LOS ANGELES -- Since Stanley Havili became the starting fullback, USC has gone through four starting quarterbacks, two head coaches, a carousel of assistants, a couple of polar-opposite athletic directors and a mountain of pain handed down by the NCAA.
The fifth-year senior appears to be exactly what USC needs in these trying times: Someone the Trojans can depend on. Havili provides a vocal, trusted presence in the huddle, a dangerous outlet valve in the passing game and, lately, some punishing blocks to open running lanes.
"Stanley's a real cool guy. Everybody loves him on the team," tailback Allen Bradford said. "He's going to be a real offensive leader this year."
In intense team sports, it's impossible for outsiders to gauge quite how leadership works. When Havili broke freshman cornerback T.J. Bryant's cheekbone in a skirmish earlier this summer, some people viewed it as another example of the Trojans' football program coming apart at the seams. People on the team, however, saw it differently.
Havili is one of the few holdovers from the end of USC's golden era under Pete Carroll, when Rose Bowls and BCS title games were the objective. The fight between the two broke out because Havili was urging Bryant to finish the drill with maximum effort, to compete in the Trojan way. He was leading. And so coach Lane Kiffin suspended him for just one practice.
Havili will be the most experienced member of the offense Thursday at Aloha Stadium, when USC opens its season against Hawaii. "This is definitely the most excited I've ever been," Havili said. "The realization of this being my last year, the first year of Coach Kiffin just makes it a plus. I'm going out with the change of Trojan identity. It's a different leader now and guys have to buy in."
A lot is riding on Thursday's outcome for Havili, who is of Tongan descent and will have family members who live on the island at the game. Hawaii recruited him as a tailback five years ago, but Havili elected to go to USC, saying, "I always wanted to compete at the highest level."
A lot is riding on this season, because Havili has NFL aspirations and will need to prove he's a capable blocker in order to improve his draft stock. At 6-foot-1, 225 pounds, he's a bit light for a fullback. New running backs coach Kennedy Pola is teaching him to make up for his size with solid technique.
"Our focus is on knowledge," Havili said.
Havili can help lead the guys, but for USC's offense to have any chance to click, sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley has to have command of the huddle. His teammates have to believe he can run the offense efficiently, but that faith takes time.
It has a better chance to grow now that Barkley no longer is a true freshman. Barkley said he feels more comfortable this camp than he did a year ago, when he was swimming in new ideas and spending evenings cramming with the playbook. He also has noticed different reactions from teammates when he relays the plays.
"It's not like we go, 'Good job, good job' but I do see that they respect me and they'll listen to what I say and they expect me to lead them," Barkley said.
Senior receiver Ronald Johnson said it's pretty obvious Barkley is more comfortable running things after 12 more months of study and practice time. "He's a very smart player and he's going to get the job done for us," Johnson said.
The Trojans don't lack for talent on defense. What they lack is veteran savvy.
The front seven is considered a strength, anchored by NFL prospect Jurrell Casey at tackle, powerful pass-rusher Armond Armstead at end and speedy linebacker Devon Kennard. There's only one problem: "None of them has done anything in a game yet," said defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron.
The most seasoned defensive player is fifth-year senior cornerback Shareece Wright, who also has the kind of talent that could attract NFL scouts' attention. Wright said he considers himself and senior linebacker Malcolm Smith the leaders of the defense, which might have to sustain the Trojans while the team's young skill players learn the nuances of the offense.
"That's my role, to teach guys stuff, let them know what to do and what not to do," Wright said.
Wright could probably hold a symposium in what not to do. He was arrested at a party on Labor Day 2008 and, 10 months later, pleaded no contest to disturbing the peace, a misdemeanor. Wright looked like he would be a centerpiece of the defense last year until he was ruled academically ineligible, wiping out his regular season. Now he's back and, apparently, wiser and more focused.
"Guys look up to us," Wright said.
Nobody really knows what to expect when USC embarks on this post-sanctions portion of its long history. "There are tons of questions people have, including the head coach," Kiffin said. "I'm sure people watching are going to be curious, 'How are they going to play?'"
The early schedule is soft enough that it would be surprising if the Trojans aren't 4-0 heading into their Oct. 2 game versus Washington. Talent alone probably will be enough to brush off Hawaii, a middle-of-the-pack Western Athletic Conference team that lost virtually all of its offensive linemen since last season.
But each time the Trojans look susceptible this season, people will be looking for signs of crumbling. And that's where leadership could come in handy.
Mark Saxon covers USC for ESPNLosAngeles.com