Pac-12: Aundrey Walker

USC roundtable: Impact, battles and more 

July, 30, 2014
The WeAreSC staffers discuss various topics related to the opening of USC Trojans fall camp practices next Monday.

Who will have the biggest camp impact? (offense/defense)

Garry Paskwietz: Steve Sarkisian says this will be a physical run-first offense and that should mean plenty of opportunities for Buck Allen to establish himself early as a critical piece of the system. The reigning Trojans MVP is in great shape and appears ready for that kind of role. On defense, Leonard Williams may be the most talented and Hayes Pullard is the most productive -- but in terms of impact, I'm going to go with Su'a Cravens. His athleticism should allow for him to make a lot of plays.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesThe Trojans' offense will run through quarterback Cody Kessler and tailback Javorius "Buck" Allen.
Johnny Curren: On offense, I'm going to go with Allen. The fourth-year junior tailback is in fantastic shape right now, and with Sarkisian showing a real desire to pound the ball on the ground, he should get plenty of chances to shine. On defense, Williams is the one to watch. Close to 100 percent after undergoing offseason surgery on his shoulder, there's every reason to believe he'll have an even bigger 2014 campaign than his season of 2013, when he garnered first-team All-America honors.

Greg Katz: Cody Kessler on offense. The Trojans' offense may have more explosive players, but the system doesn't work unless Kessler works, and he has been relentless in not only learning Sark's no-huddle, fast-paced offense but executing it and teaching others. Williams on defense. Teammates of the "Big Cat" know he played with pain in his shoulder last season and was never 100 percent. In the summer, however, it was darn scary just how must quicker and intense he was during voluntary workouts.

What will be the best position battle?

Paskwietz: The Trojans enter camp with no clear-cut starter at left guard and as many as four candidates for the job. The one veteran in the mix is Jordan Simmons, but he is coming off knee surgery last fall. The other three possibilities are all true freshmen in Toa Lobendahn, Viane Talamaivao and Damien Mama. All are extremely talented, but all will be taking part in their first fall camp practices as Trojans, though Lobendahn did participate in spring drills.

Curren: I'm tempted to say the battle at Sam linebacker between Jabari Ruffin and Quinton Powell, but after seeing J.R. Tavai shine throughout the summer workouts, I'll go with the competition between he and Scott Starr at rush end. Both performers are excellent athletes who play physical and fast to the ball off the edge, and I look forward to watching them bring out the best in each other in fall camp.

Katz: Because of the importance of both offensive guard positions, one would have to lump this as a critical unit position battle. Whether starting senior right guard Aundrey Walker, coming off an ankle injury, and Simmons, coming off of a knee injury, at left guard can be physically in shape and hold up to the pace of the offense remains in question. What isn't in question are the true freshmen O-liners such as Lobendahn, who is a well advanced talent despite his inexperience.

Who will be the surprise player of camp?

Paskwietz: It's hard to call Adoree' Jackson a surprise player in anything when you consider he was the highest-rated recruit in this USC class. The surprise will come, however, in just how good he will be from the word go. And I'm not talking just at one spot, he will make a case for playing time on offense, defense and special teams.

Curren: I really liked what I saw out of Leon McQuay III, both in the spring as well as this past summer. He's going to really open some eyes in his role as the starting free safety. Having bulked up considerably since his freshman season, he's also played with a new level of confidence over the past six months.

USC notebook: QBs in the spotlight

March, 12, 2014

LOS ANGELES -- Through a crush of digital cameras and recorders, new USC head coach Steve Sarkisian was given the requisite initial questions following his first official practice as USC’s head coach.

“What’s it like being back?”

“How was the walk onto the practice field?”

“What’s it like coaching some of the guys you recruited at Washington?”

Yada, yada, yada.

It didn’t take long, however, for the queries to turn to the quarterbacks. Much like last season, anytime USC has a quarterback competition it’s going to be in the national spotlight. For now, save the cards -- score, report or otherwise -- because to speculate on the quarterbacks after one practice barely scratches the surface of superficial. Particularly since, as Sarkisian noted, “we were practicing in our underwear.”

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsCody Kessler led USC to 10 wins last season, but his status as starting quarterback is not guaranteed.
To be clear, the Trojans wore shorts and helmets. But the lingering question throughout spring and into the fall will be whether Cody Kessler will retain his starting job, or give way to Max Browne.

Neither quarterback seemed particularly thrilled to be talking about a competition on Day 1.

“I’m just trying to get better every practice,” Kessler said. “I’m going to keep working. I’ve been competing my whole life. And even if (there wasn’t a competition) I’d keep competing. It is what it is and I’m just going to keep trying to get better.”

At first glance, the assumption is that Kessler has the inside edge given his experience. Last season he completed 236 of 361 passes for 2,968 yards with 20 touchdowns to seven interceptions. He posted a raw QBR of 59.7 with an adjusted QBR of 66.7 in guiding the Trojans to a 10-4 record and a victory in the Las Vegas Bowl, where he was named the game’s MVP.

“I thought they both did some good stuff,” Sarkisian said. “They both had some moments they’d love to have back. We have to look at the film. We’re moving at a pretty fast clip out there, and you’re trying to assess everything at once, and it’s hard to do that. There’s plenty of stuff for both of them to learn from.”

Then again, Max Wittek had more experience than Kessler heading into spring last season. So as far as Browne is concerned, it’s wide open.

“Since the day I got here we’ve all competed each and every day,” said Browne, who redshirted last season. “My mindset hasn’t changed. Even last year when it was a Week 7 game and I knew I was redshirting, I was still competing ... It’s no secret he led us to 10 wins last year. We had a lot of success. But we’re both going to come out and compete each and every day and see where the chips fall.”

Max in the middle

Those in attendance for the open practice might have noticed big No. 75 playing center. You might recall that Max Tuerk spent about a week at center last spring but couldn’t quite get the quarterback-center exchange figured out -- mostly because Tuerk’s arms are so long.

But with Marcus Martin departing -- and the new scheme being installed by Sarkisian working almost exclusively out of the shotgun -- the versatile Tuerk could be the primary guy in the middle.

“We didn’t snap any over the quarterback’s head,” Sarkisian said. “So knock on wood. And there were no grounders. That was the first thing I was concerned about coming out today.”

Tuerk is obviously a fan of the shotgun. As a consummate team player, he’s happy going wherever the team needs him, as he started 13 games at left guard and one game at right tackle last season. In his freshman season he started five at left tackle.

“He could probably play three different positions,” Sarkisian said. “We have to see how we evolve. At some point we’ll get Aundrey Walker back and Zach Banner and Jordan Simmons. We have some versatility on this front. But it is comforting to know you have an experienced player at center when you are operating at this pace.”

Speaking of pace

The hot buzz word at practice was “tempo” because of the fast-paced offense that Sarkisian is installing. The Trojans ran approximately 120 offensive plays with little time to rest in between.

The upside is that the pace boosts conditioning and gets the Trojans more prepared for a game situation. The downside is it doesn’t allow for much in-practice instruction.

“If you make a mistake, you’re glad you’re going right back,” Browne said. “If you throw a touchdown, like I did today to George Katrib, you don’t get to time to celebrate either. It works both ways. But it allows you to get into a rhythm. You can dink-and-dunk your way down the field and never really get time to breathe.”

Best case-worst case: USC

August, 9, 2013
This is the sixth in a series looking at potential dream and nightmare scenarios for all Pac-12 teams.

Understand: These are not predictions. They are extreme scenarios and pieces of fiction. You can read last year's versions here.

We're going in reverse order of my post-spring power rankings (which might not be identical to my preseason power rankings).

Up next: USC

Best case

Lane Kiffin glowers at the ocean from his Manhattan Beach home. He is disquieted, even with his favorite Eric Clapton song playing in the background. The waves roar at him under an unusually cloudy August day in Southern California.

"Now is the season of our discontent, made glorious summer by this sun of Bruin," he says. "And all the clouds that Mora'd upon our house, in the deep bosom of the ocean buried."

Kiffin picks up a copy of the LA Times. He throws it onto a pile where ESPN Magazine, Sports Illustrated and the Orange County Register lay. "Hot seat, hot seat, hot seat!" he says. "I have been rudely stamp'd!"

He turns on the TV and with an exaggerated, irritated emphasis, he flips the channels until he arrives on ESPN.

"And therefore — since I cannot prove a media favorite -- to entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain," Kiffin says. "And hate the idle pleasures of these Pac-12 days!”

He watches interviews of UCLA coach Jim Mora, Stanford coach David Shaw and Oregon coach Mark Helfrich. He smirks.

He says, "Winning is the thing wherein I'll catch the catch the conscience of the Pac-12 kings! And keep my job."

A few days later, on Aug. 23, Kiffin stands before reporters.

"Cody Kessler is going to be our starting quarterback," Kiffin says. "He doesn't have the biggest arm and he's not built like an NFL quarterback, but he played this best during fall camp. I like his moxie. Sometimes even USC needs moxie."

USC rolls over Hawaii and Washington State, dominates Boston College and thrashes Utah State. Kessler throws just one interception against 10 touchdown passes, while the defense dominates, not yielding more than 20 points during the 4-0 start. The Trojans rise to No. 10 in the national rankings.
Kevin Gemmell: Boy, the Trojans drowned those first four teams in malmsey butt.

Ted Miller: What's malmsey butt?

Gemmell: It's ... I have no idea. I was just trying to stick to your Richard III deal.

Things, however, go off the tracks at Arizona State. The Trojans are flagged eight times for 85 yards and turn the ball over three times in the first half as they trail the Sun Devils 21-3.

"Have we eaten of the insane root that takes the reason prisoner?" Kiffin barks in the locker room. "Men, settle down. We only need to focus on one thing. Win the next play. Stop over thinking this. Win the next play. Beat the guy in front of you. Win the next play and then do it again. That is all."

Kessler throws three touchdown passes to Marqise Lee in the third quarter, and Silas Redd, Justin Davis and Tre Madden wear down the undersized Sun Devils defense in the fourth, as the Trojans roll to 42-24 win.

During the bye week, a column on the front of the LA Times sports page asks: "Is Kiffin becoming a good coach?"

Scoffs Kiffin, "Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit and lost without deserving."

The Trojans blow out Arizona and head to Notre Dame at 6-0. Lee turns South Bend into his own little play pen, catching four touchdown passes and going the distance on a kickoff return.

The fourth-ranked Trojans roll over Utah and then, with Lee on the cover of Sports Illustrated, head to Corvallis.
Gemmell: Just tapping some things into the "Uh Oh Calculator" here. We've got USC going to Corvallis and USC on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Miller: And don't forget my 3,000-word story on the certainty that the Trojans would play for the national title this week!

The Trojans miss a 27-yard field goal with 20 seconds left and Oregon State prevails 28-27, which is USC's fourth consecutive loss in Corvallis.

USC bounces back with a win at California. Then No. 7 Stanford comes to town, fresh off a loss to No. 2 Oregon. The Cardinal have won four in a row in the series with USC and five of the last six matchups.

"Stanford has just dominated us," Kiffin says in his Tuesday news conference. "They are a more physical team than we are. So we're going to need to find ways to make this game less about the line of scrimmage."

On the first play after the kickoff, Kessler lines up behind center and hands off to Redd. On second and 6, he lines up in the shot gun. On third and 1, he rushes the Trojans to the line of scrimmage, takes the shotgun snap and connects with Lee for a 30 yard gain.
Announcer: It appears that Lane Kiffin is going to run an up-tempo, no-huddle offense. Basically his two-minute offense.

Color analyst: Of course, Stanford saw the nation's best up-tempo offense last week against Oregon, and it faces a lot of up-tempo schemes, but you have to think this is a bit of a curveball for defensive coordinator Derek Mason.

USC takes a 14-10 lead into halftime.

The Trojans get a stop on Stanford's first possession of the second half. They take over on their 31. Kessler is back under center. On first down, he pitches to Redd for six yards. On second down, he pitches to Redd for four yards. On first down, he pitches to Davis for three yards. On second down, he pitches to Davis for 10 yards.
Announcer: Well, cut off my legs and call me shorty. After running a no-huddle offense and throwing 29 times in the first half, Kiffin has pulled a page from John McKay's old playbook.

Color analyst: Student body right, student body left. An I-formation, a simple toss with big linemen and a fullback leading the way. It seems Kiffin, after calling Stanford physically dominant all week, might have been playing opossum.

The Trojans rush for 210 yards in the second half against the nation's No. 1 run defense and win 35-20.
Miller: That was genius, Lane! Like I've said all along, you should call your own plays. It's your team and I've always thought you were a great play caller.

Kiffin: That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain — At least I am sure it may be so with the Pac-12 blog.

Miller: Lane, you need to lighten up. That's the next step. Maybe you should read some Christopher Moore?

Kiffin: Knavery's plain face is never seen till us'd!

The Trojans, who climb to No. 4 in the national polls, batter Colorado and improve to 11-1. Up next: No. 10 UCLA, which is 9-2, having only lost to Oregon and Stanford. The battle for the Victory Bell also will decide the Pac-12 South Division title.

"Do I remember my non-block that allowed Anthony Barr to sack Barkley and end his USC career?" Trojans offensive tackle Aundrey Walker says, rephrasing a reporter's question. "The one in which Barr made fun of me at Pac-12 media day? The one that typified our 2012 season? The play that should haunt me until I redeem myself? No. I've not thought about that once."

The Trojans score on their first five possessions and blow out the Bruins, who turn the ball over five times. Barr doesn't even touch Kessler all day. With 2:30 left, Kiffin goes for 2 to make the final count 51-0.
Kiffin: Well, we beat them 50-zip in 2011, so I didn't want the same final number again.

Reporter: It will be construed that Lane Kiffin was running up the score, that he has no conscience.

Kiffin: Conscience is but a word that cowards use, devised at first to keep the strong in awe.

No. 2 Oregon beats the Trojans 33-31 in the Pac-12 championship game when Alejandro Maldonado kicks a 58-yard field goal with no time left on the clock.

Lee wins USC's eighth Heisman Trophy.

The Ducks whip Alabama 40-10 to win the national title. The Trojans dominate previously unbeaten Ohio State 42-17 in the Rose Bowl. The final polls rank Oregon No. 1 and USC No. 2.

UCLA, Stanford, Arizona State, Oregon State and Washington also win bowl games, with seven Pac-12 teams finishing ranked in the final polls.

"Good," says Kiffin. "We want Oregon and UCLA and the rest of the conference to be strong. It's no fun to rule the weak."

Worst case

On Aug. 23, Kiffin stands before reporters.

"Max Wittek is going to be our starting quarterback," Kiffin says. "He didn't play as well as Cody Kessler in the spring or in preseason camp, but he's big and tall and has a good arm. He looks the part. You media sorts don't understand that it's better to look good than to be good."

Wittek plays fairly well during a 4-0 start -- Marqise Lee leads the nation with 768 yards receiving -- and he needs to because the Trojans new defensive scheme is inconsistent, yielding an average of 30 points in the season's first third.

The Trojans rise to No. 13 in the rankings.
Kevin Gemmell: We'll get a better measure of USC at Arizona State, Wittek's first road start against an A-list defense.

Ted Miller: The Sun Devils will certainly test the Trojans play caller.

Arizona State leads USC 24-20 with one minute left, but a long Wittek pass to Lee gives the Trojans a first and goal at the Sun Devils 1-yard line.

Consecutive QB sneaks are stopped for no gain by Will Sutton, Kiffin perhaps thinking he could fool the Sun Devils by running his quarterback at the best defensive lineman in the Pac-12.

After the Trojans final time out, Silas Redd is stopped by Sutton for no gain on third down. The clock says: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1... baaaa! Game over. Arizona State wins.
Announcer: Three words: Clock freaking managment.

Color analyst: Just wow.

Kiffin: I'm still going to call plays.

After an off-week, the Trojans are flat in a 28-24 home loss to Arizona. They get buried 28-10 at Notre Dame, with Wittek throwing three interceptions.

USC athletic director Pat Haden release a statement saying he's "100 percent behind Lane Kiffin and there is no hot seat."

The Trojans slip Utah 20-17, go down at Oregon State but improve to 6-4 with a road win at California.

"Being bowl eligible while under NCAA sanctions is a good thing," Kiffin says. "USC fans are too greedy, always believing they can win championships."

Stanford runs over USC 30-10, but the Trojans pick up a seventh win at Colorado.

Up next: No. 10 UCLA, which has already clinched the Pac-12 South Division crown.
Miller: Did you know that when Richard III was whipped in the Battle of Bosworth Field it ended the Wars of the Roses and began the Tudor dynasty?

Gemmell: And for your purposes here, setting up an obvious connection, with Jim Mora/Richmond besting Lane Kiffin/Richard III and taking over the football dynasty in LA.

Miller: You want to do these best-case, worst-case stories next year?

Gemmell: No.

The Bruins batter USC 35-0, despite Mora clearing his bench in the fourth quarter and only calling running plays and no blitzes over the final five minutes. Anthony Barr has three of the Bruins five sacks, and Wittek is picked off twice.

"I know some Bruins fans want us to be merciless, but this program is about winning with class," Jim Mora says. "In Westwood, we hope to enrich this time to come with smooth-faced success, with smiling plenty and fair prosperous days!"

USC goes on to lose to Nevada in the New Mexico Bowl, thereby finishing 7-7.

Bruins QB Brett Hundley leads the Bruins to an upset of No. 2 Stanford in the Pac-12 title game. Hundley, after winning the Heisman Trophy, announces he will return for his redshirt junior season. He then leads the Bruins to a Rose Bowl win over Ohio State.

A news conference is called in Heritage Hall.

"It's been a tough year," Haden says. "But I continue to believe Lane Kiffin is the coach who will lead the Trojans back to greatness."

Previous "Best case-worst case" posts


Washington State



Wrapping up his position-by-position look at the top prospects for the 2014 NFL draft, ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. broke down the top offensive linemen and defensive tackles.

While none of the Pac-12's offensive linemen rank in the top five overall Insider, when Kiper breaks them down by position, some of the conference's usual suspects appear.


Yankey, Su'a-Filo and Grasu were first-team All-Pac-12 picks last season and Fleming was honorable mention.

Moving over to the defensive tackles Insider, a pair of Pac-12 players are on the board. Cal's Deandre Coleman cracks Kiper's top five, coming in at No. 5. Will Sutton is in the "next up" category of five more players to watch.
Kiper on Coleman: Quick off the ball for a 6-5, 320-pound player, Coleman can really chop his feet, and he has a little shake in him to get a blocker off balance to shove aside. He's best-suited to be either a 3-4 defensive end or a penetrating 3-tech defensive tackle in a 4-3.

Last season he had 8.0 tackles for loss and 3.0 sacks. A fellow Pac-12 D-tackle (see below) was more productive, but I like Coleman's versatility.

Kiper on Sutton: A nightmare to block, Sutton piled up 13.0 sacks and 23 1/2 tackles for loss. He could have factored into first-round talk in the 2013 draft.

You can see our posts on the other position groups here.
Here's the quick recap of all Pac-12 players in the rankings. The league has a total of 27 players listed with 14 on offense and 13 on defense. Four players are ranked No. 1 overall within their position group. Stanford leads the way with seven, followed by Oregon and USC with five each, then UCLA with three, Washington and ASU with two and Arizona, Oregon State and Cal with one each.

Running back
Wide receiver
Tight end
Defensive end
Outside linebacker
Inside linebacker
Lane Kiffin and Co. have released their official post-spring two-deep depth chart. And not surprisingly, there aren't a lot of surprises.

One of the most watched quarterback competitions in the country lists Max Wittek OR Cody Kessler OR Max Browne. Leaving us with what we knew a month ago. It's going to be Wittek OR Kessler OR Browne.

Steve Bisheff of WeAreSC makes his case -- and a compelling one at that -- for Kessler, who clearly had the strongest spring of all three quarterbacks.
Despite Kessler's clear advantage coming into the (spring) game, Kiffin had Max Wittek starting with the first unit at the Coliseum on Saturday. And even after Kessler outplayed his main competitor, throwing for 242 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions compared to Wittek's 145 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, Kiffin insisted that no quarterback had emerged as a front-runner for the position and that he won't name a starter until the fall.

Sticking with the offense, there was already an assumed pecking order at wide receiver, but it's more solidified now. Darreus Rogers and Victor Blackwell are behind Biletnikoff winner Marqise Lee. Nelson Agholor will start opposite Lee with De'Von Flournoy and George Katrib backing him up.

Some intrigue at running back with Silas Redd at the top, but the starting gig is listed as Redd or Justin Davis or Tre Madden. Same for the fullback, which lists Soma Vainuku or Jahleel Pinner as the starter.

So while the entire offensive backfield is a grab bag of "ors," there is at least some solidarity on the offensive line, where four of the five starters appear to be in place. Aundrey Walker and Max Tuerk make up the left side with Marcus Martin at center and John Martinez at right guard. The only spot still in doubt is at right tackle between Kevin Graf or Chad Wheeler.

The new-look 52 defensive front has Devon Kennard and Morgan Breslin at the outside linebacker spots (that's going to be a scary combination, by the way) with Leonard Williams and George Uko (also a darn good tandem) at the ends. Nose tackle is still up for grabs between Antwaun Woods or Cody Temple.

In the secondary, where there are almost as many holes as there are questions -- little has been determined. Three of the four starting spots have an "or" attached to them. Only Anthony Brown looks like the inked-in starter. Torin Harris and Kevon Seymour are battling for the other corner spot and Demetrius Wright or Leon McQuay III are battling for free safety. Josh Shaw and touted freshman Su'a Cravens -- who missed a significant portion of spring drills -- will head into fall battling for strong safety.

Buy or sell: USC Trojans

April, 9, 2013
With recruiting behind us and spring well underway, the Pac-12 blog thought it would be fun to examine each team's chances of winning its respective division.

This is not whether the team of the day can win the Pac-12. And we're not predicting any winners. Rather, this is our take on the team's chances of winning the North or South.

Buy or sell USC winning the South?

Ted Miller

Buy: I just wrote about 200 words about why I'm selling USC, and then I realized that it was an overreaction based almost entirely on coach Lane Kiffin's tenuous situation.


Buy or sell USC winning the South?


Discuss (Total votes: 3,741)

If we subscribe to the tried and true, "buy low and sell high," then USC might never again be this good of a bargain -- just as it was plainly overvalued (cough, cough) last fall.

UCLA and Arizona State look like the two favorites in the Pac-12 South Division. Both have a lot of quality players coming back from teams that were more successful than USC last year. And yet USC has 17 starters returning from a team that beat the Sun Devils by 21 and played a competitive game at UCLA, despite a horrible start and three bad turnovers.

Further, the Trojans might have the better schedule. Like Arizona State, USC misses Oregon. UCLA plays at Stanford and Oregon on back-to-back October weekends. While USC visits Arizona State, it plays host to Stanford and UCLA, teams that the Sun Devils face on the road.

Of course, the Trojans also visit Oregon State, and that of late has been an ugly road trip.

As for the roster, there are plenty of positives. Four starters are back on the offensive line, and Marqise Lee is the nation's best receiver. Kiffin made a good hire when he brought in Clancy Pendergast to coordinate his defense, and the early returns on the new 3-4 look are mostly positive.

Sure, the secondary is iffy, QB Matt Barkley needs to be replaced and the depth at receiver is questionable. Sure, it's worrisome when you read stories about Kiffin falling in love with talent instead of performance -- Max Wittek over Cody Kessler at QB and Aundrey Walker over Kevin Graf at LT -- but there's a whole lot to recommend this team.

The question isn't talent. The Trojans are talented enough to win 10 games and win the South Division.

The question is coaching and intangibles. Has whatever went wrong with the locker-room culture in 2012 been addressed and corrected?

Our answer: Maybe.

Buying USC stock in 2013 is a high-risk maneuver. We certainly won't shift a predominant portion of our portfolio to Heritage Hall.

But those willing to take on great risk, often reap great rewards, including a chance to gloat in December, which is always fun.

Kevin Gemmell

Buy: There's a Pavlovian response whenever you hear USC. The first thought is: "Of course the Trojans can win the division. It's USC."

There's a good reason for that. The Trojans once again will have as good of talent as any team in the division and probably as good as any in the league. Does that mean they will win the division? Of course not. Investors (Ted's not alone in his throat clearing) are still smarting over the Great Trojan Crash of 2-aught-12.

Does it mean they are capable of winning? Sure. Ask yourself if the Trojans have the talent to beat Arizona, ASU and UCLA. The answer should be yes. The best wide receiver in the country, a strong running back corps and an offensive line that should be improved all point to an uptick in production. Who runs that offense, however, is a concern. And much like my co-writer, it gave me some pause. But I also think the passing attack will be scaled back and simplified, and we'll see the Trojans use a talented stable of backs to set things up for a more conservative passing game.

I think the defensive shift from an even to an odd front (2-5/3-4, depending on who you ask) is going to work out great. The players love it and it seems to suit their skill sets better. A new defensive scheme that is going to make Morgan Breslin a better pass-rusher? I'll buy that.

Most importantly, though, is that it seems 2012 has given the returning players a measure of humility. Never underestimate the power of embarrassment. And all those returning players were embarrassed by the product they put on the field last year.

Gone are the days of players thinking they are going to win games simply because they are USC. That mystique was shattered last year when Stanford defensive end Ben Gardner introduced Barkley to his face mask and the Trojans were muscled out of Palo Alto -- the beginning of the end for investors.

If lessons were learned from 2012 -- both on the field and from the guys with the headsets -- then the Trojans have as good of a shot as either of the South front-runners of being in the Pac-12 title game.
There has been plenty of attention on the USC offensive line this spring, almost all of it pointed in three directions -- the battle for the vacant center position, Aundrey Walker’s bid to nail down the starting left tackle job, and the impact of Mike Summers, the newly hired assistant who has joined James Cregg as one of what is now two offensive line coaches on the Trojans staff.

Over on the right side of the line, meanwhile, guard John Martinez and tackle Kevin Graf have each quietly had a more-than-productive March and April. Two redshirt seniors set to start alongside each other for the third straight year, there’s nothing particularly glamorous about the hard-nosed duo, but as the unquestioned veteran leaders of an offensive line unit that is still very much a work in progress, they figure to play a vital part in determining how the group ultimately performs in the fall.

“We’re the right side, we have the most experience and we plan on leading these guys to wherever we need to go,” Martinez said.

[+] EnlargeJohn Martinez
Ric Tapia/Icon SMIWhile parts of the offensive line remain in flux, John Martinez will start at right guard for the third consecutive season.
Graf and Martinez are hoping that means a more consistent level of play for the offensive line next season. Because although it performed solidly for the most part in 2012 -- allowing just 17 sacks on the year -- it also struggled against some of the more physical defensive fronts, most notably Stanford’s and Notre Dame’s. Throw in the loss of Khaled Holmes -- the team’s starting center for the past two years -- and it becomes apparent just how crucial this spring is.

With a change in philosophy set in place by Summers, however, in addition to the two seasoned vets paving the way, it’s safe to say that the offensive line has its sights set high for 2013.

“One thing Coach Summers has brought in this spring is that we talk about being the best offensive line in the country, and that’s what our goal is,” Graf said. “We’re here to be the best. We’re here to be the greatest offensive line in the country, and that’s what we need to work harder towards.”

In Graf, the Trojans have a prototypical tackle with 6-foot-6, 300-pound size to go along with deceptive athleticism and a unique football IQ that comes with growing up in a football family. His father, Allan, and brother, Derek, both played for the Trojans on the offensive line.

Martinez, at 6-2 and 305 pounds, is more of a brawler on the interior with a strong build and quick feet. Like Graf, he has football in his genes, with a number cousins having played collegiately, and a brother, Keni Kaufusi, currently on the California roster.

Both arrived at USC as members of the Class of 2009 during the Pete Carroll era. Graf, from Agoura Hills (Calif.), and Martinez, a Salt Lake City (Utah) Cottonwood, product actually first met at the Under Armor All-American Game that year and became fast friends.

That bond has transferred over to the field where, having made a total of 25 starts next to each other, the two share a unique familiarity and comfort in the knowledge that they can always count on one another.

“We have trust,” Graf said. “I know that he’s going to have my back, and he knows that I’m going to have his, and that’s the most important thing.”

In particular, it’s the relative ease with which they can communicate with each other on the line in the heat of battle that works not only to their own benefit, but to that of the entire offense.

[+] EnlargeKevin Graf
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireRight tackle Kevin Graf will start alongside John Martinez for the third year in a row this fall.
“He knows what needs to happen if I need help, and I know what needs to happen if he needs help on certain assignments with pass protections and everything like that,” Martinez said. “So I definitely feel like familiarity and the sense of communication that we have with each other really helps out a lot during the games.”

“We’ll have full-on conversations on the line, because we know that we need to be able to communicate with each other -- we need to be able to see everything, and that definitely helps,” added Graf. “And when you’ve been training with someone next to you for three years, it’s almost easy.”

But their synchronicity on the field isn’t the only reason for their success. Having made names for themselves both in the weight room and on the practice field for the determined way in which they go about their work, they continue to strive to improve.

“We’re still getting better,” Graf said. “When we first started, we were just sophomores, and by the time you’re a senior, you’ve grown a lot in terms of your maturity, and you’ve grown up as a player and a person, but you can still get better every day, and that’s what we do.”

With a work ethic like that, their emergence as leaders over the last year has developed naturally. This spring, however, they’ve each taken that responsibility up a notch.

“I definitely think that I’ve stepped up as a leader, because now that Khaled is gone it’s our turn,” Martinez said. “You have to have someone fill that role on a team, and I feel like that’s what me and Kevin have done on the offensive line. We have the experience to lead them and to show them the path to take.”

“I’m not going to be here forever, and John isn’t going to be here forever, so when the time comes for us to leave, the younger guys need to be ready,” Graf said.

Following the lead of Graf and Martinez, there are signs the offensive line is slowly starting to come together. The two vets are part of a starting unit that features Marcus Martin at center, Max Tuerk at left guard and Walker at left tackle. Over the past two weeks of practice, there has been a noticeable improvement in the group’s level of play.

“It’s been a roller-coaster ride, but I feel like everything is starting to come together now,” Martinez said. “Spring break is over, we’ve got all of the jitters out and everyone is here to play ball. That’s what we need to do, because the offensive line had a decent season last year, and now we need to make a point to everyone else that we’re the foundation of the offense.”

If the offensive line does fulfill Martinez’s goal in establishing that mindset, it’s not far-fetched to imagine both he, as well as Graf, capping their USC careers off on the right note in 2013.

“Finishing off strong is important for us as seniors,” Martinez said. “I definitely think that we’re going to make a point to everybody that we mean business, and we’re going to hold down that right side.”
While quarterback competitions are typically front-and-center during Pac-12 spring practices, there are always other interesting spring storylines.

Here are two.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
Harry How/Getty ImagesUSC coach Lane Kiffin enters the spring with several new assistants, a new defensive scheme, and uncertainty at quarterback.
Ted Miller: It was a horrible, no-good, rotten, very bad 2012 season for USC coach Lane Kiffin. And the 2012-13 offseason has been no picnic either. Some Trojans fans wanted Kiffin fired. Just about all were frustrated. Justifiably so, by the way.

Lane: Welcome to spring, the season for rebirth! Time to turn the page. Or, perhaps, pick up an entirely new book.

At the very least, the situation at USC is interesting. One of the nation's premier programs is front-and-center for many of the wrong reasons, but there is enough talent on hand for Kiffin to turn things around and shut up his critics.

Interesting plot lines? Kiffin will be breaking in four new assistant coaches, including a pair of new coordinators, his defense will be transitioning from a 4-3 base to a 3-4, and he's looking for a new quarterback for the first time in his tenure.

There's a lot going on. Lots of questions. Lots of doubt, too. Yet negative momentum isn't irreversible.

What if the Trojans have an exceptional spring?

What if Clancy Pendergast shakes things up and, suddenly, the defensive guys are playing hard and fast in a sound scheme they understand? And what if the offense, nonetheless, makes plenty of plays because the quarterbacks are sharp and the line is manning up? What if the fitness level of the Trojans improves? What if offensive tackle Aundrey Walker breaks through, realizing his future NFL contract will be based on performance, not measurables? What if Devon Kennard proves a perfect fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker, as we believe he is? What if guys like Marqise Lee, Hayes Pullard, Silas Redd, Dion Bailey and Kevin Graf step up as leaders? What if receivers George Farmer and Victor Blackwell decide they don't want to be left in the dust behind Lee and Nelson Agholor? What if running back Tre Madden says, "Hey, remember me?"

What if Kiffin simultaneously refocuses and relaxes? What if he uses his capable brain to be smart, not a smart aleck, to be creative, not sneaky? What if he realizes the media is not an enemy, but just a bunch of folks trying to do their job whom he should humor with vague though sometimes amusing answers?

There are a lot of "What ifs?" with USC and Kiffin. It's not difficult, by the way, to talk yourself into believing a bounce-back is entirely possible.

That's what is interesting. Kiffin 2.0 was 2010 and 2011, when he seemed to find his rhythm as a coach after controversial stints with the Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Volunteers. Kiffin 3.0, was 2012, a complete face-plant.

This spring presents us with Kiffin 4.0. It could prove to be the most important transition of his career as a head coach.

And that is interesting.

Kevin Gemmell: Besides quarterback battles -- which I think are always the most exciting position battles there are -- I'm most curious to see how the running back battle is going to play out at Stanford.

When you look at a Stanford squad that is very heavy on upperclassmen -- on both sides of the ball -- you have to wonder if all of the pieces are in place for Stanford to make a legitimate run at the national championship.

I wasn't sure before, but with the addition of Tyler Gaffney to the running back corps, I'm warming up to the idea that the Cardinal could challenge any team in the country for a BCS championship -- if they can get out of their own conference (or division for that matter) -- which anyone will tell you is no easy task.

It's no surprise that Stanford's primary offensive weapon is the quarterback. Not because of what he does with his arm -- but because of what he does when he goes under center -- checking out of bad plays and putting the offense in the best possible play against the defense shown. This allows running backs to flourish. Andrew Luck was phenomenal at it. Kevin Hogan should get better.

So, when Hogan turns to handoff on power right or power left, who is going to be the primary ball carrier? Anthony Wilkerson has shown bursts and outstanding top-end speed. But injuries have slowed him, and playing behind Stepfan Taylor the past few years didn't allow him to really break out following his strong true freshman season. Gaffney is a rock and hard to bring down. He's the kind of guy who could carry the ball 10 times for 4.5 yards a pop.

Barry Sanders is an interesting X-factor. He obviously was a high-profile recruit because of his name -- but beyond that, he's supposedly a pretty darn good back. Maybe he ends up winning the job and can be a 15-carry type of guy.

Then you have Ricky Seale, a shifty runner with great vision who has been trapped at the bottom of the depth chart, but continues to receive praise from David Shaw. Remound Wright and hybrid Kelsey Young are also in the mix.

Whoever is Shaw's go-to back, he'll have the benefit of running behind an outstanding offensive line that is only going to get better with David Yankey -- an All-American and last year's Morris Trophy winner -- moving back to his natural position at guard. And Shaw has said he plans to keep Ryan Hewitt at fullback -- giving the running backs a cadre of blockers that rivals any other in the country.

By season's end, this could be your national championship team. The question is, which back will carry it there?
As we turn the corner at the midway point of the season, your Pac-12 bloggers recount what has surprised them the most in the first half of the season. One is a pleasant surprise. The other, not so much.

Kevin Gemmell: I think we're all a bit taken aback by the remarkable success Oregon State has had so far this season. Let's be honest -- even the most devout of Beavers believers didn't think their team was going to have the school's best start since 1939. If you did, you are a real-McCoy psychic and you should immediately send all relevant stock tips here.

What's so impressive -- aside from the 5-0 start and top-10 spot in the BCS standings -- is the way Oregon State has gone about doing it. Great offense. Great defense. And above all, a no-nonsense, physical approach to football. There is an attitude -- a focused swagger, if you will -- that is really fun to watch.

[+] EnlargeMichael Doctor
Rick Scuteri/US PresswireLinebacker Michael Doctor has helped point the way for Oregon State's top-five rush defense.
The Beavers have been solid in the trenches on offense and relentless on defense. The offensive line has come together faster than most anticipated -- which obviously has contributed to a rushing attack that averages 119.6 yards per game (up from a league-worst 86.9 in 2011).

Defensively, you can’t say enough about the play of Scott Crichton, Jordan Poyer and a player I think is flying under the radar: Michael Doctor.

Naturally, the growth of quarterback Sean Mannion has been helpful. He’s done a much better job taking care of the ball (OSU ranks 12th nationally in turnover margin), and we’ve been talking about Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks as a potential breakout duo since we started doing weekly Take 2s in the spring.

Heading into this week’s games, the Beavers owned the second-best pass attack in the Pac-12. Again, with teams such as Washington State, USC and UCLA expected to air it out, did anyone really see that one coming?

And the fact that they can plug in Cody Vaz and not miss a beat is impressive.

But as much credit as Mike Riley deserves for the offense, defensive coordinator Mark Banker deserves equal praise -- if not more. The Beavers have the top rush defense in the conference and the No. 4 rush defense in the country, allowing just 70 yards per game on the ground. That’s elite status, and it takes more than just talented players to attain it. It takes an attitude. It takes an unwavering mentality that our defense is going to dictate to you, not the other way around.

Talking with Poyer and Crichton throughout the season, they said the simplest answer is that they are motivated by being 3-9 in 2011. It was a crummy season, and they didn’t want to feel like that again. That’s pretty good motivation.

The fact that Oregon State is better than last season isn’t a surprise. It’s the fact that the Beavers are so much better that is both surprising and pleasant.

Ted Miller: The mediocrity of USC's offense is shocking. No one saw that coming.

This is where someone claims he or she saw it coming. No you didn't. Stop it. No you didn't. Hush.

USC welcomed back nine starters from an offense that in 2011 averaged 35.8 points, 456.8 yards and 294.2 passing yards per game. Among those starters were quarterback Matt Barkley, the nation's leading Heisman Trophy candidate; 2011 All-American wide receiver Robert Woods; second-team All-Pac-12 wideout Marqise Lee, the co-freshman offensive player of the year; second-team All-Pac-12 center Khaled Holmes; and 1,000-yard rusher Curtis McNeal.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireCoach Lane Kiffin has reined in his offense and let the defense hold on to USC leads.
Barkley had completed 69 percent of his passes with 39 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 2011. He ranked eighth in the nation in passing efficiency. And he had all his weapons coming back. Oh, and the Trojans added a second 1,000-yard rusher when Silas Redd transferred from Penn State.

There were no weaknesses. While the departure of Matt Kalil left a sizable void at left tackle, the consensus was that Aundrey Walker was the next surefire NFL draft choice at a position where USC always has a surefire NFL draft choice.

Yet here we are. With the more difficult portion of the schedule ahead, USC is worse in just about every area on offense. Heck, the Trojans are 112th in the nation on third down, behind teams such as Memphis, Colorado and Kansas.

Heading into this week’s games, Barkley ranks 30th in the nation and third in the Pac-12 -- behind a pair of first-year starters -- in passing efficiency. He's thrown six interceptions after throwing seven in 12 games last season. He's completing just 62.7 percent of his throws. He's been sacked nine times after going down just eight times all last season.

Woods is 99th in the nation with 60 yards receiving per game and five touchdowns; he had 15 TDs and averaged 107.67 yards per game last season. McNeal, now a backup, has only 44 carries.

Lee's numbers are better than last season, but he hasn't been consistent catching the ball.

Some of the blame falls on coach Lane Kiffin, the offensive playcaller who's opted for a more conservative approach, particularly when the Trojans have a lead. With an improved defense, Kiffin seems content to run the ball and play to his defense once he gets ahead.

Still, in the preseason, there was a legitimate discussion of whether this offense might end up ranked among the best in college football history. The question now is whether it will be among the top half of the Pac-12.

And that is a huge surprise.
Happy Friday.
Greetings. Welcome to preseason mailbag camp. The mailbag had great offseason workouts and we're using our low preseason ranking as motivation.

Follow me on Twitter here. All the cool kids are doing it.

To the notes!

Dennis from Washington, D.C., writes: Rather than focus on high level Oregon at USC, what are your thoughts on the matchup between Oregon defense vs. USC offense? The questions for Oregon largely center on QB, but we know that Oregon's defense is stacked and fast, and USC's offense is going to be great on offense.

Ted Miller: The season hasn't even started and we're already zeroing in on Nov. 3!

Oregon is going to be very good on defense. Perhaps as good as the Ducks have been since the Gang Green days. Yet I'd give the USC offense anedge. The Trojans are a little 2005-ish -- as in epically talented.

The Trojans offense has no obvious weakness. Perhaps there's a question how well Aundrey Walker will play at left tackle. And there are some depth concerns on the O-line. But you have nine starters coming back from a unit that averaged 35.8 points and 456.8 yards per game. You have the best quarterback in the nation throwing to the best receiver combo in the nation in front of four returning starters from a line that gave up just eight sacks in 2011. You have two 1,000-yard tailbacks. You have two future NFL tight ends. You have an X-factor guy like George Farmer.

It almost doesn't seem fair.

In last year's 38-35 USC victory in Autzen Stadium, the Trojans jumped ahead 38-14 in the third quarter, as Matt Barkley threw four touchdown passes, before the Ducks mounted a furious comeback to almost force overtime. USC rolled up 462 yards on the road. Oregon fans point out -- reasonably -- that defensive end Dion Jordan and linebacker Dewitt Stuckey were hurt, and losing Jordan in the first quarter can't be discounted. He's the guy who should have made life tough for Barkely. USC fans would counter -- reasonably -- that wide receiver Robert Woods was playing on one leg and the Ducks still couldn't stop Barkley and Marqise Lee.

But to me -- and be prepared to hear this much of the season from me -- the big issue is the game being played in the Coliseum. That means you give a four-year starter at QB -- Barkley -- plus total control at the line of scrimmage with no crowd noise issues. That favors Barkley, though I'm sure more than a few Ducks would point out the same could have been said in advance of the 2011 Stanford-Oregon game with Andrew Luck.

And, oh by the way, the Ducks will be using a first-year starter in the biggest stadium in the conference. I know a lot of Oregon fans feel great about Marcus Mariota and Bryan Bennett, perhaps even liking them more than Darron Thomas. But this is the sort of game where you'd want a veteran such as Thomas behind center. And I bet Thomas, who's apparently still looking for a pro team to give him a shot, wishes he were there, too.

Now, just because I give the very, very good USC offense an edge over the good Oregon defense doesn't mean the Ducks are doomed. I see the Oregon offensive line having an advantage against a thin and uncertain Trojans defensive front. With Kenjon Barner, De'Anthony Thomas and Chip Kelly's very, very big brain, it's entirely possible Oregon will be able to go point-for-point with the Trojans.

Of course, both teams might want to take heed of the eight games that separate them and this hot date.

Spence from Salt Lake City writes: USC is the obvious front-runner in the South. If they are upset what team is next in line to represent the South division in the PAC-12 championship game?

Ted Miller: My pick for No. 2 in the South is Utah, though I've sort of got a nagging UCLA thing of late, which I'm trying to resist because I've gotten that bug before.

Here's the problem with theorizing about an alternative team winning the South: Can it upset USC AND take care of business for the rest of the conference schedule? To me, that means going no worse than 7-2 in conference play because I don't see the Trojans losing more than two conference games.

The Utes, with no games with Oregon and Stanford, and USC coming to Salt Lake City on Oct. 4 for a Thursday-night matchup on ESPN, seem like the best bet to get that done. But they went 4-5 in their first year of Pac-12 play and were handled pretty easily by Washington, Arizona State and California, losing by a combined count of 100-38 in those three games. And two of them were in Rice-Eccles. Utes fans, of course, would note that they played those games without QB Jordan Wynn, who went down for the year in the first half against Washington.

It's possible that USC could implode, perhaps after losing a game it thought it would win or catching a horrible injury bug. But my present feeling is "overwhelming" would be the best way to describe the Trojans frontrunner status in the South Division.

Justin from Dallas writes: What's your opinion on early-season neutral-site games? Like Alabama v Michigan at Cowboys Stadium and LSU v Oregon last year there. Shouldn't these games be preserved for the campus? All about the $$ right?

Ted Miller: Well, yes, everything is about the $$. This is the USA. We like money. A lot. And if you don't, send me yours. I'll put it to good use, like buying a bigger TV.

I love these big intersectional games -- neutral site or not. They might be my favorite thing in college football, other than the Rose Bowl. If it's necessary to use a venue like Cowboy Stadium to lure nationally ranked teams from different conferences to play regular season games, so be it.

We spend a lot of time comparing conferences. To me, these games are most revealing. My respect for LSU as a program -- and its incredible 2011 regular season -- is based more on its beating Oregon and West Virginia than winning the SEC West. It took guts to make that schedule.

I do not doubt that the SEC is the nation's best conference. In our BCS system, it has been able to win six consecutive "national title" games. But I also firmly believe -- as do all SEC coaches and athletic directors -- that if the SEC scheduled more tough nonconference games, the size of its perceived superiority would narrow considerably. Why? Because if Florida or Georgia or Auburn or Arkansas or South Carolina scheduled more home-and-home series with teams like USC, Oregon, Oklahoma, Wisconsin and the like, they'd lose a lot more often.

My hope with our new four-team playoff format and a selection committee is that it becomes a requirement -- if unwritten -- to schedule ambitiously out of conference.

Eric from Pullman, Wash., writes: Will Washington State be able to hold any Pac-12 opponent to fewer than 27 points this season (which was the fewest they allowed last year)?

Ted Miller: Maybe. But I suspect the Cougs will have to outscore folks, which is what Mike Leach did when he was at Texas Tech, by the way.

The Cougars allowed 34.6 points per game in conference play last year, which ranked 10th in the league. My belief is they will be a bowl team if they can become poor-to-middling on defense this year -- say surrendering 28 to 30 points per game -- rather than egregious.

But here's something that's simpler: 3-1.

The Cougs need to start at least 3-1 -- 4-0 is entirely possible, by the way -- to post a six- or seven-win season, one that will get them to a bowl game for the first time since 2003.

Rob from Redwood City, Calif., writes: As you are well aware, Cal has reinstated linebacker Cecil Whiteside, and added Khairi Fortt from Penn State. What impact if any would this have on your position ranking of the Cal linebackers? And even if neither starts how important is depth at a postion like linebacker when you run a 3-4 scheme? Do most teams really rotate players very often at this postion or are they important just in case of injury?

Ted Miller: Cal likely would boost up from the top of "Good shape" to the bottom of "Great shape." I'd still rate Stanford, USC and Oregon ahead of the Bears, because they have more proven players at the position. Both Whiteside and Fortt have seen action but they aren't sure things.

Cal had a good defense last year, and it's hard not to give conference Defensive Player of the Year Mychal Kendricks a lot of credit for that. And folks will tell you that while Kendricks was the engine of the Bears defense, fellow inside 'backer D.J. Holt was the brains. So those are legitimate voids they left behind.

I will say this: Cal has some real questions, such as receiver and offensive line. But its defense isn't going to keep Jeff Tedford up at night.

Scott from the U.S. Virgin Islands: Please please please help me settle a dispute that has been going on for months. Who is better at this point, Oregon or FSU? Every ranking on ESPN, Athlon, and the coaches' poll have Oregon ranked higher than FSU. The exception is Phil Steele's preseason ranking. I try to have this conversation with my FSU buddy but he will not admit anything. He agrees with Phil Steele on the rankings but then when it comes to strength of schedule by Phil Steele, Oregon 55th and FSU 70th, then Phil Steele doesn't know ACC football. I told my friend no one knows ACC football with the exception of VA Tech taking their usual thumping in the Orange Bowl. Please please please talk some sense into this guy.

Ted Miller: Tough one. Just like a lot of folks, I'm high on Florida State this year. But a significant part of FSU getting a high preseason ranking is its playing in the ACC. You need look no further than the past two Orange Bowls to make a definitive statement about the ACC.

If I were talking to your friend, I'd say something like this: "Did you say something? I'm sorry. I was distracted by this shiny Rose Bowl trophy, three consecutive BCS bowl games and 34 victories over the past three years. Where do you guys keep your trophy from the Champs Sports Bowl? I bet it's really cute, you little champ! Nice nail-biting, four-point win over Notre Dame. The Irish only lost by 14 points to a Stanford team we beat by 23. You lost four games last year. We've lost six over the past three years. Look I like your spunk. I like your enthusiasm. It makes me want to pinch your little garnet cheeks. But we're Oregon. We're there. You're a nice little team down below eyeballing our behinds. I'm not even sure I'm allowed to talk to a guy who's a fan of a team that lost to Wake Forest, Virginia and Clemson last year. Ergo, you've got the next round to compensate me for my noblesse oblige."

Darren from Monterey, Calif., writes: I'm getting a little nervous about the PAC-12 Network not coming to DISH. Should I be worried? Or should I wait until August 24th-ish?

Ted Miller: The Pac-12 Network is pretty confident in its position. It's already happy with its distribution deals on cable. And DirecTV has its own issues.

I think the deal will get done, though the Pac-12 Networks launch date of Aug. 15 is getting pretty close.

The satellite carriers have less leverage than the Pac-12 Network does. And you, as a customer with options, shouldn't be shy about telling your satellite carriers about how great cable looks with the Pac-12 Networks. If the satellite carriers don't make a deal with the Pac-12 Networks, they essentially are saying they don't care about major West Coast markets. They are throwing sand in the eyes of their Pac-12 footprint customers.

Here is a handy FAQ page for the Pac-12 Network.

Gary from Eugene, Ore., writes: Guess what a new Duck song is out by Xile, you can check it out here and the news story that talks about the former Ducks in the video.

Ted Miller: Every time I get one of these, I think, "OK, enough is enough. No more Oregon videos." But my policy is to post it if it's good, and that's pretty darn fresh.

Are they still saying "fresh"? Or did I just look really 40-something?

Excuse me while I pull up my black socks up from my sandals.

USC spring wrap

May, 14, 2012
2011 overall record: 10-2
2011 conference record: 7-2 (1st, South)
Returning starters: Offense: 9; defense: 8; kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
QB Matt Barkley, S T.J. McDonald, OL Khaled Holmes, WR Robert Woods, WR Marqise Lee, RB Curtis McNeal, DL Devon Kennard, DL Wes Horton, CB Nickell Robey, LB Dion Bailey, LB Hayes Pullard, K Andre Heidari

Key losses
OL Matt Kalil, DL Nick Perry, FB Rhett Ellison, DL DaJohn Harris, DL Christian Tupou, LB Chris Galippo, RB Marc Tyler, WR Brandon Carswell, LS Chris Pousson

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Curtis McNeal* (1,005 yards)
Passing: Matt Barkley* (3,528 yards)
Receiving: Robert Woods* (1,292 yards)
Tackles: Dion Bailey*, Hayes Pullard* (81)
Sacks: Nick Perry (9.5)
Interceptions: T.J. McDonald* (3)

Spring answers

1. Marqise Lee is ready for prime time: It’s no secret that Lee is a talented player who put together a terrific freshman season, but he took that performance to an even higher level this spring when he was the best player on the field for the Trojans. We’re seeing a rare athlete in Lee, one whose acrobatic style is being compared to Lynn Swann.

2. The USC defense is worthy of mention: There is so much attention paid to Matt Barkley and his offensive weapons -- and deservedly so -- but this spring was a reminder that the Trojans defense is going to be pretty good too. The back seven will be a strength, as the starters return intact plus there is a nice supply of talented depth.

3. The future of the USC quarterback spot is in good hands: Spring was an extended audition for Max Wittek and Cody Kessler, as Barkley was limited in his reps. Both players had their moments as they look to settle into the No. 2 role and the inside track to be Barkley’s heir apparent. The Trojans also got a verbal commitment from Max Browne (No. 2 rated pocket passer in ESPN 150), who will enroll next spring.

Fall questions

1. Interior of the D-line: One of the keys of spring was replacing two senior starters from the middle of the line. George Uko stepped in at defensive tackle and had flashes of real solid play. After Uko, however, things are not so clear. There is no established backup for him and no set starter at nose tackle, as J.R. Tavai and Antwaun Woods continue to battle for the job.

2. Lack of depth at tailback: The Trojans have a returning 1,000-yard rusher in Curtis McNeal but not a lot of experience behind him. D.J. Morgan had 42 carries in 2011, Buck Allen redshirted last season and Nelson Agholor has yet to join the team. That’s the extent of the playing time for the 2012 USC reserve tailbacks.

3. Protecting the blind side: There wasn’t a ton of worry last year about left tackle with Matt Kalil but replacing him has not been easy. Kevin Graf got the first look, but then the coaches moved Aundrey Walker into the spot. Lane Kiffin said Walker was not consistent but he showed enough with the potential of the size benefits he brings that he will stay as the starter heading into fall camp.

Biggest shoes to fill: USC

March, 30, 2012
Starters in, starters out. That's college football. Players' eligibility expires, and they leave for the rest of their lives, whether that includes the NFL or not.

And they leave behind shoes of various sizes that need to be filled.

Our concern with this series? The biggest shoes -- in some cases Shaq-like size 23s.

Big shoes: Offensive tackle Matt Kalil

Big shoes? How about this: Kalil is almost certain to be the first offensive lineman picked in the NFL draft on April 26. And he's almost certain to go among the top-five picks. So these are very big shoes, in addition to the 6-foot-7, 295 pounder being one of only five 2011 starters not returning this fall. Further, Kalil protected quarterback Matt Barkley's back side, and did it very well, not yielding a sack. In fact, he was the cornerstone of a line that surrendered just eight sacks, second fewest in the nation.

Stepping in: Sophomore Aundrey Walker or junior Kevin Graf

Walker might have pulled ahead of Graf, who started at right tackle in 2011. The 6-6, 320-pounder was listed at 375 pounds when he played guard as a true freshman a year ago, but his athleticism has long been obvious. If he continues in his present trajectory of conditioning and performance, he'll be the next Trojans offensive lineman to get picked in the top-half of the first round of the draft. Whoever replaces Kalil, the other will almost certain start at right tackle. Both will be charged with protecting USC's most precious asset, the nation's leading Heisman Trophy candidate.

You can check out the rest of the "Big Shoes" series here.

WeAreSC links: Halfway through

March, 28, 2012
Erik McKinney writes Insider: A notebook updating USC's seventh practice of the spring season, most notably the shuffling of Aundrey Walker and Kevin Graf at the tackle positions.

Garry Paskwietz writes Insider: Highlighting where the main position battles stand halfway through the spring practice session.

Garry Paskwietz writes Insider: Redshirt freshman Cody Temple was declared out for the rest of the spring due to an ankle injury.

Q&A: Lane Kiffin, part two

February, 16, 2012
USC head coach Lane Kiffin enters the spring with an abundance of talent on both sides of the ball and likely a lofty preseason ranking to back it up. Kiffin took a few minutes to chat about this year's recruiting class, the few holes on offense and defense that have to be filled and what he can do to cut down on quarterback-center exchange fumbles.

Here's part one of the Q&A.

Looking at the defense, you have the entire back seven coming back. Everyone talks about offense in this conference, but you have to be able to play defense. What's the next step for them as a unit?

Lane Kiffin: We've got to get better at pass defense. You look at our numbers two years ago, they were terrible. We've improved a little bit. But we still have a long ways to go in pass defense. We were good against the run last year. We improved in the red zone. But we've got to do a better job against the pass. This conference is so good. So many good quarterbacks and receivers, you can't just stop the run in this conference so we have to improve there. It's exciting to have the whole back seven back -- we actually even have Torin Harris coming back. I almost feel like it's the back eight. Torin Harris was our starting corner and was playing as well as anybody prior to losing him for the season.

Not everyone understands just how important a really good fullback is. How much will Rhett Ellison be missed?

LK: Really, I think outside of Matt Kalil, we don't lose very much except for one person. Everyone is really back except for Matt -- obviously a talented player and a top-five pick. And Rhett. Now he won't be that high of a draft pick, but he was so valuable on special teams and for us as a fullback. He played tight end, too. He gave defenses a lot of problems by not knowing where in the huddle he's going to line up and what formation we're going to end up in.

Speaking of Matt, is that left tackle spot the marquee position battle to keep an eye on in the spring?

LK: We don't know exactly how it's going to work. We're going to let Kevin Graf and Aundrey Walker, right now our top two tackles, both play right and left and see how it goes early on.

How big of an adjustment is it for Kevin to make the move from right to left?

LK: He used to play left tackle when he was younger so that helps. There is an adjustment period. It's fortunate we're looking at it in the spring and don't have to wait until the fall.

On the defensive line, do you move Wes Horton or Devon Kennard to the opposite side to replace Nick Perry, or do you fill that slot with someone else and keep depth?

LK: We're looking at a couple of things. Probably leaning toward playing Wes at right and Devon at left. But we'll figure it out this spring.

Defensive line is the spot where it seems you have the most holes. Is this an opportunity for some of the pups to come in and start, or would you rather defer to experience?

LK: What's good is you look at the 30 guys we signed a year ago, there were some guys that could have helped us that we let redshirt, so that would divide that class of 30 and knock some of those guys back into this next class. A number of those guys were defensive linemen. What's good is those guys have been in our program a year already. Even though they haven't played, it's like they are in this class right here with a year under their belt.