USC Football: Power Ranking the Strongest Positional Units for 2013
As questions continue to swirl around the 2013 version of the men of Troy, one of the subplots underlying the season has to do with their embattled coach, Lane Kiffin.
With his job depending on the success of this season, it is reasonable to assume that anything less than significant improvement over last year's 7-6 squad will likely manifest in USC welcoming a new head man for 2014.
To be certain, Kiffin and his staff will have to mold this collection of Trojans into a cohesive, winning unit for a return invitation next year and beyond.
But does he have the talent to save his job and satiate a fanbase who demands excellence from a program that has experienced so much of that over the years?
This slideshow will look at the team overall by breaking down its constituent units and ranking them based on their relative strength, using talent and depth as barometers.
This year's USC Trojan football team is talented but not without its flaws. Now let's see which of these units are a strength and which might be a weakness.
No. 9: Cornerbacks
To say the defensive backfield is a major concern for the 2013 USC Trojans is to state the bloody obvious, and among the secondary, the cornerbacks are by far the source of most of the consternation.
After finishing 52nd in the nation in pass defense in 2012, USC lost its best corner, Nickell Robey, to the NFL, and so far in 2013, there have been no answers forthcoming on how the defense will respond to two new cornerbacks this year.
What is for certain is that if spring practice is any indication, USC will struggle mightily in pass defense this year.
Kevon Seymour and Anthony Brown are likely to be the starters for now, but others such as Devian Shelton, Torin Harris and Chris Hawkins—among others—will be there if they falter.
Make no mistake about it: Until it's proved otherwise, this is USC's weakest unit.
No. 8: Offensive Line
While the offensive line resides very low on this list—for the time being—this doesn't mean that it will stay there when all is said and done.
The fact of the matter is that while this unit is a concern right now, it does have the potential to be very good if things go right.
However, that is a big "if" and one that will be partially determined by whether or not left tackle Aundrey Walker can finally live up to his enormous potential in 2013.
But that isn't the only worry.
Despite a smooth transition from guard to center, it remains to be seen if Marcus Martin can reliably take over for the graduated Khaled Holmes at this critical position.
Also, Max Tuerk will be asked to move from tackle to guard, and last year's right tackle starter, Kevin Graf, may lose his job to redshirt freshman Chad Wheeler if the spring depth chart is any indication of the possibilities.
In other words, this is a unit in tremendous flux, and while there is abundant talent here, it remains to be seen if the players can form a cohesive unit in a timely fashion.
No. 7: Fullbacks
The fullbacks, another unit who seems abundant with potential, are assigned a fairly low spot in this slideshow simply because we haven't seen what they are capable of.
Recently the fullbacks—led by presumptive starter Soma Vainuku—have largely been utilized as blockers with only an afterthought given to their abilities to run and catch the ball.
After running the ball seven times in 2012 and catching eight passes, Vainuku, who is a specimen at 6'0", 250 pounds, will need to do more this year for the offense to be truly productive.
Meanwhile, Vainuku will likely be backed up by Jahleel Pinner, 240-pound bruiser who has looked very good in the spring.
Rounding out the unit is Simione Vehikite, a converted linebacker who is returning to the Trojans after some legal battles.
No. 6: Quarterback
Still another unit where inexperience dictates its position in this slideshow, the heir apparent—whomever that winds up being—will be replacing a Trojan legend in four-year starter Matt Barkley.
While that is daunting enough, what ultimately will be the greatest challenge is the requirement that the new quarterback learns his craft without the benefit of having led the team before.
Between the three quarterbacks vying for the job—Max Wittek, Cody Kessler and true freshman Max Browne—only Wittek has any experience, and that is comprised of two very uneven games.
In summer camp, Cody Kessler was brilliant, and based on that limited resume, he might be considered the front-runner for the starting position.
Meanwhile, Wittek possesses a prototypical body at 6'4", 235 pounds and has an arm that most quarterbacks would drool over.
However, those two aforementioned games he started, losses to Notre Dame and Georgia Tech, have many fans of the program leery to say the least.
Finally, Max Browne is the future of the Trojans, but as a true freshman, he is at least a year away from making any noise for a starting slot.
This is a talented unit, but until someone proves it on the field of play, it will occupy a middling spot in this slideshow.
No. 5: Safety
Unlike their secondary cohorts—the cornerbacks—the safeties have shown talent. Although, like a few other units in this slideshow, they are woefully short on experience.
Charged with replacing last year's starters—T.J. McDonald and Jawanza Starling—this batch of safeties will combine youth with older backups, each of whom will be looking to make their mark in 2013.
The likely strong safety is former linebacker Dion Bailey, who has dropped weight and looks much quicker in returning to the position he was originally recruited for.
Backing him up will be Josh Shaw or true freshman phenom Su'a Cravens, both of whom are very talented.
At the free safety position, it will be a shootout between Demetrius Wright, senior Gerald Bowman and true freshman Leon McQuay III, all of whom are long on ability but short on experience.
This unit has a ton of ability, but how it performs when it's for real will determine where it winds up on any postseason slideshow of this type.
No. 4: Running Back
If USC does well on the ground this year, it will be because the offensive line is doing its job and a talented stable of running backs are finding holes to run through.
And it is these running backs who—top to bottom—are deep. And although in some cases inexperienced, they are capable of doing big things in 2013.
Led by senior Silas Redd, the tailbacks represent a spectrum of runners ranging from tough and steady (Redd, Buck Allen and Tre Madden) to home run hitters (D.J. Morgan and true freshmen Ty Isaac and Justin Davis).
Mostly though, these backs are a combination of very good runners who can get the hard yards and break one on occasion.
Redd will likely be the starter, but any combination of the above could see significant time in the rotation—with the exception of Isaac, who will likely see a redshirt in 2013.
This is a very good unit that has a chance to be great if the guys up front do their job.
No. 3: Tight End
At one time, this unit would have received strong consideration as the best unit on the 2013 Trojans, but transfers (Christian Thomas) and legal troubles (Junior Pomee) have created depth problems that have lowered the unit a couple of notches.
Still, with co-starters Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer leading the way, USC boasts a pair of tight ends who will one day play on Sundays.
Big, quick and tough blockers, Grimble and Telfer can be potent weapons if they are featured in the offense—which is no sure thing given the recent history of Lane Kiffin ignoring the position in his game plans.
Also, third string tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick is a 6'5", 245-pound sophomore who is getting better by the day. He will be a star sooner rather than later.
USC will need this unit to stay healthy. But if they are utilized in the offensive game plan, the tight ends can be difference-makers.
No. 2: Linebacker
When discussing linebackers in new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast's 5-2 scheme, it is illustrative to note that the defensive ends in USC's former 4-3 alignment will now assume outside linebacker roles, which means that this unit has some pretty big boys on the edges.
Those outside linebackers will feature seniors Morgan Breslin with his 19.5 tackles for loss (13 sacks) and Devon Kennard, who is coming back from injury and could be poised for a huge year.
Backups for these two positions include redshirt freshman Jabari Ruffin, true freshman Quinton Powell, and experienced 'backers Marquis Simmons and Kevin Greene.
At weak-side linebacker, Lamar Dawson has put on some weight, but it is the solid kind that will help him support the run defense. And he is backed up by rising sophomore Anthony Sarao and redshirt freshman Scott Starr.
Finally, the middle linebacker spot will be patrolled by Hayes Pullard, a guy whose star is rising rapidly. He will be backed up by Will Andrew and true freshman Michael Hutchings.
This is an outstanding unit and one that will be counted on by USC to help support a strong front seven who will be needed to take the pressure off of a very suspect secondary.
No. 1: Defensive Line
In the 5-2 defense, the "defensive line" is really the three interior guys who are putting knuckles on the ground.
In that scheme, there is a nose tackle and two defensive ends who line up inside of the outside linebackers. In this configuration, USC is blessed with some truly amazing athletes.
At the nose position, the Trojans will have Antwaun Woods and Cody Temple fight it out for the starting spot—with a slight nod to Woods to secure the spot. Those guys will be backed up by true freshman Kenny Bigelow, who will be a star one day.
Meanwhile, at one defensive end is a guy who is already a star in true sophomore Leonard Williams. He had 13.5 tackles for loss to go along with eight sacks. Williams is simply a monster, and this year, he will require double and triple teams to keep him from creating havoc in the opposing teams' backfields.
Backing up Williams will be J.R. Tavai, who would be starting almost anywhere else.
At the other end position is George Uko, a guy who also is getting better every day and is capable of huge things all by himself. His backups are Charles Burks and Greg Townsend Jr. And both of these guys are very capable in their own right.
This unit is arguably the best in the nation, and that sentiment is shared by guys such as Phil Steele who says they are the second best defensive line (paid link) unit in the nation.
Make no mistake about it: The 2013 men of Troy are a talented group from top to bottom. In fact, if there were no depth or experience issues, this team could be vying for a national championship.
As it is, USC—if it can remain healthy—could make some noise on the national stage. But things will have to go just right for the Trojans to make a BCS bowl game.
Having said that, the Trojans have their share of outstanding units, and if the other—more suspect—parts of the team step up, things can be very rosy for USC in 2013.
However, if things don't go as planned, it could be a very long year for the Cardinal and Gold.
But those are thoughts that should not be entertained in the glow of optimism that fans are basking in at the beginning of July...