With the 2012 USC football season now in the books, it’s time to look ahead to what will be an absolutely crucial spring for the program. Here are five key position battles to watch this spring as USC coach Lane Kiffin looks to find the right combination of talent to get the Trojans back on the winning track.
The emergence of defensive end Morgan Breslin was the big story on defense for the Trojans in 2012, but with Wes Horton’s departure, the other side is wide open with a long list of suitors looking to make their presence felt. Devon Kennard -- who has 18 starts under his belt as a linebacker and end -- had a fantastic spring a year ago, but then he tore a chest muscle during offseason workouts and missed the entire season. Now healthy, this is the last chance for the senior to live up to all of the lofty expectations that followed him when he arrived at USC as a freshman in 2009. Challenging Kennard will be J.R. Tavai, an extremely athletic and versatile option who can play end or tackle, as well as Greg Townsend Jr., whose larger frame might pair up nicely with Breslin. Kevin Greene and Jabari Ruffin could also get looks here.
The graduation of free safety T.J. McDonald and strong safety Jawanza Starling leaves a gaping hole in the middle of the secondary, but there are a couple of players with experience who look ready to step right in, starting with Demetrius Wright. A productive special teams contributor who has also seen action in a reserve role, the senior out of Corona (Calif.) figures to take over at Starling’s old spot. Josh Shaw, who can play either safety position, is a fantastic cover man who actually moved to cornerback for the last half of the season. After Shaw performed solidly in 2012, Kiffin has indicated he’ll be back at safety this spring. A tough and physical athlete, Gerald Bowman arrived with an impressive resume out of Pierce College (Los Angeles), so this could be his time to make a move. One intriguing possibility to watch for is the potential switch of Dion Bailey from linebacker to safety, the position he played upon his arrival on campus. Nothing is certain at this point, but if he does make the move, Bailey is a tremendous tackler and playmaker who would almost certainly start. And don’t forget about Su’a Cravens. One of the most sought-after players in the Class of 2013, he’s currently enrolled and could make an immediate impact.
The Trojans lose a couple of talented centers in starter Khaled Holmes and Abe Markowitz, so they need to find a steady hand here, and fast. Marcus Martin’s surprise move to center during Sun Bowl practices -- after making 20 career starts at guard -- caught everyone by surprise, and he just might be the favorite to take over. After all, he has a ton of game experience, and of top of that, he’s embraced the switch, calling it a “great opportunity.” Cyrus Hobbi’s lone start in 2012 against Stanford certainly wasn’t encouraging, but he figures to get plenty of reps this spring to redeem himself. Guard John Martinez actually entered USC as a center, so there’s always the possibility that he could slide over, and Giovanni Di Poalo has been hampered by injuries throughout his time at USC, but he appears ready to enter the mix, too.
The Trojans will have the tall task of replacing four-year starter Matt Barkley, and there are a trio of signal-callers looking to duke it out for that honor in Max Wittek, Cody Kessler and Max Browne. Wittek -- with two starts under his belt -- has the most experience of the group, and he also possesses ideal physical tools, including a 6-foot-4 and 235-pound NFL body. Showing promise in practice and at times against Notre Dame, he faltered badly against Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl, perhaps opening up this competition more than anyone could have imagined just a few weeks ago. Kessler doesn’t possess the height or build of Wittek, but he has a live arm and he put up gaudy numbers in high school, throwing for more than 2,800 yards and 36 touchdowns his senior year. Browne -- the No. 2 rated quarterback in the Class of 2013 -- is an early enrollee who just arrived on campus, and he might have the most raw talent. Whether or not he can adjust to the speed and the mental demands of big-time college football is the biggest question.