Tuesday, December 18, 2012 Updated: December 19, 9:24 PM ET
By Johnny Curren WeAreSC.com
LOS ANGELES -- It was just last spring that running back Tre Madden and defensive end Devon Kennard were turning heads on an almost daily basis with a string of strong performances.
By the time fall camp rolled around, however, neither could be found on the field for USC.
Originally figuring heavily into the plans for a team with BCS title hopes, both were struck down with season-ending injuries before the 2012 campaign started and were forced to watch from the sideline as their teammates stumbled to a 7-5 record.
And while it's safe to say neither would have been a cure-all for the problems that plagued the team this year -- something both running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu and defensive line coach Ed Orgeron are quick to point out -- it's hard not to wonder what the Trojans lost when the two were removed from the equation.
Tre Madden, a converted linebacker, could make a big impact on the Trojans' backfield next season.
Could Madden, a physical pounder, have made a difference in the now-infamous fourth-quarter goal-line series against Notre Dame?
Might the presence of the athletic Kennard have helped against those dual-threat quarterbacks who wreaked havoc on the USC defense throughout the last month of Pac-12 play?
We'll never know for sure, but the one thing that is certain is that just a little over eight months ago, both players were showing a ton of promise.
Through 10 practice sessions last March and April, Madden had emerged as the surprise story of the spring. Looking completely at home in the offensive backfield after switching over from linebacker, the 6-foot-1, 220-pound sophomore gave the Trojans' rushing attack a true power back with speed to boot while also providing some much-needed depth at a position that desperately needed it.
"I thought he was coming along pretty good," Polamalu said. "He's a natural, instinctive running back -- a real good athlete -- and he was just getting used to playing on that side of the ball a little more. And also having played linebacker, he's not afraid to put it on you."
Then Madden went down with a torn ligament in his left knee, and all of a sudden Lane Kiffin's offense was down a workhorse and paper-thin at running back.
In a stroke of luck, however, the Trojans ultimately gained the services of Penn State transfer Silas Redd just before the season, somewhat easing what was seen as a devastating loss. Still, there were times when Madden's presence was sorely missed. Against Stanford, for example, the Trojans amassed just 26 yards on the ground, and with every other tailback dinged up at one point, Kiffin was forced to use fullback Soma Vainuku at the spot.
"If you looked at our season, we went through times where we played everybody that was active and that could play, so it did affect depth," Polamalu said of the loss of Madden.
Kennard, meanwhile, looked to be on the cusp of a breakout year during spring drills. A quick and heady senior who spent part of 2009 and all of 2010 at linebacker, he was perhaps the defensive line unit's most versatile performer.
After missing 2012 with a torn pectoral muscle, Devon Kennard will be looking to bounce back in 2013.
"Devon knew what to do, and he was poised and ready for a great year," Orgeron said. "He brings the want-to, the toughness, a great work attitude -- he will give you 110 percent. You know, he's 260 [pounds] so he's bigger, he's better against the run and he's very smart. You can stand him up and you can put him down. He played linebacker so you can drop him -- he understands coverages. He can rush. He's a complete player."
But like Madden, Kennard succumbed to injury, suffering a torn chest muscle during offseason workouts in July. And just like that, the Trojans' defensive line had to move on without one of its veteran leaders.
Somehow, though, Orgeron's group did, and it actually exceeded all expectations thanks in large part to the emergence of Morgan Breslin, Kennard's replacement who wound up pacing the Trojans with 12 sacks. But the line did wear down at times, particularly late in games when they were going up against teams such as Arizona and Oregon that featured fast-paced offenses.
"We could have used him in the rotation," Orgeron said. "We like to rotate eight, and we couldn't do it."
The good news for the Trojans is that both Kennard and Madden will be back next season.
For Polamalu, whose running back group looks to also include Class of 2013 pledges Ty Isaac and Justin Davis, Madden's return is sure to provide a boost to what looks to be a deep and dynamic collection of talent.
"Any time you get an athlete like that, a guy that can make plays -- with and without the football -- you always like to have him on your team," Polamalu said.
An exciting defensive line unit marked by talent and youth, meanwhile, loses just one senior in end Wes Horton, meaning hopes are sure to be sky high, especially so with the return of Kennard.
"No question," Orgeron said. "Plus, with the recruiting class that we're getting -- we've got to see who we end up getting -- we feel like we're finally going to be at the level we need to play."
And while there's still a lot of work that needs to be done by both Madden and Kennard between now and the start of the 2013 season -- in the training room as well as out on the field -- having shown what they did last spring, there's definite reason for optimism.