USC Football: Grading the Trojans' Positional Units After 4 Games
With the Trojans four games into the 2012 season and sporting a disappointing 3-1 record, it is time to take stock of the performance of each of USC's units.
Collectively, USC has fallen a bit short this year, but that is not the whole story.
When broken down to the separate units, fans of the program can point to the success and failures of these groups of players as the reason why this highly regarded team has struggled so far.
This slideshow will look at these various units and grade their performance in 2012.
Some have done better than expected, and others that were expected to dominate have been less than scintillating.
Who are these over and underachievers for 2012?
Let's find out.
With four starters returning from an offensive line that was very effective in 2011, big things were expected from the "big uglies" in 2012.
So far, we are still waiting for that consistent dominating performance this year.
Frustratingly uneven, the O-line has vacillated from good to bad this year. Their worst performance was against Stanford, when they allowed four sacks and didn't open up many running lanes (just 29 rushing yards in the game).
Of course, perhaps expectations were a bit too high considering USC had to replace All-American left tackle Matt Kalil, and one cannot dismiss the loss of center Khaled Holmes for the aforementioned Stanford game.
Still, this unit has been decidedly average in 2012 and its grade reflects that.
Receivers and Tight Ends
The guys on the receiving end of quarterback Matt Barkley's passes have had mixed results so far in 2012.
Everyone expected receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods to be excellent, and in at least Lee's case, he hasn't disappointed.
As far as Woods, he has had his moments, but many wonder if his surgically repaired ankle has completely healed as his statistics have not met his lofty expectations.
However, it is not the "big two" that have fallen short this year.
Instead, it is the supporting cast that has disappeared thus far.
With the exception of true freshman Nelson Agholor, who has had his moments, the rest of the receiving corps has been largely missing in action.
This is especially true of the tight ends Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble.
Of course, not all of the blame can be laid at the feet of the tight ends and others as the offensive game plan has exhibited a startling lack of cohesion. But the results are what they are, and for this unit has to improve.
Much was expected from both Curtis McNeal and Silas Redd, and so far, the results, like almost everything associated with the offense, have been mixed.
Of course, the production, or lack thereof, is dependent on the offensive line opening holes and in this area, the running room has been spotty to say the least.
Still, sometimes quality running backs must make their own opportunities and neither tailback has seized those chances when they were presented.
Both tailbacks have the talent to make a statement the rest of the year, but now is the time to do this.
Meanwhile, fullback Soma Vainuku has been steady if not spectacular.
For Trojan fans, Matt Barkley will go down as one of the greatest players in the annals of USC football.
Having said that though, few will argue that in 2012, Barkley has been disappointing.
To what extent this has to do with the offensive game planning is arguable, but the bottom line is that the expected production from the offense simply hasn't been there.
Expect Barkley and the Trojan offense to rebound and put up big numbers as the season progresses, but after four games, like the USC offense in general, he has been nothing more than average.
When the Trojans entered the 2012 season, they had two known commodities in their defensive backfield.
Cornerback Nickell Robey and safety T.J. McDonald would be counted on to provide veteran leadership for a Trojan secondary that finished at the bottom of national rankings for pass defense in 2011.
So far, both have delivered with Robey locking down one side of the field in the passing game and McDonald delivering fierce support, especially against Cal last Saturday.
However, there are two other starters in the secondary and those players have had consistency issues through the first quarter of the season.
Strong safety Jawanza Starling has struggled so far in 2012, although he has come up with some timely interceptions. Returning cornerback Torin Harris is rounding into form after taking most of last year off to heal a surgically repaired shoulder.
This unit is improving and it is benefiting from the increased effectiveness of the defensive line which will be profiled later in this slideshow.
The Trojan linebackers, Lamar Dawson (middle), Dion Bailey (strong side) and Hayes Pullard (weak side), have been consistent so far this season, as the trio have accumulated three of the four highest tackle totals.
With Bailey leading the Trojans in tackles and the other two not far behind, this unit has followed up on a strong 2011 season and should improve as the season wears on.
Not to be ignored are the contributions of redshirt freshman linebacker Anthony Sarao, Tony Burnett and true freshman Scott Starr (now injured), all of whom have provided quality backup for the starters in 2012.
College football, like life itself, can be very unpredictable.
How else then could it be that the Trojans' unit that had the most concern attached to it could be the very group that has garnered my highest grade thus far in 2012?
Nonetheless, that is where the defensive line finds itself on this early season report card for the Trojans.
With early season surprise, defensive end Morgan Breslin and his 9.5 tackles for loss (including 5.5 sacks) leading the way, Ed Orgeron's crew has been outstanding so far this year.
Not far behind Breslin, in terms of impact, is tackle George Uko, whose versatility has translated into 4.5 tackles for loss, along with three sacks, and true freshman tackle Leonard Williams and his 5.0 tackles for loss and 4.0 sacks.
And while nose guard Antwaun Woods' contributions haven't filled the stat sheet, he has done a very good job clogging the middle and moving things outside where his teammates can offer their gaudy numbers.
Meanwhile, J.R. Tavai (before he injured himself), Wes Horton (who has been battling injuries all year long) and Greg Townsend have all been solid as well.
In 2012, special teams have been fairly consistent under trying circumstances.
Defensively, coach John Baxter's charges have covered well, and on offense, they have provided better-than-average kick returns with Lee and his 26.7 return average along with Robey's 10.4 yards-per-punt-return average.
Kyle Negrete has continued to be solid with a 44.7 average per punt and now that place kicker Andre Heidari is back and healthy, the field goal portion of this unit should be fine.
After four games, the jury is still out on this USC team.
What is certain is that the Trojans will have to improve dramatically soon if they are to still harbor BCS bowl ambitions.
The offense, supposedly the strength of this team, has been a colossal disappointment thus far, while the defense, theoretically the weak link, has been much better than expected.
The good news for the Trojans is that there is too much talent on the offense for them to wallow in mediocrity much longer, and the defense, as good as it has been, should improve even more as the season wears on.
Overall, despite the loss to Stanford, there is still a lot of good that can be derived from the 2012 season.
Now the Trojans just have to put it all together to take care of that "unfinished business" that was the rallying cry prior to the start of this campaign.
And they better start now.