USC Trojans: Curtis McNeal
It was a mixed bag for the Trojans in this draft, as they did not have a player selected in the first round -- USC also holds the record for most first-round NFL draft choices -- and there was also the public free-fall for quarterback Matt Barkley.
Rich Schultz /Getty ImagesWith the success Robert Woods had against Syracuse, it's no surprise Bills coach Doug Marrone made him the first Trojan off the board in the 2013 draft.
Woods didn’t have to wait long to hear his name called, though, as the all-time leading USC receptions leader was selected by the Buffalo Bills in the second round with the No. 41 overall pick.
The Bills had selected a quarterback -- E.J. Manuel from Florida State -- in the first round, and they were also in the market for a No. 2 receiver to pair with Stevie Johnson. The fact that Woods was the next selection for the club after Manuel says a lot about how they feel about him as a potential long-term piece of the puzzle.
The new coach of the Bills, Doug Marrone, also faced Woods twice as the head coach of Syracuse and in those two games he saw Woods catch 18 passes for 175 yards and three touchdowns, along with a 76-yard run in 2012.
After Woods was picked, it was assumed by most USC fans that Barkley would be next off the board but, somewhat surprisingly, the next Trojan picked was safety T.J. McDonald, who went to the St. Louis Rams in the third round with the No. 71 selection.
There hadn’t been a lot of pre-draft buzz about McDonald, a one-time All-American who saw his stock fall as a senior. You have to wonder how much two items affected that drop-off: the personal foul penalties as a junior that led to questions about his style of play and the overall defensive schemes implemented in 2012 by Monte Kiffin, which led to his resignation.
Not only is Barkley a high-profile prospect at the most high-profile position, but pro day marked the first time Barkley had an opportunity to throw for scouts since injuring his shoulder in late November. Since the end of the season Barkley has been spending his time in the South getting treatment on the shoulder and working with former FSU quarterback Chris Weinke at the IMG Academy in Florida.
Before he could get to his throwing work, Barkley ran the 40-yard dash (a hand-timed mark of 4.87) and the shuttle drill, although he slipped in one shuttle rep and came up flexing his right hand. By the time his throwing session started, the hand was fine and all eyes were focused on him.
Barkley threw to a group of five primary players; wide receivers Robert Woods, Brandon Carswell and Travon Patterson, tight end Dominique Byrd and running back Curtis McNeal. It took about three or four throws to realize the shoulder strength was not an issue. There was zip on his passes and he was moving well on a variety of throws. There will always be nitpicking as part of the scouting process for little things that might not have gone as well, but for the most part it was a successful session, with Barkley hitting on 46 of 50 throws.
“It was a great day just to come out and throw the ball around,” Barkley said. “It’s good to be back on SC’s campus for something like this. The shoulder felt fine. The ball slipped on a couple but no worries about that. I’m not worried about anything.”
After not being able to take part in the Senior Bowl or the NFL Combine due to an injured shoulder, this will be the opportunity for Barkley to prove to coaches and scouts that he is healthy and deserving of a first-round selection.
Because Barkley hasn't thrown since getting injured against UCLA, there are many questions about his draft status. Will he be a first-day pick or will he fall into the second round? So much will depend upon the health of the shoulder and how he performs in the roughly 60 throws he will make to Robert Woods. There are no questions about his leadership and character but, in the end, an NFL quarterback needs to be able to make the throws, and that is what Barkley will need to show.
Woods will be looking to prove something himself, as well. This is a deep receiver draft and most mock drafts have him going in the second round, but a recent mock draft from Charley Casserly at NFL.com had Woods as a first-round pick. The main goal for Woods in this workout is to get a 40 time below 4.5. He ran 4.51 at the combine and getting into the 4.4 range would mean a lot in the constant jockeying for draft position.
This will also be the first opportunity to conduct a workout for center Khaled Holmes, who withdrew from the Senior Bowl and then got hurt during the weightlifting portion of the combine.
Others working out will include a trio of defensive backs in T.J. McDonald, Nickell Robey and Jawanza Starling along with defensive end Wes Horton and running back Curtis McNeal.
The USC Pro Day will be shown live on ESPN3 at 11:15 a.m. PT.
And while USC has gotten plenty of production from five-star, blue-chip recruits, the Trojans have also unearthed their share of hidden gems.
Here’s a look at five of the top sleepers who produced big for the Trojans:
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1. WR Marqise Lee: A leader of this team based on the sheer force of his talent, Lee will be more than ready to accept that responsibility. One thing to watch is how he handles it. Lee is an emotional player, and he’s always be surrounded by steady veterans such as Robert Woods and Matt Barkley. In 2013, Lee will be the one setting the tone, and it will be the first time he’s been placed in such a high-profile leadership role.
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2. Moving on with Max: With the news that Matt Barkley will not be able to play in the game because of an injured shoulder, it means that redshirt freshman Max Wittek will get his second start at quarterback for the Trojans. Wittek showed a strong arm in his starting debut against Notre Dame and this game will be a big opportunity for him to cement his spot as Barkley’s full-time replacement in 2013. It could also be a chance for Lane Kiffin to get some reps for Cody Kessler in game conditions.
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What to watch: The most compelling matchup should be the USC defense against the Georgia Tech “flexbone” triple-option offense. The Trojans have struggled in 2012 against various versions of the option, and Tech executes its run-based version at a very high level -- it was No. 4 in the nation with more than 312 rushing yards per game. The Yellow Jackets have a talented senior at quarterback in Tevin Washington, and he has an impressive 19 touchdowns on the ground. Look for USC senior safety T.J. McDonald to be very aggressive near the line of scrimmage in run support.
Why to watch: There have been a lot of questions about how motivated the Trojans would be for the Sun Bowl after a disappointing 7-5 season following their preseason No. 1 ranking. That perception was helped by some disparaging player tweets toward the host city of El Paso, Texas, and a late arrival to a bowl dinner. USC coach Lane Kiffin has preached to his team for the need to stay focused on the game, and the performance of his team will show how well that message was received. Georgia Tech is certainly an opponent that is capable of taking advantage of any lack of game readiness.
Prediction: USC 31, Georgia Tech 21
At the end of the day, the Trojans will simply make more plays than the Yellow Jackets. Lee isn’t the only playmaker on the USC offense, there are guys such as Robert Woods, Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal who can explode at any time. This could be the final college game for Woods, who will announce after the game if he is leaving school early for the NFL draft. The Trojans will enter the game without Matt Barkley, who will sit out with a shoulder injury, but Max Wittek can get the ball downfield with his strong arm. Georgia Tech A-back Orwin Smith will help keep things close for the Yellow Jackets. He has missed the last two games with an ankle injury but is averaging over nine yards per carry this season.
Biggest individual plays
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Here is the USC 10 following the 22-13 loss to Notre Dame:
1. Max Wittek: He may not have won his first game as a starter, but he did enough to have USC fans saying, “Hey, you know, Wittek might be pretty good next year.”
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One inquiry: Was he happy with his team's defensive performance?
Te'o shook his head.
"We don't like being scored on," he said. "Although it happened, we came back and made sure that it wouldn't happen again."
About an hour later, USC safety T.J. McDonald was asked the same question as he left the Coliseum for the final time.
"I felt like it was one of our better efforts," he said. "I mean, they scored one time."
Is that, perhaps, one of the main reasons why this USC team went from preseason No. 1 to postseason No. 30-something, and the Irish did the opposite?
McDonald was relatively happy with allowing one touchdown (and five field goals). So were his USC teammates and coaches. Te'o wasn't.
Settling, clearly, was an issue for the Trojans this season.
What was their best performance of the year? They beat only one respectable team by more than 13 points; that was the Arizona State Sun Devils two weeks ago. Their other wins over teams with more than three victories this season came by 13, 10 and 10 points.
For all the expectations placed on them by the outside world, maybe their own expectations should've been higher.
Will Woods be back?
USC has a few draft-eligible players who could feasibly declare early over the next two months, but the most interesting case is that of receiver Robert Woods, who has seen his stock drop significantly this season.
At this time last year, Woods was thought of as a surefire first-round pick and potentially a top-15 guy upon being draft eligible following his junior year this season. Now he seems to be vacillating between the first and second rounds.
Will Woods leave? He says he doesn't know yet, although he said he will "probably" submit a pre-draft evaluation request to the NFL draft advisory board by the mid-December deadline.
"I gotta see what will benefit me more, staying or leaving," Woods said.
Woods said his decision will not be made solely by the draft-round grade he receives from the board. Asked if he expected his teammates to try to sway him in the coming weeks, Woods laughed.
"I'm not sure how that works," Woods said. "I guess I gotta talk to T.J. and Matt [Barkley]."
He said sophomore-to-be Max Wittek coming back as the Trojans' quarterback "definitely has an impact" on his decision.
"I believe in Max," Woods said. "I know he has a strong arm and he can get me the ball."
First-year USC receivers coach Tee Martin said he's been privately lobbying for Woods to come back since he took the job in the spring.
"Whichever way he goes, I'll support him," Martin said. "Robert Woods is one of the best receivers in college football."
If Wittek isn't the Trojans' starting quarterback next September, it'd be a sizable surprise, despite coach Lane Kiffin's efforts last week to portray the race as renewed between Wittek and Cody Kessler next spring. Throw in to that mix likely January enrollee Max Browne, who Kiffin didn't mention by name.
But Kessler's name wasn't uttered once in USC's coaches and players’ postgame interviews on Saturday night. Whenever next season was brought up, Wittek's name was mentioned along with it.
Receiver Marqise Lee said he's "going to make sure to get a lot of time together" with Wittek in the offseason.
"He's probably going to see me more than he sees his parents," Lee said.
USC center Khaled Holmes, a senior, said Wittek's performance stepping in for the injured Matt Barkley reminded him of Cyrus Hobbi replacing Holmes earlier in the year at Stanford.
"He did a great job," Holmes said of Wittek. "Much like the situation Cyrus was put in earlier this year, it was an unbelievably difficult situation."
McDonald gathered his defensive teammates for a brief pregame speech in the locker room before Kiffin addressed the greater team.
His message: "All that matters is the guys that are in this room right now. All the outsiders might try to pick at us, but all that matters is these guys right here."
He said his teammates responded admirably.
"Guys were pumped up," McDonald said. "I can't say enough about these guys.
"You could see the extra fight for the seniors. But we came up short."
USC linebacker Hayes Pullard said he felt more energy as a result of the captain's words.
"We just dug in deep and gave it our all," Pullard said.
Message to the fans?
Several players were asked after Saturday's game what they would tell fans who were disappointed with a five-loss season, considering the preseason expectations.
"Great teams lose," Lee said. "They're fans. It's harder than it looks."
Running back Curtis McNeal, who left the stadium with a sling on his left shoulder, said things just didn't go the Trojans' way. He couldn't elaborate any further when pressed.
"We had every opponent down to a T," he said. "I guess it just wasn't in the cards for us."
Kiffin was asked about the same topic in his postgame news conference.
"I'm disappointed, too,” he said. “I hear 'em. I feel 'em. Those aren't our standards here, regardless of the amount of scholarships or any of those things that we're under. We've gotta do better. And obviously that starts with me."
Final notes: Lee broke Woods' conference record for receptions in a season with 53-yard grab in the fourth quarter. He now has 112 catches for 1,680 yards and 14 touchdowns this season. In the five games this season that USC turned the ball over as many or fewer times than its opponent, the Trojans were 5-0. In the seven games USC had more turnovers than the opposition? 2-5. Notre Dame's Te'o on his pregame handshake with Barkley, who was out for the game with a sprained throwing shoulder: "I just told him to enjoy it. He's going to have a successful career in the NFL and in life itself."
Lane Kiffin comments:
AP Photo/Danny MoloshokMarqise Lee and the Trojans were impressed with Max Wittek's performance in his first start.
On QB Max Wittek: “I thought Max did really well under the circumstances. Playing the No. 1 team in the country, I thought he did a good job handling himself.”
On what he would tell the fans: “I am disappointed too. I know those are not our standards here, regardless of the scholarship situation. We have to do better and obviously that starts with me.”
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly comments:
On the victory: “If you followed us at all this year, that’s how we’ve played. We come up big defensively sometime during the game. We did that again.”
On his team’s goal-line stand: “Unbelievable goal line stand. To hold any program, any team, to get inside your two and come up with a goal-line stand. We ran the ball effectively in the fourth quarter when we needed to get those three points on the board. Those were the two critical parts of the game for us.”
Max Wittek's career began somewhat like Matt Leinart's ended, squeezed by the extraordinary frustration of not being able to pick up a few inches on fourth down.
That was an improvement over how things might have wrapped up for Matt Barkley, who walked down the tunnel to the field for the last time at the Coliseum -- in the most electric atmosphere this season -- without a helmet. He walked up it a few hours later in a sweat suit, struggling to keep his gear bag from slipping off his injured right shoulder.
What do the three Trojans quarterbacks have in common, aside from having attended the same Orange County high school? For much of their college careers, they relied on Lane Kiffin to call plays for them. And USC fans will be howling about the way Kiffin handled the end of Saturday's epic opportunity against top-ranked Notre Dame.
On first-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Kiffin tried to sneak Wittek in. He got nowhere.
Kiffin tried the same thing on second down. Wittek got nowhere.
After burning a timeout, Kiffin tried giving the ball to Curtis McNeal, who got -- yes, that’s right -- nowhere.
Finally, eschewing a field goal try that likely would have made it a one-score game, Kiffin allowed Wittek to attempt a forward pass. The redshirt freshman with the big arm got a bit flustered, throwing it a little too low, a little too firmly, to fullback Soma Vainuku. It was incomplete ... and a disappointing season got just a little more disappointing.
Judging from the mutterings of some USC fans streaming out of the stadium Saturday night, Kiffin’s iffy decision-making will be what a lot of people take away from the 22-13 loss that allowed the undefeated Fighting Irish to try their luck in the BCS title game.
Let it sink in for a while, though, and outrage shouldn’t be the only takeaway from Saturday’s events. The Trojans showed plenty of fight, with the defense stuffing Notre Dame at key times to force field goal tries.
And Wittek looked like a guy who could keep this program from falling off the cliff everyone has been dreading, what with Barkley’s departure to the NFL. Then again, the way this season fizzled, perhaps we can expect more from USC in 2013 than we got in 2012. The Trojans will go into the season with about half the expectations, so they’ve got that going for them.
You can’t expect a 19-year-old making his first college start -- against perhaps the best defense in the country -- to play mistake-free football. You probably can’t expect him to play any better than Wittek did, either.
And although it will pain some USC fans to admit it, Kiffin deserves some of the credit for getting a team led by a first-time starter into the final minutes of a game against the No. 1 team in the country with a shot to win it. He established the run early, allowing Wittek’s receivers to find some room to work and letting Wittek get his heartbeat under control.
He let Wittek use his most formidable weapon, a strong arm, to take some deep shots at times when an interception wasn’t going to swing the game’s outcome.
Wittek and Kiffin -- presuming athletic director Pat Haden keeps his word and retains the coach -- are going to be the pivotal figures for this team again next season, so you might as well settle in and see what kind of chemistry develops.
Wittek completed 14 of his 23 passes for 186 yards. He threw for a touchdown, and he tossed two interceptions (only one of which was truly a mistake). Those certainly aren’t spectacular numbers, but, under the circumstances, this was a performance that suggested more promise than peril for this program.
When it was over, Barkley, whom Wittek has known for about six years, put his arm around his understudy and told him how proud he was.
“I don’t regret anything at all,” Wittek said. “Obviously, the circumstances of Matt not being able to play in the game is what really sucks about it.”
Barkley didn’t want to talk to reporters after the game, at first ignoring them, then muttering he wasn’t in the mood to answer any questions. That left the people around him to interpret the emotions he was dealing with. He returned for his senior season intent on a national title run and got this laughably mediocre season. He might be healthy in time for the Holiday Bowl or Sun Bowl, USC’s likeliest destinations, but neither of those games will have a fraction of the audience Saturday’s game had. You come back to college for big moments, and Barkley had practically none this fall.
“The week was tough, and he’d already kind of lost it earlier at one point today,” Kiffin said. “I just felt for him. My heart just felt for him, because I can take it. That’s my job. That kid didn’t deserve for it to end like that.”
Nor did USC’s fans.
But there’s always another game ... and another quarterback trying to find a happier ending.
Of course, they'll attempt it without senior starting quarterback Matt Barkley, who's out for the game with a sprained throwing shoulder. Redshirt freshman Max Wittek will start in his place.
Here are 10 things to watch in a game that will be Wittek's debut as a starter:
1. Max Wittek. We know he's talented, we know he's young, we know he's not nervous -- the latter, according to his coach. So what can we actually expect from him? If the way Lane Kiffin called the USC-Notre Dame two years ago is any indication, Wittek won't get too many chances to throw the ball deep early. When Mitch Mustain replaced the injured Barkley two years ago, Kiffin called for short passes almost exclusively. Mustain ended up with 37 pass attempts and just 177 yards passing, meaning he averaged less than five yards per attempt. If Wittek's numbers look like that Saturday, it'll be a bad sign.
2. Pro-style O. If there's one thing that bodes really well for the Trojans this week, it's Notre Dame's style of offense. The Irish run a traditional scheme, and the offenses that have given USC so much trouble in recent weeks were spread-focused. Despite Monte Kiffin's best efforts to orient his defense to defend the spread, the Trojans are still far better against offenses similar to their own. "It's no secret," Kiffin said this week.
3. Marqise and Manti. It's unlikely that Marqise Lee or Manti Te'o will actually win the Heisman, but having two of the top 10 candidates for college football's top award in the same game is certainly intriguing. There's a good chance at least one of them will earn a trip to New York City for the trophy presentation, too, and this game will help decide which one gets to go. Lee's numbers are more impressive, but Te'o's team has obviously done a lot better. If the Irish win again Saturday, it's hard to argue that their best player doesn't deserve to be a finalist. Lee turns 21 on Sunday, but his last moment in the spotlight for another nine months will come Saturday. USC's high-profile string of games isn't likely to continue into bowl season.
4. The Stanford games. These teams have played such different schedules, it's hard to compare them against similar opponents. But there is one team they've both faced: the Stanford Cardinal. USC lost to Stanford 21-14 in Palo Alto, and Notre Dame beat Stanford 20-13 at home. All coaches caution against reading too much into same-opponent performances, but it's worth noting how similar the games were. Notre Dame needed a final-minute field goal to force overtime against Stanford and a miraculous goal-line stand in overtime to secure the win.
5. That D. Guess how many times this season Notre Dame has given up more than 14 points in a game? The answer is twice. The Irish haven't allowed more than 20 in regulation all season. They've held the four ranked teams they played to an average of less than nine points, so there's not exactly a precedent for good teams to do better, either.
(USC hosts Notre Dame on Saturday at 8 ET on ABC.)
If the Notre Dame Fighting Irish can win on the road against the USC Trojans. History could, again, repeat itself.
Four different head coaches have been responsible for Notre Dame's eight national championships in the AP poll era (since 1936). All four captured their first national title in their third season at Notre Dame, and head coach Brian Kelly is in his third season at the helm in South Bend.
Notre Dame is one win from playing for the BCS title thanks in larger part to its defense. The Irish have conceded a touchdown on 6.7 percent of their opponents’ possessions, the lowest percentage in FBS this season.
Notre Dame’s red-zone defense also is the best in the nation, allowing a touchdown on 24.1 percent of their opponents’ drives inside the 20-yard line. (Opponents have seven touchdowns and five turnovers in 29 red-zone possessions.) That’s the lowest percentage for any FBS team in the last eight seasons.
The defense is led by senior linebacker Manti Te’o. With two more tackles, Te’o will join Bob Crable as the second Notre Dame player with three 100-tackle seasons. Te’o also leads the Irish with six interceptions after not having any in his first three seasons.
Notre Dame’s defense will be tested one more time, this time by one of the best wide receivers in the country. USC’s Marqise Lee has more receiving yards (821) in his last four games than 52 FBS teams during that time span. Lee has gained more yards after the catch (837) than any player from any BCS-AQ school, and leads FBS with eight 100-yard receiving games. However, only one player this season has 100 yards receiving against Notre Dame: Jalen Saunders from Oklahoma.
However, Lee will not have Matt Barkley throwing to him – the senior QB will not play because of a sprained shoulder. Since 2002, USC’s only loss to Notre Dame came in 2010 when Barkley (then a sophomore) had a sprained ankle and did not play.
Without Barkley, USC might turn to its running game. The Trojans are averaging 160 rushing yards per game, and has gained 10 yards or more on almost 17 percent of their rush attempts. Curtis McNeal has 324 yards in USC’s last two games, but he’ll face a Notre Dame defense that has allowed just three running backs to rush for 80 or more yards this season.