Summer Opponent Preview: USC Trojans

USA TODAY Sports

Can Notre Dame establish a winning streak against USC for the first time since 2000?

The Fighting Irish will try to beat USC twice in a row in the 85th meeting between the two schools. Here is a summer preview of the Men of Troy.

USC TROJANS

Southern_california_medium

Location: Los Angeles, CA

Head Coach: Lane Kiffin (4th year)

2012 Record: 7-6

2012 S&P Rating: 28

'12 S&P Offense: 20

'12 S&P Defense: 30

'12 FEI Rating: 30

Last year was a big step backward for USC as their 6 losses were the most since 2001. Following numerous preseason national title picks and Heisman hype for multiple players the Trojan 2012 season ended in bitter disappointment.

The season started well enough with 40-plus point offensive performances in wins against Hawaii and Syracuse but the Trojans only converted one 3rd down in a 21-14 loss to Stanford---their 4th straight defeat to the Cardinal. After a 0-1 start in league play USC got back on track with 4 straight wins over Cal, Utah, Washington, and Colorado. In late October is when things began to fall apart.

They put up over 600 yards but blew a 2nd half lead against Arizona on the road. They put up over 600 yards again against Oregon but allowed 730 yards to the Ducks and lost one of the most ridiculous offensive games in Pac-12 history. A 38-17 win the following week against Arizona State would be the Trojans' last of the season.

USC fell behind 24-0 by the middle 2nd quarter against UCLA and ultimately lost that cross-town rivalry as quarterback Matt Barkley played his last career snaps being injured late in the game. Max Wittek got his first career start in the regular season ending loss to Notre Dame and led the Trojans to just 205 total yards in their 21-7 bowl loss to Georgia Tech. This was the first 3-game losing streak for the Trojans since September 2001.

~~~

Q&A with Michael Castillo from Reign of Troy:

1. Presumptive quarterback starter Max Wittek was slowed with an injury earlier this spring but came back to participate in practices. With a pair of talented signal callers in Cody Kessler and early enrollee freshman Max Browne in the battle, what are the odds that Wittek is the 2013 starter? Will Browne be a 'redshirt at all costs' player this year or is there a legit chance he gets his feet wet this fall?

Going into fall camp, it's going to be interesting given that Kiffin keeps stressing the trio are all on equal footing, but we of course know that's not the case. It's going to be Kessler or Wittek, with Browne very much being the 'redshirt at all costs' player, barring a remarkable and unlikely uptick in performance in fall camp to steal the job away. If we're talking percentages, I'd give Wittek a 49 percent chance, along with Kessler, while Browne takes a couple of points for himself as the long shot.

Kessler really looked good in the spring and he showed that he could be the A.J. McCarron-type game manager that the Trojans may need given the talent around the offense like Marqise Lee. Wittek surely has the highest immediate upside of the three, but he's prone to mistakes and it'll be interesting to see if Kiffin chooses raw physical potential or cultivated mental potential.

2. USC loses Matt Barkley at quarterback and Robert Woods at wide receiver but brings back many pieces on offense. Do you think the Trojan offense takes a step forward in 2013?

Honestly, I think it can. There was a slew of schematic mishaps that plagued the Trojans last year and if they can be mended with Clay Helton grabbing the offensive coordinator title, then there's room for some Ewing Theory-type improvement. If the backs can remain healthy, USC should have a formidable running game with Silas Redd being a senior, and two highly-touted backs coming into the fold in Justin Davis and Ty Isaac.

If they can produce to lessen pressure on the quarterback, and another receiver emerges to compliment Lee, the building blocks are definitely there. Replacing Khaled Holmes at center is going to be the key however, as the Trojans really struggled without him against Stanford last year. A weak offensive line, especially one that is considered experienced, would kill SC's offense with a rookie quarterback.

3. Wideout Marqise Lee has an astounding 191 receptions, 2,864 yards, and 25 touchdowns through 2 seasons. That's not even mentioning his special teams play. Is he already the greatest Trojan receiver of all-time? Will it be possible for him to duplicate his ridiculous 2012 season?

Maybe it's the nostalgia in mind, but I find it hard to put Lee over Mike Williams. In 2002 and 2003, Williams was phenomenal as a big, physical receiver that was an ideal playmaker for Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart. And as you would expect, every big receiver has been compared him to since, like Dwayne Jarrett, Patrick Turner and David Ausberry. Lee is definitely not Williams, as he plays an entirely different game, which makes it hard to gauge him among the greats like Keyshawn, Jarrett, Williams and Robert Woods.

Statistically, Lee is phenomenal and has a chance to improve on those numbers due to the fact that he doesn't have Woods coming back, though an argument could made that that could lessen his output. I just think he needs one more dynamic season to be the G.O.A.T. receiver at USC, and a Heisman-type season at that. Not to rain on his parade, but he made a lot of plays on deep balls and long runs in which he relied purely on his speed. Should he become more physical and technical, it'll be hard to imagine a better SC receiver.

4. The defense looks to be in decent shape except for the secondary where a few starters have been lost. What's the concern level in the defensive backfield heading in to fall practice?

It's a huge concern. Only Torin Harris and Josh Shaw return who have a decent amount of experience, and if you ask anyone who watched the Trojans last year, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone with positive remarks for Harris at corner. Shaw could move back to corner from safety to take over for Harris, and Dion Bailey is moving from linebacker to strong safety, his natural position.

Leon McQuay III and Su'a Cravens are going to be two huge playmakers in the secondary moving forward and should get considerable playing time right away, if not earning starting spots out of the gate. If they can play well as freshmen and Bailey makes the transition smoothly and keeps healthy, the Trojans can have a solid defense top to bottom. But there's a lot of ifs there and depth concerns are going to keep defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast up at night. SC gets Washington State and Mike Leach's air raid on September 7th in Week 2, and that game will answer plenty of questions in the secondary.

5. Is there a defender or two who hasn't made a huge impact so far in their career that you think will break out this season?

It's probably one of two guys: Lamar Dawson or Jabari Ruffin. Dawson earned Freshman All-American honors in 2011, but really struggled at the mike linebacker spot last year with Monte Kiffin calling the defensive plays. Monte's faux-Tampa-2 required Dawson to be that patented drop-back middle linebacker like Derrick Brooks, but he's just not that guy. He was continuously out of position and it killed SC on third down last year, as Dawson dropped into a deep zone every time on third and long, freeing tight ends over the middle for first downs.

This year, Dawson is going to be more of a stay-at-home inside linebacker in the 5-2, alongside Hayes Pullard. He had a great spring and it'll be really interesting to see if the change in scheme is what was needed to get him back to being a defensive playmaker. As for Ruffin, he was injured last year and redshirted his freshman season. He now is getting moved from being a 4-3 weakside linebacker to a rush end in the 5-2. He was probably the best defensive player of the spring and if he can stay healthy, he'll surprise a lot of people.

6. Many people know about the scholarship sanctions that are having an affect on the USC roster. This usually means true freshmen will have to play---can you speak to any first-year players that you're fairly certain will have to contribute in 2013?

I mentioned McQuay and Cravens earlier, and those have to be the guys. Despite the scholarship restrictions, the Trojans bring back enough starters that there really aren't any spots thin enough for a freshman to get forced into the fire other than the secondary, at least for now. And thankfully for Kiffin and Pendergast, McQuay and Cravens are guys that would be getting a lot of playing time as freshmen regardless of depth, given their talent.

For me, Cravens is the guy to watch. He's been compared to Troy Polamalu and he's extremely versatile, as he could start at running back for some teams in the Pac-12 and given the limited number of roster spots, USC needs an elite jack of all trades player.

7. Talk to us about Lane Kiffin. What's the mood with the USC head coach as he heads in to his 4th year in Los Angeles? Additionally, what are your expectations for this program in 2013 coming off a severely disappointing season and a lot of coaching turnover?

Going into 2012, I think everyone was calling Kiffin a semi-savior. Twelve months later it's very much the opposite. It really comes down to his inability to strategize offensively as there were so many questionable decisions last year. Curtis McNeal was shredding UCLA on the ground, yet Kiffin opted to pass in the rain throughout the third quarter, which squandered momentum. Then, of course, there's that debacle at the goal line against the Irish, which was hands down the worst set of play calling I've ever seen. Those kind of things have so many people in LA calling for Kiffin's head and it's hard to argue it given the expectations and talent that USC had, and the results they earned.

As for 2013, I honestly have no clue what to expect. Kiffin performed really well in 2011 when nobody gave USC a chance and he could have another wonderful coaching year as he did then, but really, how can anyone expect that given 2012? At the end of the day, the Trojans have more pound for pound talent than anyone outside of maybe Alabama, but it's unpredictable talent. With a very favorable schedule, they could conceivably go 11-2, or they could struggle and wind up at 7-6 again. There's way too many variables and outside of Marqise Lee, who knows what team will show up.

~~~

PROJECTED 2013 TROJAN DEPTH CHART

BOLD signifies returning starter

*Quarterback

Max Wittek, RS So.

Cody Kessler, RS So.

Max Browne, Fr.

There's a lot of talent here even with the loss of Matt Barkley. Using the 247 Composite Ranking the Trojans have the No. 2 pro-QB, No. 4 pro-QB, and No. 1 pro-QB from their respective classes.

Wittek saw some mop-up duty last year before taking over the starting job once Barkley was injured late against UCLA. He played well enough against Notre Dame but really struggled in the bowl game. Wittek was believed to be more mobile than Barkley although it doesn't appear that he will be to any great degree.

Kessler came in the same recuiting class as Wittek and threw a couple passes in a blowout against Colorado last season. He'll be fighting this spring for the starting job. True freshman Macaulay Culkin Max Browne is one of the biggest recruits to come to L.A. and that's saying something for their standards. A redshirt is probably likely but you never know how a Lane Kiffin coached team is going to pan out.

*Running Back

Silas Redd, Sr.

Justin Davis, Fr.

Tre Madden, RS So.

D.J. Morgan, RS Jr.

The running back situation is pretty solid for the Trojans even though they lose the tough bowling ball runner Curtis McNeal. The former Penn State transfer Silas Redd is back for his second season with USC and finished with 905 yards, 5.4 per rush, and 9 touchdowns last year. He could definitely be in line for a big senior season, although he did tear his meniscus and missed most of spring practice.

154480104

Silas Redd. [Stephen Dunn, Getty Images]

One of the big surprises of spring camp in the absence of Redd was true freshman Justin Davis who did more than just turn some heads. Kiffin has stated he has a legit shot at being the starting running back this season. Tre Madden was switched to running back from linebacker last year, but tore his knee and was still not taking part in contact this spring.

D.J. Morgan was a highly touted recruit who can't seem to move up the depth chart. He does have 83 carries over the past 2 seasons but hasn't set the world on fire. Adding some more depth is redshirt sophomore Javorious Allen and incoming freshman athlete Ty Isaac.

*Fullback

Soma Vainuku, RS So.

Jahleel Pinner, So.

Stanley Havili had a great career for the Trojans but has been gone since the end of 2010 and the team really didn't rely on a full-time fullback in 2011. Last season Vainuku took over the starting job and returns for 2013.

Behind him is Pinner plus USC has moved middle linebacker Simione Vehikite to fullback as well. They look to be serious about running the ball this season.

*Wide Receiver 1

Marqise Lee, Jr.

Darreus Rogers, Fr.

Steven Mitchell, Fr.

*Wide Receiver 2

Nelson Agholor, So.

Victor Blackwell, RS So.

*Wide Receiver 3

De'Von Flourney, 5th Sr.

George Farmer, Jr.

Marqise Lee is the reigning Bileitnikoff Award winner as the nation's top receiver and needs no introduction. Rising sophomore Nelson Agholor (who we really, really wanted at Notre Dame) was technically a starter last year although he didn't play a ton. Still, he hauled in 9 passes for 239 yards against Oregon and Stanford.

Replacing Robert Woods appears to be 5th-year senior De'Von Flourney who caught his one and only career pass last season. The uber-talented George Farmer tore his ACL and MCL this off-season and may not be available this year, although there are some other options at wideout for the Trojans. Victor Blackwell should get more playing time while the highly recruited Steven Mitchell arrives from the prep ranks. Even Darreus Rogers (originally signed in 2012) arrived on campus in late December but is yet another USC player dealing with an injury.

*Tight End

Xavier Grimble, RS Jr.

Randall Telfer, RS Jr.

Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, So.

For the third straight year USC will have a 1-2 punch at tight end of Grimble and Telfer. The former would technically be considered the returning starter but in reality they are co-starters. Grimble brings 44 career receptions into this season and Telfer 38 career grabs.

In keeping with the mojo this spring both Grimble and Telfer were slowed with injuries. USC really can't afford great depth here with sanctions but Cope-Fitzpatrick was a big recruit who could see some time. J.T. Kerr, a walk-on transfer from Nebraska, brings up the rear as the last tight end on the roster.

*Left Tackle

Aundrey Walker, Jr.

Nathan Guertler, RS So.

*Left Guard

Max Tuerk, So,

Giovanni Di Poalo, RS Jr.

*Center

Marcus Martin, Jr.

Cyrus Hobbi, RS So.

*Right Guard

John Martinez, 5th Sr.

Jordan Simmons, RS Fr.

*Right Tackle

Kevin Graf, 5th Sr.

Zach Banner, RS Fr.

USC is bring back a lot of experience up front with center Khaled Holmes the only significant loss. He started 12 games last season (missing Stanford with injury) and was a 3-year starter at both center and guard.

Walker began 2012 at left tackle and made 9 starts. He'll be backed up by walk-on Guertler and incoming freshman Nico Falah. The highly regarded Max Tuerk made 4 starts at left tackle and 1 start at left guard last fall and will transition to the full-time left guard spot in 2013. Behind Tuerk is Di Poalo, incoming freshman Khaliel Rogers, plus a walk-on and fifth-year JUCO.

Marcus Martin made 10 starts at left guard last year and moves over to center this fall. He's backed up by Hobbi who made one start last year against Stanford. The right side looks all set as Martinez and Graf return after making every start at their positions in 2012. A pair of highly recruited redshirt freshman in Jordan Simmons and Zach Banner will add depth on the right side this year.

*Defensive End

Leonard Williams, So.

J.R. Tavai, Jr.

*Nose Tackle

Antwaun Woods, RS So.

Cody Temple, RS So.

Kenny Bigelow, Fr.

*Defensive End

George Uko, RS Jr.

Greg Townsend, RS So.

USC hired a new defensive coordinator in the off-season by the name of Clancy Pendergast and he's bringing a 5-2-4 defense to Los Angeles which means a few positions changes on this side of the ball.

The Trojans lose Wes Horton at defensive end but they've moved Leonard Williams there from tackle after his very successful 64 tackles, 13.5 for loss, and 8 sacks as a freshman in 2012. At the other end spot they move George Uko from the interior as well---he's coming off a nice 31 tackles, 9 for loss, and 5 sack season. Backing them up will be Townsend and Tavai, both of whom played a little bit last year.

At the nose tackle position a trio of players are fighting for time. Antwaun Woods played a lot last year racking up 4.5 tackles for loss and 3 sacks. Temple didn't play last year but is adding depth while Kenny Bigelow is a big-time freshman recruit who will probably make an impact this fall.

*Outside Linebacker

Morgan Breslin, Sr.

Kevin Greene, 5th Sr.

*Weak-side Linebacker

Lamar Dawson, Jr.

Anthony Sarao, RS So.

*Strong-side Linebacker

Hayes Pullard, RS Jr.

Will Andrew, 5th Sr.

*Outside Linebacker

Devon Kennard, 5th Sr.

Jabari Ruffin, RS Fr.

Devon Kennard missed last season with a torn pectoral muscle but made 13 starts from 2010-11 at a couple different positions. He'll move to the rush outside linebacker spot this fall with Ruffin who had a great spring.

At the other rush linebacker spot is former JUCO recruit Morgan Breslin who became a star last year in his first season with USC. His 62 tackles, 19.5 for loss, and 13 sacks make Breslin one of the best pass rushers in the country. 5th-year senior Kevin Greene should see some time here as well, while incoming freshman Quinton Powell could make an appearance as well.

On the inside Lamar Dawson is back and has started for the past year and a half for the Trojans. He brings 102 tackles and 4 tackles for loss in his career. Sarao (40 tackles, 3 sacks in 2012) played well last year and offers a quality backup. A pair of walk-ons plus Scott Starr (coming back from injury) add a lot of depth.

154484413

Lamar Dawson. [Stephen Dunn, Getty Images]

Opposite Dawson will be Hayes Pullard who is starting for the 3rd year in a row. He finished 2nd on the team in 2012 with 107 tackles and was a freshman All-American in 2011. A pair of walk-ons add depth behind Pullard as will incoming star freshman Michael Hutchings.

*Cornerback

Torin Harris, 5th Sr.

Kevon Seymour, So.

*Cornerback

Anthony Brown, RS Jr.

Devian Shelton, RS Fr.

*Strong Safety

Josh Shaw, RS Jr.

Dion Bailey, RS Jr.

Su'a Cravens, Fr.

*Free Safety

Demetrius Wright, Sr.

Leon McQuay, Fr.

A trio of starters have left the USC secondary in Nickell Robey, T.J. McDonald, and Jawanza Starling. That's 3 of the team's top 9 tacklers from last season.

Torin Harris made 5 starts at corner last year and has 9 starts over his career. He's pretty much a lock to stay there in 2013 although filling out the rest of the depth chart at his position is pretty sketchy. Anthony Brown has played a decent amount of minutes over the past two seasons, Shelton was redshirt last year, and Seymour was a highly rated recruit but didn't play much last fall.

The safety situation is stronger. Shaw was a transfer from Florida who played safety to start 2012 but then moved to corner where he made some starts late last season. He now moves back to strong safety where the team has also moved former strong-side linebacker Dion Bailey. Adding additional depth is super-recruit Su'a Cravens who many believe could jump to the 1st team this fall although he did suffer a set back this spring with a torn meniscus.

At free safety Wright ascends to the starting spot after being a backup last year. He'll have the highly touted freshman Leon McQuay to contend with and don't be surprised to see Cravens get a look here as well.

~~~

Final Thoughts

Say what you want but I would be buying stock of USC football right now. They are nowhere to be found on Andy Staples post-spring Top 25 and even if there are legitimate reasons (Kiffin) why their stock has fallen since August of 2012 there are plenty of reasons to like the Trojans this season.

First, their schedule is reasonably favorable and opens with Hawaii, Washington State, Boston College, and Utah State. They get both Stanford and UCLA at home. Tough road games against Arizona State, Notre Dame, and Oregon State dot the schedule but that's hardly imposing. What's more, USC will have 9 days rest before playing Notre Dame (Thursday night game the week prior) and Stanford is sandwiched between games against Cal and Colorado.

Offensively if the Trojans can find nice competent quarterback play they should move the ball easily on most teams. I would expect a little bit more conservative running offense this fall, but one that still takes advantage of Marqise Lee's big play ability through the air. With a bunch of pieces coming back and a few less turnovers their offense could indeed be better without Matt Barkley.

Defensively they'll have to work out the kinks of a new system but a soft early schedule should help that transition. They weren't awful last year on defense but they should be able to do better than they did in 2012 giving up 6+ yards per play to 4 teams (Stanford, Arizona, Oregon, Notre Dame) and surrendering at least 20 points in 8 games. The secondary situation is a little precarious, but so was Notre Dame's last year and that turned out alright for the Irish.

There are a lot of starters returning on both sides of the ball, a lot of talent as always, and I have a tough time seeing USC being anything worse than 8-4. Even with reduced scholarships and the volatility that Kiffin brings with him 4 regular season losses has to be a disappointment and I think they'll do better than that.

Predicted Game Day Spread: Southern Cal (+2.5)

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