USC Trojans: Lane Kiffin
Aug. 29 at Hawaii: There aren’t too many better ways to open the season than with a trip to Oahu against a Hawaii team that shouldn’t pose too much of a problem. USC fans get to spend a few days in the shadow of Diamond Head while Lane Kiffin and his team get an opportunity to work out any kinks in an opener without Matt Barkley at quarterback for the first time since 2008.
Sept. 7 vs. Washington State: The home opener for the Trojans comes against the Cougars and figures to be another USC victory. Mike Leach was hired last year at WSU with hopes of bringing his high-powered offensive attack to the Palouse, but he just doesn’t have the personnel yet to put things together. Here’s guessing he won’t have it by the time he visits the Coliseum, either.
Sept. 14 vs. Boston College: The Eagles come to the Coliseum with new coach Steve Addazio. It will be the first matchup between these two teams since the 2009 Emerald Bowl, a largely forgettable game that was the last USC coaching appearance by Pete Carroll. It could also be a game that will start to reveal the identity of this year’s USC team.
Sept. 21 vs Utah State: This is the third home game in a row for the Trojans against a team they will be expected to beat. The Aggies will also be breaking in a new coach and there are plenty of USC fans who expect their team to be undefeated by the time this game is over.
Sept. 28 at Arizona State: This is when things get interesting. By this point, the Trojans should be fairly settled and will travel to Tempe to face a Sun Devils team that is projected to be one of the favorites for the Pac-12 South title. The atmosphere will be wild, and it’s the first of a three-game set that will be very telling about USC's future prospects in 2013.
Oct. 10 vs Arizona: The Trojans will have a bye week following the ASU game and then will play in a rare Thursday night home game against the Wildcats. Rich Rodriguez will be breaking in a new quarterback, but he also returns one of the leading tailbacks in the nation in Ka’deem Carey. The Trojans only have to look back at last year’s loss in Tucson to know how scary this opponent can be.
Oct. 19 at Notre Dame: USC travels to South Bend in the renewal of this classic rivalry for a game that could be as pivotal as any this year. The Irish have scheduled this for a night time match-up for the second USC visit in a row and that always adds to the excitement. Brian Kelly had his team in the national title game last year but now he must deal with the reality of losing his starting quarterback, Everett Golson. This should be a dandy as always.
Oct. 26 vs. Utah: After that three-game gauntlet, the Trojans return home to face Utah, and they should be heavily favored. Be careful. On paper this one may not seem like much, but the Utes are always capable of playing tougher than expected.
Nov. 1 at Oregon State: This game is being played the day after Halloween and that is appropriate considering trips to Corvallis have been a house of horrors for USC in recent years. It’s also a Friday night game, which means a short week of preparation, and Kiffin will need to make sure his players understand what can happen when the Trojans face the Beavers in their house.
Nov. 9 at Cal: It will be the first trip for USC to the remodeled Memorial Stadium, and the stadium isn’t the only thing different, as Cal will have a new coach in place for the visit. Sonny Dykes brings his wide-open offense to the Bears and they will face a USC defense that is run by Clancy Pendergast, who spent the past three years as defensive coordinator at Cal.
Nov. 16 vs. Stanford: The Trojans aren’t used to having four-game losing streaks against the Cardinal, nor are they used to Stanford being the team with a bigger reputation for playing physical football. Kiffin has stated he wants the Trojans to improve in that area, and there will be no bigger test of where his program stands than this game.
Nov. 23 at Colorado: It figures to be cold in Boulder for this late November game, but that will likely be the most formidable obstacle the Trojans face in this one. The Buffaloes are another team with a first-year coach, and Mike MacIntyre inherits a roster that doesn’t look to be able to keep up with the Trojans just yet.
Nov. 30 vs. UCLA: Are you ready for this one? Consider the possibility of the Trojans and Bruins meeting with a berth in the conference title game on the line, in addition to all the other revelry that is associated with this classic crosstown rivalry. Jim Mora and the Bruins will be looking to prove that the 2012 victory over the Trojans wasn’t a fluke, while Kiffin and company will be looking to show that it was.
And, of course, the conference's top two passers, Arizona's Matt Scott and USC's Matt Barkley, are both off to the NFL.
The returning members of the 2.5 K Club are:
- UCLA's Brett Hundley (3,740 yards, 29 TDs, 11 Ints, No. 4 in passing efficiency)
- Arizona State's Taylor Kelly (3,039 yards, 29 TDs, 9 Ints, No. 2 in passing efficiency)
- Washington's Keith Price (2,728 yards, 19 TDs, 13 Ints, No. 8 in passing efficiency)
- Oregon's Marcus Mariota (2,677 yards, 32 TDs, 6 Ints, No. 1 in passing efficiency)
There's a reason why Oregon, UCLA and Arizona State are highly thought of heading into 2013: Proven production returning behind center. And if Washington can get Price back to top form, the Huskies become a top-25 team.
So how does everyone else stack up? Which teams seem likely to get 2,500 yards passing next fall?
Well, there's lots of "To be determined" intrigue.
TBD, Arizona: B.J. Denker will enter fall camp atop the depth chart, but this one is far from over. If USC transfer Jesse Scroggins, who owns by far the biggest arms on the roster, wins the job, the Wildcats are almost sure to pass for 2,500 yards. Coach Rich Rodriguez, though widely viewed as a spread-option coach, showed last year he's comfortable throwing, so Denker or incoming freshman Anu Solomon also could put up solid passing numbers.
TBD, California: New coach Sonny Dykes likes to throw the rock around. Louisiana Tech averaged 351 yards passing per game last year. So whoever wins the QB job -- we're betting on Zach Kline -- will almost certainly hit the 2,500-yard mark.
TBD, Colorado: The Buffaloes struggled to the throw the ball last year, but new coach Mike MacIntyre might solve that, seeing his San Jose State Spartans passed for 332 yards a game last fall. Connor Wood, the frontrunner to win the job, has the arm to throw the ball around, but it's a matter of putting it all together.
TBD, Oregon State: Sean Mannion nearly made the above list, passing for 2,446 yards and 15 TDs with 13 interceptions last year, ranking fifth in the conference in passing efficiency and fourth in passing yards per game with 244.6. But he's still knotted with Cody Vaz in the competition for the starting job. If one guy starts the entire season, he will put up strong passing numbers because Mike Riley teams always do.
Kevin Hogan, Stanford: The Cardinal ranked 10th in the conference in passing last year with just 200 yards per game, but part of that was a scheme that played to a rugged defense and Hogan not winning the job until after midseason. Hogan is plenty capable, and his supporting cast is solid. Expect Hogan to at least hit the 2,500-yard mark.
TBD, USC: Whether it's Cody Kessler or Max Wittek, the USC QB will throw for at least 2,500 yards if he maintains his hold on the job. While Lane Kiffin likes balance, there are too many passing game weapons not to attack downfield, starting with All-American receiver Marqise Lee.
Travis Wilson, Utah: The Utes were last in the Pac-12 and 97th in the nation in passing in 2012, but Dennis Erickson is now their co-offensive coordinator. One of the original architects of the spread passing attack, it's highly likely Utah will substantially boost the 190.7 yards passing a game it produced last fall. Wilson is fully capable of throwing for 2,500 yards, and the Utes are solid at the receiver position.
Connor Halliday, Washington State: Halliday still isn't free-and-clear of redshirt freshman Austin Apodaca, but he's a solid frontrunner in the competition. Whoever wins the job, he will put up big numbers in Mike Leach's "Air Raid" system. The Cougars couldn't stick with a QB last year, going back and forth with Halliday and Jeff Tuel, but they still led the Pac-12 with 330.4 yards passing per game. If Halliday starts 12 games, he'll throw for 4,000 yards.
MONTEREY PARK, Calif. -- Nothing can wipe the smile off Michael Wyche's face nowadays.
Not the fact that his mother passed away this year after a battle with cancer. Not that his father is less than halfway through a 40-year prison term. Not that he’s about 2,700 miles from his 7-month-old daughter, Sky'mariah.
No, the East Los Angeles College defensive tackle flashed his smile whenever possible during a recent practice as the sun beamed down on Weingart Stadium. The native of Chesapeake, Va. giggled when coaches jokingly questioned his punctuality, grinned at the thought of post-workout Mexican food and laughed when he was asked what he thinks of the Los Angeles area.
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Sept. 28 at Arizona State
This will be the first conference game on the road and likely the first major test of the season. Even if the Trojans start off strong through the opening four games, the real indication of what kind of team USC has will start to be learned in Tempe. Not only are the Sun Devils returning a strong team capable of beating the Trojans, but this is the first of a tough three-game stretch that will also see Arizona visit the Coliseum on a Thursday night and then the annual trip to South Bend to face the Irish.
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Fresno (Calif.) Central defensive tackle Tashon Smallwood became the first to commit, doing so at the school's junior day event in late February just moments after sitting down with assistant coach Ed Orgeron. The second piece fell into place on Thursday, when juco defensive tackle Michael Wyche (Chesapeake, Va./East Los Angeles College) unofficially visited campus and committed to the Trojans shortly after coach Lane Kiffin extended a scholarship offer.
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Long Beach (Calif.) Poly defensive back Iman Marshall was the first Class of 2015 prospect to receive good news this month when the Trojans offered. The Gardena (Calif.) Serra defensive pair of Rasheem Green and John Houston Jr. was next.
On Thursday, it was Diamond Bar (Calif.) receiver Cordell Broadus’ turn.
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Recapping the spring game: “There were 42 scholarship players available on Saturday. I was impressed with how accurate the quarterbacks were downfield. Cody Kessler did not throw an interception in any of the five spring scrimmages. The usual suspects, Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor, had big days but it was also good to see Victor Blackwell have a productive day as well. There were four guys who stood out on defense. Leonard Williams was dominant and caused a lot of issues for the offense. Lamar Dawson continues to be one of the most improved players on the team. Devon Kennard really played well the last two weeks and Morgan Breslin continues to find ways to make plays.”
The decision to list Kevin Graf and Chad Wheeler as co-starters at right tackle: “Chad’s injury stopped what was a great spring for him, he was tough and physical so we’re going to put him over there with Kevin and let them battle it out. I really want to see both of them have a great summer and fall camp. Kevin had an up-and-down spring, but Mike Summers has done a great job of addressing him and planning for how to get better.”
The assimilation of four new assistant coaches: “It was like that feeling you have when a first-year staff comes together. Everybody is excited to be there. You don’t have any preconceived notions of players, so that helps create a real positive atmosphere. Our players felt that. It was a fresh start for the players and that creates competition. There was a lot of energy. Half the staff wasn’t here last year, so that helped us in terms of being able to move past last year. I thought last spring we did a lot of maintaining because we had so many key guys returning, but this spring there was more competition.”
Offensive line progression: “We need to continue to get better on the offensive line. We made progress but we have a long way to go. We need to have the ability to run the ball and force defenses to play honest against the run.”
On Darreus Rogers being listed ahead of Victor Blackwell on depth chart: “We think Darreus has some really good upside there. Victor has made some plays but we need for him to be more consistent and he knows that.”
The quarterbacks: "We’re in the process of going back and watching all of the tape from spring ball to dig in and really evaluate these guys. I do feel like all three of these guys are really good college quarterbacks and not everyone has that. We’ve got three guys who can run our system. The two Max’s are obviously bigger guys, but Cody showed this spring that he can run everything when he’s in there, there was no need to change.”
Most improved player on offense: “Chad Wheeler was on his way before his injury. You would have to put Jahleel Pinner in that conversation, he’s been real physical.”
Nelson Agholor: “Nelson probably could have had a bigger role last year but he was behind the Biletnikoff winner and the runner-up for the Biletnikoff from the year before. He’s worked so hard for this. We’ve been real fortunate to sign three such wonderful competitors three years in a row; you don’t always get that at the receiver spot. Robert set the bar, Marqise learned from that and now Nelson is showing it, too. It’s really cool.”
The cornerbacks: “Devian Shelton and Kevon Seymour have been hurt, even going back to last fall, so we haven’t had a long time to evaluate them. Both have good upside from a height/weight/speed standpoint. Chris Hawkins did some good things but he’s a puppy, a guy who is basically still a high school senior. We could have just put “OR” for everybody at corner on the depth chart; we’ve got a lot of work to figure things out there. You could see Josh (Shaw) end up there.”
Roster numbers in the fall: “Right now I think we will be at 69 players. We were at 70 with George Farmer, but that drops us down to 69. We could sign someone before fall. It’s happened before, but right now that’s where we expect to be.”
Several big-name schools have maintained their recruitment of the massive 6-foot-7, 330-pound prospect, but the Poland has not backed off his pledge. He attended USC’s spring game Saturday at the Memorial Coliseum and came away impressed with the line.
“Coach Summers has definitely impacted the linemen, but in a good way,” Poland said. “Their technique looks more sound than it did before. He’s been implementing a lot more drills they weren’t accustomed to, so he’s definitely making them look good.”
Though he’s still hearing from various schools and plans to take a few trips this summer, the initial returns this spring have solidified Poland’s commitment.
“When it comes down to committing, you want to be loyal to the school,” Poland said. “I’m happy with the school I’m committed to right now. Yes, a lot of schools are after me and I’m keeping my options open, but I’m happy to be a Trojan.”
Alabama, Michigan and Oregon are the three schools in heavy pursuit, Poland said. He intends to visit those schools sometime this summer.
“If I had to choose any other schools,” he said, “those would definitely be the ones I’d pick.”
Country Day School is an academically rigorous institution, so Poland hasn’t had much free time since the football season ended. He has used up all of his high school eligibility after transferring from Arizona, but is heading into his senior year academically.
“I’m looking to maybe play in a travel basketball team, but I’m not sure,” Poland said. “I might just stick to my football training. Everything is still in order for me to enroll early if things keep going well the way they have been.”
Poland became the first member of the 2014 recruiting class when he committed to USC on June 9. Back then, the Trojans were ranked No. 1 in the preseason polls, and limited scholarships were up for grabs.
“You’d expect more from one of the powerhouse football schools but, at the same time, I still like what the school can do when you step off the field,” Poland said. “It doesn’t affect my decision of going there at all, really. I know what the coaches can teach me ... Coach Cregg is a good dude and a good coach. He’s definitely a good piece of the team and he helps in a lot of positive ways. I keep in contact with him the most.”.”
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“There are some good parts about it,” said Kiffin in looking at the pros and cons of the physical way the team has practiced this spring. “I think that our guys that are still healthy are playing more physical than they were at the end of last year, and our front seven on defense is better because of it. But at the same time, obviously, we have a lot of players out.”
“It’s been kind of the theme of the spring -- very physical -- as we come down to one practice left here,” Kiffin said. “I think you’ll still see the stars out there making plays. We’re just going to have to be creative because we’re not going to be able to go at the same speed in between series, and obviously we can’t have two teams with only one tight end, and all of our formations use a tight end, so we’ll figure it out -- probably just a little more time in between [each] series.”
Agholor and Lee at corner?
This is not whether the team of the day can win the Pac-12. And we're not predicting any winners. Rather, this is our take on the team's chances of winning the North or South.
Buy or sell USC winning the South?
Buy: I just wrote about 200 words about why I'm selling USC, and then I realized that it was an overreaction based almost entirely on coach Lane Kiffin's tenuous situation.
UCLA and Arizona State look like the two favorites in the Pac-12 South Division. Both have a lot of quality players coming back from teams that were more successful than USC last year. And yet USC has 17 starters returning from a team that beat the Sun Devils by 21 and played a competitive game at UCLA, despite a horrible start and three bad turnovers.
Further, the Trojans might have the better schedule. Like Arizona State, USC misses Oregon. UCLA plays at Stanford and Oregon on back-to-back October weekends. While USC visits Arizona State, it plays host to Stanford and UCLA, teams that the Sun Devils face on the road.
Of course, the Trojans also visit Oregon State, and that of late has been an ugly road trip.
As for the roster, there are plenty of positives. Four starters are back on the offensive line, and Marqise Lee is the nation's best receiver. Kiffin made a good hire when he brought in Clancy Pendergast to coordinate his defense, and the early returns on the new 3-4 look are mostly positive.
Sure, the secondary is iffy, QB Matt Barkley needs to be replaced and the depth at receiver is questionable. Sure, it's worrisome when you read stories about Kiffin falling in love with talent instead of performance -- Max Wittek over Cody Kessler at QB and Aundrey Walker over Kevin Graf at LT -- but there's a whole lot to recommend this team.
The question isn't talent. The Trojans are talented enough to win 10 games and win the South Division.
The question is coaching and intangibles. Has whatever went wrong with the locker-room culture in 2012 been addressed and corrected?
Our answer: Maybe.
Buying USC stock in 2013 is a high-risk maneuver. We certainly won't shift a predominant portion of our portfolio to Heritage Hall.
But those willing to take on great risk, often reap great rewards, including a chance to gloat in December, which is always fun.
Buy: There's a Pavlovian response whenever you hear USC. The first thought is: "Of course the Trojans can win the division. It's USC."
There's a good reason for that. The Trojans once again will have as good of talent as any team in the division and probably as good as any in the league. Does that mean they will win the division? Of course not. Investors (Ted's not alone in his throat clearing) are still smarting over the Great Trojan Crash of 2-aught-12.
Does it mean they are capable of winning? Sure. Ask yourself if the Trojans have the talent to beat Arizona, ASU and UCLA. The answer should be yes. The best wide receiver in the country, a strong running back corps and an offensive line that should be improved all point to an uptick in production. Who runs that offense, however, is a concern. And much like my co-writer, it gave me some pause. But I also think the passing attack will be scaled back and simplified, and we'll see the Trojans use a talented stable of backs to set things up for a more conservative passing game.
I think the defensive shift from an even to an odd front (2-5/3-4, depending on who you ask) is going to work out great. The players love it and it seems to suit their skill sets better. A new defensive scheme that is going to make Morgan Breslin a better pass-rusher? I'll buy that.
Most importantly, though, is that it seems 2012 has given the returning players a measure of humility. Never underestimate the power of embarrassment. And all those returning players were embarrassed by the product they put on the field last year.
Gone are the days of players thinking they are going to win games simply because they are USC. That mystique was shattered last year when Stanford defensive end Ben Gardner introduced Barkley to his face mask and the Trojans were muscled out of Palo Alto -- the beginning of the end for investors.
If lessons were learned from 2012 -- both on the field and from the guys with the headsets -- then the Trojans have as good of a shot as either of the South front-runners of being in the Pac-12 title game.
LOS ANGELES -- Marqise Lee is going to have to get used to change. Because in 2013, a lot is going to be different for college football's reigning Biletnikoff Award winner.
No longer will he have a four-year starting quarterback in Matt Barkley tossing him passes. Nor will he simply be a complementary piece in a receiving duo.
Perhaps most importantly, he's going to have to adjust to the fact that without Barkley his numbers will likely take a hit, regardless of which of the three green quarterbacks wins USC's starting job.
"I think a lot of what Marqise has to do is going to be mental," said USC coach Lane Kiffin. "He's going to have to be able to handle the expectations and the potential knowing that his numbers won't be what they were. That can be frustrating as you go through a new quarterback. He's not just a premier receiver, but the best receiver in the country. He's someone that is going to be talked about for the Heisman and, unfortunately at his position, someone else controls your destiny."
In 2012, Lee led the nation or was in the top three in almost every receiving category. He caught 118 balls for 1,721 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns. There are few who question that in 2013 he is the single-most dangerous skill-position player in college football.
"I believe in my quarterback -- whoever it's going to be," Lee said. "If you're out there, that means you are capable of getting the job done. If the ball gets to me, I'm going to do whatever I can to make things happen. I've never been focused on the numbers. I've been about helping our team win. You get distracted when you start thinking about numbers. Whatever I have to do to help us win -- catch that last pass, or not have any catches and spring a guy with a good block -- that's what I'm going to do."
His would-be quarterbacks hear the rumblings, too -- the whispers that Lee's Heisman campaign might sink because a rookie quarterback will be running the offense. And, yes, they take that personally.
"With us being young, people are going to say that," said Cody Kessler, who is in the thick of the quarterback competition with Max Wittek and Max Browne. "But we've been training hard. We've been studying Matt for two years. Our job is to get Marqise the ball and let him make plays. If we keep improving, I don't see any reason why he can't do what he did last year -- or better. So, yeah, we take that personally."
Clouding the issue is that without Robert Woods opposite him, more teams are going to double-team Lee. Then again ...
"Throwing to him is like throwing to a 20-foot net," Kessler said. "He's a freak of nature. It's unreal how athletic he is."
As long as Lee has been with the Trojans, he's always been part of a tandem with Woods. Even back in high school, it was George Farmer and Lee. Now Lee is the lone No. 1. The headliner.
"That's a way different role," Lee said. "I enjoyed being part of a duo. Robert was always the guy. I just came in and helped. I'm in a situation now where I'm sitting in Robert's chair. I know teams are going to try to cover me harder. And if they do, that's fine. I'll watch someone else score touchdowns."
Lee also knows the expectations -- the kind that aren't on the football field -- will grow exponentially this year. A lot of people are going to want to get close to him. Get a piece of him. Because waiting at the end of the 2013 season is a probable top-10 spot in the 2014 NFL draft.
"He's a very mature young man," Kiffin said. "For him, managing his daily life is the theme with him and I. Right now, especially this fall, there is no one else around him that is like him. He has so much to gain and so much to lose. Nobody else is like that. No roommates or other players.
"He doesn't get to be like everybody else. He's been given a lot. There are a lot of expectations around him. He has to make sure everything he does is solely based on academics and football. People will want to hang out with him and tug at him and tell him how great he is. We have to make sure he has great focus."
Lee said he's had the conversation with Kiffin and he understands his responsibilities to the team -- and himself.
"All the awards, all of that is in the past," Lee said. "I've set my goals. I don't pay attention to people who want to get at me. I'm paying attention to school and football and pushing everything else aside."
Last week, Wittek was walking through the new John McKay Center and noticed Lee's All-American plaque being hung on the wall alongside all of the other Trojans who have earned the honor. Seeing that made him realize how much easier his life will be if he wins the starting job.
"When you see him do some of the things he does, you realize just how special he is," Wittek said. "I may never see another athlete like him for the rest of my life. He's that kind of player."
But in a spring marked by change, a new-and-improved Farmer has emerged, performing at a higher and more consistent level than ever, and it couldn’t be happening at a better time. After all, Robert Woods is off to the NFL, and USC coach Lane Kiffin and the Trojans’ offense need capable receivers opposite 2012 Biletnikoff Award winner Marqise Lee.
With so much at stake, Farmer is fully aware of the opportunity that lies in front of him.
“This is a big spring for me -- very big,” Farmer said following Saturday’s scrimmage, where his 47-yard reception was one of the day’s highlights.
But Farmer isn’t showing any signs of cracking under the pressure. On the contrary, he seems to be thriving under it.
“George is making plays,” Kiffin said. “We need him to make the hard plays -- down the field, to go up and get the ball and take it away and be physical. We know how fast he is, we know he can run by people, but you have to make those plays, and he’s doing that.”
Of course, it’s not as if Farmer’s play is coming as a complete surprise. Hailing from Gardena (Calif.) Serra, where he played alongside Woods and Lee, he had 65 receptions for 1,514 yards and 21 total touchdowns in his senior year. He arrived at USC in 2011 with arguably more fanfare than either of his high school teammates.
The reason for the sudden turnaround in his level of play is anything but a mystery -- he's the healthiest he's been in what seems like forever.
“I feel great,” said Farmer, a former standout prep sprinter who will compete for the USC track and field team later this spring. “I feel a lot more fluid, my legs are back up under me and I feel like I’m just back to my normal speed. I’m playing fast again. It feels really good to be out here competing with my brothers on the field.”
A thickly built athlete with a 6-foot-2, 205-pound frame, Farmer has come to understand that unlike some players who can just roll out of bed ready to play, he needs to take extra precautions. As such, in addition to working hard this offseason to push his body to the limits, he also made sure that he spent plenty of time in the training room.
“I’m a very heavy-set type of person, and I realized that I have to stay and get rehab -- not just for the sake of rehabbing, but for injury prevention, and staying in there and preventing my injuries before they happen,” Farmer said.
Now finally close to where he wants to be physically, Farmer has been able to more fully develop the other aspects of his game, including the mental side, something USC wide receivers coach Tee Martin has noticed.
“We put him on the board, ask him questions, and he’s on it,” Martin said. “He’s very smart, he understands what to do -- it’s just getting him a lot of reps. You still have to remember that last year was really his first year of college football playing at wide receiver. And now, in his second year … the spring time, this is where guys grow.”
And growing is something Farmer has done plenty of this March, providing at least some evidence suggesting he might be ready to step into the rotation at receiver next fall and make an impact.
But before then, there's still a lot more work to be done, and a lot more to prove on the field.
“Right now I’m just focused on getting out to practice, executing my assignments and doing what the coaches tell me,” Farmer said. "This is going to get me right for fall camp so I can just come out on fire, and we can just move forward from there. Right now, though, the only thing that I’m focused on is spring ball.”
The time to wonder is over. Kennard is back -- and healthy as ever -- as the Trojans transition to an odd-front defense under new coordinator Clancy Pendergast.
"I wasn't out there, but I know what it felt like," Kennard said. “It makes me appreciate what I can do for this team even more now. You have to let what happened last year go. But you still want to keep part of it in the back of your mind. You always want to play with a chip on your shoulder.”
Regardless of who head coach Lane Kiffin hired to replace his father, Monte, as defensive coordinator, he knew he wanted to move away from the 4-3.
“It was probably the direction we were going to go regardless of who it was because of the conference,” Kiffin said. “College football has changed. Our conference has changed and it's dynamic, and it changes from week to week. There is so much perimeter running that goes on, whether it's quarterback, whether it's fly sweeps, whether it's backs, the ball is on the edge a lot -- a lot more than it's ever been. The 3-4 helps you with that because your guys are standing up on the edge and you're keeping the ball on the inside and limiting the perimeter plays.”
In the new scheme, Kennard and second-team all-league defensive lineman Morgan Breslin will become hybrid outside linebackers. Expect both to spend most snaps in a 2-point stance with the opportunity to rush, set an edge or drop back into coverage. It’s not totally foreign to Kennard since he would sometimes drop into coverage in the old scheme’s zone-blitz package.
“They could both rush, they could both drop back, one of them could do the other. It’s a very versatile defense,” said Pendergast, formerly of Cal. “This defense is really going to showcase their talents.”
The new scheme also means a position switch for linebacker Dion Bailey. Despite being a very thick 210 pounds, he’s better suited roaming the secondary. Last year he was more of a hybrid nickel/linebacker and tallied 80 tackles, including eight for a loss.
“We’ll be able to disguise what we’re doing a lot more pre-snap,” Bailey said. “We can move more people around and do a lot more with the personnel that we have. I think it’s a much better fit.
“For me, personally, I think it’s more of a natural position for me. I can better utilize my abilities, and it puts me in space where I can make plays. I really like it.”
Despite their struggles against the run, the Trojans ranked fourth in the nation last season in sacks per game, which is impressive. But they were still third in the league behind Stanford and Arizona State -- two other teams that have had great success with odd fronts. The hope is that with Kennard’s return, and putting Breslin in position to improve on his 13 sacks last season, the Trojans can wreak havoc at the point of attack -- not just the backfield.
The scheme is set. The coaches and players are in place. All that’s needed is the mentality to run it with brutal efficiency. In three of USC’s losses last season, they never led (Oregon, UCLA, Notre Dame). But the defense surrendered second-half leads against Stanford and Arizona, and they were tied at the half against Georgia Tech.
“We got out-willed in the fourth quarter too many times last year,” Bailey said. "That’s something we need to take in and learn from. It's not how you start, it's how you finish … we almost need to get back to how we were playing when we were on sanctions. Not playing for anybody else -- just playing for each other.”