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Random Spring Thoughts: U.S.C.

Using a combination of various computer programs and the Internet — a task nearly beyond my limited computing skills — I selected 25 F.B.S. teams at random. Teams lucky enough to have been randomly selected will be reviewed with several random thoughts as we enter the heart of spring practice. Up next: U.S.C., which must stand up, clean itself off and remove its face from college football’s version of Page Six.

In the same way that a child in the doghouse escapes his or her parents’ wrath once a sibling steps out of line, U.S.C. is happy to see programs like Auburn and Ohio State enter under the N.C.A.A.’s spotlight. There was a time, if we can think back far enough, when the Trojans were the resident bad boy of the F.B.S. – North Carolina made a late-summer run for that title, but could not match U.S.C.’s blend of star power and misconduct. It’s fitting, in a way, that two such descriptions would intersect at a university that stands on the doorstep of Hollywood, home of the crash-and-burn celebrity. For if we search for a real-life metaphor for what has occurred at U.S.C. since Pete Carroll left town, it’s the Lindsay Lohan-like falling star.

So how can U.S.C. stand up, clean itself off and remove its face from college football’s version of Page Six? By doing what it’s doing, at least somewhat. The program is taking its lumps in stride, though not necessarily losing either the swagger that led to a decade of unparalleled success or the us-against-the-world mentality that drives most programs that fall under N.C.A.A. sanctions. Not to say that U.S.C. really believes in its own guilt, nor to say that U.S.C. has really protested its innocence, but somewhere in between. The delicate balancing act that follows, one that will find the Trojans attempting to reclaim its lofty perch while under the watchful eye of the sport’s governing body, will decide the program’s future. More random U.S.C. thoughts come below:

Secondary as Achilles heel. The secondary should be improved, though the starting quartet couldn’t fare much worse than a group that ranked 109th against the pass a year ago. Sophomore Nickell Robey has a bright future, and what he lacks in height he makes up for in athletic ability. The first true freshman to start a season opener at U.S.C. in the post-World War II era, Robey’s second season will undoubtedly see him play with more confidence than he did a year ago. Opposite him will be Tony Burnett, a former walk-on, which should speak to the scholarship issues U.S.C. continues to face on both sides of the ball.

One position still up for grabs – and one that might be decided during the spring – is strong safety, where U.S.C. does not lack for depth. Jawanza Starling, a nine-game starter in 2010, is an option; so is Marshall Jones, who started the other four games in Starling’s stead a year ago. Two other defensive backs are pushing for the role: sophomore Demetrius Wright might even hold the lead as of today, with Drew McAllister, a past starter, fighting to gain traction in the race. There’s enough depth here, in fact, that you can’t help but wish that the threesome that don’t win the starting role could take snaps at cornerback. Alas, that’s not the case.

It’s all about the defense. Last year’s results defensively were shocking if, in hindsight, altogether predictable. More often than not, it doesn’t matter who’s calling plays – Monte Kiffin or otherwise. A lack of depth will ultimately be your downfall, as was the case with the Trojans a year ago. U.S.C. really didn’t do much well on this side of the ball in 2010: the pass defense was atrocious, as noted, and the run defense only looks good when held in comparison; teams could have run on the Trojans but often didn’t need to, thanks to a poor secondary.

What if Barkley goes down? U.S.C. is in the same boat as countless other teams across the country: if Matt Barkley suffers an injury, the season could rapidly spiral out of control. The quarterback situation behind the unquestioned starter is far less clear than it was a season ago, when one could have said that Mitch Mustain, since graduated, was the best backup quarterback in the country. This spring, U.S.C. is auditioning three freshmen for Mustain’s former role: Jesse Scroggins, a redshirt freshman, and early enrollees Max Wittek and Cody Kessler.

Therefore, it’s on the big guys. One way to keep Barkley healthy? Keep him clean: U.S.C. did a fairly good job protecting the quarterback last fall, but must replace five offensive linemen with starting experience. That makes Matt Kalil and Khaled Holmes, two returning starters, so important – Kalil particularly so, if he remains at left tackle. Two junior college additions, both in for the spring, will help matters.

This roster remains extremely young. Just how young? Among the youngest in the country, yet again, thanks to numbers like this: 47 of the 86 players on U.S.C.’s spring roster have never taken a collegiate snap. That’s an alarmingly high number, to quote U.S.C.’s own spring prospectus. One way to address such youth is to delve into the JUCO ranks, which U.S.C. did a bit in its most recent recruiting class. Still, the only way to truly address youth and inexperience is to simply gain experience, a trying process that cannot begin until September and might not pay dividends until 2012.

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