LOS ANGELES—On Thursday the USC Trojans held their last spring practice before their spring game this Saturday and two things jumped out right away, even to the most casual observer.
Where's the rest of the team, and what's going on with the secondary?
Head coach Lane Kiffin addressed the media after the practice and gave the grim news.
"Twenty guys will not be available Saturday," he said. "Eleven of those guys have been surgeries."
Kiffin noted that tight end Randall Telfer had surgery [knee] Thursday afternoon and is expected to be out four to six weeks while receiver George Farmer is scheduled for surgery (knee) next week—Farmer is out for the season due to tearing both his ACL and MCL.
"That's kind of the theme of spring—very physical," Kiffin said. "We only have one tight end available at all and one fullback."
Kiffin also noted that most of the players out for the spring game are scholarshipped players.
"We're just going to have to be creative. We'll figure it out...any ideas?"
Despite the dwindling numbers due to injuries and the NCAA's scholarship reductions, Kiffin said that hasn't affected the mood of the team this spring because they were prepared to go into "survivorish" mode when spring practice started. And in some respects, that has improved the team.
"Our guys that are still healthy are playing more physical than they were at the end of last year," he said. "Our front seven on defense is better because of it."
I talked to new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast about the the obvious weakness of the team, the secondary. During Thursday's practice, the cornerbacks were having trouble defending the pass—on one particular play, a corner lost his footing and fell down to his knees defending a simple square out.
"All the techniques that I'm teaching are completely new," Pendergast said. He also noted that there's been a lot of staff turnover, so that hasn't helped the situation.
"If you look at this group—depending on how many years they've been here—they've had four secondary coaches in four years," Pendergast said.
Pendergast seemed very business-like when talking about the cornerback situation despite the obvious concern from Kiffin and anyone else who had been watching the spring practices. He exuded a quiet confidence but still managed to shine a little light on the reasons why the corners have been giving up big plays—this secondary is fairly green with only senior safety Josh Shaw having any real game experience.
"They need to continue to work and master their techniques between now and next fall and then we'll start the season and see how it goes," Pendergast said.
"They're the ones that we've got. We just gotta coach them up, coach them better and they got to play better. It's not anything that hasn't been there before in an offseason where I've coached the secondary."
The fact that the corners are defending Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor could also be the reason why they just don't look game day ready—the two consistently made cornerbacks look fairly pedestrian last season.
"It's good competition for our guys to play against because you're going against one of the best receiving corps in the country," he said.
So what if come fall the defensive back play hasn't improved? Would Kiffin consider using Lee as a corner?
"I did just think about that this week," Kiffin admitted.
"Really with both of them...arguably they would be our best two corners, Marqise and Nelson. And on that day we flipped them over, and they didn't even know what they were doing over there, they hadn't even been coached."
"I thought about it, you know, I thought, 'you do it in high school a lot of times' but the speed of the game...I don't know," Kiffin said with his voice trailing off. He has obviously given this a lot of thought.
"I just don't know how those guys could take that amount of plays, especially in this conference cause the defense, you know, you got games where you're playing 90 snaps of defense," he continued.
"Maybe in a limited role but my fear there is that if we do that, he's going to be less productive on offense...because of more reps and just the exhaustion of doing that. So then we're getting some play out of a corner over there but then we're losing arguably the best offensive player in the country. I've thought about it maybe...hopefully we won't be in the situation where our numbers are so low that we'd have to do that."
And there it is. The potential for having Lee and Agholor playing corner is a real possibility and frankly, it shouldn't be discounted as a whimsical musing unless the corners drastically improve by August. Improvement is a distinct possibility and all Trojan fans would certainly be happy.
But there's also the possibility of the corners not mastering the new techniques and if that's the case, wouldn't the man sitting on the hottest of coaching hot seats this season choose every option available to help the team?
Last spring Kiffin spoke of Lee's tremendous strength and conditioning. Lee was on the Trojan's track team in addition to his duties as wide receiver last year and he had a fantastic season notching 1,721 receiving yards, 14 touchdowns and a No. 2 ranking among all FBS receivers.
"There's not many like him," Kiffin said. "He just goes forever."
So put the Energizer bunny in, right?
The problem for Kiffin is that if he does insert Lee in the cornerback rotation and Lee gets hurt or his reception numbers drop, Kiffin will probably get crucified by his detractors. They'll accuse him of jeopardizing a player's NFL draft stock while trying to fortify his own job security.
As I listened to Kiffin talk about the Lee and Agholor dilemma, I realized that Kiffin is struggling with this whole notion of flipping his two best receivers over to corners. But his struggle was strictly over what was best for Lee and Agholor. Kiffin, sometimes portrayed as selfish, uncaring and arrogant, appeared genuinely concerned over his players' welfare—at times he struggled for words when talking about flipping the two receivers.
It was a nice moment of Kiffin humanity.
Kiffin just isn't a head coach. He's a husband, a dad and a mentor to impressionable young men—that sometimes gets lost in this cutthroat world of college football. But this is his chosen career and now he may be faced with having to make a tough decision that may backfire on him. Millions of dollars could be at stake at two levels: Kiffin's job security and Lee's future NFL paychecks.
USC fans want to see the Trojans, at the minimum, in the Rose Bowl game on Jan. 1—USC avoided drawing Oregon from the North this year, so USC's outlook looks a little brighter.
But if USC isn't even in contention to win the South Division, 2013 could be Kiffin's last year. And that's why the decision is fairly obvious if the secondary fails to improve. It's even more obvious when you consider that Lee reportedly told Kiffin last October that he wanted to play cornerback.
No fan is going to want to watch USC's defense get torched by UCLA's Brett Hundley, Stanford's Kevin Hogan, Arizona State's Taylor Kelly, Notre Dame's Everett Golson, Oregon State's Sean Mannion or...hold your breath...Utah State's Chuckie Keeton.
With a receiver willing to help out his team anyway he can—and he's already been declared as one of the best two corners on the team by Kiffin—the solution is obvious. Put him in, coach.
Ideally, USC not having a need to press him into the secondary rotation would be the perfect ending to this stomach-churning dilemma. But most head coaches know the drill: You put your best players in the best position to help the team. Go all-in.
These are the times that make or break a head coach. Kiffin has to do everything he can to avoid a repeat of last year's disappointing season.
USC's spring game is Saturday at 1 p.m. in the Coliseum. The stadium will be full of fans who will want two questions answered: Who is our quarterback, and has the defense improved?
Both of those questions will not be answered until the fall, so the fans should take this spring game with a grain of salt—and a couple of tequila shots, if necessary.
The answers are there, they just haven't completely presented themselves yet.
As the team and coaching staff left Howard Jones Field after practice, Kiffin was directly in front of me as we approached the exit from the field. He didn't know I was behind him but I got his attention.
"Coach," I said a little loudly. "That media scrum you just gave was the best. You were so honest and genuine in your feelings...so patient answering our questions."
Kiffin stopped and turned around to face me.
"You know, I wish you would write that because every time I say something, it always [comes out as] the wrong thing to say," he said. He was dead serious but still had a slight smile on his face.
Here you go, coach.
Your humanity just held an encore performance.