USC: Greg Townsend Jr.
1. Who's playing? Because of Lane Kiffin's new injury-reporting restrictions that began this week, we don't know which of the Trojans' injured players will be playing on Saturday. It certainly creates some mystique around this opener, as there's really no telling who was practicing this week and who wasn't. Among the players who missed all or most of USC's Saturday scrimmage, the last day injuries were allowed to be reported, were receiver George Farmer, tight ends Randall Telfer and Christian Thomas, defensive tackle Leonard Williams, defensive ends Wes Horton and Greg Townsend Jr., linebacker Lamar Dawson, cornerback Torin Harris and safety Demetrius Wright.
2. Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal. The expectation is that McNeal will start, because he's been at USC longer and been successful with all of his opportunities. But Redd's first three-plus weeks in a USC uniform have gone about as well as the Trojans could have expected. The early-season competition between the two to decide who the primary back will be might be more interesting than the battle between Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, because we don't yet have any idea of how Kiffin plans to use Redd in games. Here's guessing both guys will get about 15 touches on Saturday, with another 5-10 for D.J. Morgan.
Trojans name captains
USC's players voted to name the team's 2012 captains on Saturday, and they came up with some familiar names.
As expected, Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley will be a team captain for the third straight season, setting a school record. Safety T.J. McDonald will also serve in the role for his second season.
The newcomers will be senior center Khaled Holmes and junior cornerback Nickell Robey.
Kiffin said he agreed wholeheartedly with his players' choices.
LOS ANGELES -- Here are news and notes from Tuesday's practice that won't make it into our other coverage off the session:
Barkley to Woods improving
The Matt Barkley to Robert Woods connection that looked so polished and perfect last season hasn't looked as good this camp, but that's starting to change.
USC coach Lane Kiffin noted Tuesday -- without being asked about it -- that the pair appeared to be hitting on several cylinders in the day's practice. It was the second straight positive day for the two players after a subpar scrimmage on Sunday
"It seems to be on its way back," Kiffin said of Barkley and Woods' timing.
Of course, the main reason why the connection suffered in the first place was Woods' offseason struggle with his ankle injury, so the fact that he has been back on the field of late is almost assuredly why it has suddenly taken a turn for the better.
It's hard to be sharp when you're not on the field, basically.
Bad day for the offense
The circumstances weren't exactly great, as many of the first-team Trojans began the scrimmage watching from exercise bikes on the sidelines while Lane Kiffin reserved live-tackling drills for the backups.
But the USC offense just didn't perform well on Sunday. Matt Barkley and the first-team unit didn't, and neither did Cody Kessler, Max Wittek and the second unit. It looked ugly, all-around, from start to finish, with few positive blips in between.
"We struggled today," Lee said. "I think we weren't really focused here and there. That's really about it."
Kiffin said it wasn't any of the quarterbacks' fault, choosing instead to blame it on overall inefficiency from the group. He also found a positive aspect of it.
"There's not just one person to blame or anything," Kiffin said. "We didn't play well in any of our position groups for the most part. But there's always two sides to that. It means we were doing some good things on the other side as well."
Among the players who sat out of the scrimmage due to injury were right tackle Kevin Graf, defensive ends Wes Horton, J.R. Tavai and Greg Townsend Jr, linebackers Dion Bailey and Lamar Dawson (calf) and cornerbacks Torin Harris (hamstring) and Brian Baucham.
Woods, Lee, Curtis McNeal, Nickell Robey and T.J. McDonald all began their days on exercise bikes on the sidelines before participating in the lighter portion of the session. Barkley and Khaled Holmes also logged a limited amount of snaps during the live-tackling part of practice.
LOS ANGELES -- Here are some news and notes from the Trojans' no-pads practice on Thursday, which was held on Dedeaux Field for the third straight day:
Left tackle Aundrey Walker returned to practice and worked with the first team after essentially missing all of the last week with a wrist issue. He came out of the locker room with a brace on his right wrist, then switched to tape on it later in the day.
"Aundrey did everything today," coach Lane Kiffin said when asked about Walker's return. "We'll continue to push him to see (how he's recovered)."
Kiffin said he didn't know if Walker would have been able to participate to the same extent if the Trojans had held a padded practice.
Middle linebacker Lamar Dawson continued to sit out with a calf injury, but Hayes Pullard returned Thursday and once again filled in for Dawson in the middle. Redshirt freshman Anthony Sarao was the first-team weakside linebacker.
A trio of USC defensive ends -- Wes Horton, Greg Townsend Jr. and J.R. Tavai -- also sat out of Thursday's practice, meaning the Trojans were without five of what they thought would be their top seven ends entering into camp, with Devon Kennard and DeVante Wilson both likely out for the season.
Freshman receiver Nelson Agholor did not practice with an undisclosed issue, and senior running back Curtis McNeal was in and out of practice -- mostly out -- with an apparent knee injury.
Doing the returning
USC cornerback Nickell Robey said the coaching staff has decided that he'll be the Trojans' primary punt returner this season and receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee will hold down the kick-return duties.
Putting both Woods and Lee back on kickoffs is an interesting decision, especially given the new rules the NCAA is adopting this season, with kickoffs being taken from the 35-yard line and touchbacks going out to the 25.
The expectation is that it'll lead to less contact and more touchbacks, but many teams may try to avoid giving their opponents the ball at their 25 easily, so it might not be so clear-cut.
Hoping for Harris
Kiffin really likes Torin Harris, you can tell.
He thinks the redshirt junior corner was playing as well as or better than Robey last season, before he got hurt in the fourth game against Arizona State. And he still thinks he'd be a definite starter if he were healthy this camp and not sidelined with a potentially problematic hamstring issue.
With Harris out, Anthony Brown took most of the snaps at the second corner spot on Thursday. Robey said Brown has "been doing great so far" in camp.
Final notes: USC's normal practice arena, Howard Jones Field, was getting re-sodded on Thursday, so the Trojans will be practicing on Dedeaux Field for at least a few more days. ...The last two-a-day of fall camp is scheduled for Friday, with a morning session at 9:15 a.m. and an afternoon one at 3:20. ...Kiffin's wife, Layla, made an appearance at practice. Kiffin spoke to a group of university donors after practice.
LOS ANGELES -- J.R. Tavai found out on Sunday.
With Devon Kennard out for the foreseeable future because of a torn pectoral muscle, coachLane Kiffin and Ed Orgeron decided that the sophomore would be playing defensive end in his place and freshman Leonard Williams would be at defensive tackle.
It's a move motivated by two things: A need for an experienced player at Kennard's vacated end spot and a desire to put Williams at the spot where he can make the biggest, quickest impact. This seems as if it fulfills both of those, as Tavai logged time in seven games last season and the 6-foot-5, 285-pound Williams is getting too big to play defensive end.
"We want to see if we can do this," Orgeron said after Tuesday's practice, the Trojans' second of fall camp. "We don't know yet."
What they do know is this: If Tavai stays at end, it will be a two-way race between him and redshirt freshman Greg Townsend Jr. to start there on Day 1.
Townsend's the more athletic one, but Tavai is more savvy and more experienced. They make for good complements.
"I've gotta push J.R. and he's gotta push me," Townsend said Tuesday. "We've got different skillsets, and I think that's going to work to the team's advantage."
Maybe it's because it all happened sooner than expected after many predicted a significantly longer downturn during a period of NCAA sanctions. Maybe it's because the digital age has increased player-fan interaction exponentially and many current Trojans are far better known by the general public than most 2000's-era players.
Or maybe it's a collision of several factors, including the last-minute recruitment of Penn State's top player, running back Silas Redd, after the Nittany Lions were sanctioned by the NCAA. But there's certainly a lot of interest in USC's 2012 season.
For all intents and purposes, that season starts today, Aug. 6, with the opening of the Trojans' training camp and the season now just 26 days away. In previewing the upcoming season, we've touched all the bases, looking at potential stumbling blocks and examining each position's current depth chart. We're looking at previous opponents now.
Here, we take one last look at the five biggest questions the Trojans hope to have resolved by their Sept. 1 season opener.
1. How will Matt Barkley and USC deal with those increased expectations?
If there's a player to have in place when facing a season like this, Matt Barkley is a pretty good choice. The seasoned senior acts like an adult off field and plays like one on it, with limited mistakes and impressive overall poise.
He'll be the emotional leader of the team, as he has been for two-plus years now. But one guy can't control collective sentiment. We'll get a better sense in the next two to three weeks of how USC's other contributors are handling the increased pressure that's coming their way starting tonight.
Today, we look at the defensive line.
For each position, we’re starting with a projected current depth chart, going off the end-of-spring depth chart as released by Lane Kiffin, and discussing what needs to be resolved by Sept. 1.
1. Devon Kennard, senior*
2a. Morgan Breslin, junior
2b. Leonard Williams, freshman
2c. Greg Townsend Jr., redshirt freshman
1. J.R. Tavai, sophomore
2. Antwaun Woods, redshirt freshman
3. Cody Temple, redshirt freshman
1. George Uko, redshirt sophomore
2. Christian Heyward, redshirt freshman
3. Zack Kusnir, redshirt senior
1. Wes Horton, redshirt senior
2. Kevin Greene, redshirt junior
3. Charles Burks, redshirt freshman
4. DeVante Wilson, freshman
*Will miss most of the 2012 regular season, if not all
This was exactly as expected, with Matt Barkley entrenched and Cody Kessler and Max Wittek continuing to compete behind him. It is noteworthy that Jesse Scroggins is listed a spot behind the two redshirt freshmen and not tied with them, but it'd be a little unfair for him to be anywhere else. He missed most of the spring with hip issues and is still in academic jeopardy.
Where would Tre Madden have been if he wasn't out for the 2012 season? That's the question this portion of the chart begs. Curtis McNeal would still be starting, but Madden could very well be vying with D.J. Morgan for that No. 2 spot. Javorious Allen will be the third-string back unless he gets beat out by an incoming freshman.
Soma Vainuku is locked in as the starter with no pressing competition, but he had himself a nice conclusion to the spring anyway, giving the coaching staff more confidence in him going into the summer. Jahleel Pinner will be somewhat of an unknown.
De'Von Flournoy jumped in front of Victor Blackwell with an impressive spring, and has now put himself into position to challenge George Farmer for third-receiver status in the fall. And if Farmer can't stay healthy (again), then Flournoy's suddenly the favorite to line up with Robert Woods and Marqise Lee.
We went over De’Von Flournoy‘s surprise spring Monday, defensive back depth on Tuesday and offensive tackle struggles on Wednesday. Our fourth thing is this: The USC Trojans defense is being built to better stop the spread.
They are subtle switches, but they're switches all the same.
Monte Kiffin is slowly but surely molding his USC defense into a more spread-friendly unit, we saw this spring. Essentially, the Trojans are adjusting to the rest of the Pac-12 in emphasizing speed more than ever, and it makes sense.
Evidence: All the experiments USC conducted this spring were tilted in one direction: Seeing if smaller players will fit at bigger positions, like trying safety Tony Burnett on the strong side of the linebacking corps and trying defensive end Greg Townsend Jr. on the inside of the defensive line.
We saw some of this last year, too. Based on the perspective the Trojans demonstrated in Lane Kiffin's first season at the helm of the program in 2010, they never would have tried out safety Dion Bailey at linebacker. But that spring experiment worked out well, and it worked even better in the fall when USC realized they could keep Bailey and fellow outside linebacker Hayes Pullard on the field in second- and third-down situations and not get completely exposed.
A lot of the struggles the Trojans had in 2010 were related to that. They used Devon Kennard as a middle linebacker, not his natural defensive-end slot, and they weren't quick enough to defend Oregon for four full quarters. Heck, they arguably weren't even quick enough to stop Arizona.
But they were last season. And they should be again in 2012, with basically every player across the entire defense on the smaller size, weight-wise. Wes Horton and George Uko might be the only USC defenders with prototypical frames for their positions.
Another potential get-small move for the future is putting incoming freshman Leonard Williams at defensive tackle. He's a nice-sized defensive end, but he could be a workable three-technique tackle, which is one of the Trojans' biggest needs behind Uko.
The Kiffins have demonstrated creativity with assembling their defense of late, and there's no reason to think they won't continue to this fall and beyond.
Check back Friday for our final thing we learned this spring.
Two weeks ago, he didn't even attempt a single pass. A week ago, he largely gave way to backups Cody Kessler and Max Wittek.
This time, the senior signal-caller completed 23-of-39 pass attempts for 212 yards, one touchdown and one interception in what was by far his most participated-in scrimmage of the spring. He threw three times as many passes as Kessler (3-of-6 for 68 yards) and Wittek (3-of-7 for 27) combined.
USC coach Lane Kiffin indicated the decision to use Barkley so much was based on two factors: 1. The Trojans weren't tackling, to keep injuries at a minimum; 2. They were getting some offensive weapons back healthy that hadn't been on the field for a scrimmage in weeks.
Tight end Xavier Grimble and receiver De'Von Flournoy were among the players who participated who hadn't suited up in recent weeks.
For the game, score was kept in an offense vs. defense fashion, with the Trojans' defensive players awarded three points for stops on drives and five points for turnovers. The defense won, 34-27, with the offense scoring three touchdowns and two field goals and the defense stopping eight drives and collecting two turnovers.
Barkley was asked after the scrimmage if he felt as if, at the end of the spring, the Trojans are a national-championship contending team.
"Not yet," Barkley said. "Not anywhere close to that yet. We still have a lot of work to do to get there. Based off talent, you might say that, but there's a lot more that goes into that than talent."
But that's not enough. The Trojans need more linemen capable of logging 10-20 snaps a game to provide breathers for the starters. Who will back those five guys up against the fast-paced offenses of the Pac-12?
"That's the big question," USC defensive line coach Ed Orgeron said last week.
Orgeron has dedicated this spring to cultivating some playable backups for the 2012 season. And as of right now, he says, he has four potential players: redshirt freshman Greg Townsend Jr., junior Morgan Breslin, redshirt junior Kevin Greene and incoming freshman Leonard Williams.
Realistically, those four are competing -- or will be competing, in Williams' case -- for two slots behind Kennard and Horton.
"There's gonna be a third and a fourth end," Orgeron said on Saturday after the Trojans' scrimmage at the Coliseum. "But there is a big difference between the first team and the second team right now.
"Those guys have to rise and I have to do a better job of coaching them to get ready."
- Quarterback Matt Barkley did not participate in the scrimmage portion of practice, giving way to backups Cody Kessler and Max Wittek. Wittek started off as the No. 1 signal-caller before the two switched at the half. We'll have more on the race to back up Barkley on Sunday.
- Defensive line coach Ed Orgeron said there are four players battling to be the third and fourth ends behind Devon Kennard and Wes Horton this season, and none of them have stepped up considerably ahead thus far. He also said Greg Townsend Jr. will no longer practice inside at tackle after he spent the first couple weeks of practice learning the new position. We'll have more on this Monday, along with an update on the running back situation with Curtis McNeal and Tre Madden.
- Injury report: Safety Drew McAllister (leg) returned after missing the latter half of Thursday's practice. Aside from that, nothing changed from Thursday's injury situation, although Kiffin did say center Khaled Holmes (calf) and fullback Soma Vainuku (back) could return Tuesday. Receiver George Farmer (hamstring) did mostly special-teams work, marking the eighth straight practice he has now missed because of the hamstring pull. Running back Buck Allen (hamstring) ran on the sideline for most of practice.
- The lone new injury: Receiver Victor Blackwell hurt his hand and his knee during practice and sat out for some of the day. Kiffin said both were "nothing big." Blackwell's absence meant walk-ons had to take on an even bigger role with only one scholarship pass-catcher available in De'Von Flournoy.
- Cornerback Torin Harris (shoulder) continues to miss practice while rehabbing and working out on the sideline. He has been out since the middle of last season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum in the shoulder,"It was positive that he was getting better," Kiffin said. "He should be ready by camp."
- Freshman defensive end DeVante Wilson and redshirt freshman tight end Junior Pomee spent the scrimmage doing rollovers and sit-ups on the sidelines after arriving late to a 9 a.m. morning meeting, Kiffin said.
- Final notes: Receiver Marqise Lee missed the scrimmage to participate in the long jump at the Texas Relays in Austin. He finished 10th. ... An estimated 800 or 900 fans were in attendance at the Coliseum for the open scrimmage, with a couple hundred leaving once it started to rain two-thirds of the way through. ... A number of top recruits were also at the Coliseum, which we'll have more on later.
Our first item covered Marqise Lee‘s continued progress, our second the new-look Aundrey Walker and third the situation at backup QB.
Fourth is this: All options will be explored in the interior of the defensive line.
It doesn't necessarily reflect the talent levels of the players who created them, but USC's biggest hole this offseason -- by far -- is at nose tackle.
Nick Perry had a natural replacement, as did DaJohn Harris in George Uko. Matt Kalil had a qualified candidate to replace him at left tackle, too, in Kevin Graf.
But Christian Tupou's spot? The natural person to step in would be J.R. Tavai, but it's clear he's not being looked at as an every-down option. Then there's Antwaun Woods, whose playing time seems to largely depend on his physical condition.
So what next? Ed Orgeron and the Trojans are looking every which way for potential options to fill the hole created by Tupou's departure. Defensive end Wes Horton worked out at tackle last season, but Orgeron said last week that was a failed experiment and will no longer be tried.
Now, defensive end Greg Townsend Jr. is getting time at the three-technique, which could presumably push Uko to nose if it works out. Redshirt freshman Christian Heyward is sitting out the spring after undergoing shoulder surgery, but he'll get a long look come fall camp to determine if he can contribute 20 or snaps a game.
One thing is clear: The nose tackle spot is going to be USC's biggest 2012 weakness, unless someone unexpectedly emerges. Tupou wasn't a high-profile contributor, but he rarely made mistakes and he was consistently on the field when healthy.
The Trojans could use a similar player this season, since Uko, Horton and Devon Kennard -- the other starting defensive linemen -- have the ability to produce enough quarterback pressure on their own.
Check back later Friday for the fifth and final thing we learned from the spring.
- USC coach Lane Kiffin said the defense dominated the day on Saturday, and it was clear. The Trojans' offense scored just two touchdowns on 56 total plays in 11-on-11 scrimmaging, with those two scores coming from Marqise Lee and De'Von Flournoy.
- Backup quarterback Jesse Scroggins spent almost the entire practice doing rollovers on the field. Kiffin said he "missed something" earlier in the week. Scroggins has made almost no progress this spring and is already falling behind Max Wittek and Cody Kessler in the race to back up Matt Barkley.
- Injury report: Receiver Robert Woods (ankle) is still out, as is fellow pass-catcher George Farmer (hamstring) and several other players who are out for the entire spring. New injuries Saturday included hamstring pulls for running back Buck Allen and linebacker Dion Bailey, as well as a calf strain for center Khaled Holmes, which pushed Abe Markowitz into the first-string lineup.
- Big hits were provided by linebacker Tre Madden on running back D.J. Morgan, cornerback Isiah Wiley on running back Curtis McNeal and fullback Soma Vainuku on defensive end Morgan Breslin. Madden's was probably the biggest of the day -- or at least the loudest. Morgan held onto the ball; McNeal didn't.
- Defensive end Wes Horton had an impressive interception on a ball that appeared to be tipped by defensive tackle George Uko. Cornerback Nickell Robey earned MVP honors from Kiffin after forcing a fumble from Morgan on the final play of 11-on-11 scrimmaging.
- Final notes: 2012 signee Jabari Ruffin (Downey, Calif./Downey) was in attendance at practice along with a number of 2013 signees. ... There were more family members, recruits and media in attendance than had been at Howard Jones Field in at least two years. ... Greg Townsend Jr. continued to work at defensive tackle and looked more comfortable Saturday than the first two practices.