USC Football: 7 Biggest Holes in the Roster the Trojans Must Fill for 2013
As this college football season winds down, the Trojans must turn a hopeful eye to next year, when they hope to wash away the stain of a disappointing 2012 campaign.
In order to do this, USC must replace some very important players whose eligibility has run its course.
Fortunately for the Trojans, they have a fairly young team and many starters will be returning for the 2013 season, but the holes to fill are large ones, and the challenge for head coach Lane Kiffin and his staff will be to find replacements that can take USC where they hoped to be in 2012.
This slideshow will look at these players who will be leaving the Trojans after this year and offer a glimpse as to who their replacements might be.
The list contained within is organized on the basis of player importance, and the criteria used to arrange it is predicated on the player's overall value to the team and how difficult it will be to replace them.
Next year will be critical for Kiffin if he hopes to retain his job going forward, and the decisions to fill these holes in 2013 may very well be the difference between his coaching the Trojans in 2014 and USC finding a new man to lead the program.
So without further delay, here are the roster spots that must find exceptional replacements for next year.
Note: This list does not include juniors who may or may not declare for the NFL draft.
Jawanza Starling (Strong Safety)
Strong safety Jawanza Starling has had an up-and-down career for the Trojans, and that inconsistency makes him one of the easier players for USC's new defensive coordinator (whoever that may be) to replace going into the 2013 season.
This is not to say that Starling hasn't had his moments because he has delivered some big plays for the Trojans, most notably when he returned a fumble for a touchdown against Notre Dame in 2011.
Going into 2013, the Trojans will look to a variety of players to take Starling's place, including Demetrius Wright, Josh Shaw, Gerald Bowman and possibly dark horse candidate Elijah Steen.
Also, incoming freshman phenom Su'a Cravens will be given every opportunity to see the field of play, as will whomever else USC signs this year (Max Redfield or Leon McQuay?).
Another thing to keep in mind is that players in this group will not only have to replace Starling, but also the free safety, as we will see later.
Kyle Negrete (Punter)
Though not incredibly flashy or possessing a huge leg, Kyle Negrete has nonetheless been a steady performer for the Trojans over the last two seasons.
This year, Negrete averaged 42.3 yards per punt after going for a little over 40 yards per try in 2011.
Negrete's primary value has come in his ability to pin opponents inside their 20-yard lines, which he has done many times both this year and last.
There aren't a lot of options for the Trojans to replace Negrete next year, and they will look to Kris Albarado for their punting in 2013.
Albarado will be a redshirt sophomore next year and came to the Trojans as a very highly regarded punter out of Louisiana.
Curtis McNeal (Running Back)
Although it took Curtis McNeal a couple of years to find his bearings at USC, once he did, the diminutive tailback became a force for the Trojans.
After rushing for over 1,000 yards in 2011, McNeal followed that up with almost 700 yards this year in limited duty.
Part of the two-headed tailback monster with Silas Redd, McNeal was a reliable back whose punishing running style was good for more than a six yard per carry average.
Look for Silas Redd—assuming he returns for his senior season—to take the bulk of the carries in 2013, although he will be pushed by Tre Madden, Buck Allen and D.J. Morgan.
It should be noted that the Trojans also have a pair of stud incoming runners (Ty Isaac and Justin Davis), both of whom are good enough to push for carries as well.
Wes Horton (Defensive End)
It was never a matter of talent with the statistical worth of defensive end Wes Horton, rather, it was his inability to stay healthy.
When right, Horton can be dominant, and that was evident this year when he finished 10th on the team in tackles and also added 6.5 tackles for loss to go along with 5.5 sacks.
For a team with depth issues on the defensive line, the loss of Horton will be huge, and USC will look first to Devon Kennard to take Horton's place in 2013.
Also in the mix to play opposite Morgan Breslin is Greg Townsend Jr., DeVante Wilson (who is returning from injury), Kevin Greene and possibly incoming freshman Kylie Fitts.
T.J. McDonald (Free Safety)
One of the two "No. 7s" to return to USC for his senior year (guess who the other was?), T.J. McDonald was a fiery player whose leadership will be difficult to replace in 2013.
But it wasn't just McDonald's ability to guide his fellow defensive teammates that will be missed. In 2012, McDonald led the team in tackles with 99 and also had a couple of interceptions to go along with them.
Known for his bone-crushing hits, McDonald sometimes played out of control, but his production on the field more than made up for his sometimes head-scratching transgressions which resulted in inopportune penalties on occasion.
As mentioned in the Starling slide, the cadre of possible replacements include Demetrius Wright, Josh Shaw, Gerald Bowman and possibly dark horse candidate Elijah Steen along with the incoming freshmen.
Khaled Holmes (Center)
When Khaled Holmes leaves USC's football program, the void his departure creates will be a huge challenge for Kiffin and his staff to fill.
Beyond the physical abilities Holmes brought as the anchor of the Trojans offensive line, his cerebral attributes and calm leadership also makes him a special player and one that USC will have to endure a drop off talent-wise in order to replace.
Likely candidates to attempt this unenviable task are Cyrus Hobbi (who struggled in his only start in 2012), John Martinez (who would have to slide over from his starting guard position) or perhaps Khaliel Rodgers, a highly regarded incoming freshman.
Matt Barkley (Quarterback)
It should come as no surprise that replacing Matt Barkley will be a monumental challenge for the Trojans in 2013.
A four-year starter, Barkley has meant so much to this program—beyond his contributions on the field—that whomever takes his place will be operating at a distinct disadvantage.
Despite an uneven 2012 season, Barkley has led USC through some of the darkest times in its program's history, and for this, he will be included among the pantheon of truly special Trojans.
Those vying to take his place in 2013 are Max Wittek, Cody Kessler and incoming freshman phenom Max Browne, all talented signal-callers to say the least.
However, none of these players should be expected to be the next Matt Barkley, because there is only one of those.
In many ways, the 2012 senior class will leave a hole that can never be filled nor can Trojan fans ever adequately express their gratitude.
That is because this class—led by the aforementioned Matt Barkley—stood by their school as the program endured some of the harshest penalties ever brought against an institution.
That the Trojans are surviving these sanctions can be directly attributed to this class and the perseverance that has been their legacy while at USC.
Certainly, it hasn't been easy, and many will say that 2012 was a colossal disappointment (which it was), but fans of the men of Troy will be quick to point out that a lesser program would not have even been in a position to succeed.
For this, USC should be eternally grateful to the seniors in this class and should hold them in the greatest esteem when talking about noble Trojans.
And so should their fans.