USC: 2011 top 10 performers

Top 10 performers, No. 1: Barkley

December, 23, 2011
12/23/11
3:54
PM PT
Matt BarkleyRic Tapia/Icon SMIMatt Barkely had one of the strongest finishes to a season in USC's storied history.
We’ve been doing a series on the Trojans’ top 10 performers in 2011 since last week, ranking the team’s best players based on their overall value to the team last season.

The first nine players, listed here in descending order and revealed day-by-day over the last two weeks on the USC Report, were T.J. McDonald, Christian Tupou, Curtis McNeal, Nick Perry, Dion Bailey, Marqise Lee, Nickell Robey, Robert Woods and Matt Kalil.

Our No. 1 performer, then, is quarterback Matt Barkley.

It's fitting that this post was scheduled all along for this day and it ended up being just 24 hours after Barkley announced he'd be returning for his senior season in 2012.

It was a special day at Heritage Hall on Thursday, one many will point to as the official kick-starter of the next 12-plus months if USC goes on to seriously chase a national championship next season.

But the Trojans' quarterback has had a truly remarkable last two months regardless, considering how he closed out USC's 2011 season with wins over Oregon and UCLA in exactly the "big-bang" style he wanted. You can make a convincing argument Barkley performed better last season than any other USC quarterback has ever performed.

And that's probably the biggest reason why he was so firmly entrenched atop this list in our minds. Kalil, Woods and the coaching staff helped make him who he was, but the truth is that a ton of the credit has to go to Barkley himself.

So, yes, he'll be back next season. And he'll be the odds-on favorite to win this honor and probably some others as well, like the Heisman Trophy.

Next season's USC team seems to have every element to be a huge part of the sports world. The charismatic Barkley will be dealing with as much buzz -- on and off campus -- as any college student-athlete in many, many years.

If anyone can handle it, he can.

And with that, we conclude our top-10 performer series and take a look at five players who just missed being ranked in the top 10.

(Read full post)

Top 10 performers, No. 5: Lee

December, 19, 2011
12/19/11
8:22
AM PT
After concluding our series on the top 10 moments of the 2011 USC football season, we've started a new series on the Trojans' top 10 performers this year. With one player per day Monday-Friday, the list will last until Friday, Dec. 23.

Coming in the first half of the top 10 were T.J. McDonald, Christian Tupou, Curtis McNeal, Nick Perry and Dion Bailey. Here's No. 5, now: receiver Marqise Lee.

We wrote all about Lee's surprising season during our top 10 moment series, in which Lee produced one of the more memorable moments of the season with his two-touchdown performance against Colorado.

Let's, then, do two things in this space: (1) justify why he's placed in this very spot in the list, and (2) quantify just how much he produced for the Trojans in 2011.

Why is Lee fifth? The five guys before him all fit into one group, in a way, as key contributors but not flat-out stars, and the identities of the four players in front of him should now be fairly clear, although we won't get into them just yet.

It's almost like Lee is in a tier of his own -- and rightfully so, considering the season the freshman posted in 2011. He was downright dominant in the latter half of the year and put up much better numbers than Robert Woods in the final five games.

Perry and Tupou were steady presences who didn't have true big-time performances. McDonald and Bailey each had one memorable big game and several very good games, but nothing more. McNeal was good in every game he started but never ridiculously good.

Lee, on the other hand, had three absolutely gigantic performances, including in the final two games, in which he totaled more than 400 yards from scrimmage on his own and three touchdowns.

With 1,143 yards and 11 touchdowns, he was the best freshman wideout in the country, with competition coming only from Clemson's Sammy Watkins, and arguably one of the best freshmen pass-catchers in recent history. There wasn't much he couldn't do, really -- including returning kicks as well. Lee was a constant threat to the opposition.

So quarterback Matt Barkley's clearly in the top four of this list, as is Woods and left tackle Matt Kalil, you can safely assume. Who will take up the last spot, and where do the four remaining players rank?

Our final rankings may surprise you.

Check back Tuesday as we enter the final stretch of our top-10 performers list, this time with a defensive player.

Top 10 performers, No. 7: Perry

December, 15, 2011
12/15/11
11:36
PM PT
After concluding our series on the top 10 moments of the 2011 USC football season, we've started a new series on the Trojans' top 10 performers this year. With one player per day Monday-Friday, the list will last until Friday, Dec. 23.

Coming in at No. 10 Monday was safety T.J. McDonald, at No. 9 on Tuesday was defensive tackle Christian Tupou and No. 8 on Wednesday was running back Curtis McNeal. Here's No. 7: defensive end Nick Perry.

If Tupou was, as we wrote Tuesday, the key to the USC run defense's rapid improvement from 2010 to 2011, then Perry was the catalyst to the pass defense's development over the course of the 2011 season.

It was still a weakness, no doubt. But Perry and his conference-leading 9.5 sacks and three forced fumbles were a big part of the unit's emergence as the season progressed. He didn't reach his stated goal of 15-plus sacks, but 9.5 is a worthy sum in itself, and the fact that he led the entire conference says quite a bit about what that number means.

And it wasn't just the sacks -- it was the pressure, and even the threat of pressure. Ask the conference's coaches who they think was the most dominating defensive player in the conference in 2011, and half of them will mention Perry's name. Offensive linemen sweated their meetings with him all year long.

Where does Perry stand now? He hasn't publicly announced a decision whether to stay for his senior season or head to next April's NFL draft, but he has a great shot to go high in the draft if he does indeed declare. He has everything an NFL team would want: enough production, incredible measures, and a solid work ethic and just-do-it mentality.

He won't win any personality awards, sure. He never looked comfortable talking to the media in his four years at USC. But that really doesn't matter.

Perry, 21, quietly went about his business. He had some shining moments, too, demonstrating a knack for knocking the ball out of quarterback's hands.

The next question: How will USC replace him, if he does indeed declare? Luckily, the Trojans had a three-man rotation at end all season, so there won't be any new players taking the majority of the snaps. Seniors-to-be Devon Kennard and Wes Horton will handle that. Where will the third and fourth ends come from?

Well, if Armond Armstead comes back and is cleared to compete, there's an easy answer. Greg Townsend Jr. seems like a likely candidate -- and junior-to-be Kevin Greene is going to get some snaps, too. But none of those players will replace the true dynamic pass-rushing ability Perry offers.

Check back Friday for performer No. 6, another defensive player.

Top 10 performers, No. 8: McNeal

December, 14, 2011
12/14/11
7:04
PM PT
After concluding our series on the top 10 moments of the 2011 USC football season, we start a new series on the Trojans' top 10 performers this year. With one player per day Monday-Friday, the list will last until Friday, Dec. 23.

Coming in at No. 10 Monday was safety T.J. McDonald and No. 9 on Tuesday was defensive tackle Christian Tupou. Here's No. 8: running back Curtis McNeal.

McNeal was, without a doubt, the biggest pleasant surprise of all of USC's returners this season and second overall after freshman receiver Marqise Lee.

Heck, he didn't even play last year, out the entire season while academically ineligible. And in his two previous seasons, he'd managed to get the ball just six total times. It was very, very unexpected that he'd be the Trojans' leading rusher this season -- let alone their second 1,000-yard rusher since Reggie Bush.

How'd he do it?

McNeal always had the ability. That much was clear from watching him in practice and simply counting how long it took and how hard it was to get him to the ground. He's 5-feet-7, but he uses it to his advantage and provides few ways for defenders to bring him down.

Lane Kiffin didn't him the reins to the running game right away. McNeal got 17 total carries in USC's first four games, even with Marc Tyler suspended for the first, D.J. Morgan experiencing fumbling issues and Dillon Baxter in the coach's doghouse.

It was against Arizona, in the fifth game of the year, where McNeal finally started to get a chance. He broke a 44-yard run and sealed the game with a nine-yard touchdown run in the fourth. He followed that up with a workmanlike game at Cal and then broke off two straight big games against Notre Dame and Stanford.

Of course, he also fumbled on the last possession of the Stanford game and gave the Cardinal the win. But Kiffin stuck with him, and McNeal didn't have a single bad performance in any of the year's remaining games. He averaged at least 4.7 yards per carry in every single game -- 10 of them -- in which he was given at least five carries. He finished 15th in the country in yards per carry.

Where did his performance fit in with the rest of the squad? Tyler was able to return from suspension and fight through injuries to be a productive player, but he didn't come close to matching his 2010 performance. Baxter left the team and Morgan was a non-factor. Freshmen Amir Carlisle and George Farmer only affected a couple games each.

McNeal was, as the season went on, an ultra-steady presence in the USC backfield, and it seems likely he'll fulfill that same role to a greater extent next season as a senior.

Check back Thursday for performer No. 7, a defensive player.

Top 10 performers, No. 10: McDonald

December, 12, 2011
12/12/11
1:39
PM PT
After concluding our series on the top 10 moments of USC's 2011 football season, we begin this week with a new series on the Trojans' top 10 performers this season. With one player per day Monday-Friday, the list will last until Friday, Dec. 23.

We'll rank the players based on a number of factors, heavily valuing production but also considering preseason expectations, off-the-field contributions and alternative options at each player's respective positions. Look at it as not so much of a 10 best players list, but a finalists list for a team-MVP trophy. Overall value is considered.

First on the list at No. 10 is safety T.J. McDonald.

A junior in his second season starting for the Trojans in 2011, McDonald was expected to be a leader and performed as such, leading the team with three interceptions and adding a secondary-high 67 tackles. He started 11 of USC's 12 games and entered the game he didn't start in the second half, forced to sit out the first 30 minutes by the Pac-12.

He didn't have an absolutely standout year -- the numbers show that. But McDonald fairly quietly put up a solid season and put himself into position to be one of the top safeties selected in April's NFL draft if he chooses to make himself eligible. He stands to go around the second round right now, although there's believed to be a good chance he chooses to return to school.

McDonald did have one long-lasting off-field controversy that probably pushed him back a spot or two on this list when he picked up three personal-foul penalties in the September loss to Arizona State, costing the Trojans 45 yards, and then got called for another in a crucial moment in the fourth quarter against Stanford. The foul against the Cardinal was killer, giving Andrew Luck the second chance he needed to send the game into overtime.

Sure, the calls can be debated -- the Stanford one has to at least be called questionable -- but, in the end, McDonald was whistled and has to be judged as such.

As for his on-field performance, he showed some signs in the middle of the season of morphing into a Taylor Mays-type safety, meaning he'd go for the big hit above all else and frequently whiff on regular tackles and potential turnovers. But his final three games after the Colorado suspension were some of his best.

He and cornerback Nickell Robey, who will make a later appearance on this list, made up a defensive backs corps that needed work at the start of the year and got progressively better.

For that, McDonald earns a spot on this list of the Trojans' most valuable players -- even if just by a hair.

Check back Tuesday for the Trojans' ninth most valuable player, who happens to also play defense.

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