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July 31, 2011
OVERVIEW: Lane Kiffin prefers a pro-style attack, and he definitely has the quarterback to make it work. There are 120 FBS teams and probably 115 would trade quarterbacks with USC. Matt Barkley gets overlooked to some degree because the Pac-12 is so quarterback-rich, but he's a big-time passer. He just needs adequate protection. Sophomore WR Robert Woods is as star on the rise, but the Trojans need other reliable receivers to surface. They're also deep at tailback, especially if Marc Tyler keeps his foot out of his mouth.
BACKFIELD: Three of USC's past four starting quarterbacks were NFL first-round pick. Barkley - a junior who already is the sixth-leading passer in USC history - will make it four of five whenever he enters the draft. He has a strong, accurate arm, though he stills throws too many interceptions. Barkley also has excellent leadership skills. The Trojans could use some leadership at running back, though. The talent is there, but Tyler has been suspended indefinitely for making inappropriate public comments and sophomore Dillon Baxter was suspended for a game last season for a minor rules violation. Tyler rushed for nearly 1,000 yards last season, and Baxter could hit the mark given sufficient carries. Redshirt freshman D.J. Morgan is a fast and exciting prospect.
RECEIVERS: Woods has All-America potential. As a true freshman last season, he caught 65 passes, with 52 coming after mid-October. He's a big-play threat who should be even better as a sophomore. The Trojans need another receiver to take advantage when defenses are too focused on Woods. Senior Brandon Carswell will get a shot, but he has only 22 career receptions. Redshirt freshman Kyle Prater could be a major contributor if he has no lingering effects from a foot injury. Perhaps true freshman George Farmer, a five-star prospect, can have a similar impact to Woods. TE Rhett Ellison is steady and reliable.
LINE: T Matt Kalil and C Khaled Holmes are returning starters who could rake in postseason honors. But the other spots on the line are open competitions. Third-year sophomore John Martinez and senior Martin Coleman, who has had an injury-plagued career thus far, could start at guard, though redshirt freshman Giovanni Di Poalo may be too good to leave on the sideline. Sophomore T Kevin Graf is coming off shoulder surgery.
OVERVIEW: Coordinator Monte Kiffin is one of the most-respected assistants in NFL history, but his defenses at Tennessee and USC the past two seasons have struggled. The Trojans were atypically vulnerable in 2010, especially in the secondary. Now, in their second season under Kiffin, they look to make substantial progress. They should be among the best in the country up front, but the linebackers are unproven and the secondary is another area of concern. If the Trojans get significantly better there, the defense could be nasty.
LINE: The tackle rotation is solid and depth at end is even better. Redshirt freshman T George Uko is a future star and DaJohn Harris is a productive interior lineman. Yet either could be knocked out of the starting lineup by senior Christian Tupou, a former starter who is back from a knee injury that forced him to miss last season. Senior T Armond Armstead had 48 tackles last season, but missed spring drills for medical reasons. Junior E Nick Perry has 12 career sacks and fellow junior Wes Horton is another experienced hand at end. Devon Kennard, another junior, shifts from middle linebacker to end, his natural position. He should cause headaches for opposing offensive tackles. Heralded freshman prospect Greg Townsend Jr. could help out, too.
LINEBACKERS: Injuries have prevented senior Chris Galippo from reaching his full potential. He missed spring drills with a back problem, but still is penciled in to start in the middle. Fingers are crossed he stays healthy; if he can't, Kennard may have to move back to linebacker. Galippo had 29 tackles last season, but that's more than any other linebacker on the roster. Senior Shane Horton, who had 28 tackles, will vie for a starting job on the weakside, with redshirt freshman Hayes Pullard, a top-flight athlete, his main challenger. Sophomore Marquis Simmons and redshirt freshman Dion Bailey, who moved from safety, will see action on the strongside. USC signed three freshmen linebackers, and one or two could see time this fall.
SECONDARY: USC ranked 109th in the country in pass defense and gave up 30 touchdown passes last season. That's scary bad. Junior FS T.J. McDonald says the secondary made tremendous progress in the offseason and better understands Kiffin's system. We'll see. On the bright side, sophomore CB Nickell Robey showed great promise last season with 48 tackles and four interceptions as a true freshman. But the Trojans clearly need others to step up and perform at a much higher level. Jawanza Starling - like Robey, a Florida native - is the returning starter at strong safety; he needs to be more of a playmaker. FS Drew McAllister and SS Marshall Jones will press for playing time. Jones started four times last season, while McAllister redshirted because of a hip injury. The corner spot opposite Robey could have as many as four players competing for the starting job - T.J. Bryant (another Floridian), Brian Baucham, Torin Harris, Anthony Brown and converted S Tony Burnett. JC transfer Isiah Wiley, who didn't arrive until the summer, also should be in the mix at corner.
The elusive Woods will make opposing special team coaches shudder. He averaged more than 25 yards per kickoff return and took one back for a touchdown a year ago. Woods also could be used on punt returns, though it looks as if that will be Robey's job. The Trojans have a knack for blocking kicks: They got seven last season. But there is uncertainty about the kicker and punter. Freshman Andre Heidari is the likely kicker, and junior walk-on Kyle Negrete and/or incoming freshman Kris Albarado will handle punting duties. Punt coverage was good last season, but kickoff coverage needs a big upgrade.
Uko was the scout team defensive player of the year last season. Now, the redshirt freshman is ready to ply his trade against other teams. He's a 300-pound run-stuffer who is agile enough to get an inside push. Don't be surprised if he shows up in the starting lineup. At the least, he'll be in the tackle rotation.
If USC is to improve on last season's eight-win showing, the Trojans must be proficient away from the Coliseum. They face South Division contender Arizona State, North Division favorite Oregon and traditional rival Notre Dame on the road. The Trojans didn't catch any breaks from the new Pac-12 scheduling format, either. They play Stanford, Washington and California as well as Oregon in inter-divisional games. But other than the contest with Notre Dame, the non-conference schedule is light with Minnesota and Syracuse. There are two big Pac-12 South games in September - at home against Utah on Sept. 10 and at Arizona State on Sept. 24. While the Trojans are ineligible for the league crown, they obviously will have a huge say in who wins the South.
Just like last season, the Trojans are ineligible for the conference championship and postseason play. But they still have a chance to prove they're the Pac-12's best team by winning the South Division and knocking off the North Division favorites. That won't be easily done, though. With Barkley and Woods leading a good group of skill position players, the Trojans will be dangerous. But the two main areas of concern - the offensive line and secondary - must play at a high level for the Trojans to improve on last season's victory total.
Olin Buchanan is a senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.