The USC Trojans kicked off their quest for the inaugural Pac-12 Championship (pending sanctions appeal) in spring practice last week.
Optimism runneth over for the Trojans after last year's third place Pac-10 finish amidst a rebuilding year and a stellar 2010 recruiting class.
The seniors (C.J. Gable, Malcolm Smith, David Ausberry, Allen Bradford, Ronald Johnson, Michael Morgan, Shareece Wright, Stanley Havili and more) have moved on, and new faces have descended on Howard Jones field to gear up for the summer.
Among the new faces are spring admits Max Wittek and Cody Kessler at quarterback, Soma Vainaku at fullback, Andre Heidari at kicker and linebacker Peter McBride, among a few junior transfers.
There are plenty of spots up for grabs as the seniors exit and the recruits arrive to compete with incumbents and redshirts. Some positions are unquestioned, like Matt Barkley's QB post, while others are wide open as the Trojans approach the April 23 spring game.
Here are the 10 biggest position battles that Lane Kiffin will use spring practice to sort out.
With the loss of Stanley Havili, this is one of the Trojans' glaring weak spots, and there are three competitors for the starting job.
The 6'2", 255-pounder from Eureka, Calif., is the favorite to land the job because of his combination of power and athleticism, which conjures images of Havili. His size and speed dictate that he could be considered at linebacker as well, but he will most likely go where he's needed most.
The redshirt sophomore from Loyola High is a little smaller than Vainuku and not the athletic equal. Look for him to be a reliable backup in the event of a Vainuku injury.
The son of offensive coordinator Kennedy Pola and cousin of Troy Polamalu is undersized to play this position at USC, especially compared to his competition. He is a pounder who might see limited action.
Projected winner: Vainuku. The cousin of former USC linebacker Rey Maualuga was recruited for the position by Lane Kiffin and should have it from day one.
The offensive line is in shambles following the losses of Tyron Smith and Kris O'Dowd. Matt Kalil, a future first-round NFL pick, has left tackle nailed down, while Khaled Holmes will move into the center spot. Everything else is wide open with a mix of freshmen, redshirts and transfers fighting it out.
The two guard spots and right tackle could truly wind up being rotation spots with so many worthy competitors.
Here are the competitors at left guard.
Giovanni Di Poalo
Recruited as a center, the 6'6", 295-pound redshirt freshman could switch places with Holmes and start at guard, where Holmes played last year. Di Poalo doesn't have the chops to supplant the more experienced Holmes at center, even though the latter is missing time in spring practice with neck stingers.
The 6'2", 290-pound redshirt sophomore was also switched from center to guard before the 2010 season. He saw brief action in three games but nothing that constitutes valuable experience. On a team that typically shifts linemen several times during their career, Martinez has the look of one who might stay put at guard for the rest of his time at USC.
The junior transfer enrolled at USC at the beginning of the semester in January, and will look to enter the rotation at guard or tackle. Because he just hasn't been seen all that much, the 6'4", 285-pounder will start lower on the depth chart with a chance to move up during the spring and summer.
Projected winner: Martinez. Di Poalo has better size but seems destined to play center eventually. He has more eligibility left than either Martinez or Galten, so the coaches might be willing to wait longer to get him in the game at center.
A lot of present and incoming talent blesses the Trojans in an area that has been down for two years. Talented freshmen Antwaun Woods and Christian Heyward will likely redshirt because of the depth in front of them.
Last year's spring game left a sour taste in mouth of the Trojan defense when disruptive senior Christian Tupou tore ligaments in his knee, ending his season. The 6'2", 290-pounder is back for his redshirt senior season to boost the D-line back to its former heights.
Harris assumed a lot of the playing time vacated by Tupou as a junior last season and performed admirably. He was in the backfield frequently, racking up 3.5 sacks, a fumble recovery and an interception. The 6'4", 305-pounder will get ample playing time rotating in for Tupou and Armond Armstead in four-down fronts.
The redshirt freshman would have sucked up a lot of the playing time at the position last year, but Lane Kiffin opted to not burn his redshirt. The 300-pounder is a little more unpredictable than Harris' bullrush style. You may see him crash hard on one play, then see him make a quick move around a blocker on the next. Wherever he lands on the depth chart, he will earn shared playing time.
Projected winner: Tupou. Harris played very well last year, but Tupou has a right to return to the spot he started at for two years before his injury. Tupou will stick exclusively to this spot, while Harris and Uko will rotate between the two tackle spots to ensure no one gets fatigued.
This position has been a revolving door of fill-ins and move-overs from other positions. This is primarily because Lane Kiffin failed to find a player who really fit the needs of the position and had surplus elsewhere. The competition is wide open and heated heading into the spring.
Since transferring from UNLV before the 2008 season, Horton has proven himself as a versatile contributor while moving between safety and weak side backer. The 6', 220-pound older brother of defensive end Wes Horton, Shane started at this spot for three games last season.
He has valuable playing experience and knows how to play the weak side position, having reeled in a team-high 10 tackles against Stanford last season. Horton will have to work doubly hard when he returns from offseason hip surgery. He is expected to miss the entire spring schedule while rehabbing.
The Crenshaw High product will compete with Horton for the spot and will earn starters reps in spring practice. The 6'2", 220-pounder is a surprising add here, especially after redshirting last season with a knee injury, but was highly recruited and expected to compete quickly.
The redshirt sophomore will compete for third or fourth on the depth chart with freshman Tre Madden, but is not far off from starting reps at this shallow position. He played, though sparingly, in 2010, which is more than Pullard and Madden can say. Even if he's not first or second on the depth chart, watch for the 6'1", 215-pounder to crack the rotation.
Projected winner: Horton. At a position where inexperience reigns and futile tackling is rampant, the Trojans need a player who has some continuity and games under his belt. Horton is in his third year in the program and should have a grip on the responsibilities of the weak side by now. Look for him to wrest the starting spot from Pullard when he comes back to practice in the summer.
These two positions will be filled by senior Chris Galippo and junior Devon Kennard. The question is, who will play at which position?
Last year, the 6'3", 250-pound Kennard started the first eight games at middle linebacker, while Galippo played the weak side. Later, Kennard was moved to a backup role with Galippo moving into the middle for the last five games.
On the surface, the two seem relatively even, with little to distinguish them. Galippo is one inch shorter and more physical, but not as athletic as Kennard, who formerly played down at defensive end.
For reasons of player style, Galippo seems more fit for the middle where he can stay home, read the play and move side to side making tackles.
Kennard appears more suited for the strong side spot, which allows him to move around, play in coverage and even move up to the line of scrimmage to rush, where he was very comfortable his freshman year.
Projected winners: Galippo at middle and Kennard at strong side. Galippo has little experience at strong side, so it would not make much sense to put him there over Kennard, who has much more experience there.
This position was a recurring problem last year. The Trojans ranked 109th out of 120 teams in passing defense, at 259 yards allowed per game. Worse, they were 115th in passing touchdowns given up with 30.
The leader Shareece Wright has graduated, leaving his successors to fight for the spot. There is very little game experience in this group of young players, and if the underclassmen want to play, they will have to show the Kiffins that they can handle USC's overwhelming receiving corps in spring practice.
A junior transfer scheduled to arrive for summer practice, the 6'1", 185-pounder from Yuma, Ariz., has speed to burn. His 4.4 40-time gives Lane Kiffin a guy who can match up with deep threats and stop the big play, which is something the Trojans have sorely missed.
He is set back by the fact that he is unfamiliar with Monte Kiffin's complex NFL defense and USC's atmosphere. However, he will still be in the running for a starting spot after he arrives in June.
The senior has a lot of work to lock down this job even though he has the most experience on the depth chart. He will miss the spring while recovering from shoulder surgery, which will not help him develop any rhythm or momentum over Wiley and Anthony Brown. He should be considered the favorite right now but far from guaranteed.
The redshirt freshman is similar to Wiley in size (6', 185 pounds) and speed (4.46). A weakness is tackling, which will not look good in his candidacy, especially given his aggressive style. USC needs to work on limiting big plays and not missing tackles, two huge reasons for the defensive mediocrity recently. He will compete and likely earn time, but will it be as a starter?
Projected winner: Bryant. Again, experience is a must at a position of infirmity. Bryant won't be spectacular, but Lane Kiffin doesn't need him to be. Wiley and Brown could be good in nickel coverage with their speed, but the cover skills and tackling experience are necessary, and they might not ready in those areas.
Possibly the most wide open spot on the field for USC but so vital. Gone are the days when USC strong safeties struck the fear of God into opposing receivers with hard-hitting hulks Troy Polamalu and Taylor Mays. It's hard to ask for one of these guys to fill shoes that big, but a solid intimidator who plays soundly in coverage should not be too difficult.
The junior, who plays outfield for USC baseball, repeatedly got beat last season in nine starts. It seemed like every time I saw a long touchdown pass, No. 29 was the one with his head down, trailing a celebrating receiver. His grip on the starting job is tenuous at best.
The junior redshirted last season after injuring his hip, an injury that he is still recovering from this spring. The 6'1", 195-pounder has played sparingly due to injury and the presence of Taylor Mays. His inexperience is to his detriment in competition with Starling, who hasn't done much to snatch the job. This will be one of the fiercest battles on the field in the summer, if not sooner.
The reason that this competition is so hot is because any one of these three players has an equal chance to be the starter. Jones, the redshirt senior from Oaks Christian has bounced around the secondary a lot, but found stability at strong safety when he started the last four games of 2010 due to injuries. Jones has always been well regarded and has performed well, even though his opportunities to play have been few.
Projected winner: Jones. This distinction won't mean a whole lot, because all three of these upperclassmen should get time at the position. Jones, though, deserves his shot to open the season as a starter for his hard work and strong performances as a starter. He might not be as athletic as big or athletic as Starling and McAllister, but he's been around the longest.
The offensive line is a major problem for the Trojans, and that problem is seen no better than at right tackle. Tyron Smith graduated and is shooting up the NFL Draft board, leaving a 300-pound question mark on the outside right.
The 6'6", 300-pound redshirt sophomore played in a handful of games in mop-up duty in 2010. He is smaller than primary competitor Martin Coleman but has more experience. He is out for spring practice while recovering from a shoulder injury, which weakens his slight hold on the tackle job.
The fifth-year senior from Edison High in Huntington Beach has been tripped up by injuries in his four years at USC. As an early enrollee in 2007, Coleman injured his shoulder, which he limited him in 2007.
In the first two games of 2008, he saw time at guard but sprained his ankle and redshirted the rest of the season. He needed more time to recover from the lingering ankle problem and was unable to compete in 2009. Last year, he was finally healthy, but was moved back to his original tackle position.
Then, he got hurt in spring practice and was slowed yet again. Now, he is healthy and looking to grab the right tackle job as a senior. He might have an advantage over Graf, who is reportedly gaining weight while recuperating.
Projected winner: Coleman. The 6'5", 335-pounder is quick enough to move on the outside and big enough to keep defensive ends from going around him. He hasn't had a legitimate chance to prove his skills, which are considerable. Graf has some polishing to do anyway, and some competition might push him over the top.
Because roughly half of the linemen are out for the entire spring, most of the competition will take place in the summer and fall, but that doesn't mean Coleman can't grab the top spot at right tackle right now.
Ahhh, finally a position that the Trojans don't have a glaring weakness at. If the offensive line and secondary are empty, the wide receiver stable more than makes up for it with horses that will run opposing defenses ragged.
Newcomer George Farmer, the top receiver in the class of 2011, will start immediately in the slot with high school teammate Robert Woods, a sensational sophomore. The rest is a bit jumbled, though exciting to think about.
Opposite Woods at split end will be a fierce battle between a few players who haven't yet caught a pass in the cardinal and gold.
The redshirt sophomore missed all of last season as a redshirt and played in four games as a freshman in 2009. He comes in at 6' and 185, and his 4.4 speed makes him a Ronald Johnson or Steve Smith type of receiver.
His problems are imprecise route-running and an inability to deal with stronger and more physical corners. Those are two qualities that a USC flanker must be strong. He has the advantage of experience, though not much, over his competitors, and his skill after the catch could lead to big plays.
At 6'2", Ambles has great route-running and deep threat skills. He has put on 25 pounds since arriving at USC, shoring up one of his only weaknesses, strength. At his size and with enough strength, he could be a valuable go-to guy on third downs. He played very little as a freshman last year, but got a peek at what the game looks like from inside the lines, which should not be understated.
Excitement over the 6'5", 215-pound is bubbling over. The No. 2 receiver in 2010, Prater was slowed after enrolling last spring and was not ready to play in Lane Kiffin's opinion. Prater took a redshirt to learn by observation. Now, he's ready to get on the field, where he will either benefit hugely from the attention paid to Woods and Farmer, or he will be the one who gets all the attention.
His hands, size and routes are all elite, which makes him ready to play at a point where others wouldn't be. He will step on the field and dominate from the moment they call No. 85 in the huddle.
Projected winner: Prater. Ambles and Flournoy will be part of the depth mob that USC throws at opponents, but they're the unfortunate victims of Kyle Prater's brimming hype and potential.
Likely the highest-profile battle for the Trojans, the tailback position is starting to fill up with talent again.
Marc Tyler is the incumbent starter after winning the job over seniors C.J. Gable and Allen Bradford last year and should hold that position this year.
In 2011, a young crop fills up the depth chart behind the senior Tyler. Dillon Baxter is a post-hype sophomore, D.J. Morgan is a redshirt freshman generating a lot of buzz this spring, Javorius Allen and Amir Carlisle are incoming freshmen with a lot of tools and potential. Curtis McNeal, though a redshirt junior, is well in the mix to back up Tyler as well.
Because of ridiculous depth in the backfield, former coach Pete Carroll and Lane Kiffin have been forced to use a committee and split carries, lest elite talent waste away on the bench. That elite bench talent is embodied in the enigmatic Baxter, who has had disciplinary and injury issues, the blazing fast Morgan and the sub-4.5 freshmen Allen and Carlisle.
Either Allen or Carlisle, possibly both, will redshirt because of the amazing depth. Carlisle, the more highly touted of the freshmen, is more likely, because he probably wouldn't play much anyway, and Kiffin may as well save him.
Morgan and Baxter should get a lot of work in relief of Tyler. Baxter has the most potential of anyone in this group, but also disappointed last season. If he fails to improve again in 2011, Morgan won't be long to surpass him.
Barring injury, there won't be enough carries to filter down past the top three, but the depth should be comforting to Kiffin as the Trojans begin to recover from a few down years, of which the backfield was never adversely affected.
Not every position on the Coliseum field is up for grabs; there are a few players who, by hard work and steady production, are unquestioned starters. Here are the biggest locks on the depth chart, the positions that the coaches don't have to think twice about.
Quarterback: Matt Barkley (with a stable of young, highly recruited throwers in tow)
Defensive End: Wes Horton and Nick Perry (both are NFL-caliber)
Left Cornerback: Nickell Robey (one of the few bright spots in the secondary last year as a freshman)
Free Safety: T.J. McDonald (a future pro, who could jump to the NFL after a strong junior season)