The USC Trojans are coming off perhaps their most disappointing college football season since the Paul Hackett era, after entering the 2012 season as the No. 1 team in the nation and finishing with a 7-6 record. The expectations are considerably lower in 2013 with USC ranked No. 24, but many believe the fate of head coach Lane Kiffin is on the line should the Trojans under-achieve this season.
However, athletic director Pat Haden is firmly behind Kiffin and rejected suggestions that the fourth-year coach is on the hot seat this season.
"He is not," said Haden in July. "I'm behind Lane Kiffin 100 percent. I have great confidence in him. He's a very hard-working, detail-oriented coach. He's a dynamic play-caller in my estimation and he's an exceptional recruiter.”
The pressure has been on Kiffin from the outset. Stepping into the shoes of Pete Carroll was never an easy task, and many experts were willing to cut Kiffin slack as he took the head coaching job in the midst of NCAA sanctions. But Kiffin will be under intense scrutiny if the Trojans fail to rebound from a forgettable 2012, and the 38-year-old surely knows it.
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Kiffin enters the season with a major question mark: starting quarterback. While true freshman and five-star recruit Max Browne is no longer in competition for the top job, a decision has yet to be made on the starter for this Thursday’s season opener against Hawaii. Max Wittek and Cody Kessler, who both arrived at USC in 2011, are in a high-profile duel for the position. The sophomores have had a chance to study former Heisman Trophy candidate Matt Barkley for two seasons, and few backups have had that type of mentorship.
Wittek filled in for Barkley in the final two games of last season, which included an uninspired Sun Bowl loss to Georgia Tech. Wittek looked rather uncomfortable in stretches, throwing five interceptions and completing just 52.2 percent of his passes. Kessler has reportedly performed better in fall camp and appears to have the edge, though he has only thrown two passes.
Whoever gets the job will have perhaps the best receiver in college football to catch their passes. Wide receiver Marqise Lee is an absolutely electric playmaker and is expected to be a top Heisman Trophy candidate. Kiffin believes Lee will be remembered as the best wide receiver in USC history, which is high praise for a program that produced Lynn Swann and Keyshawn Johnson.
Lee finished with 1,721 yards last season, and that was while sharing the field with current NFL wide out Robert Woods. This season, Lee is clearly the top receiving option, and is expected to be among the best offensive weapons in the nation. The junior suffered a right shoulder injury, but recently stated that he is at 100 percent.
Playing alongside Lee are some talented wide receivers and tight ends. Nelson Agholor might be primed for a breakout season. The sophomore wide receiver caught 19 passes for 340 yards in 2012, and his athleticism has been praised by Kiffin to the point that he has considered using Agholor and Lee at cornerback. Another player to watch is possession receiver Darreus Rogers, who has good size and footwork, and has shined in practice. Opponents should also be wary of senior De’Von Flournoy.
Kiffin has an exceptional tight end in Xavier Grimble. The fourth-year junior had a solid season in 2012, catching 29 passes for 316 yards, and has shown the ability to break tackles. Like Grimble, Randall Telfer is considered an NFL prospect, but is expected to be sidelined four-to-six weeks.
"In my opinion, Xavier and Randall are two NFL tight ends, already, still in college," Kessler said, according to the Los Angeles Times.
There is limited depth at running back, but, as always, plenty of talent. Senior Silas Redd, who has been used sparingly in the offseason workouts due to a slow recovery from a torn meniscus injury, is expected to be the feature back for the Trojans, and is joined by junior D.J. Morgan and sophomore Buck Allen.
Freshman Justin Davis and sophomore Tre Madden, who missed the 2012 season due to injury, are also expected to get carries this season. Freshman Ty Isaac, a bulky five-star back, may also see playing time.
Sophomores Soma Vainuku and Jahleel Pinner are expected to rotate at fullback. Kiffin has stated that the Trojans will need a better effort at the position. Vainuku has missed time due to injury, while Pinner has reportedly made gains in recent practices, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The offensive line returns four starters, but lost center Khaled Holmes to the NFL. Marcus Martin moves to center, and is joined by returnees Aundrey Walker (left tackle), John Martinez (right guard), and Kevin Graf (right tackle), with Max Tuerk expected to get the nod at left guard. Redshirt freshman Chad Wheeler could start at left tackle, while Walker might move to right guard. Nathan Guertler and Cyrus Hobbi are expected to be key reserves.
Martin’s ability to handle the center position is crucial for USC, but the experience at offensive line might be enough for the unit to be a strong point for Kiffin in 2013.
The Trojans have a new defensive coordinator after heaps of criticism was piled on Kiffin’s father, Monte. The job now belongs to Clancy Pendergast, who brings his 5-2 scheme with him from California. The formation is easy to revert back to a 3-4 and a 4-3. Such flexibility will likely be of help for the Trojans when they face a variety of offenses during the season.
Pendergast, who spent three seasons as the defensive coordinator for the Golden Bears after 14 years coaching in the NFL, will have the benefit of seven returning starters. Perhaps the most prominent player in the unit is senior Morgan Breslin. The All-American pass rusher had an excellent 2012, with 62 tackles and 13 sacks. He is joined by senior Devon Kennard, who redshirted in 2012 due to a chest muscle injury. Some expect Kennard to emerge as one of the best defensive players in the Pac-12.
A stellar defensive line also includes sophomores Leonard Williams and Antwaun Woods, who are expected to play major roles in 2013. Williams looked like a bonafide NFL prospect from the outset for USC in 2012. Other players who should figure prominently in this deep group include Cody Temple, Greg Townsend Jr., George Uko, J.R. Tavai, Charles Burke, and true freshman Kenny Bigelow.
There are two solid inside linebackers in Pendergast’s 5-2 unit. Juniors Lamar Dawson and Hayes Pullard are ensconced at their positions entering the season, as Dawson has started 13 games in two seasons, while Pullard returns for his third season as a starter. Dawson bears the responsibility of wearing No. 55, and has been praised for his growth in the summer, which presumes a possible big season for the Kentucky native.
The secondary is a bit of a question mark for USC. Cornerbacks had their struggles in 2012, and now lack a truly effective cover man with Nickell Robey’s move to the NFL. Still, there might be no place to go but up in 2013 under Pendergast, who has a great deal of experience working with defensive backs. Junior Josh Shaw, who provided consistent performances in 2012, may see time at either safety or cornerback. Redshirt senior Torin Harris leads a unit that includes junior Anthony Brown, sophomore Kevon Seymour, and four-star recruit Chris Hawkins.
Strong safety shouldn’t be a problem with junior Dion Bailey expected to be one of the top safeties in the Pac-12. The Trojans will also rely on Su’a Craven, who enters the season as perhaps the most promising freshman in the nation. At free safety, true freshman Leon McQuay III is in the mix with seniors Gerald Bowman and Demetrius Wright.
Lee could be a devastating threat as a punt returner in 2013. The Trojans bring back junior kicker Andre Heidari, while sophomore Kris Albarado is the punter.
Aug. 29 at Hawaii
Sept. 7 Washington State
Sept. 14 Boston College
Sept. 21 Utah State
Sept. 28 at Arizona State
Oct. 10 Arizona
Oct. 19 at Notre Dame
Oct. 26 Utah
Nov. 1 at Oregon State
Nov. 9 at California
Nov. 16 Stanford
Nov. 23 at Colorado
Nov. 30 UCLA
PREDICTION: The 2012 season proved that USC lacked depth, and now they are without Barkley, Woods, Holmes, and Robey. Kiffin is one of the sharpest offensive minds in college football, and even a newcomer at quarterback won’t hold back a quality collection of weapons from putting points on the scoreboard. The Trojans’ success in 2013 may hinge on this thin squad’s ability to stay healthy, and to limit the mistakes of their inexperienced quarterback. Tackling was another problem in 2012, and this unit will need to prove early on that they are an improved 11 under Pendergast. Should the Trojans avoid injuries to the defense and offensive line, force turnovers, and improve their tackling, the Trojans can expect to compete for the Pac-12 title. Otherwise, it will be a very long season, and it’s hard to envision Kiffin surviving if the Trojans have another season like 2012.
RECORD PREDICTION: 8-5