Pac-12: Rhett Ellison

USC spring wrap

May, 14, 2012
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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.

Little movement in draft rankings

March, 22, 2012
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The latest draft rankings are out from ESPN's Todd McShay and Mel Kiper and there isn't much change involving the Pac-12 players projected for the first round.

On McShay's top 32 Insider, Stanford offensive guard David DeCastro climbed closer to the top 10, moving up from No. 13 to 12.
McShay on DeCastro: DeCastro's physical, dominating style made him the top interior lineman in the country in 2011, and he is a plug-and-play prospect who will be a starter from the moment he sets foot in camp.

DeCastro's teammate, offensive tackle Jonathan Martin, fell from No. 22 to 24 while USC defensive end Nick Perry moved up one spot to No. 28. Andrew Luck and Matt Kalil held their No. 1 and No. 3 spots, respectively.

For those of you curious about what an NFL draft board looks like, McShay and the Scouts Inc. team put one together Insider.

On Mel Kiper's Big Board Insider, DeCastro moved up from No. 15 to 14. Luck and Kalil also remained at Nos. 1 and 3.
Kiper on Luck: His pro day has arrived. Last week, got good news with Reggie Wayne staying in Indy. Luck has worked hard during the draft process, confirming a lot of what evaluators felt about his mentality. Status quo remains in terms of profile. The total package: arm strength, size, smarts, demeanor. Ready to play.

Finally, Kiper also updated his top five draft prospects by position Insider. It's the usual suspects in their usual spots. Brock Osweiler sits as the No. 5 quarterback, LaMichael James is the No. 2 running back; Rhett Ellison, Coby Fleener, Mychal Kendricks, Vontaze Burfict and Bryan Anger all appear in the various rankings.

Top 32: Pac-12 players moving up

March, 15, 2012
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The see-saw analysis of the NFL draft continues. This week, Todd McShay was considerably generous when dealing with the Pac-12 in his Top 32.

Naturally, there was no movement at No. 1, where Stanford's Andrew Luck has and will continue to hold the top spot until draft day. USC offensive tackle Matt Kalil was the only Pac-12 player to drop in McShay's Top 32 -- though it wasn't too drastic of a fall. Kalil moved from No. 2 on McShay's board to No. 3, paving the way for Robert Griffin III to move into the No. 2 spot and presumably to the Washington Redskins, who paid a hefty price for the honor of drafting second.
McShay on Kalil: Kalil's showing in Indianapolis blew the rest of the offensive tackle class out of the water. He is a potential franchise left tackle with a combination of size, balance, light feet and finishing ability. It will be hard for the Vikings to avoid him with the third overall pick.

The Stanford offensive line duo of David DeCastro (OG) and Jonathan Martin (OT) both saw upward movement -- DeCastro up three spots to No. 13 and Martin up from 24 to 22. USC defensive end Nick Perry, who was previously unranked, checks in at No. 29 this week.
McShay on Perry: Perry shows a good first step and active hands, is stout at the point of attack, flashes solid pass-rush skills and could even transition to a 3-4 outside linebacker.

McShay's frequent debate partner, Mel Kiper, has only three Pac-12 players on his latest Big Board. Insider Luck at No. 1 and he also slots Kalil in the No. 3 spot this week. DeCastro drops from 13 to 15 and again, Martin is nowhere to be found on Kiper's board.

Finally, Kiper also updated his top 5 draft prospects by position. Insider Luck and ASU's Brock Osweiler highlight the quarterbacks and LaMichael James is now the No. 2 running back prospect according to Kiper.

Stanford tight end Coby Fleener assumes the top spot among the tight ends in Kiper's eyes.
Kiper on Fleener: This is now Fleener's group to lead. He has come on, and I now have him as a guy who could crack the first round

Other ranked players include USC fullback Rhett Ellison, Kalil, Martin, DeCastro, Perry, Cal linebacker Mychal Kendricks, ASU linebacker Vontaze Burfict and Cal punter Bryan Anger.
With the combine completed, ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay have updated their respective rankings and boards. Kiper also offers his winners from the combine and those leaving us with questions.

Some of the Pac-12 winners include LaMichael James (Oregon, RB), Coby Fleener (Stanford, TE) and Matt Kalil (USC, OT).
If Fleener runs in the 4.5 range at his pro day, he could be in the first round. The Giants make sense. He is now an option as the first tight end off the board.

Question mark players include Vontaze Burfict (ASU, LB), Cliff Harris (Oregon, DB) and Marc Tyler (USC, RB).
(On Burfict) He already carries attitude questions, and Burfict needed to turn heads with workouts. Heads were turned, but for the wrong reason. He looked sluggish, to put it mildly. Once a first-round guy, he could be in the middle rounds if he doesn't recover.

Yikes.

Kiper also updated his top five players by position. The conference is well represented with Andrew Luck (Stanford, QB), James, Rhett Ellison (USC, FB), Fleener, Kalil, Jonathan Martin (Stanford, OT), David DeCastro (Stanford, OG), Burfict and Bryan Anger (Cal, P) and appearing in the top three of their respective position groups.

Finally, the rankings. No shock that Kiper and McShay both have Luck as the No. 1 overall pick. Here's McShay's take:
Luck's combine workout showed he is more athletic than most thought, and combined with his once-in-a-generation skill set he appears to be a lock as the No. 1 overall pick to the Colts.

Other conference players appearing in McShay's top 32 are Kalil, DeCastro, Martin and Brock Osweiler (ASU, QB).

While McShay ranks Robert Griffin III second, Kiper has Kalil in the No. 2 spot.
Kalil confirmed that he is a good athlete for his position. The tape is great, and it's hard to see him falling outside the top five. The plus for him is he might not need time to develop at right tackle, a common break-in spot for many left tackles.

WeAreSC Monday links: Barkley superstar

February, 27, 2012
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Steve Bisheff writes Insider: Matt Barkley isn't your typical star All-American quarterback, but it's that uniqueness which helps make him one of the best college football has to offer.

Erik McKinney writes: John Baxter might not have gotten much acclaim when he was hired as USC's special teams coach two years ago, but his aggressive approach to special teams and academics has made an impact.

Garry Paskwietz writes Insider: Rhett Ellison made a good impression at the NFL scouting combine Sunday while Marc Tyler struggled a bit.

Q&A: Lane Kiffin, part two

February, 16, 2012
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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.

Big NFL draft year for the Pac-12

August, 25, 2011
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ESPN.com's NFL draft experts are well into their preseason evaluation of draft eligible players, and there is a lot of early love for the Pac-12, which could produce as many as eight to 10 first-round picks.

Consider this evaluation of the top-three offensive tackles: USC's Matt Kalil, Stanford's Jonathan Martin and Iowa's Riley Reiff. The analysis is based on how each did against former Arizona defensive end Brooks Reed, a second-round selection for the Houston Texans.

Steve Muench rated them like this: 1. Kalil; 2. Reiff; 3. Martin.

Overall, this year's top tackles acquitted themselves nicely against a top-level defensive player in Brooks. That will be noted in their evaluations as the draft process plays out, and these same comparisons could come into play for teams seeking to separate these players on their boards.


Then there are the quarterbacks. Three of the top-four prospects are from the Pac-12: Stanford's Andrew Luck (duh), USC's Matt Barkley and Arizona's Nick Foles.

Luck is No. 1 for mental makeup, second for accuracy, first for release/arm strength and first for pocket mobility. It was a bit surprising that Foles ranked ahead of Barkley for arm strength.

This ranking of running backs is sure to get Oregon and Washington fans nipping at each other (shocker): The Huskies' Chris Polk is the No. 2 running back behind Alabama's Trent Richardson, while the Ducks' LaMichael James is fifth.

(Please wait until the innocent blogger is out of the way before you start brawling).

Three of the top four tight ends and four of the top-seven are from the Pac-12: Stanford's Coby Fleener at No. 2, Oregon's David Paulson at No. 3, USC's Rhett Ellison at No. 4 and California's Anthony Miller at No. 7.

The list of offensive linemen has Kalil and Martin at Nos. 1 and 2. I would encourage Scouts Inc. to break out film of Stanford's David DeCastro: If he's not one of the first three guards off the draft board, well, cut off my legs and call me shorty.

Arizona's Juron Criner is ranked No. 5 among the receivers.

Defense will be up next.

Preseason position reviews: tight end

June, 27, 2011
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Tight end looks like a solid position heading into 2011, which wasn't the case in 2010.

So where does everyone stand? Let's check it out.

Great shape

Stanford: An embarrassment of riches at the position, even though 2010 official starter Konrad Reuland is gone. Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levin Toilolo all have NFL futures. Ertz was dominant in the spring game. Fleener, second-team All-Pac-10, caught three touchdown passes in the Orange Bowl. Toilolo won the starting job in 2010 before he got hurt in the opener (after catching a 27-yard pass, no less). Fleener and Ertz combined for 44 receptions and 12 touchdowns in 2010. All three are athletic and taller than 6-foot-6. No team in the nation is stronger at tight end.

Oregon: David Paulson was first-team All-Pac-12 after catching 24 passes for 418 yards with four ouchdowns in 2010. He's also a good blocker. Backup Brandon Williams is an impressive specimen who figures to contribute more this fall -- unless touted true freshman Colt Lyerla eclipses him.

USC: The underrated Rhett Ellison caught 21 passes for 239 yards and three touchdowns in 2010, and Xavier Grimble, Randall Telfer and Christian Thomas provide quality depth. Ellison is versatile enough to double as a fullback, when necessary. Grimble, a redshirt freshman, led the Trojans with eight receptions for 73 yards the spring game.

Good shape

Colorado: Ryan Deehan, honorable mention All-Big 12, caught 25 passes for 249 yards and a touchdown in 2010. Backup DaVaughn Thornton has potential.

The position figures to get more work with new coach Jon Embree, a former Buffaloes and NFL tight end.

UCLA: Cory Harkey and Joseph Fauria are both solid veteran players, though Harkey suffered an outbreak of the dropsies last fall. They combined for 17 receptions -- 14 from Harkey -- in 2010.

California: Both Anthony Miller and Spencer Ladner are back, and Miller had 13 of their combined 16 receptions in 2010. Both are solid but unspectacular players.

Oregon State: While Joe Halahuni is officially an H-back, we count him as a tight end.

He caught 30 passes for 390 yards in 2010 and led Beavers receivers with six ouchdowns. If he wasn't coming back from shoulder surgery -- he could miss the first month of the season -- the Beavers would be in great shape. Junior Colby Prince is the "official" tight end. He caught one pass last season.

Utah: Kendrick Moeai, a three-year starter, caught 11 passes for 225 yards and a touchdown in 2010. Yes, that's an average of 20.5 yards per reception. He might get more looks in Norm Chow's pro-style offense. Backup Westlee Tonga hasn't caught a pass.

We'll see

Washington: On the one hand, the Huskies have no experience at the position. On the other, true freshman Austin Seferian-Jenkins and redshirt freshman Michael Hartvigson looked like a potentially outstanding duo this spring. Still, you've got to prove it.

Arizona: Since Rob Gronkowski departed, tight end hasn't been a go-to position for the Wildcats. Jack Baucus, atop the post-spring depth chart, caught four passes last season as a backup. Departed 2010 starter A.J. Simmons caught eight.

Arizona State: Not a big position for the Sun Devils, either. Trevor Kohl caught two passes in 2010. Center Garth Gerhart is credited with one reception. The ASU offense uses a "Y" receiver, who sometimes operates as tight end, which would be 235-pound Christopher Coyle.

Washington State: 2010 starter Skylar Stormo is now a defensive end. Junior Andrei Lintz sat atop the post-spring depth chart, and he caught one pass for four yards last fall. Promising freshman Aaron Dunn is the backup.

Pac-12 NFL prospects in 2012?

May, 2, 2011
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The 2011 NFL draft is over, which means it's time to look at who the Pac-12's top senior prospects in 2012 likely will be.

First of all, plenty of top non-seniors from the conference might -- or are likely to -- enter the draft, including Stanford QB Andrew Luck, Oregon RB LaMichael James, Arizona State LB Vontaze Burfict and USC QB Matt Barkley. Those four range from sure to likely first-round draft picks.

But this list includes only players in their final year of eligibility. And some might rate a bit of a reach as NFL prospects.

Arizona: QB Nick Foles, WR Juron Criner, CB Trevin Wade

Arizona State: CB Omar Bolden, DE James Brooks, C Garth Gerhart

California: S Sean Cattouse, TE Anthony Miller, LB Mychal Kendricks, LB D.J. Holt, OT Mitchell Schwartz, P Bryan Anger

Colorado: OG Ryan Miller, RB Rodney Stewart, DT Conrad Obi, TE Ryan Deehan

Oregon: TE David Paulson, SS Eddie Pleasant, OT Mark Asper, LB Josh Kaddu

Oregon State: S Lance Mitchell, WR James Rodgers, FB-TE Joe Halahuni

Stanford: WR Chris Owusu, TE Coby Fleenor, S Delano Howell

UCLA: S Tony Dye, FB Derrick Coleman, TE Cory Harkey

USC: LB Chris Galippo, DE Armond Armstead, TE Rhett Ellison, RB Marc Tyler

Utah: OT Tony Bergstrom, LB Chaz Walker, OT John Cullen

Washington: DT Alameda Ta'amu, WR Jermaine Kearse, OT Senio Kelemete, K Erik Folk

Washington State: DT Brandon Rankin, OG B.J. Guerra, WR Jared Karstetter

USC spring notes

April, 25, 2011
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LOS ANGELES -- One of the coachspeak quotes that often raises an eyebrow from the media is the ole, "We're young" declaration. Sometimes it's true, of course. But even so, it seems like a ready-made excuse.

But when USC coach Lane Kiffin throws it out -- "We're going to be extremely young" -- he recites numbers that back him up.

[+] EnlargeMatt Barkley
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireWith uncertainty at several positions, USC will be relying heavily on returning quarterback Matt Barkley.
The Trojans have just 12 scholarship seniors and 14 scholarship juniors, he said. Further, 12 players on the two-deep sat out spring practices. Eight players who did participate this spring are early enrollees from this February's recruiting class. In the fall, 23 first-year players arrive.

That means 35 players who aren't participating this spring will be new to competition for playing time during preseason camp. In other words, the USC you saw -- or read about -- this spring isn't really going to be the USC that shows up this fall.

At least, that's the hope for Kiffin, because things were far from pretty -- particularly on offense -- this spring.

Some notes.

  • It's difficult to judge quarterback Matt Barkley this spring because his supporting cast was so thin. Kiffin mostly lauded his leadership, and the general feeling is that Barkley and receiver Robert Woods are going to light things up this fall. As for quarterback depth, it seems redshirt freshman Jesse Scroggins took the lead for the backup role over touted true freshmen Max Wittek and Cody Kessler. Kessler seemed slightly more polished than Wittek this spring.
  • The depth looks strong at running back, even if Marc Tyler can't stay healthy. Dillon Baxter, D.J. Morgan and Curtis McNeil each had their moments. Morgan is intriguing but "still very raw," said Kiffin, who added that McNeil, who was academically ineligible last season, "actually outperformed all those guys." The fullback is Soma Vainuku, a freshman.
  • The receiving corps is going to be long on potential and short on experience. Woods often looks like a budding All-American. Said Kiffin: "Robert Woods has really taken his game to the next level. It's hard to imagine he's only in his second semester." If Kyle Prater can stay healthy, he also has all-star potential. Brandon Carswell, De'Von Flournoy and Markeith Ambles -- who's struggled to stay out of the doghouse because of discipline issues -- provide uncertain depth. It's almost certain that incoming freshmen, including the celebrated tandem of George Farmer and Victor Blackwell, will get immediate looks.
  • Rhett Ellison has had a good spring and is getting looks at both tight end and fullback. Xavier Grimble, Christian Thomas and Brandall Telfair also are in the tight end mix, with each bringing different skills to the position.
  • The offensive line? Huge question mark. The only certainty is Matt Kalil at left tackle. Khaled Holmes started at guard last season and is expected to start at center this fall, but he didn't do contact work this spring. Kevin Graf probably fits in somewhere. There really wasn't a second unit of scholarship players this spring. Incoming freshmen Cyrus Hobbi and Aundrey Walker will get serious looks in the fall. Former coach Pete Carroll was an outstanding recruiter, but he fell short recruiting offensive linemen over his final few seasons.
  • Andre Heidari, the No. 1 prep kicker in the nation last year, has looked solid this spring. The hope is incoming freshman Kristopher Albarado will win the punting job.
  • The big question on the defensive line is the uncertain health of Armond Armstead. An undisclosed health issue prevented him from practicing and his future is uncertain. Said Kiffin, "That's big. He really came on at the end of the year. We'll know more this summer." With him, the Trojans' defensive line could be elite. Without him, it still could be pretty good. Junior end Nick Perry, if he can stay healthy, will become an NFL prospect. He was clocked at 4.6 in the 40 at 250 pounds. Said Kiffin, "He's everything you want. He's an NFL dream, height, weight, speed, jumping." Redshirt freshman defensive tackle George Uko has made the most gains this spring. End Wes Horton and tackle DaJohn Harris have experience, as does tackle Christian Tupou, who should return from a knee injury that killed his 2010 season.
  • The likely starting linebackers -- Chris Galippo, Devon Kennard and Shane Horton -- sat out with injuries. Things are thin behind them, though redshirt freshman Hayes Pullard "has played extremely well," according to Kiffin. This is another position where incoming freshmen -- Lamar Dawson? Tre Madden? -- could make an impact.
  • Cornerback Nickell Robey has had and outstanding spring, and safety T.J. McDonald is a budding star. There's less certainty at the other two spots, though Anthony Burnett appears to have caught Kiffin's eye at the other corner. Jawanza Starling, Drew McAllister, Demetrius Wright and Marshall Jones are competing at the other safety. Dion Baily is getting a look at a "nickel linebacker."

USC limping into spring practices

March, 21, 2011
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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.

Locker tumbles on Kiper's 'Big Board' (sort of)

September, 22, 2010
9/22/10
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A Pac-10 QB is atop Mel Kiper's "Big Board," but it's no longer Washington's Jake Locker.

It's Stanford's Andrew Luck.

Here's what Kiper has to say about Locker's terrible game vs. Nebraska:
Still, it's hard to ignore the dreadful showing Jake Locker had against Nebraska. While I noted in Stock Watch that the totals were worse than the tape -- Locker was facing a loaded secondary, and was constantly harassed and forced to simply dump the ball -- he's still due for a fall. It's a developmental issue. NFL evaluators still see significant talent, but they are hesitant to take a QB as high as No. 1 overall if they think he needs significant tutoring at the NFL level. They simply can't have the patience because of the tenuous nature of their own jobs. So Locker takes a hit this week.

Kiper therefore drops Locker to No. 4, though he still lists Locker as the No. 1 senior QB.

Also on the Big Board: The UCLA duo of LB Akeem Ayers and S Rahim Moore are rated 18th and 24th, respectively.

Other top Pac-10 seniors:
  • Stanford's Owen Marecic and USC's Stanley Havili rate as the top two fullbacks.
  • USC's Ronald Johnson is the No. 2 receiver.
  • USC's Kristofer O'Dowd is the No. 3 center.
  • Oregon State's Stephen Paea is the No. 2 DT.
  • UCLA's Kia Forbath is the No. 1 kicker. Arizona State's Thomas Weber is No. 3.
  • Arizona State's Trevor Hankins is the No. 2 punter, while Washington State's Reid Forest is No. 5.

As for Pac-10 non-seniors:
  • Luck is the No. 1 QB. Arizona's Nick Foles is No. 4.
  • Kiper lists Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers, Oregon's LaMichael James and California's Shane Vereen as the Nos. 3, 4 and 5 RBs.
  • Cal's Anthony Miller, Oregon's David Paulson and USC's Rhett Ellison are the Nos. 2, 4 and 5 tight ends.
  • USC's Jurrell Casey is the No. 3 DT. Arizona State's Lawrence Guy is No. 5.
  • USC's Chris Galippo, who doesn't start, rates as the No. 5 inside linebacker.
  • Ayers is the No. 1 OLB. Moore is the No. 1 safety.
  • Washington's Erik Folk is the No. 2 kicker.
  • Cal's Bryan Anger is the No. 1 punter

Preseason position reviews: tight end

July, 28, 2010
7/28/10
9:00
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Welcome to the review of the weakest position in the Pac-10. And that was going to be the case even before Washington gave Kavario Middleton the boot.

Middleton, by the way, was named preseason first-team All-Pac-10 by Phil Steele, even though he only caught 26 passes last year and was being challenged for the starting job by Chris Izbicki.

Only four teams welcome back their starting tight end, and only one -- California's Anthony Miller -- even earned honorable mention all-conference honors.

Why is the position down? Attrition after an "up" season. Consider the departed: Arizona's Rob Gronkowski, Oregon's Ed Dickson, Stanford's Jim Dray, UCLA's Logan Paulsen and Ryan Moya and USC's Anthony McCoy. Those guys are now stocking NFL rosters.

So where do things stand? Well, you might say we graded the position on a curve, though there is plenty of potential here.

Great shape
  • California: Miller was the Bears' third-leading receiver last year. Six-foot-7 sophomore backup Spencer Ladner saw action in seven games.
Good shape
  • UCLA: While the Bruins lost their top two TEs, they look solid here with Cory Harkey, Notre Dame transfer Joseph Fauria and hybrid TE-WR Morrell Presley.
  • Stanford: Even though the Cardinal lost Dray, Coby Fleener was their top pass-catcher at the position, and the depth is good with Konrad Reuland, Zach Ertz and 6-foot-8 Levine Toilolo.
  • Oregon State: The Beavers get credit here for H-back Joe Halahuni, who caught 35 passes for 486 yards and three TDs in 2009. Senior Brady Camp is a good blocker with 18 career starts.
  • Oregon: The Ducks lose Dickson, but David Paulson saw extensive action in 2009 and JC transfer Brandon Williams was impressive this spring.
  • Arizona: Gronkowski's back injury made A.J. Simmons the season-long starter, so the Wildcats are at least experienced. Redshirt freshman Jack Baucus is the backup.
  • Washington State: The Cougars' depth chart lists five TEs, with Skylar Stormo and Zach Tatman offering experience at the top.
We'll see
  • USC: Attrition and injuries make this a questionable position for the Trojans. If Blake Ayles and Rhett Ellison stay healthy, things should be OK. The incoming freshman class is strong, starting with Xavier Grimble, who ranked No. 1 at the position, according to ESPN Recruiting.
  • Washington: With Middleton, the Huskies would have been in great shape. Izbicki had a good spring, but he only caught three passes for 7 yards in 2009 and the depth is questionable.
  • Arizona State: Jovon Williams is gone and Dan Knapp is a tackle, but the Sun Devils could move up here just because the position figures to be more involved in the offense in 2010. Trevor Kohl and Christopher Coyle top the depth chart.

USC rules three academically ineligible

December, 21, 2009
12/21/09
4:12
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The notion that USC merely reloads talent ad infinitum despite the departure of a bevy of starters was cast into doubt this season, and it will be tested further -- unexpectedly -- in the Emerald Bowl on Saturday.

With starting running back Joe McKnight's eligibility for the bowl game against Boston College already in question due to an alleged NCAA rules violation, the school announced Tuesday that tight end Anthony McCoy, offensive tackle Tyron Smith and defensive tackle Averell Spicer have been ruled academically ineligible.

McCoy and Smith are both starters and earned honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors. Spicer is a key reserve. McCoy and Spicer are both seniors, so their USC careers are over.

"We're really disappointed these guys didn't come through," USC coach Pete Carroll said in a statement. "They had all the help in the world to get it done and they didn't do it."

How many times do you read a statement from a coach that was released through the school and sense genuine chagrin? In that single sentence, you can feel Carroll's disappointment.

So, if USC isn't able to resolve the McKnight situation over the next couple of days -- and expect an athletic department already under NCAA investigation to be as cautious as possible -- the Trojans will face Boston College down three starters and a reserve on their defensive line.

Not good for any team, even USC.

McCoy will be replaced by sophomore Rhett Ellison -- USC is already thin at tight end because of Blake Ayles' knee injury. Redshirt freshman Matt Kalil will replace Smith, a sophomore. Kalil is a major talent -- his older brother Ryan was was an All-American center for USC and now plays for the Carolina Panthers -- and he is expected to be fill one of the three vacancies on the Trojans offensive line next year.

As if USC falling from seven-time Pac-10 champion to four-loss Emerald Bowl team wasn't enough, the Trojans are now burdened with major off-field issues, which are forcing key players out of the lineup.

Heading into the bowl season, the main question was how motivated and focused USC would be against Boston College in a mid-level bowl game. That question is even more relevant now.

When a team is down and caught in a whirlwind of issues, it can either tear apart or come together.

Many will be curious to see what USC will do on Saturday against a BC team that surely sees blood in the water.

USC's Barkley gets first career TD pass

September, 5, 2009
9/05/09
6:04
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Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller


LOS ANGELES -- Matt Barkley's 4-yard dump to tight end Rhett Ellison becomes the first of what a lot of folks believe will be many career touchdown passes.

USC has scored touchdowns on six consecutive possessions while the defense has pitched a shutout during the same span.

The Trojans lead total yards 450-131. We're starting to see some backups -- true freshman Devon Kennard just recorded a tackle for loss.

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