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March 22, 2011

On-field mystery surrounds USC this spring

The "unknown" for USC once was which player would contend for the Heisman, what BCS game the Trojans would appear in and who was paying for the house Reggie Bush's family lived in.

But this spring the unknown element is what to expect from the team in Lane Kiffin's second season as coach. In many recent cases, teams have had tremendous seasons -- and even won national championships -- in a coach's second year.

NCAA sanctions will prevent the Trojans from competing for the national championship or even the new Pac-12 title, but USC still can aspire to finish at the top of the conference standings.

USC posted at least 11 victories in seven consecutive seasons from 2002-08, but it hasn't reach double-digit wins in either of the past two seasons.

Getting back to the usual standards will require some young, untested players to take over some starting positions and provide depth. But young players often are inconsistent, so we don't know what to expect from this USC team.

Here's a look at the Trojans as they prepare for spring drills.

USC AT-A-GLANCE
Matt Barkley is somewhat overshadowed due to the many great QBs in the Pac-12.
THE BASICS
Coach: Lane Kiffin
Last season: 8-5 overall, 5-4 in the Pac-10.
Spring dates: March 22-April 23.
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (6): QB Matt Barkley, TE Rhett Ellison, G Khaled Holmes, T Matt Kalil, TB Marc Tyler, WR Robert Woods.
Defense (8): E Armond Armstead, LB Chris Galippo, T DaJohn Harris, LB Devon Kennard, FS T.J. McDonald, E Nick Perry, CB Nickell Robey, SS Jawanza Starling.
Special teams: None.
Positions of strength

Matt Barkley would be a lock for postseason honors in just about any other conference in America. Alas, in the quarterback-stocked Pac-12, he has been somewhat overshadowed. He has passed for more than 2,700 yards in back-to-back seasons and threw 26 touchdown passes last season. He does need to reduce his interceptions, though. The defensive line is loaded with talented guys with significant playing experience. Armond Armstead (who will miss spring practice with medical issues), DaJohn Harris, Nick Perry and Wes Horton had at least five tackles for loss and three sacks last season. The Trojans are loaded at running back, too. Marc Tyler rushed for more than 900 yards last season and will have to fight to retain his starting job.

Help is needed

The offensive line has holes to fill. All-conference T Tryon Smith opted to declare for the NFL draft, and two other starters completed their eligibility. The Trojans always seem to put together a solid line, but depth is an issue. The secondary returns three full-time starters, but the Trojans ranked 84th in the nation in passing efficiency defense, 109th in passing defense and allowed 30 touchdown passes last season. Outside of Robert Woods, there are no proven wide receivers.

3 guys to watch

RB D.J. Morgan: A four-star prospect out of high school, Morgan redshirted as a true freshman last season after having knee surgery. He has added 10 pounds of bulk and is the fastest player on the roster. He'll challenge for the starting job.

WR Kyle Prater: He's another redshirt freshman who has recovered from injuries (thumb, hamstring, fractured foot). He has tremendous ability. If he stays healthy he'll make a run at a starting job. Prater and sophomore Robert Woods give the Trojans the potential for one of the best receiving tandems in the nation.

DT George Uko: An athletic 290-pound redshirt freshman, Uko should make a big move to get into the defensive line rotation. At the least, he should provide high-quality depth at a strong position.

The pressure is on

RB Marc Tyler: It's not supposed to be this way for Tyler. As a junior in 2010, he had a breakout season with 913 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. But he's not a guaranteed starter. He'll have to raise his level of performance to hold off challenges from Morgan and sophomore Dillon Baxter, who are faster and more explosive.

The buzz

There is an air of mystery around this season's Trojans, who are heavy on freshmen and sophomores. The front-line talent is there as usual, but depth must be developed. There will be numerous position battles this spring. Young players need to prove they're ready to compete at a high level. If they do, USC could bounce back strong from last season's 8-5 showing. If not, the Trojans might have difficulty matching last season's eight wins.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.


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