Starting spots up for grabs this weekend

Heading into Saturday’s scrimmage, or as USC coach Lane Kiffin prefers to call it, “preseason game No. 3,” there are still a few starting positions up for grabs with the season opener against Hawaii on Sept. 2 only 12 days away.

When I asked Kiffin what position battle he was most interested in getting resolved, he went on to list four positions. “The middle linebacker position, left guard, depending on who’s healthy and who’s going to be there,” Kiffin said. “The backup tight end roles, who’s going to be the X receiver across from Ronald [Johnson], who’s going to be the third, fourth and fifth receiver. Those are the ones that are most glaring to me.”

Kiffin’s answer, while extensive this late in camp, actually solidified a couple of positions which had been in question. It seems Rhett Ellison has won the starting tight end job, at least for the season opener, while Jordan Cameron and Blake Ayles compete for playing time as the back-ups. Cameron, who converted from wide receiver in the spring, has been the most polished pass catcher but the worst run blocker, leading Kiffin to proclaim Ellison as the only complete tight end “able to do everything that we need a tight end to do.”

Freshman Nickell Robey looks like he will start at cornerback opposite Shareece Wright but will spend the majority of the opener against Hawaii playing in the slot in the nickel defense with Torin Harris or Brian Baucham playing outside.

“He’s so productive,” Kiffin said when asked how Robey, a 5-foot-7, 165-pound true freshman out of Frostproof, Fla. moved up the depth chart so quickly. “We go back and we grade everything, all the practices combined, and production-wise he’s actually been more productive than Shareece. He’s been our most productive guy on paper. As I’ve always said, we’re going to play the best players, no matter where they’re from, what year they are, no matter how highly or lowly they’re recruited. He’s been the most productive so he’s the front-runner right now.”

The middle linebacker position is still too close to call between Chris Galippo and Devon Kennard, although Galippo might have an edge at the moment with Kennard’s toe injury limiting him in practice.

The left guard position is more of a battle than it should be because of all the injuries. Butch Lewis has not practiced because of a groin strain, Khaled Holmes has been out because of a neck injury, Zach Heberer is recovering from a concussion and Kevn Graf has been sidelined because of a shoulder strain. The job would go to Lewis, who started six games at left guard last season, if everyone was healthy.

Brice Butler has the inside track to be the starter opposite Johnson with the freshman tandem of Robert Woods and Markeith Ambles expected to see the field as well.

“We’d like to have a great feel after Saturday of where we’re at,” Kiffin said. “That’s the right thing to do for your team; getting them moving in the right spots and the right packages. I think we have a good start to that.”