coach

    Monte Kiffin – Assistant Head Coach

    Tee Martin – Wide Receivers Coach

    Justin Mesa – Tight Ends Coach

    Ed Orgeron – Defensive and Recruiting Coodinator/Defensive Line

    Kennedy Polamalu – Offensive Coordinator/Running Backs Coach

    Marvin Sanders – Secondary Coach

    Ross Cumming – Special Teams/Linebackers

    Mark Watson - Secondary

Schedule: 2012 USC FOOTBALL SCHEDULE

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    Sept. 1 -- Hawaii

    Sept. 8 -- vs. Syracuse (@ E. Rutherford, N.J.)

    Sept. 15 -- at Stanford

    Sept. 22 -- California

    Oct. 4 (Th.) -- at Utah

    Oct. 13 -- at Washington

    Oct. 20 -- Colorado

    Oct. 27 -- at Arizona

    Nov. 3 -- Oregon

    Nov. 10 -- Arizona State

    Nov. 17 -- at UCLA

    Nov. 24 -- Notre Dame

ONE GAME the TROJANS ABSOLUTELY WILL WIN

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    UCLA.

    Doesn't the picture say it all? It ran on the local news here recently and Trojans across the Greater Los Angeles area took great joy from it.

    Plus, it goes without saying that beating UCLA is the highlight of any Trojan season.

    And, let's face it, the Bruins are still pretty pathetic.

    It would be great if they could compete, but based on the photo, it seems like they have a long way to go.

ONE GAME THAT'S a TOSSUP

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    Oregon.

    They scare me. They are fast and they are slippery, and I don't trust Chip Kelly one bit.

    The Ducks are going to be good again this year and are USC's main competition for the Pac-12 crown. In fact, in order to win the Pac-12, USC will probably have to play the Ducks twice.

ONE GAME the TROJANS COULD LOSE

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    Utah.

    Historically, USC has had issues with Thursday night games. The Trojans will also be coming off a bye week as they head to Salt Lake City to take on the Utes at Rice Eccles Stadium. 

    The game is sold out. The Utes are anticipating us and the atmosphere will be electric.

OFFENSIVE MVP PREDICTION

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    Matt Barkley

    Barkley wins this—hands down.  He is a four-year starter. He’s been one of the captains of the team since his sophomore year. He is a leader and an inspirational teammate. He is USC football.

DEFENSIVE MVP PREDICTION

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    T.J. McDonald.

    He didn’t have to come back. He would have gone high in the NFL draft coming out after his junior year. However, T.J. knows what it means to be a Trojan, plays with heart and is a monster on the field.

NEWCOMER of the YEAR PREDICTION

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    Silas Redd.

    Redd is going to be an impact player right from the start. Prior to his transfer, the Trojans were looking a little thin at tailback. With Redd now a part of the team, suddenly our running attack reminds me of the Thunder & Lightning days—minus Lloyd Lake and all the B.S. of course.

BEST NFL DRAFT PROSPECT

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    T.J. McDonald

    He is 6’2 and 205 lbs and is expected to be a first-round draft pick in 2013. He is probably the best safety in the country. He’s a great open field tackler and has good size and fantastic speed to maintain run in man coverage.  McDonald seems to prefer pass coverage but has never been afraid to play closer to the line of scrimmage.

BEST 5 TWITTER FOLLOWS

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    @uscpsycho – USC Syco is Roy and he is a USC institution. (He also happens to be a friend of mine). He runs the biggest and longest running fan tailgate at USC and he has not missed a game – home or away – in.. well I believe this will be his 20th season.  If you are on campus on game day, stop by Psychogate and say hi to Roy. This is where I tailgate as well. We'll play Battle Shots.

    @MattBarkley – His twitter bio says “I play quarterback, but that doesn't define me…” He is an all around good kid. Interestingly, he was also the first college football player to get a verified twitter account.

    @KyleNegrete – How can you not follow this guy’s story? He rocks.

    @Lost_Angeles – Zack is founder of Arrogant Nation (he also happens to be a friend of mine). He writes the blog lostangelesblog.wordpress.com and it is the best place to go to pump up your arrogance with Zack’s irreverent rants.

    @PedroMoura —  Has been covering USC for ESPN Los Angeles since 2009 and is also a USC alum.

WHAT DOES VEGAS SAY?

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    I have a complicated history with USC odds. First of all, I grew up in Las Vegas, so there’s that. Second of all, well, any USC fan knows the Trojans rarely cover the spread. Thirdly, I think it is a jinx if a friend bets on the USC game and tells me about it. So that said—

    USC v Hawaii

    USC -39

    Over/Under 65

    I would take those odds. Definitely. If I was, you know, in the habit of betting on my own team. Which I am not.

Bowl Bound

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    Orange Bowl or Bust.

    Excuse me, I’m going to go homer on you for a moment...

    There are sky high expectations for this Trojan team. The fans have them. The players themselves have them. The players deserve to win it all. They stuck with the program through sanctions that had nothing to do with them. Most of these kids were in elementary school when the Reggie Bush situation was happening. So yes, I want them to send a big fat message to the NCAA and win it all. And they can. They have the talent. They just need to stay focused and, even more importantly, stay healthy. After all, due to those sanctions, USC is still playing with 10 fewer players than most other teams. Every injury matters and is a potential minefield.

FINAL PREDICTION

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    It is almost impossible for me, more than 2,600 words into this preview, to not put my own excitement about this upcoming season out there.

    Ideally, the team will go 14-0. USC will breeze through their schedule and clinch it all.

    Realistically, they will be the Pac-12 Champs with one loss to someone that they shouldn't have lost to. Trojan fans know what I mean—Cal in 2003 (34-31 in 3 OTs), UCLA in 2006 (13-9), Stanford in 2007 (24-23), Oregon State in 2008 (27-21), Washington in 2009 (16-13), ASU in 2011 (43-22) (really, HOW did THAT happen?), Stanford in 2011 (56-48 in 3 OTs).

    The only real question is: Who will it be this season? Which week will the Trojans lose focus or only "play up to the level of their opponent"—things any program is prone to, but this one has, over the years had major issues with.

    You know what? NO.

    This season is all about "Unfinished Business" and that means the Trojans will take care of business and run the table.