Five questions for the New Year, No. 2: Will Monte Kiffin return, and will the D improve?

Every day until Friday, we’ll tackle one key question facing the USC football team in 2011 and attempt to answer it logically. Feel free to leave your potential answer in the comments section each day.

Monday's question involved the possibility of a spread offense. Today, we present the second of our five questions: Will Monte Kiffin stay on staff as the assistant head coach and de facto defensive coordinator? Will his defense improve in 2011?

Let's clear up some confusion: No, Monte Kiffin was not the USC defensive coordinator in 2010.

That was Ed Orgeron. But who actually, physically coordinated the defense?

Kiffin, of course. He had been the defensive coordinator at his three previous stops that spanned 15 years and had done remarkably well at each. Orgeron was busy enough tending to his duties as recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach -- plus dealing with a broken foot -- to do any defensive play calling.

Now that we've got that out of the way, who is going to coordinate the defense in 2011?

Monte Kiffin, surely. Internet speculation about his job security is far-fetched in nature, and it's very hard to imagine USC head coach Lane Kiffin relieving his dad of his duties on defense, especially after only one season.

Truth be told, toward the end of the 2010 season Kiffin's defense actually started to look pretty good. The Notre Dame and Oregon State losses looked bad on the surface (read: the score), but the blame for each goes almost entirely on the USC offense. And, in the season finale, UCLA really did next to nothing offensively.

You could make a great case that Kiffin's defensive players finally began to catch on to his changes from Pete Carroll's schemes. Is Kiffin's Tampa-Two-plus-some-other-stuff defense well-suited for the college level? Probably not, but neither was Carroll's. We'll have to set that part of the problem aside for the time being.

In re-watching some of the Trojans' worst defensive performances in 2010, a lot of the problems seem to trace back to the middle linebacker spot and the safety spot opposite T.J. McDonald.

Devon Kennard was clearly not the Mike linebacker the Kiffins envisioned him as, and Chris Galippo struggled some when incorporated later in the year; at safety, both Jawanza Starling and Marshall Jones missed some key assignments in most games and served as a sizable hole in the USC secondary.

Those spots need to be fixed or worked out in order for USC's defense to progress further. Only a few positions have 2010 starters leaving, though: defensive tackle (Jurrell Casey), cornerback (Shareece Wright) and outside linebacker (Malcolm Smith and Michael Morgan).

The development of fourth-year defensive ends Wes Horton, Armond Armstead and Nick Perry -- and the recovery of redshirt senior under tackle Christian Tupou -- is also crucial to any Trojan improvement in 2011, as is the continued maturation McDonald and Nickell Robey in the secondary. At least one of those six players will need to be a game-in, game-out difference-maker.

Will the defense be better?

Probably, but marginally better only. Remember, Casey was this unit's best player. He'll be in the NFL in 2011. Smith and Morgan were veteran leaders that will have to be replaced by at least one player who will be vastly under-qualified to start at USC. But another offseason learning the schemes will assuredly help, especially in pass coverage.

As for Kiffin's successor on defense -- the man is two months away from turning 71, after all -- two potential options are clear in Orgeron and linebackers coach Joe Barry, who was the coordinator for the NFL's Detroit Lions only a few years ago. Unless the Kiffin regime is displaced at USC in the recent future, it's a good bet one of those two will be the next "coordinator of the defense."

That's it for today. Tomorrow's question for the New Year is as follows: "How will sanctions affect the 2011 recruiting class? With the average prospects' star rating lower than usual so far for USC, is that indicative of anything?"