USC Trojans: T.J. McDonald

There’s a marked change in the way that USC linebacker Hayes Pullard carries himself on Cromwell Field during workouts this offseason that is hard not to notice. The redshirt junior is standing just a tad bit taller, his voice is booming a little louder, and he’s taken on more accountability in terms of coaching up the players around him.

In short, Pullard has emerged as an unquestioned leader of the defense. It’s an all too fitting responsibility for a tried and tested performer with 25 starts and 188 career tackles under his belt. And with USC head coach Lane Kiffin and Co. desperate to fill the void created by the loss of two outspoken veterans in safety T.J. McDonald and cornerback Nickell Robey to the NFL, it couldn’t have happened at a more crucial time.

“When I first came here, I was just trying to follow in their footsteps -- learning how to run a team from what they did,” Pullard said of the duo. “When they left, I just looked to my left, and I looked to my right and it was just me -- I realized that I had to take that role right then and there, and that I had to become that vocal leader.”

[+] EnlargeHayes Pullard
Matt Kartozian/US PresswireHayes Pullard has been aggressive in taking a leadership role on USC's defense this offseason.
But the last four months haven’t come without their challenges. With USC coming off a disappointing 7-6 campaign that saw the Trojans struggle at times against the up-tempo, spread offenses, new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast was brought in and immediately installed a 5-2 defensive look differing dramatically, both in regard to alignment and philosophy, from the team’s previous 4-3 set. And after some initial growing pains, the defense eventually came together to play at an extremely high level this spring, and it appears to have kept the momentum going this offseason, with Pullard looking primed for a huge season at his new MIKE linebacker position after spending his previous seasons at weakside linebacker.

“In the spring, at first, it was kind of like, ‘How do we do this?’” said Pullard, who currently stands 6-foot-1 and 235 pounds. “Then, we got it a little bit, and now we’re just trying to take the next step out here during 7-on-7, and we’re still getting better. There’s a lot more talking going on, and we have that sense of brotherhood back on defense where we want to fight for each other. It’s a bond that I really like.”

Playing fast to the ball and physical, it was the inside linebackers -- led by new assistant coach Mike Ekeler -- that emerged as one of the star units of the spring. A collection that also includes two talented athletes battling it out at the WILL position in Lamar Dawson and Anthony Sarao, in addition to highly touted freshman Michael Hutchings as a backup at MIKE, it’s a group that is sure to play a key role in Pendergast’s attacking defensive scheme.

“We’re coming along good,” Pullard said. “Coach Ekeler and Coach Pendergast, they put us in places where we’ve never been before, and that’s going to help us the more we practice and work on it. We’re going to be fast and aggressive. We’re going to be a lot better than last year.”

With only Pullard, Dawson and Sarao possessing significant game experience on the inside, it’s the development of Hutchings -- an ESPN 150 prospect out of Concord (Calif.) De La Salle -- this offseason that will be watched with particular interest. To no surprise, Pullard has already taken the eager youngster under his wings, and he’s encouraged by what he’s seen so far.

“He’s all ears,” said Pullard, a Los Angeles Crenshaw product. “We need him right now, this season. So, I’ve been teaching him the playbook and how to run everything out here. I know that transition from high school to college is a big deal, but I’ve already seen a lot of improvement from him, and he’s going to get a lot better in the coming weeks.”

In Pullard, Hutchings has what could be considered to be the perfect mentor, but as for Pullard himself, he isn’t even close to being satisfied with where he’s at just yet.

“There’s always room for improvement,” Pullard said. “I just want to be a peak performer in every part of my game. I just want to get faster and stronger. You know, film wise, changing direction…every little thing counts. I feel like the big things are given to me by God, the little things, I have to work on.”

With his mindset focused on the task at hand, there’s no telling just how far Pullard will continue to take his game in the coming months. And now, with his defensive teammates following his lead on a daily basis, there’s certainly reason for optimism when it comes to the group’s production in 2013.
Robert Woods, Matt Barkley AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillRobert Woods and Matt Barkley put their best foot forward in front of scouts from 31 NFL teams during USC's pro day Wednesday.
The Trojans held their annual NFL Pro Day on Wednesday with plenty of buzz surrounding the workout of quarterback Matt Barkley.

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.”

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WeAreSC Roundtable 

March, 7, 2013
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The Trojans opened spring practice on Tuesday and the WeAreSC staff gives its impressions from the first day.

Name three players who jumped out at you

Garry Paskwietz: Josh Shaw would be at the top of the list. He has moved to strong safety this spring, the same position that T.J. McDonald had last season when it was designated as free safety. Shaw looks much more active and comfortable in this role so far.
Once lauded as the preseason No. 1 with the Heisman Trophy favorite at quarterback, the USC football program sank to historic depths in 2012. What's the state of the program and is the sky falling on USC? Your bloggers debate:

Ted Miller: Is the sky falling for USC? Maybe just a little, at least if you believe in momentum.

In August, the Trojans were ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll. They were rolling with the nation's No. 1 recruiting class. Quarterback Matt Barkley was the golden boy of the preseason, the top Heisman candidate, lauded for his unselfish decision to return for his senior season. And coach Lane Kiffin, after leading the Trojans to a 10-2 finish in 2011, seemed to be well on his way to proving his skeptics wrong and rewriting the story of his coaching career.

Now, in February, USC is coming off a 7-6 season, the first time a preseason No. 1 team lost six games. It lost five of its final six games, including an execrable performance against middling Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl. After the game, there was a locker-room altercation that involved some players bad-mouthing Barkley. Further, Kiffin has been -- fairly -- blamed for the collapse, and many of his actions during the season served to reinforce his image as a guy obsessed with working the angles instead of focusing on the details. All this serves to put Kiffin on perhaps the hottest seat in the nation heading into 2013.

Further, the recruiting class, the one constant during the surprising losing, ended up ranked 14th in the nation after several players decommitted. A handful of those decommitted players added salt to the Trojans' wounds by signing with rivals UCLA and Notre Dame.

Why did they decommit? The reasons are likely to be specific to the individual athlete, but it's fair to say that the program's fall from grace and Kiffin's uncertain status played a role.

The program was perceived in a much different way in August than it is today. The considerable momentum of the preseason has reversed. Considerably.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
AP PhotoLane Kiffin might be on the hot seat in 2013, but perhaps a dimmer spotlight will help his Trojans.
Of course, USC still signed an outstanding recruiting class, with 12 of the 13 members earning four stars and nine ranking among the nation's top 150 players. The present negative momentum can be quickly reversed with a fast start to the season. If Kiffin wins nine or 10 games, he'll probably be back in 2014, especially if he can beat UCLA and Notre Dame in the process -- and the Bruins in particular.

So, really, the sky is not falling over Heritage Hall.

But it is definitely blocked by dark, threatening clouds no USC fan likes to see.

Kevin Gemmell: No, the sky is not falling on USC. And I'll tell you why. There aren't many schools in the country that finish 7-6 and can bring in a recruiting haul -- considered by some to actually be a disappointment -- like the Trojans did earlier this week. There aren't a lot of schools that can look as bad as the Trojans did in 2012 and still ink six players rated in the top six for their positions nationally -- including the Nos. 1 and 3 safeties, the No. 2 pocket passer and the No. 3 defensive tackle. USC is a brand name and is always going to attract elite recruits. Even in the worst of times. And it can't get much worse than it did last season.

I've been very critical of the 2012 edition of USC football. In a word, it stunk. It was like watching a train wreck crash into a train wreck that crashed into a manure pile. For whatever reason, despite an abundance of talent, the chemistry proved toxic. Kiffin has, rightfully so, shouldered the lion's share of the blame.

All that said, with the talent USC has on its roster as of today, the Trojans can win at least nine games in 2013 (pause for laughter). I say again, the Trojans can win more games in 2013 than the team with Barkley, Robert Woods, Khaled Holmes, Nickell Robey and T.J. McDonald.

Bad years -- for whatever reason -- happen. But folks weren't screaming to fire Kiffin when he took over a program on probation and went 18-7 in his first two seasons -- including the aforementioned 10-win campaign in 2011. People weren't calling for his head when the Trojans won at Autzen Stadium in 2011 -- something only one other Pac-12 team has been able to do since 2008.

What made 2012 so much worse than it should have been were the off-field issues that came across as bush league. Those are easily corrected. You know how? Stop doing stupid things off the field! That should do the trick. And while we're at it, stupid things on the field don't work that well either. Free tip.

The spotlight won't be nearly as bright in 2013 as it was in 2012. The Trojans will probably start off in the preseason top 25. Maybe they even sneak into the top 20. That's a lot more psychologically manageable than No. 1. The schedule sets up nicely with four very winnable games before the Trojans travel to Arizona State at the end of September for their first Pac-12 South showdown. Then they get a week and a half to prep for Arizona and an extra two days to prep for Notre Dame. More importantly, it gets a lot of young players time to get acclimated. There is also a lot of returning talent that saw a great deal of playing time in 2012 -- for better or worse.

As of Feb. 8, 2013, I'm not sure who is going to win the Pac-12 South. I might give a slight edge to either Arizona State or UCLA. But discounting the Trojans is just foolishness. No, USC fans, the sky is not falling. Sometimes you just have to put the past behind you and -- as you folks say -- fight on.

USC Class of 2009 review 

January, 24, 2013
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With signing day fast approaching, it’s worth taking a glance back at the Trojans’ recruiting class of 2009 -- a group of players now almost four years removed from high school. The No. 4 ranked class that year, it’s a collection that was ultimately filled with a number of hits, as well as misses.


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Khaled Holmes is one of two USC players, along with T.J. McDonald, who will be taking part in the Senior Bowl this week in an effort to shine in front of NFL scouts.

[+] EnlargeAlex Holmes
Garry Paskwietz/WeAreSC.comUSC senior center Khaled Holmes speaks after receiving the Jess Hill Award last week.
Prior to heading to Mobile, Ala., for the week-long event, Holmes was honored at a dinner on January 16 as the winner of the Jess Hill Award, presented by the San Gabriel Valley Trojan Club to a deserving student-athlete who represents the USC motto of “Faithful, Scholarly, Skillful, Courageous, Ambitious.”

Holmes was a three-year starter for the Trojans -- he played right guard in 2010 and center from 2011-12 -- and was named All-Pac-12 first team in 2012.

Holmes had a cumulative 3.31 GPA at USC, received a bachelor’s degree in spring of 2011 in communications and finished his master’s degree in communication management in fall of 2012.

“It’s an incredible honor to receive this award,” Khaled said while accepting the award. “To be the first brothers to win the award is pretty awesome.”

Khaled’s brother, Alex, had been named the Jess Hill Award winner in 2005 after his career as a USC tight end. Alex Holmes was in attendance at the dinner, as was former USC fullback/tight end Rhett Ellison, who now plays for the Minnesota Vikings, and the award was presented to Holmes by current USC running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu.

“This night showcases how real the Trojan family is,” Polamalu said. “You have Alex and Khaled, two brothers who have won this award. Their sister, Theodora, is married to my nephew, Troy, who also played at USC. Then you have Rhett Ellison, whose dad, Riki, was my teammate when I played at USC.”

It was Alex Holmes who summed up the night with the tribute to his brother when he said, “Khaled is the most impressive person I’ve ever met in my life.”

Holmes (6-foot-4, 310) was ranked as the No. 2 senior center by Mel Kiper of ESPN in his most recent position rankings.
EL PASO, Texas -- Notes, quotes, and anecdotes from the Hyundai Sun Bowl after the Trojans' (7-6) 21-7 loss to Georgia Tech (7-7).

USC coach Lane Kiffin comments:

On the Game:

Turnovers and efficiency: “Obviously very disappointing day, coming down to turning the ball over and third-down efficiency really nullifying anything on offense. I thought our defense did a good job today. I thought they played very hard, obviously wore down a bit there late, but that’s to be expected when we turn the ball over that many times.”

Taking responsibility: How much is Kiffin taking the blame for the Trojans season? The coach said, "All of it, we can’t be 7-6 -- not at SC -- and that’s not our expectations and not why we came here and obviously we have some work to do to get that fixed. We are a young team, we started one senior on offense today, so we got to continue to recruit, continue to get better and obviously coach better.”

Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson comments:

The defensive key: “Well, I think we stayed away from giving up the big play and we did well on third down. We created some turnovers and it was just one of those things where we were able to make some big plays. We played pretty consistently. It became a field position game.”

More notes and anecdotes

[+] EnlargeJamal Golden
AP Photo/Tim WarnerJamal Golden's punt return to USC's 1-yard line early in the third quarter helped put Georgia Tech up for good.
Key to victory: A 56-yard punt return by Georgia Tech’s Jamal Golden early in the third quarter set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Yellow Jackets quarterback Tevin Washington to help put Tech up 14-7.

The puzzle: Commenting on why the Trojans had such good bowl practices but came out flat, junior offensive tackle Kevin Graf said, “I don’t know why we played this way. We had a great week of practice. We’re a lot better team. I promise you this team will work hard to get back to where we belong.”

The offensive scoring average: The Trojans scored seven points against Georgia Tech. Prior to the game with the Yellow Jackets, the Trojans were averaging 34.2 points per game.

Out of the Woods: Junior wide receiver Robert Woods (33 yards on three catches) announced he was declaring for the 2013 NFL draft. Woods said, “Today is a sad day. I had my mind set that I was leaving, so I came into today’s game on a good note. The wind had an impact. Balls were sailing and curving. I was not frustrated with Max [Wittek]. It was the wind. I knew he could get the ball out there.”

Rush to defend: Prior to the Georgia Tech game, the Trojans defense was allowing a net total of 156.4 yards rushing per game. Against the Yellow Jackets, the Trojans allowed 294 rushing yards.

It’s offensive: Prior to the Georgia Tech game, the Trojans were averaging 451.9 yards per game in total offense. Against the Yellow Jackets, the Trojans had 205 total yards.

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3 up, 3 down: Hyundai Sun Bowl

January, 1, 2013
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A look at the positives and negatives from USC’s 21-7 loss to Georgia Tech in the 2012 Hyundai Sun Bowl.

THREE UP

1. Hayes Pullard
The performance of Pullard, a sophomore linebacker, is one of the few positives that the Trojans can take away from the loss. Pacing the team with 16 tackles -- 10 in the first half -- he was easily the most active component of a Trojans defense that found some moderate success containing Georgia Tech’s vaunted triple-option offense.

2. Leonard Williams
Just a freshman, Williams was impressive, collecting 14 tackles -- a staggering number for a defensive tackle. Whether it was straight up the middle, going sideline to sideline, or tracking a ball carrier down from behind, he was all over the place.

3. T.J. McDonald
Just as he has throughout his entire career at USC, McDonald played with grit and determination, something that became a hallmark of his play as a Trojan long ago. On Monday, the senior safety was fast to the ball and made a number of ferocious hits, ultimately finishing with 13 stops in his final game in a cardinal and gold uniform.

THREE DOWN

1. USC team energy
Unfortunately, the Trojans came out and played exactly as many outside observers predicted -- uninspired and flat-out bored -- particularly on offense. Converting on just 3 of 15 third-downs and outgained 369-205, Lane Kiffin’s squad looked like it couldn’t wait to get home.

2. USC passing offense
To say that the Trojans’ passing game was woeful would be an understatement. Marqise Lee and Robert Woods were held to a combined nine receptions for 74 yards, and redshirt freshman quarterback Max Wittek was completely out of whack. Connecting on just 14 of 37 passes for 107 yards and one touchdown, he threw three crucial interceptions, including one inside the Yellow Jackets’ 10-yard line with just over a minute left that sealed the game for Georgia Tech.

3. USC special teams
Andre Heidari's missed 38-yard field goal didn’t help the Trojans’ cause, but that wasn’t the low point for John Baxter’s special-teams unit. That came in the third quarter, when the punt coverage unit overran a line drive Kyle Negrete boot that Georgia Tech’s Jamal Golden ultimately returned to the USC 1-yard line. Tevin Washington punched it into the end zone a few plays later, giving the Yellow Jackets a 14-7 lead.

Hyundai Sun Bowl primer

December, 31, 2012
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Who to watch: This could be another national showcase for USC wide receiver Marqise Lee to prove that he is the most dynamic player in the country. Lee won the Biletnikoff Award winner and was named the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year after a season which saw him set a conference mark for catches (112 -- the leading total nationally) and receiving yards (1,680). He also led the conference in kickoff return yardage. Lee left USC practice early on Saturday with an undisclosed leg injury and did not return but is expected to play in the game.

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.

Preparing for the dive, the quarterback and the pitch

December, 24, 2012
12/24/12
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LOS ANGELES -- Saturday was Monte Kiffin’s final practice on the USC campus in charge of the USC Trojans defense.

But he didn’t want to talk about it as he walked off the Trojans’ practice field for the final time. He did, however, want to talk about the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets offense, the unusual animal USC is facing in a week for the Hyundai Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.

In fact, he can’t stop talking about the wishbone triple-option Georgia Tech runs -- an offense he hasn’t attempted to scheme against in more than three decades.

“The dive, the quarterback and the pitch,” said Kiffin, who resigned from his post as USC’s de facto defensive coordinator last month. “You don’t know which one it is.”

He’s been repeating those words over and over to his players for the last week. And they’re starting to stick, according to senior safety T.J. McDonald.

“Everybody has a responsibility, and that’s it,” McDonald said. “You read your key and you go.”

McDonald said he “didn’t understand” the defenses that some of Georgia Tech’s opponents have used this season.

“It didn’t make a lot of sense sometimes,” he said.

But the defense Kiffin wants the Trojans to play makes sense to McDonald. It requires every player on the defense to work together to stop all three options -- the dive, the quarterback and the pitch.

Passing is a secondary worry. Tech quarterback Tevin Washington completed just 72 passes this season -- fewer than USC’s Matt Barkley threw in his final three games.

“I want to make this quarterback show me he can throw the ball,” McDonald said. “They’re a running offense, and they know that and we know that.”

As for Kiffin, he said he’ll be more ready to say goodbye after the New Year’s Eve bowl game, but he’s already envisioning the occasional return visits.

“I’d like to come back here at some point and watch,” Kiffin said. “See the head coach and see how these freshmen became sophomores and juniors and seniors.”

Wittek rearing to go

Barkley made an appearance at two USC practices over the weekend, but only to watch.

The injured quarterback is staying off the field at least until Wednesday, when he’ll attempt to suit up for the Trojans during their first bowl practice in El Paso.

Meanwhile, Max Wittek and Cody Kessler continue to split first-team reps in his stead, with Wittek still the planned starter if Barkley can’t recover from his sprained shoulder in time to start.

Wittek dismissed any concern about a lack of readiness for a bowl-game start.

“I’ve been preparing for things like these opportunities all year,” he said. “It’s not too much different than Notre Dame, other than the time that we have to prepare for Georgia Tech.”

Head coach Lane Kiffin said Barkley’s injury has allowed him to get both potential quarterbacks adequate practice reps of late, which would otherwise be impossible.

“The one positive about Matthew not being here is those guys get more reps,” Kiffin said.

Robey has a plan

Junior cornerback Nickell Robey is expecting to receive his pre-draft evaluation back from the NFL any day now, and he’s also planning on placing a lot of value in it regarding his decision whether to return for his senior season at USC.

“It’s pretty important to me, because NFL scouts took the time out to watch my film and really concentrate on what I need to get done,” Robey said. “The more information I get as far as my ability at the next level, it’s going to better my decision.”

He even has an exact round grade and corresponding decision in mind. If the NFL Draft Advisory Board tells Robey they expect him to be a third-round selection, he’ll come back to school, he said.

So only a first- or second-round grade will lead him to the NFL.

“Nothing less than that,” Robey said.

Rogers impresses his coach

Incoming receiver Darreus Rogers has practiced three times with the Trojans, and has already earned the respect of his position coach, Tee Martin.

Martin said Rogers has the athletic ability of a college receiver and a mind that is learning how to handle the demands of the next level.

“He asks the right questions,” Martin said of Rogers on Friday. “And, yeah, it’s only the second day, but his retention has been good. I just throw questions at him in the middle of anything and his attention span has been good.”

Rogers will not travel with the Trojans to El Paso due to NCAA rules. He will enroll at USC in January and can resume working out with the team then.

Final notes: Running back Silas Redd submitted an evaluation request to the NFL but is “definitely leaning toward staying” at USC for his senior season, he said. Redd transferred from the Penn State Nittany Lions in August. ... The Trojans are in the middle of a four-day holiday break before reconvening in El Paso on Wednesday. Many players flew home and are meeting the team in Texas. … Martin, on trying to recruit Rogers while an assistant at Kentucky in 2011: “I knew I didn’t have a shot, but I knew who he was. He wasn’t coming to Kentucky.”
Taking part in their final practice of the season on the USC campus on Saturday morning, the Trojans continued to gear up for the team’s Sun Bowl clash with Georgia Tech with an energetic workout in helmets and shorts.

“I think we were pretty fired up,” said redshirt freshman quarterback Max Wittek, who took the majority of the snaps with the first team offense on the day. “All of the guys out here, we came out hot, we had great tempo, and that just carried throughout the rest of practice. People were flying around and making plays, and it was a lot of fun.”

The team will now take a few days off for the holidays before traveling to El Paso, Texas, on Dec. 26, where they will pick up their preparation for the Dec. 31 contest.

Senior farewell

Saturday’s workout marked the last time that USC seniors such as safety T.J. McDonald and center Khaled Holmes took part in a Trojans’ practice on Brian Kennedy-Howard Jones Field. A day for reflection, USC coach Lane Kiffin talked about the incredible amount of adversity that this year’s graduating unit has faced in their time on campus.

“I can’t imagine a group of seniors that have been through so many ups and downs,” Kiffin said. “You know, the story that we’ve told so many times in coming here at the program’s highest [point], coming off of seven straight BCS games, and then maybe the program’s lowest with the sanctions and the probation, and a great season two years ago. So they’ve been through a lot, and it’s a little bit sad that it’s their last practice here, but we still have more practices, fortunately.”

Added McDonald, who was one of the last players to leave the field on Saturday: “I don’t know if it’s hit me yet. I’m just so thankful for all of the opportunities that I’ve had here, for the players that I’ve been able to play with, for the coaches … I’m definitely appreciate of everything in my time here. From Pat Haden, the athletic director, on down, everybody has been so good to me. I’m definitely going to miss this place a lot.”

Looking forward to taking part in his first bowl game since 2009 – when he was just a freshman – McDonald is focused on ending his career on the right note.

“For me, it’s my last game in the cardinal and gold as a Trojan, so you definitely want to go out there and you want to represent – leave a lasting impression, not just on your fans or on your family, but on this team,” McDonald said. “This is the last time that this team is going to be together, so we’re going to go out there and do it one last time.”

Martin growing comfortable at center

Since switching over from guard to center last week – a move made with an eye to the future as the coaches search for a replacement for Holmes – sophomore Marcus Martin has made great strides, with his biggest obstacle coming in learning how to snap the ball out of the shotgun formation.

“It’s real comfortable,” Martin said of the position switch. “First it threw me off because I’m like, ‘I’m playing center. What?’ It’s just one of those things where you just have to learn, and once you learn how to get the hand-to-hand snap, that’s probably the easiest one. The challenging part is the shotgun, because you don’t have any idea where it’s going to go. You’ve got to kind of just trust your hand and faith in God – that’s it.”

And it’s precisely for that reason that Martin could be found following practice on Saturday spending extra time working on his shotgun snapping technique with special teams coach John Baxter.

“He’s been a real big help,” Martin said of Baxter. “Him, Coach Helton, Coach Cregg, Coach Polamalu … everybody. They’ve taught me the pro-style and they taught me the lace-style, so I’ve just got to see which one I like better.”

USC gives out team awards

December, 15, 2012
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The USC Trojans held their 2012 team banquet Friday at the Tutor Campus Center Ballroom and the following awards were handed out:

Most Valuable Player: wide receiver Marqise Lee

Most Inspirational Player: safety T.J. McDonald

Leadership Award: center Khaled Holmes

Linemen of the Year: center Khaled Holmes (offense), defensive end Morgan Breslin (defense)

Perimeter Players of the Year: wide receiver Marqise Lee (offense), safety T.J. McDonald (defense)

Special Teams Player of the Year: linebacker Tony Burnett

Service Team Players of the Year: offensive tackle-guard Jordan Simmons (offense), defensive end Jabari Ruffin (defense)

Jack Oakie “Rise and Shine” Award (year’s longest run): wide receiver Robert Woods (76 yards vs. Syracuse)

Howard Jones/Football Alumni Club Academic Award (overall academic achievement): center Khaled Holmes

Bob Chandler Award (underclassman with outstanding athletic ability, academic achievement and character): tight end Randall Telfer

John McKay Award (underclassman with the most competitive spirit): wide receiver Marqise Lee

Joe Collins Walk-on Award: offensive tackle-guard Nathan Guertler, cornerback Ryan Dillard

Courage Award: wide receiver Robert Woods

Co-Lifters Award: offensive tackle Kevin Graf, cornerback Nickell Robey

Team Captains: quarterback Matt Barkley, safety T.J. McDonald, center Khaled Holmes, cornerback Nickell Robey

Practice report: Back on the field

December, 5, 2012
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LOS ANGELES -- After over a week away from action, the Trojans went back to work on Wednesday, and with Brian Kennedy/Howard Jones Field having recently been re-sodded, the team took part in a rare practice in the Coliseum. It was a loose and notably high-spirited workout that USC head coach Lane Kiffin said had "great energy," even going as far as to call it "probably the best practice we've had since maybe the first day of training camp."

With quarterback Matt Barkley still in New York after receiving a scholar-athlete award from the National Football Foundation, and Marqise Lee in Orlando as a finalist for the Biletnikoff award that will be handed out Thursday, Wednesday's practice centered around the development of some of the more inexperienced Trojans players, while Kiffin and Co. also tinkered around with a couple of position moves.

"Good to get back out on the practice field -- a luxury we haven't had the last two off-seasons -- to get some extra practices," Kiffin said. "Our early bowl week practices, we focus a lot on younger guys, our backups, and moving some guys around at times."

One of those players who spent time at a different position on Wednesday was Josh Shaw, who moved over to his original safety spot after playing a majority of the season at cornerback.

(Read full post)

Marqise Lee voted Pac-12 player of the year

November, 26, 2012
11/26/12
3:27
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USC receiver Marqise Lee was named the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year, conference representatives announced Monday.

In a vote of the conference's head coaches, Lee was chosen as the top offensive player. He also was the only sophomore in the conference unanimously selected to the Pac-12 first team this season, during which he totaled 112 catches, 1,680 yards and 14 receiving touchdowns.

One other Trojan, senior center Khaled Holmes, was selected as a first-teamer. Receiver Robert Woods, defensive end Morgan Breslin, cornerback Nickell Robey and safety T.J. McDonald were all second-team honorees, as was Lee as a return specialist.

Thirteen USC players earned honorable mention, with quarterback Matt Barkley, running back Silas Redd, tight end Xavier Grimble and offensive linemen Max Tuerk and John Martinez leading the way on offense.

Oregon's Marcus Mariota and Arizona's Matt Scott, two quarterbacks who beat Barkley this season, were named the Pac-12's first- and second-team signal-callers, respectively.

Barkley will leave USC having never been a first-team all-conference performer, which is remarkable considering the conference records he owns for all-time passing yards and touchdowns.

USC defensive linemen Leonard Williams, George Uko and Wes Horton and linebackers Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard received honorable mention.

Williams also was named the Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year, after recording a 7.5-sack, two-fumble-recovery season.

Kicker Andre Heidari, punter Kyle Negrete and reserve linebacker Tony Burnett rounded out USC's honorable-mention recipients on special teams.

Postgame notes: Notre Dame at USC

November, 25, 2012
11/25/12
5:27
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LOS ANGELES -- A couple of minutes after the final whistle in No. 1 Notre Dame's 22-13 win over the unranked USC Trojans at the Coliseum on Saturday night, Irish linebacker Manti Te'o stood on the field answering questions from reporters.

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."

Wittek's future

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."

T.J.'s speech

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.

Responses varied.

"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."

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