The USC Trojans played their annual mock game today at the Coliseum to mark the beginning of the 2009 campaign.
The game was intended to simulate the atmosphere of a real game and get the squad ready for its home opener against the San Jose State Spartans next Saturday.
It was also intended to unveil the new starting quarterback, Matt Barkley, to the thousands of Trojan faithful who braved 105-degree heat to attend. This was especially notable because Barkley is the first true freshman to ever start the season for Pete Carroll’s Trojans.
This also marked the first time in Coach Carroll’s tenure that he has started a quarterback other than the starter named in spring practice. Aaron Corp is the quarterback who lost his job to the much-heralded Barkley.
The fact that Corp cracked his fibula and missed two weeks of practice did not help his case any but probably did not hurt it either. Even though Corp showed marked improvement today, when asked if he would have made a different decision if he had waited until next week to name a starter, Carroll said, “No, no, no.”
So, I guess in Barkley’s case “no” means “no.”
But instead of highlighting Barkley, the mock game diminished USC’s hopes of vying for a national title and perhaps of retaining its Pac-10 title.
Barkley’s longest completion of the day was a 34-yard pass to Ronald Johnson at the two-yard line. The pass was slightly under thrown and, when Johnson turned back to catch it, he was hit from behind and sandwiched between two defenders.
The result was a broken collarbone for Johnson and huge loss for the Trojans.
Although the early estimates on Johnson’s return are six to eight weeks, more than likely he will not be ready to come back until a bowl game.
With Johnson out, that bowl may be one held in December rather than January.
Johnson was the team’s third-best receiver last year and its No. 2 receiver this year behind Damian Williams. Although the Trojans have a corps of good receivers, none of them are of Johnson’s caliber. He has great acceleration along with excellent moves to create separation and above all, great hands and lots of experience.
His loss hurts both Barkley and Williams. With Johnson in the No. 2 slot, defenses could not afford to double cover Williams. Now they can. That could mean less receptions for Williams and more interceptions for Barkley, who has no qualms about throwing into coverage.
Right now David Ausberry has moved up to take Johnson’s spot at split end. He is tall and lanky but doesn’t have Johnson’s moves or acceleration.
Two younger receivers, red-shirt freshman Brice Butler and true freshman De’von Flournoy have the moves and the acceleration as well as good hands but lack the experience. Flournoy still hasn’t grasped all the nuances of the complicated Trojans offense during his short time on campus.
Also, Johnson was a reliable kickoff returner. Joe McKnight or one of the other running backs will have to take over for him. Damian Williams has also been used as a punt returner. With their No. 2 receiver gone, the coaches may want to reconsider having their No. 1 receiver returning punts.
Speaking of running backs, the starter for the home opener is still to be determined. Joe McKnight started off the mock game today, but senior Stafon Johnson and red-shirt juniors C. J. Gable and Allan Bradford are also possibilities.
On defense, Christain Tupou has been named the starting nose tackle ahead of Hebron Fangupo. Jurrell Casey is at the other tackle spot, at least until Averell Spicer returns. He is no longer wearing a boot on his ankle and may try to return next week.
Center Kris O’Dowd says he will try to return from a dislocated knee cap next week. If he doesn’t make it, either Jeff Byers or Alex Parsons will start at center.
Defensive end Armond Amrstead is out at least six weeks with a broken foot. Malik Jackson is fighting it out with Wes Horton for Armstead’s spot.
Shareece Wright, the starting cornerback, is dealing with an injury and academic ineligibility. More than likely, Josh Pinkard will move up from his safety spot to play corner, and Will Harris will take Pinkard’s spot at safety. The other possibility is that the coaches may move T. J. Bryant into Wright’s spot. Bryant had a nice interception today in the mock game.
That is how the starting lineup looks with the season opener just one week away. Check back this week. I’ll have updates if there are any important changes.