USC limping into spring practices

March, 21, 2011
3/21/11
5:49
PM ET
Spring is supposed to be a time of renewal and hope, but USC coach Lane Kiffin seemed to be suffering a prolonged case of the winter blahs Monday. And for good reason. He said 20 players -- many of them projected starters or key contributors -- won't be available for full-contact work when the Trojans begin spring practices Tuesday.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireLane Kiffin is concerned about his team's spring injuries, particularly on the offensive line.
Rebirth and renewal of the Trojan empire after a middling 8-5 finish in 2010? Humbug.

"There's too many questions," Kiffin said. "I think it would be a little tough to say this team is better than last year."

Most of these injuries are not expected to be issues when preseason practices begin in August. But you never know. And there were some troubling additions to the already long injury list we noted last week, including linebacker Chris Galippo, whose back is giving him trouble again. Toss in injuries to Devon Kennard (hip) and Shane Horton (hip), and none of the projected starting linebackers are ready to practice. In fact, when you toss in an injury to backup Ross Cumming, the only available linebacker from last year's depth chart is redshirt freshman Will Andrew.

Few position groups have been spared the injury bug. Defensive linemen are out: end Armond Armstead, tackle Christian Tupou and end Wes Horton. Offensive linemen are out: Khaled Holmes, tackle Kevin Graf and center Abe Markowitz. Defensive backs are out: safety Drew McAllister and cornerbacks T.J. Bryant and Torin Harris. And a receiver is out: Kyle Prater.

So while, officially, 13 starters are back -- 6 on offense; 7 on defense; no specialists -- there will be plenty of opportunities for young players to shine. Of the 86 players on the spring roster (that includes walk-ons), just 38 saw action in 2010 and 47 have never taken a college snap, so there will be a bit of "Hello, my name is..." this spring. Just 14 returning Trojans have started at least 10 games.

Further, because of the lack of bodies -- particularly on the lines -- Kiffin said that much of the work this spring will be 7 on 7 -- "You're not going to be able to have normal practices," he said.

What's Kiffin's chief concern? The offensive line, which he calls "a gigantic issue."

There is some good news in terms of continuity on Kiffin's coaching staff. The only change is the departure of receivers coach John Morton, who joined Jim Harbaugh's staff with the San Francisco 49ers. He was replaced by Ted Gilmore, who was at Nebraska last year.

The spring game is April 23 in the Coliseum.

Some other notes:

Spread? Kiffin talked last year about adopting some spread elements to his offense going forward, but that was more about one-back, four receiver sets, not a spread-option similar to what Oregon runs. The reasoning is largely about personnel. The Trojans lose the versatile Stanley Havili -- perhaps the best fullback in the nation -- and have little experience ready to step in at the position. And there's lots of intriguing young talent at receiver.

Position changes: Redshirt freshman Dion Bailey moved to linebacker from safety. Robert Woods takes over at "Z" receiver -- flanker -- the position Ronald Johnson played last season.

Positions to watch: Obviously, injuries all over the depth chart mean youngsters will get plenty of reps this spring, which means plenty of opportunities to impress. Here are some spots Kiffin made specific note of, other than the injury-riddled lines:

  • Tight end: Rhett Ellison is back, but what will be the pecking order between Xavier Grimble, Randall Telfer and Christian Thomas? The Trojans would like to run more two tight end sets.
  • Running back: Marc Tyler is the returning veteran, but he struggles to stay healthy. What will the pecking order end up between Dillon Baxter, Curtis McNeal and D.J. Morgan?
  • Backup QB: Matt Barkley is the starter (duh), but with the departure of Mitch Mustain, who's his backup? Redshirt freshman Jesse Scroggins would seem to have an inside track, but touted true freshmen Cody Kessler and Max Wittek will both participate in spring practices.
  • Linebacker: Great opportunity for guys to catch their coaches eyes: Bailey, Andrew, Dallas Kelly, Marquis Simmons, Simione Vehikite, Hayes Pullard, etc.
What about Barkley? Barkley, a true junior, took a step forward last season as a second-year starter, but he still missed too many throws, 12 of which ended up as interceptions. Kiffin said he expects Barkley's next step to be playing at a consistently elite level. "He's competing against the best in the country," Kiffin said. "He's competing against the Andrew Lucks. He's got to take that mindset in every practice."

What about that NCAA appeal? On Saturday, it will be nine weeks since USC president Max Nikias, athletic director Pat Haden and four other university representatives spent more than four hours talking with the NCAA infractions appeals committee in Indianapolis. Most appeals take four to eight weeks. Ah, but nothing in the USC case has moved quickly. Kiffin said he had no idea when USC would learn if the appeals committee will reduce the penalties that appear more draconian by the day, as other schools end up in headlines about alleged rules violations that appear far worse than the findings against USC.

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