USC: Spring position preview 2012

Spring position preview: Special teams

March, 5, 2012
3/05/12
1:04
PM PT
We’re doing position previews leading up to spring practice, breaking down one group’s depth chart each day, paying special attention to things that can change in the spring.

We’ve looked at the quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, tight ends, offensive linemen, defensive linemen, linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties so far. Today, we finish things up with the special teams.

USC lost a four-year starter to graduation this winter in long snapper Chris Pousson, but the Trojans already had his replacement ready in Peter McBride, a 2011 signee who redshirted last season.

McBride was one of the top snappers available in that class. He's small -- at a listed 205 pounds, he's 45 less than Pousson -- but he's proven to be technically proficient. The transition shouldn't be terribly difficult.

And the Trojans also have returning starters at kicker and punter in Andre Heidari and Kyle Negrete. Heidari was downright awesome last season, one of the best kickers in the country; Negrete was efficient, downing roughly half his punts inside the 20-yard line and hitting zero touchbacks the entire year.

One interesting thing: Negrete, now a senior to-be, wasn't supposed to win the job last year. That was supposed to be freshman Kris Albarado, another scholarship player in the Class of 2011. But it made some sense for Negrete to punt last season, since Albarado had his redshirt year available.

But what about now? What about now that USC has one scholarship punter and one walk-on both using up years of eligibility? Will the walk-on -- Negrete -- continue to punt over the guy getting a free education?

For what the Trojans needed last season, Negrete was the perfect punter. The offense didn't fail a ton, but when it did, he could consistently pin the opponents back deep in their own territory.

It seems like they'll need the same sort of thing in 2012, which means Negrete is likely to keep the job for another year and Albarado is likely to take over the job as a third-year sophomore in 2013.

If anything's going to change on this front, we'll likely see the start of it this spring.

One other thing: The returner spots are also interesting openings this year, because it's likely USC won't want to use Curtis McNeal or Robert Woods there often to preserve the skill position players' health. So who could emerge there?

Freshman Nelson Agholor will be a prime candidate, but he won't arrive until the summer. We'll see who else shortly.

Check back later today for five final questions before spring practice begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. for USC.

Spring position preview: Safeties

March, 2, 2012
3/02/12
11:58
AM PT
We’re doing position previews in the weeks leading up to spring practice, breaking down one group’s depth chart each day, paying special attention to things that can change in the spring.

We’ve looked at the quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, tight ends, offensive linemen, defensive linemen, linebackers and cornerbacks so far. Today, we analyze the safeties.

T.J. McDonald will start at one safety spot for the USC Trojans in 2012. Will Jawanza Starling?

Most likely. The two players, seniors-to-be both, have essentially held down their respective starting positions for the last two years. Starling had a rough final stretch of the 2010 season but rebounded to be a steady presence throughout 2011.

But, based strictly on personnel, Starling is due to get some intense competition for his spot. Drew McAllister is going to be a senior; Demetrius Wright will be a junior.

Josh Shaw, a Florida transfer, is clearly starter-caliber as a defensive back. It's just a matter of (1) whether he'll be eligible in 2012 and (2) whether he'll play corner or safety. And Gerald Bowman was probably good enough to start in the Pac-12 last season while he was a ju-co player.

New defensive backs coach Marvin Sanders is going to have to give all these guys at least a shot at unseating Starling, but it's going to be interesting to see how it's approached.

The safety position is also a perfect example of a bigger question surrounding the Trojans. In general, what time of approach are they going to take to this year's spring practice? Is it going to be treated strictly as a venue for young players to get better, or is a big focus going to be placed on the position with new coaches getting acclimated to a new style?

Will players like McDonald and Starling get a lot of rest so that Sanders can see as much of Wright and Shaw as possible?

USC did do some of that last spring when linebacker Chris Galippo sat out the entire month to keep his back healthy, but that arguably ended up hurting him when he lost his starting spot in November. There's definitely a benefit to sitting out some of the spring as a returning starter (or at least taking it easy), but it's also a cost that has to be weighed in contrast.

McDonald's a perfect example of a rest candidate.

Check back Monday for the special-teamers and our final spring-practice preview before it officially starts Tuesday.

Spring position preview: CBs

March, 1, 2012
3/01/12
7:27
PM PT
We’re doing position previews in the weeks leading up to spring practice, breaking down one group’s depth chart each day, paying special attention to things that can change in the spring.

We’ve looked at the quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, tight ends, offensive linemen, defensive linemen and linebackers so far. Today, we analyze the cornerbacks.

Here's an honest truth: USC didn't have a real cornerbacks coach last season.

Once secondary coach Willie Mack Garza resigned just before the start of the regular season last September, graduate assistant Sammy Knight took over for him and did a commendable job, according to Lane Kiffin and his players. But Knight was a college and NFL safety and a true safeties' specialist, and he had very little experience coaching corners, if any at all.

That ended up hurting the Trojans significantly. Torin Harris and Tony Burnett both struggled last season and showed little week-to-week improvement. Junior-college transfer Isiah Wiley took longer to develop than USC envisioned.

Both of those things can be directly traced to the absence of a true cornerbacks coach. That, however, will no longer be an issue in 2012, not with new defensive backs coach Marvin Sanders now in the fold.

Sanders has a reputation as an elite corners coach. He's had a number of his players at that position drafted high over the years, including Prince Amukamara last year and Alfonzo Dennard this year.

What kind of impact can he make on USC's cornerback group?

There's certainly a lot of talent. This spring alone, he'll be able to work with two-year starter Nickell Robey, Wiley, Burnett and senior Brian Baucham -- plus redshirt freshman Ryan Henderson, one of the most athletic prospects across the country in the Class of 2011.

Burnett will be splitting his time with track, but Sanders could also have Florida transfer Josh Shaw, who will play either safety or corner. And Harris and Anthony Brown are expected back from season-ending surgeries at some point soon.

It isn't as necessary to find the second starting corner over the next month and a half as much as it's necessary to find a top four of sorts. Wiley will be in that mix and Brown probably will be too when he's healthy, but who else can Sanders and the Trojans count on as a reliable nickel-corner type to defend the passing offenses of the Pac-12?

Check back Friday for the safeties and Monday as we conclude our series with the special-teamers.

Spring position preview: LBs

February, 29, 2012
2/29/12
3:20
PM PT
We’re doing position previews in the weeks leading up to spring practice, breaking down one group's depth chart each day, paying special attention to things that can change in the spring.

We’ve looked at the quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, tight ends, offensive linemen and defensive linemen so far. Today, we analyze the linebackers.

Three spots, three returning starting sophomores.

It doesn't get much more convenient than that for USC's new linebackers coach, Scottie Hazelton.

Dion Bailey, Lamar Dawson and Hayes Pullard will be his starters, from strong side to weak side. Very little time will be spent this spring trying to determine who's going to start.

That time will instead be spent transitioning to a new regime of sorts with the linebacking corps and helping develop the younger players at the position.

Thus, the two most intriguing players this spring are Scott Starr and Anthony Sarao, two talented guys who haven't logged any time on the field. This is Starr's first semester at USC after he enrolled early last month; Sarao redshirted last season as a Class of 2011 signee.

What makes them interesting prospects? Well, one of them has to be the backup to Dawson at middle linebacker this season, and there haven't been too many hints as to who it will be. We know Starr is going to start the spring at the Mike spot, but will Sarao, too?

Sarao played some of it last year on the scout team -- portraying Vontaze Burfict during ASU week -- and has received positive reviews from teammates and coaches about his on-field awareness. Starr is incredibly well developed for a kid who should be a high-school senior and has quickly caught on to the defensive schemes, judging from the winter workouts.

Dawson was bothered by injuries last season, so he could easily be the second-straight freshman to man the middle for a stint if he wins the No. 2 slot for this season.

On another note, will there be a way to get sophomore to-be Tre Madden on the field this year? He was a valuable special-teamer last season and can do the same in 2012, but he also proved capable of playing on defense in his one start at Colorado.

And what will happen to Marquis Simmons and Simione Vehikite, two players entering their fourth year in the program who have yet to contribute in big ways?

Those are questions the 15-session spring can help answer.

Check back Thursday for the cornerbacks.

Spring position preview: DLs

February, 28, 2012
2/28/12
10:18
AM PT
We’re doing position-by-position previews in the weeks leading up to spring practice, breaking down the depth chart for one position group each day, paying special attention to things that can change in the spring.

We’ve looked at the quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, tight ends and offensive linemen so far. Today, we analyze the defensive linemen.

Lane Kiffin always said former USC defensive end Nick Perry was a unique athlete.

Everyone else finally saw the same thing at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis last weekend. Now the tough part comes, though: The Trojans have to replace him and the pass-rush presence he provided on the defensive line the last three seasons.

There isn't another returner on the line who has proven capable and consistent as a pass-rusher. Wes Horton has been effective in stretches and George Uko has shown flashes, but that's about it. Devon Kennard has struggled to get to the quarterback and the other projected starter, nose guard J.R. Tavai, doesn't even try to get there much.

Where will the sacks come from? That's part of what this spring will help figure out.

(Read full post)

Spring position preview: OLs

February, 27, 2012
2/27/12
11:40
AM PT
We’re doing position-by-position previews in the weeks leading up to spring practice, breaking down the depth chart for one position group each day, paying special attention to things that can change in the spring.

We’ve looked at the quarterbacks, running backs, receivers and tight ends so far. Today, we analyze the offensive linemen.

This was a problem position group last year for the Trojans, at least until midway through the 2011 season. There was a ton of uncertainty over the guard spots at this point last year, and it largely remained until the final weeks before the regular-season opener.

That won't be the case this year, even though USC is replacing star left tackle Matt Kalil.

The middle three linemen should all be returning starters, with Marcus Martin and John Martinez manning the left and right guard spots and Khaled Holmes at center. Then Aundrey Walker, a sophomore, is going to start the spring at right tackle, and Kevin Graf, a fourth-year junior, is going to do the same on the left side.

That is the most likely alignment come September, too, although it's also likely Walker will get a chance at some point to unseat Graf on the left side. How early that chance will come -- and how many chances there will be -- is still uncertain.

What's there to watch this spring, then? A few things, actually, with maybe the most interesting being exactly how much weight Walker has lost since enrolling at USC. He was listed at 375 pounds all of last season, a weight which reportedly came from his official visit in January 2011. Now, Lane Kiffin is saying he's dropped 60 pounds to 315.

That's a big number, but, if true, could mean he gets an almost-immediate chance to unseat Graf. Even at 6-6 and 300-something last year, it was easy to see Walker's natural athletic ability and quickness on the line. Now that he's dropped a significant amount of weight, it should get even easier.

Linemen who have significant quickness at 6-6 and 300-plus pounds tend to play left tackle, especially at the college level.

Another thing to watch: How did Martin's offseason weight-loss program go? He was listed at 340 pounds last season but has appeared slimmer in winter conditioning workouts.

And, one last thing to note: Unless players leave unexpectedly early for the NFL next offseason, it's likely USC will again return four starters with a combined seven years of starting experience on the offensive line in 2013.

Check back Tuesday for the defensive linemen.

Spring position preview: TEs

February, 24, 2012
2/24/12
6:48
AM PT
We’re doing position-by-position previews in the two weeks leading up to spring practice, breaking down the depth chart for one position group each day, paying special attention to potential things that can change in the spring.

We’ve looked at the quarterbacks, running backs and receivers so far. Today, we analyze the tight ends.

Quick: Who started more games at tight end for the USC Trojans last season, Randall Telfer or Xavier Grimble?

Most would say Telfer because of the way he came on strong at the end of the year and finished with five touchdowns and 26 total receptions. But Grimble actually officially started seven of USC's 12 games in 2011, including most of the first half of the season. He's a better blocker than Telfer -- so, while his speed and hands might be a touch worse, he does have that going for him.

USC's tight ends, in general, have plenty going for them. The question with the unit isn't at all if someone will step up and fill a role -- it's, will there be enough roles for capable players to fill?

Behind Telfer and Grimble, the 1a and 1b of the USC tight end corps, are redshirt sophomore Christian Thomas and redshirt freshman Junior Pomee, both intriguing prospects themselves. Pomee, in particular, is about as enticing a player as you get, a 6-3, 235-pounder with the speed of a receiver and the size of a tight end.

Thomas has had recent injury issues of late was deemed ready enough as a tight end to play over both Grimble and Telfer as a first-year freshman in 2010.

The four will likely be coached by grad assistant Justin Mesa in 2012 and will certainly be without Rhett Ellison for the first time since the 2006 season. But there is new talent enrolling in Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, although he won't be at USC until the fall. So the spring will be about determining who the third tight end is and how much he will be used.

Especially with uncertainty at fullback for the fall, it wouldn't be too surprising if the Trojans took a page out of rival Stanford's playbook and resorted to a lot of two-tight-end sets. If that's the case, then Thomas and Pomee suddenly become very valuable as passing-game threats and injury insurance.

This one's a good one to watch.

Check back Monday for the offensive linemen.

Spring position preview: WRs

February, 23, 2012
2/23/12
6:45
AM PT
We’re doing position-by-position previews in the two weeks leading up to spring practice, breaking down the depth chart for one position group each day, paying special attention to potential things that can change in the spring.

We've looked at the quarterbacks and running backs so far. Today, we analyze the receivers.

Robert Woods and Marqise Lee
US PresswireEveryone knows who USC's No. 1 and No. 2 receivers are by now: Robert Woods and Marqise Lee.
Is there a more intriguing position battle this spring than that for the No. 3 receiver spot?

First of all, there are three legitimate candidates in De'Von Flournoy, George Farmer and Victor Blackwell. All three have the ability to present real cases that they deserve the job behind Robert Woods and Marqise Lee. Then throw in a brand-new receivers coach in Tee Martin and returning skill-position starters in Matt Barkley and Curtis McNeal.

Now you can see why it's so intriguing.

Farmer's obviously the fans' first choice, as he's the attractive sort of pick in that he's fast, tall, agile and young. But most of those things apply to Blackwell, too -- and his hands are also quite reliable. And Flournoy, the forgotten man in some circles, played as a freshman under Pete Carroll in 2009. So despite the fact that he hasn't played in the two seasons since, he clearly has some value as a receiver, and he's experienced, too.

Basically, Matt Barkley's goal this spring will be to find out which of those three he can trust as a reliable option in the passing game, if any. And, say none of these guys proves himself this spring. Is it then out of the question that freshman Nelson Agholor could then come in in the summer and seize the No. 3 spot right from them?

Not at all. Not at all. Agholor resembles Woods in many ways -- like stature, speed and attitude -- and we all know what happened in Woods' freshman season: He came in better prepared than the competitors, stole the job from them and had a monster first year.

This Florida kid could do the same thing when he gets to USC, which makes spring all the more important for the three returners. This will be a position battle to watch, without a doubt.

Check back Friday for the tight ends.

Spring position preview: RBs

February, 22, 2012
2/22/12
4:06
PM PT
Curtis McNealStephen Dunn/Getty ImagesCurtis McNeal averaged nearly seven yards a carry last season and will be USC's featured back in 2012.
We're doing position-by-position previews in the two weeks leading up to spring practice, breaking down the depth chart for one position group each day, paying special attention to potential things that can change in the spring.

Tuesday, we looked at the quarterbacks. Here's a take on the running backs.

Few realize just how good USC's Curtis McNeal was in 2011. The fourth-year junior averaged almost seven yards per carry last season, totaling just over 1,000 rushing yards on just 145 carries for a 6.9 yards per carry average.

How good was that? Put it this way: Only one other player in the NCAA (Missouri's Henry Josey) reached even 900 yards with that few carries. McNeal tied for 11th in the country in yards per carry among running backs, and a number of the players in front of him were backups, like Alabama's Eddie Lacy and Oklahoma State's Jeremy Smith.

If he can come close to replicating that efficiency while taking on true starter's carries in 2012, McNeal should surpass 1,500 yards with ease.

Look at this way: USC ran roughly 375 designed run plays in 12 games last season, not counting sacks. That equates to just over 31 rushes per game. If coach Lane Kiffin gives McNeal a reasonable majority of 20 of those 31 in each of the Trojans' 13 games next season, counting a bowl, he'll get 260 carries.

Multiply that by 6.9 and you get 1,794, obviously a lofty goal but not by means out of reach as long as he stays healthy.

That's where D.J. Morgan comes in. Last year, Lacy got 95 carries while backing up Trent Richardson. To help spell McNeal, USC could give Morgan the same amount and still have another 50 rushes left over to spread between quarterbacks, fullbacks and alternate sources.

And that's what this spring is about, really -- finding who those 50 will go to, or, in other words, who the No. 3 option is. McNeal's No. 1 and Morgan's No. 2, but is Buck Allen, the only other running back on the roster, the third? Or is it fullback Soma Vainuku?

And, if neither of those two emerge as capable ballcarriers, will it be incoming freshmen Jahleel Pinner and Nelson Agholor getting cracks at it once they get to USC in the fall?

Check back Thursday for the receivers.

Spring position preview: QBs

February, 21, 2012
2/21/12
5:09
PM PT
BarkleyKelvin Kuo/US PresswireUnless he's injured, Matt Barkley figures to take every meaningful snap for USC in the 2012 season.
With two weeks left until spring practice begins for USC on March 6, we thought it would be a great time to start our position-by-position previews leading up to the festivities.

For the next 10 weekdays we'll break down the depth chart for one position group each day, paying special attention to potential things that can change in the spring.

There is no position at USC more clear-cut than this, at least as far as starters go. As long as he stays healthy, Matt Barkley will take every single meaningful snap for the Trojans in the 2012 season.

What isn't clear-cut, though, is who his backup is. It was complicated last season, and could be similarly so this season.

Freshman Cody Kessler was listed at No. 2, but the goal was to allow him and fellow freshman Max Wittek to redshirt. So, until Jesse Scroggins' throwing thumb healed last October, walk-on senior John Manoogian was the practical backup. (He has not yet decided whether he will return for a fifth year in 2012.)

The underlying sentiment all season was that whomever finished the season behind Barkley would be the early favorite to replace him if Barkley left school early for the NFL draft. Of course, that didn't happen.

And USC coach Lane Kiffin also maintained all year that the depth chart would reset whenever Barkley did depart. It's likely he'll take the same stance again this year.

(Read full post)

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PASSINGATTCOMPYDSTD
C. Kessler361236296820
RUSHINGCARYDSAVGTD
J. Allen1357855.814
T. Madden1387035.13
RECEIVINGRECYDSAVGTD
M. Lee5779113.94
N. Agholor5691816.46
TEAMRUSHPASSTOTAL
Offense174.2218.1392.3
TEAMPFPAMARGIN
Scoring28.521.37.2