As Pac-12 Media Day approaches, we draw one step closer to the start of fall camp and the 2013 season.
The Trojans will be represented at media day by WR Marqise Lee and LB Hayes Pullard, two of the most established players on the USC roster. There is no doubt that pair will have a huge impact on the season, but there are a few unknown entities who could end up playing big roles as well.
The obvious place to start is at quarterback, where the Trojans will be breaking in a new starter for the first time since 2009. The departure of Matt Barkley means that the reins will likely be handed to one of two players; Cody Kessler or Max Wittek. Technically, true freshman Max Browne is being touted by USC coach Lane Kiffin as still being in the mix, but it certainly appears at this point as if either Kessler or Wittek will get the job.
Both Kessler and Wittek have been in the system for two full years, so their working knowledge of the playbook and the Kiffin way of doing things should be fairly strong. The main issue is that their on-field experience is limited; Wittek has a pair of starts and 69 career passes under his belt, while Kessler has only thrown the ball twice in game action.
Whichever player gets chosen will get thrown into the fire, and you just don’t know how the player will react until they face the situation. If you go back a decade or so you will remember the battle to replace Carson Palmer between Matt Cassell and Matt Leinart. It was an extremely close competition that saw Leinart named as the starter. It turned out that he was ready for the job, to say the least. It’s easy to look back and see that it was a natural choice to make, but at the time there was no way to predict the level of success that Leinart had as the starter.
The eventual starter this season will have a ton of weapons around him as the Trojans look to rebound from a disappointing 2012 season, so he won’t be expected to carry too heavy a load. The key will be to limit mistakes and to grow into the job, something that Kiffin should be able to help with by tailoring the game plan to fit his quarterback's strengths. It sounds easy enough, but at this point nobody really knows how the player will handle that all-important role.
One of the offensive weapons that could end up being a major factor is tailback Tre Madden, a former linebacker who tempted the coaches in spring of 2012 with a week and a half of dazzling play before injuring his knee and requiring surgery. The kind of praise the coaches heaped upon Madden in his brief spring action doesn’t come along too often, as there was genuine excitement that he had a chance to offer something special.
Madden is back and he was able to get a few carries in the spring game, as well as returning to the field this week for summer workouts. If he can come anywhere close to fulfilling the brief promise he showed as an athletic big back it would be a tremendous boost to the already loaded USC backfield, but he too is basically an unknown commodity in terms of predicting how he will react in game conditions.
On the defensive side of the ball, the biggest unknown is how the 5-2 scheme employed by Clancy Pendergast will perform. With all due respect to Monte Kiffin, it stands to reason that the Trojans will be better on defense in 2013 than they were in 2012. It’s just a matter of how much improvement will be seen.
Pendergast saw his share of success in his three seasons at California -- including two seasons where his defense was ranked No. 1 in the conference. The 5-2 is an attacking scheme that relies on bringing pressure on the opposing quarterback from all directions. That part of the equation would seem to fit the Trojans well, as USC's athletes should be able to stand out in that environment.
Another key to the defense is to get consistent man-to-man coverage from the cornerbacks, who are often left on an island so that multiple defenders can be used to help apply a confusing pass rush. The corner spot might be the most unknown position group on the team at the moment, so it will be vital for players to step up. So far through summer workouts it appears as if Kevon Seymour has locked down one spot -- several of his teammates have indicated they think he has earned the job with his play -- while Anthony Brown could be in line to start opposite Seymour.
No matter who is out there, Pendergast will want to see improvement from what took place in spring. The corners struggled regularly in coverage, although it should be noted that they were often covering receivers such as Lee and Nelson Agholor, two of the best in the country.
How these unknown questions are answered will certainly go a long way in determining the overall success of the Trojans in 2013.