USC Football Spring Practice Starts Tuesday
March 5, 2012
As the 2012 USC football team begins spring practice on Tuesday (March 6) for 15 sessions, there seems to be one overriding theme: "Unfinished business."
The buzz started late last December, when All-American safety T.J. McDonald announced he was returning to USC for his 2012 senior season by saying, "I want to come back and finish things out and be part of something great."
The very next day, Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Matt Barkley declared his intention to return to Troy by saying, "The 2012 team has some serious unfinished business to attend to."
Both players, along with their teammates and many college football prognosticators, realize that 2012 could be a special season for the Trojans.
USC has 19 starters (9 on offense, 8 on defense, plus the placekicker and punter) returning from a squad that ended the 2011 campaign as perhaps the hottest team in the nation. However, Troy could not play in the post-season while serving the second (and final) year of an NCAA ban. Last year, the Trojans went 10-2 overall for a No. 6 AP ranking and finished first in the Pac-12 South Division at 7-2. USC beat both teams that played in the Pac-12 Championship Game, winning at Oregon and then 50-0 over UCLA over the final 2 weeks of the season. One of its 2 losses came in triple overtime to BCS bowl-bound Stanford.
The 2012 Trojans bring back a 3,500-yard passer, a pair of 1,000-yard receivers, a 1,000-yard rusher, a duo of tight ends who caught 9 touchdowns, the defense's top 4 tacklers and a kicker who nailed 15 field goals. Returning from 2011 are a Biletnikoff Award finalist, 2 All-American first teamers, 5 Freshman All-American first teamers, the Pac-12's Offensive and Defensive Freshmen of the Year and the Pac-12 record holders for season receptions and TD passes. It is no wonder that this year's Trojans feature numerous players who are candidates for some of college football's top individual honors.
In all, 79 squadmen are back from last year, including 46 who saw action in 2011, 37 who lettered, 28 who were on USC's season-ending 2-deep and 27 who have started at least once in their career.
Although the Trojans are eligible to play in the post-season for the first time since 2009, the 2012 season marks the first of 3 years that USC's roster size will be limited by NCAA sanctions. The Trojans must cap their roster at 75 scholarship players annually and can sign no more than 15 recruits per year (both figures are 10 fewer than the NCAA maximum).
USC brought in a 12-player recruiting class this year that was ranked in the national Top 10 by some experts, which speaks about the quality of the signees despite the quantity. Along with this group are 5 new players who enrolled at USC this semester and will participate in 2012 spring practice (they do not count against the 2012 recruiting class).
The Trojans appear loaded on offense. The returning starters are:
--Barkley, a 3-year starter who will enter 2012 as the leading contender for the Heisman Trophy after last season setting a Pac-12 record with 39 TD tosses while completing a school record 69.1% of his throws for 3,528 yards. The owner of 4 USC game records, he is on pace to be Troy's all-time passing and total offense leader.
--Biletnikoff Award candidate wide receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, who both eclipsed the 1,000-yard receiving barrier in 2011. Their combined receptions (184) and receiving yards (2,435) in 2011 were the most by a pair of Trojans in a season. The 2-year starter Woods, a consensus All-American in 2011 when he had a Pac-12 record 111 receptions and set a USC game mark with 17 catches, is on track to be the school's career pass catching and kickoff return leader. He was a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award last fall. Lee was a 2011 Freshman All-American and the Pac-12's Freshman Offensive Co-Player of the Year whose 11 TD catches among his 73 receptions were the most nationally by a freshman last fall.
--Tailback Curtis McNeal, who ran for 1,005 yards with 4 100-yard outings as a co-starter in 2011. His 6.9-yard average per carry was the best by a Trojan since 2005.
--Center Khaled Holmes, a 2-year starter who is the leading candidate for the Rimington Trophy and is also an Academic All-American candidate.
Other offensive players back who have career starts are tailback D.J. Morgan (he started the first 2 games of 2011) and offensive tackle-guard Jeremy Galten, who became the first junior college transfer since 1990 to go directly from a J.C. to USC and start an opener at guard.
USC is almost equally well-stocked with returning starters on defense:
--2011 All-American McDonald, a 2-year starter who is the top Thorpe Award nominee. He has 163 tackles and 6 interceptions in his career.
--2011 Freshman All-American linebackers Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard, who were the first freshmen to lead USC in tackles (they each had 81 stops last season). Bailey was the Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year.
--Cornerback Nickell Robey, a 2-year starter who is a Thorpe Award candidate. He has 6 career picks.
--Safety Jawanza Starling, a 2-year starter whose 80-yard scoring fumble return changed the momentum in last year's win at Notre Dame.
--2011 co-starting middle linebacker Lamar Dawson.
--Cornerback Isiah Wiley.
Others on the 2012 roster with defensive starting experience are cornerbacks Torin Harris and Anthony Brown, who respectively started the first 4 and next 2 games last year before suffering season-ending injuries, tackle George Uko, safety Drew McAllister, linebacker Tre Madden and cornerback Tony Burnett.
Both of USC's specialists return. Placekicker Andre Heidari, a 2011 Freshman All-American and All-Pac-12 first teamer who is now a Groza Award candidate, hit 15-of-17 field goals and all 50 of his PATs last year. His 88.2% field goal percentage was third best in the nation (tops among freshmen) and his 50-yard field goal versus Stanford was USC's longest since 1990. Punter Kyle Negrete, an Academic All-American candidate and Burlsworth Trophy who excels at directional punting, saw nearly half of his 39 punts in 2011 pin opponents within the 20-yard line (and only 10 were returned).
With all this talent coming back, the Trojans likely will enter 2012 highly ranked. But third-year USC head coach Lane Kiffin is cautious.
"As I have said before, the game is about the prep and not the hype," said Kiffin, whose 18 wins trail only College Football Hall of Famers Howard Jones and John Robinson (19 each) for most victories in the first 2 years as a Trojan head coach. "Although there are now high expectations nationally for our football program, it is important to realize that we have always had extremely high expectations within our program.
"This spring and fall as we prepare for the 2012 season, we will go about the development of our team and our players no differently than we did last season. We realize that this is still a relatively young football team at many positions. So it will be critical to have a great spring and fall of individual and positional development."
Although USC did not suffer many personnel losses from 2011, some key players have departed. The starters gone from 2011 are All-American offensive tackle Matt Kalil, a 2-year starter who won the Pac-12's Morris Trophy; All-Pac-12 first team defensive end Nick Perry, a 2-year starter who was a finalist for the Hendricks Award after notching 9.5 sacks last year (10th nationally); fullback-tight end Rhett Ellison, who had 53 career catches and earned All-Pac-12 first team honors last fall as a special teams player; and defensive tackles Christian Tupou and DaJohn Harris (3- and 2-year starters, respectively).
Also gone are 2011 co-starters Chris Galippo (166 tackles and 6 interceptions in his career) at middle linebacker and Marc Tyler (1,751 career rushing yards, with 5 100-yard games) at tailback. Others not returning who had some starting experience include wide receivers Brandon Carswell (40 career receptions) and Brice Butler (41 career receptions) and linebacker Shane Horton (99 tackles at USC).
The Trojan staff features 3 new full-time assistant coaches: Tennessee's 1998 national championship quarterback and NFL veteran Tee Martin (wide receivers), former Nebraska assistant and North Carolina defensive coordinator Marvin Sanders (secondary) and Scottie Hazelton (linebackers), who was the defensive coordinator for North Dakota State's 2011 NCAA FCS national championship team. They will join holdovers Ed Orgeron (defensive coordinator/recruiting coordinator/defensive line), Monte Kiffin (assistant head coach), Kennedy Polamalu (offensive coordinator/running backs), John Baxter (associate head coach/special teams), Clay Helton (passing game coordinator/quarterbacks) and James Cregg (offensive line). Justin Mesa returns as the tight ends graduate assistant, while Shawn Howe becomes the defensive line graduate assistant after serving as a defensive administrative assistant in 2011.
As usual, USC's schedule is challenging. The Trojans will face 8 teams that played in a bowl in 2011, 6 teams that won at least 7 games last year and 4 squads that will be guided by new coaches. Troy plays 6 home games in the Coliseum in 2012. USC opens with a Sept. 1 home contest against Norm Chow-led Hawaii, just the third time that the Warriors have played the Trojans in the Coliseum. Troy then will make its first visit to the New York City area since 2000 when it meets Syracuse on Sept. 8 in 82,500-seat MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. USC then begins Pac-12 play by facing the Bay Area schools, traveling to Stanford on Sept. 15 (the Pac-12's first conference game of 2012) and hosting California on Sept. 22. After a bye, USC resumes league play with a Thursday game at Utah on Oct. 4 (its first time there since 1917), followed by a trip to Washington on Oct. 13. The Trojans return to the Coliseum for an Oct. 20 game against Colorado before going to Arizona (under new mentor Rich Rodriguez) on Oct. 27. Troy opens the month of November with home games against 3-time defending league champion Oregon on Nov. 3 and Arizona State (and new coach Todd Graham) on Nov. 10. USC then plays its traditional rivals, first facing new coach Jim Mora's UCLA team in the Rose Bowl on Nov. 17 and then hosting Notre Dame on the Saturday (Nov. 24) of Thanksgiving weekend.
Unfinished business, indeed.
Nine starters return on offense from 2011: quarterback Matt Barkley, wide receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, tailback Curtis McNeal, center Khaled Holmes, guards Marcus Martin and John Martinez, tackle Kevin Graf and co-starting tight ends Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble. Others back with starting experience are tailback D.J. Morgan and tackle-guard Jeremy Galten.
USC will look to build upon 2011's outstanding offensive showing. The Trojans return a 3,500-yard passer, a pair of 1,000-yard receivers, a 1,000-yard rusher and a pair of tight ends who combined for 9 touchdowns. USC's passing (294.2), total offense (456.8) and scoring (35.8) averages last year increased from 2010. Only its rushing average (162.6) showed a slight decline from 2010 (-26.7). The Trojans were sixth nationally in passing efficiency (161.1) and in the nation's Top 25 in passing (15th), scoring (16th) and total (21st) offense. USC's yards-per-play average (6.5) was the third highest in school history, while its averages for total offense and passing offense were the fourth highest and its scoring offense average was the fifth highest. Troy's 8 sacks allowed were the fewest at USC since records were kept in 1987 (despite not starting a senior on the offensive line) and ranked the Trojans second nationally in 2011. USC led the Pac-12 in fewest penalty yards and was in the league's Top 3 in first downs, third down conversions and time of possession.
"We were successful offensively as last season progressed," said Kiffin. "It is important that we continue in that direction in 2012. We return a lot of firepower on offense, but there are some depth and youth issues that we need to overcome. Spring practice will be crucial in this regard."
QUARTERBACKS--USC is led in 2012 by perhaps the best player in college football, senior quarterback Matt Barkley (308-of-446, 69.1%, 3,528 yds, 39 TD, 7 int in 2011, plus 28 tcb, 14 yds, 0.5 avg, 2 TD and 2 tac). He is the leading contender for the Heisman Trophy as he enters his fourth year as a starter (he was sixth in the 2011 Heisman voting). Last season when he was a finalist for the Manning Award and Wuerffel Trophy, he set a Pac-12 record for touchdown passes (39) and a USC record for completion percentage (69.1%) while becoming just the fourth Trojan signalcaller to pass for more than 3,500 yards in a season. He also set 4 USC game records (35 completions, 468 passing yards, 6 TD passes and 470 yards of total offense). He is on pace to become Troy's career leader in pass completions, yardage and TDs and total offense yardage. He will be USC's first-ever 3-time captain.
Three untested young quarterbacks will battle to be Barkley's backup: sophomore Jesse Scroggins, who took 1 snap last year after missing the first 6 contests with a thumb injury, and high-potential redshirt freshmen Cody Kessler and Max Wittek.
Also available are 3 walk-ons in seniors John Manoogian, who took a few end-of-game snaps in 2 contests last fall, and Emon Saee and sophomore Anthony Neyer (Saee and Neyer each got into a game last season as a wideout for 1 snap).
"We are looking forward to challenging Matt Barkley, on and off the field, to be the best player in college football in 2012," said Kiffin. "As good of a year as he had last year, he has the opportunity to be even better this season. He has high standards and goals, and they are all attainable this year. We are also looking forward to a very competitive race among the backup quarterbacks this spring. All of them are very talented and have bright futures."
RUNNING BACKS--USC features a pair of high-quality tailbacks in 2012, but depth is a concern here. Last season's co-starting tailback, bruising Marc Tyler (he had 1,751 career rushing yards and 5 100-yard games) will be missed.
Senior Curtis McNeal (145 tcb, 1,005 yds, 6.9 avg, 6 TD in 2011, plus 3 rec, 19 yds, 6.3 avg and 6 KOR, 101 yds, 16.8 avg and 3 tac) returns after becoming USC's 27th 1,000-yard season rusher. He posted a quartet of 100-yard outings as a co-starter in 2011. The short but elusive McNeal's 6.9-yard average per carry last season was the best by a Trojan since 2005. He had USC's 5 longest runs of 2011, including 3 in excess of 60 yards. He is also an effective kickoff returner.
Sophomore D.J. Morgan (42 tcb, 163 yds, 3.9 avg in 2011, plus 2 tac) started USC's first 2 games of 2011 and then saw backup action the rest of the way. He was the first USC freshman tailback to start an opener in 5 years. He finally is 100% after a serious knee injury in his 2009 senior year of high school.
The Trojans must develop a new fullback in 2012 now that Rhett Ellison has departed. In his career, the versatile Ellison played both fullback and tight end (he had 53 career receptions) and was a top special teams performer (he earned 2011 All-Pac-12 first team laurels as a special teamer).
Competing for the fullback job will be a pair of young players seeking their first game action: 250-pound redshirt freshman Soma Vainuku and freshman Jahleel Pinner (Mission Viejo High in Mission Viejo, Calif.), a prep All-American who arrives in the fall.
"Although this is not a very deep group, it is a group with a lot of talent," said Kiffin. "We are looking for Curtis McNeal's game to become more complete and well rounded, and for him to build upon his 1,000-yard season of last year. D.J. Morgan appears fully healthy now and we want to get him, Buck Allen and Soma Vainuku lots of reps this spring and show us what they can do."
WIDE RECEIVERS--USC has the best pair of wide receivers in college football in 2012 in junior Robert Woods (111 rec, 1,292 yds, 11.6 avg, 15 TD in 2011, plus 17 KOR, 393 yds, 23.1 avg and 13 PR, 118 yds, 9.1 avg and 7 tcb, 16 yds, 2.3 avg) and sophomore Marqise Lee (73 rec, 1,143 yds, 15.7 avg, 11 TD in 2011, plus 5 tcb, 33 yds, 6.6 avg and 10 KOR, 285 yds, 28.5 avg, 1 TD and 1 tac). The Biletnikoff Award candidates, who both had 1,000 receiving yards last fall, combined in 2011 for the most receptions (184) and receiving yards (2,435) by a pair of Trojans in a season. And they became the first Trojan duo with at least 10 catches in a game when they did so versus UCLA in 2011. Woods had 7 100-yard games in 2011 and Lee added 4. They also figure to again be used in USC's return game in 2012 (both have scoring kickoff returns in their careers).
The quick Woods, who will be starting for his third season, could become Troy's career pass catching and kickoff return leader sometime in his junior season. He was a consensus All-American and Biletnikoff finalist in 2011 when he caught a Pac-12 record 111 receptions and set a USC game mark with 17 catches. He was the only unanimous selection on the 2011 All-Pac-12 first team. He was one of just 2 players in the nation last season in the national Top 16 in receptions, receiving yards and all-purpose running. He had 4 games last fall with double digit receptions. He is one of only 3 Trojans in history to have a pair of career 200-yard receiving outings.
The high-leaping Lee earned Freshman All-American first team and Pac-12 Freshman Offensive Co-Player of the Year notice in 2011. His 11 TD catches (10 of which were at least 24 yards) were the most nationally by a freshman last fall. His 73 receptions were the second most ever by a USC freshman and his 13 grabs against UCLA tied the Trojan freshman record.
Speedy sophomore George Farmer (4 rec, 42 yds, 10.5 avg in 2011, plus 5 tcb, 15 yds, 3.0 avg and 3 KOR, 59 yds, 19.7 avg and 2 tac), a high school teammate of Woods and Lee, figures to get key playing time at wideout in 2012 and also could be used as a returner. Last fall, he worked at both receiver and tailback.
The others in the wide receivers mix have yet to catch a pass at USC. They include junior De'Von Flournoy (1 tac in 2011) and redshirt freshman Victor Blackwell, as well as walk-ons Devin Forte, a senior, and junior Cody Skene.
Joining the wide receiver corps in the fall as freshmen will be prep All-Americans Nelson Agholor (Berkeley Prep High in Tampa, Fla.) and Darreus Rogers (Carson High in Carson, Calif.).
"We are challenging this group to be the No. 1 wide receiver unit in the country," said Kiffin. "As dominant as Robert Woods and Marqise Lee have been, they know they have areas where they can improve. They are special players and are ready to step up their games. We also are excited to watch the continued development of George Farmer, De'Von Flournoy and Victor Blackwell as they compete this spring."
TIGHT ENDS--USC is loaded at tight end in 2012.
Last year's co-starters, sophomores Randall Telfer (26 rec, 273 yds, 10.5 avg, 5 TD in 2011, plus 1 KOR, 2 yds, 2.0 avg and 1 BLK FG and 1 tac) and Xavier Grimble (15 rec, 144 yd, 9.6 avg, 4 TD in 2011, plus 2 KOR, 3 yds, 1.5 avg), return after combining for 9 TDs. Telfer's 26 catches in 2011 set a record for USC freshmen tight ends.
Prep All-American Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick (Whitney High in Rocklin, Calif.) will join this group in the fall as a freshman.
"This is the deepest position group on our team, but also the youngest," said Kiffin. "These players are all very talented and give us many options at tight end."
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN--Four-fifths of USC's offensive line returns in 2012, which bodes well for the Trojan offense, but the one loss is a huge one. Troy must find a new left tackle, as 2-year starter Matt Kalil declared for the NFL draft following an All-American first team junior season that saw him win the Pac-12's Morris Trophy.
Anchoring the line in 2012 will be senior center Khaled Holmes, the top Rimington Award candidate who will be starting on the line for his third season. He is also an Academic All-American prospect.
Both guards return, sophomore Marcus Martin on the left side after earning Freshman All-American first team honors in 2011, and junior John Martinez on the right side. Martin was the first USC true freshman to start at guard since 2004.
Junior tackle Kevin Graf is back after starting 2011 at right tackle. He might be tried at Kalil's left tackle spot, as will massive (6-6, 320 pounds) sophomore Aundrey Walker, who saw action in 11 games last fall.
The only other Trojan lineman with significant playing experience is senior tackle-guard Jeremy Galten, who appeared in all 12 games last year and even started the opener. He was the first player since 1990 to go directly from a junior college and start an opener at guard for USC (and the first to start on the line since 2004).
Other offensive linemen looking to get into the mix are senior center Abe Markowitz (foot injuries have sidelined him most of the past 2 seasons), junior tackle-guard David Garness, sophomore guard Giovanni Di Poalo (he can also play center), who missed last year with a shoulder injury, and redshirt freshman center-guard Cyrus Hobbi.
Freshman tackle Chad Wheeler (Santa Monica High in Santa Monica, Calif.) graduated a semester early from high school and enrolled at USC this spring.
Three prep All-Americans will arrive in the fall as freshmen: tackle Zach Banner (Lakes High in Lakewood, Wash.) and tackle-guards Jordan Simmons (Crespi High in Encino, Calif.) and Max Tuerk (Santa Margarita High in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.).
"We return a lot of experience on the offensive line, but no doubt we have a big hole to fill with the early departure of Matt Kalil," said Kiffin. "Left tackle will be one of the most interesting battles on our team this spring. Khaled Holmes will be our rock up front. Marcus Martin, John Martinez and Kevin Graf all performed solidly last year and we look for them to continue to mature and improve. And we have a lot of quality young players on the line who can really help us. Their development during spring practice will be important."
Eight defensive starters return from 2011: safeties T.J. McDonald and Jawanza Starling, linebackers Dion Bailey, Hayes Pullard and Lamar Dawson, cornerbacks Nickell Robey and Isiah Wiley and co-starting ends Wes Horton and Devon Kennard. Others back with starting experience are cornerbacks Torin Harris, Anthony Brown and Tony Burnett, tackle George Uko, safety Drew McAllister and linebacker Tre Madden.
USC's top 4 tacklers from 2011 are back, as are its leaders in interceptions, pass deflections and fumble recoveries. The Trojans' 2011 numbers improved from 2010 in rushing (111.4), total (374.8) and scoring (23.6) defense, with the rushing defense and sack (2.6) averages ranking in the national Top 20. USC held 8 of its 12 opponents to 17 points or less last fall. USC was in the Pac-12's Top 3 in red zone defense. But Troy must improve on its pass defense, which allowed 263.3 yards a game in 2011 after allowing 259.5 the previous year (those are 2 of the 4 highest totals in school history).
"I was very encouraged by the way we finished down the stretch defensively last year," said Kiffin. "We need to continue that improvement and get to the level of defense that we have seen at USC before. Most importantly, we must improve our pass defense, which has been vulnerable the past 2 years. We have a good chance of doing that in 2012 as we return our back 7 players."
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN--USC's defensive front suffered the most losses of any position unit from 2011, as 3 starters have moved on. All-Pac-12 first team end Nick Perry, a 2-year starter, left for the NFL after a junior season that saw him be a finalist for the Hendricks Award and finish 10th nationally in sacks with 9.5. Tackles Christian Tupou, a 3-year starter, and 2-year starter DaJohn Harris also are gone.
Senior ends Wes Horton (22 tac, 4.5 for loss, 4 sack, 2 dfl, 1 FF in 2011) and Devon Kennard (29 tac, 4 for loss, 2 sack, 1 SAF in 2011), who shared starts in 2011, figure to both start in 2012. Horton, with 22 starts spread out over the past 3 seasons, has 8 sacks among his 74 career tackles. Kennard, with 135 career tackles, has 18 starts over the last 3 years (including some at middle and strongside linebacker).
Last year's often-employed backup tackles, sophomores George Uko (18 tac, 1.5 for loss, 1.5 sack, 1 dfl, 2 FF in 2011), who started twice in 2011, and J.R. Tavai (4 tac, 1 for loss in 2011), are in line to earn starting jobs this season.
Then there are junior end Morgan Breslin (Diablo Valley Junior College in Pleasant Hills, Calif.), a junior college All-American who enrolled at USC this spring after leading the state's jucos in sacks and tackles for losses the past 2 years, and freshman end DeVante Wilson (Corona High in Corona, Calif.), who was set to enroll at USC for the 2011 fall semester after a prep All-American career but tore knee ligaments and took off last semester while recuperating.
Bolstering the line in the fall as a freshman will be prep All-American end Leonard Williams (Mainland High in Dayton Beach, Fla.).
"We suffered our most significant personnel losses on the defensive line," said Kiffin. "So it is extremely critical that our young players develop well and quickly, especially the tackles. Wes Horton and Devon Kennard will provide great leadership for this unit and we expect that they will continue to improve upon their playing ability."
LINEBACKERS--Troy returns a trio of acclaimed sophomore starters at linebacker in 2012 in Dion Bailey (81 tac, 2 for loss, 2 sack, 2 dfl, 1 FF, 2 int in 2011) on the strong side, Hayes Pullard (81 tac, 6.5 for loss, 4.5 sack, 2 dfl, 2 FF in 2011) on the weak side and Lamar Dawson (25 tac, 2 for loss, 1 sack in 2011) in the middle. And there is some capable young depth behind them.
Butkus Award candidates Bailey and Pullard were 2011 Freshman All-American first teamers and were the first freshmen to lead USC in tackles. They each posted a USC season-high 14 tackles in a game in 2011. Bailey was the Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year.
Dawson emerged as the starter for the final 4 games of 2011 after backing up Chris Galippo, who had 166 tackles and 6 interceptions in his career while starting 28 times.
Angling for playing time are sophomore Tre Madden (15 tac, 1 for loss in 2011), who played on special teams in 2011 and even started once for an injured Bailey, senior Dallas Kelley, juniors Will Andrew (5 tac, 1 FR in 2011) and Marquis Simmons (1 tac in 2011), who sat out most of 2011 with a neck injury, and redshirt freshman Anthony Sarao.
Freshman Scott Starr (Norco High in Norco, Calif.), a prep All-American, graduated a semester early from high school and enrolled at USC this spring.
Entering this fall as a freshman is prep All-American Jabari Ruffin (Downey High in Downey, Calif.).
"This is another position with outstanding young talent and some nice depth," said Kiffin. "Dion Bailey, Hayes Pullard and Lamar Dawson had fantastic debut seasons last year, and we expect them to keep getting better and make the linebacker unit one of the best in the nation."
DEFENSIVE BACKS--USC's entire starting secondary returns in 2012, as do most of the backups from 2011, making this the Trojans' deepest defensive unit.
The secondary is led by hard-hitting senior free safety T.J. McDonald (67 tac, 2.5 for loss, 3 int, 1 FR, 2 dfl, 1 BLK P in 2011), a 2011 All-American and All-Pac-12 first team selection who will be starting for his third year. He is the leading candidate for the Thorpe Award. He led the Trojans in interceptions (3) last fall and was third in tackles (67) after being the team's tackle leader in 2010. He has 163 stops and 6 picks in his career.
Like McDonald, senior strong safety Jawanza Starling (48 tac, 3.5 for loss, 2 dfl, 2 FR with 1 for TD in 2011) figures to be in the starting lineup for his third season. He will long be remembered for his 80-yard fumble return for a touchdown that swung the momentum to USC's favor in last year's victory at Notre Dame.
Junior Nickell Robey (63 tac, 5.5 for loss, 2 sack, 9 dfl, 2 int with 1 TD in 2011, plus 12 PR, 132 yds, 11.0 avg and 1 KOR, 20 yds, 20.0 avg), a lockdown cornerback, will start for his third season and is a Thorpe Award nominee after winning All-Pac-12 first team honors in 2011. He led the Trojans in pass deflections (9) and was fourth in tackles (63) last year. In his career, he has 111 tackles, 6 interceptions and 13 deflections. He also was one of Troy's top punt returners last fall, a task he might handle again in 2012.
The 3 players who manned the other cornerback spot in 2011--senior Isiah Wiley (39 tac, 2 for loss, 1 sack, 4 dfl, 1 FR in 2011), junior Torin Harris (17 tac, 1 int, 2 dfl, 1 FF, 1 TD on BLK FG ret in 2011) and sophomore Anthony Brown (16 tac, 1 for loss in 2011)--all return this season. Harris started the first 4 games of 2011 before being sidelined by a shoulder injury. Brown took over for the next 2 games before a broken ankle knocked him out of action. He was replaced the rest of the season by Wiley, who did a commendable job after transferring from a junior college.
Also available at cornerback are seniors Tony Burnett (25 tac, 1 dfl in 2011), who has played often in extra defensive back formations and on special teams, and Brian Baucham, who sat out 2011 while ineligible, and redshirt freshman Ryan Henderson. Then there are 3 walk-on safeties who have yet to play: juniors John Auran and Luis Nevarez and redshirt freshman Troy Cardona.
Sophomore safety Josh Shaw transferred to USC this spring from Florida, where he played in 10 games last season (starting once).
Adding to the secondary mix in the fall will be junior safety Gerald Bowman (Los Angeles Pierce Junior College in Woodland Hills, Calif.), a juco transfer, plus plus prep All-American Kevon Seymour (Muir High in Pasadena, Calif.) and Devian Shelton (Inglewood High in Inglewood, Calif.), both freshman cornerbacks.
"I am very excited about our secondary and how we expect it will develop," said Kiffin. "It is unusual to have all your starters back, plus the amount of experienced depth we have. T.J. McDonald is the best safety in the nation and is a true leader on and off the field. Nickell Robey might be the nation's best cornerback. He does so many good things for us. Add in players like Jawanza Starling, Isiah Wiley, Torin Harris, Anthony Brown and Drew McAllister and we are optimistic that our pass defense will be much improved from the past 2 years."
USC's placekicker (Andre Heidari) and punter (Kyle Negrete) are back from 2011, as are its leading kickoff (Robert Woods, Marqise Lee) and punt returners (Woods, Nickell Robey) and its holder (Matt Barkley). But the Trojans must find a new snapper.
The Trojans continued to make big plays on special teams in 2011. For the second consecutive year, USC blocked 7 kicks (1 was returned for a touchdown). Troy led the Pac-12 in field goals and PATs, allowed only 10 punt returns, had a scoring kickoff runback and turned a fake punt into a 35-yard gain. But conversely, USC allowed 2 kick returns for TDs, ranked only 38th nationally in punt returns and 79th in kickoff returns, converted just 1-of-4 2-point tries and had a net punting average of just 37.4 yards.
"We have been effective in many areas of special teams, to the point where they have been part of many game-changing moments," said Kiffin. "But we look forward to the continued improvement of our special teams going into Year 3 of our system. Our specialists, Andre Heidari and Kyle Negrete, were really on their games last year and we look for more of the same from them. And our returners proved to be dangerous at times. We have a number of redshirt and new players who we believe can help us in all areas of special teams in 2012."
PUNTERS--Senior walk-on Kyle Negrete (40.1 avg in 2011, plus 1 tcb, 35 yds, 35.0 avg) returns after an effective 2011 campaign. The candidate for Academic All-American and the Burlsworth Trophy is a master at directional punting, as 19 of his 39 punts in 2011 pinned foes within the 20-yard line (none were touchbacks) and only 10 were returned.
He is backed by redshirt freshman Kris Albarado.
PLACEKICKERS--USC has one of the nation's top young placekickers in sophomore Andre Heidari (50-of-50 PAT, 15-of-17 FG in 2011, plus 4 tac). Now a Groza Award candidate, he earned Freshman All-American and All-Pac-12 first team notice in 2011 after hitting 15-of-17 field goals and all 50 of his PATs. His 88.2% field goal percentage was third best in the nation last fall (tops among freshmen) and his 50-yard field goal versus Stanford was USC's longest since 1990. He hit 9 consecutive field goals at one point last year and was 4-of-5 on 3-pointers of at least 40 yards. Almost a third of his 76 kickoffs pinned opponents within the 20-yard line (10 were touchbacks).
SNAPPERS--Chris Pousson, who flawlessly handled USC's short snaps for the past 4 years and the long snaps for the last 2 seasons, has graduated.
Redshirt freshman Peter McBride will inherit the job.
HOLDERS--Senior quarterback Matt Barkley returns for his second season as the holder on all placekicks and his quarterbacking ability has come in handy whenever the Trojans use an unorthodox formation for 2-point conversions. He will be backed again by senior punter Kyle Negrete.
RETURNERS--USC sports some dangerous return men. Junior wide receiver Robert Woods (17 KOR, 393 yds, 23.1 avg in 2011, plus 13 PR, 118 yds, 9.1 avg), who set school season records for kickoff returns and yardage in 2010 and led the Trojans in that category for the second consecutive year in 2011, is fourth on USC's career kickoff return list (1,364 yards). He also shared punt return duties last fall with junior cornerback Nickell Robey (12 PR, 132 yds, 11.0 avg in 2011, plus 1 KOR, 20 yds, 20.0 avg). Sophomore wide receiver Marqise Lee (10 KOR, 285 yds, 28.5 avg, 1 TD in 2011) also got into the kickoff return act last year, even returning one for a touchdown.
Others with experience as returners who might be used again this year include senior tailback Curtis McNeal (6 KOR, 101 yds, 16.8 avg in 2011) and soph wide receiver George Farmer (3 KOR, 59 yds, 19.7 avg in 2011). It also is possible that some redshirted or new players will be tried as returners in 2012.