A look at nine positions marked by competition this offseason at USC.
Cody Kessler, Max Wittek and Max Browne all had their moments this past spring, but after 15 workouts, USC head coach Lane Kiffin decided that this was a battle that simply needed more time. It was Kessler, right from the get-go, who made the biggest statement with his play, most notably in the scrimmages. Wittek suffered a MCL sprain that caused him to miss a week of workouts, but with tremendous physical skills, he showed enough when he was healthy to keep this competition too close to call. Showing flashes of the talent that made him such a prized commodity coming out of high school, Browne isn’t out if it yet, either, and there’s no telling how far he just might take his game in the coming weeks. And that goes for all three quarterbacks, because with almost three months remaining until the start of fall camp, how they develop this summer will play a key part in determining who will ultimately line up behind center in 2013.
With Nickell Robey declaring early for the NFL draft and Josh Shaw making the move back to safety, the Trojans entered spring ball needing to find two new starting cornerbacks. On the post-spring depth chart, Anthony Brown was listed first on one side, with Torin Harris and Kevon Seymour sharing the other. But with Kiffin openly expressing his disappointment with the performance of this unit, it’s safe to say that both starting jobs remain open for the taking, with Chris Hawkins, Devian Shelton and Ryan Henderson also factoring into the conversation. Additionally, there’s a very real possibility that Shaw will switch back over to cornerback, where he started seven games in 2012. He’s still been lining up at safety during the offseason throwing sessions, though. Kiffin has also opened up the possibility of using star receivers Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor here.
Taking the place of three-year starters T.J. McDonald and Jawanza Starling -- now in the NFL -- for the majority of the spring was Shaw at strong safety and Demetrius Wright at free safety. Two impressive veteran athletes, both ultimately wound up sharing the top spot at their respective positions on the post-spring depth chart with a couple of early entrant freshmen who made a lightning-quick transition to the college game in strong safety Su'a Cravens and free safety Leon McQuay III. Complicating matters further, Dion Bailey and Gerald Bowman are set to return later this summer from injury, and both figure to challenge for a starting role -- particularly Bailey, who will make the transition from linebacker to strong safety. With so much talent, the potential move of Shaw back over to cornerback certainly makes sense on a number of levels.
As the spring workouts approached, common thought had Lamar Dawson -- a starter at middle linebacker since his freshman season -- taking over with the first group at the WILL position. Instead, it was Anthony Sarao -- an aggressive redshirt sophomore with a non-stop motor -- who opened up camp running with the ones. But instead of allowing himself to become discouraged, Dawson rose to the challenge in a big way, and by the time the spring game rolled around, he was the one lining up with the first-team defense at WILL. Both players were listed on top of the post-spring depth chart with the “OR” designation separating their names, signifying that this battle isn’t over yet.
No. 3 Wide Receiver
Lee and Agholor are firmly entrenched as the Trojans’ starting wide receiver duo, but the role as the team’s No. 3 option is still very much up in the air. With George Farmer going down with a torn ACL, Victor Blackwell -- a redshirt sophomore who hauled in seven receptions for 155 yards and one touchdown in the spring game -- made a move. His primary competition looks to be Darreus Rogers -- an early entrant who is actually currently listed ahead of Blackwell on the depth chart -- redshirt senior De'Von Flournoy, and incoming freshman Steven Mitchell. Rogers brings a unique physical presence to the position, Flournoy gives the unit the steady leadership of a veteran, and Mitchell has already made an impression as a big-play threat in the team’s offseason workouts.
Perhaps no position plays a more crucial role in Clancy Pendergast’s new 5-2 defense than the nose tackle. Responsible for controlling the A-gap, it was Antwaun Woods who ran with the first group throughout the spring. Looking quicker and more fluid in his movement than he ever has, he was one of the most improved performers on the team. Still, he hasn’t totally locked down the nose position just yet. In fact, he’s currently even on the depth chart with Cody Temple who, despite missing the majority of the spring due to injury, impressed over the course of the last two weeks. Also figuring in heavily is Kenny Bigelow , the highly touted early entrant freshman who dominated at times, particularly in the spring game, when he compiled two sacks.
On the face of it, this looks to be Silas Redd's spot to lose. The team’s leading rusher in 2012, he’s certainly proven to be a more-than-capable performer. But after going down with a torn meniscus early this spring, other players took advantage of the chance to show what they could do. Justin Davis, another early entrant freshman, made the biggest statement. A physical north-south runner with unique vision, he was one of the stars of the spring. Tre Madden was limited due to the torn ACL that he suffered last spring, but he did enough to garner a ton of praise from Kiffin and Co., and should be a part of the rotation in 2013 at the very least. Javorius Allen was another tailback who made a move, looking the best that he has as a Trojan, as did D.J. Morgan, although he was also hit by the injury bug. The arrival of Ty Isaac -- another highly touted freshman -- this summer will make things even more interesting.
Similar to the situation at tailback, the knee injury suffered by Soma Vainuku midway through the spring opened the door for someone else to step in and turn some heads, and that’s exactly what Jahleel Pinner did. Named the most improved member of the running back corps by Tommie Robinson, he carried the bulk of the load at the position and stood out for his all-around skills. Vainuku, the primary starter in 2012, has proven to be a reliable contributor and isn’t likely to back down easily, but with Kiffin searching for more offensive production out of this position in 2013, this will be one competition worth keeping an eye on.
Right Offensive Tackle
With Kevin Graf manning the starting right tackle position for the past two seasons, he’s one of the last players that you’d expect to be involved in a position battle right now. But when the post-spring depth chart was released in April, the “OR” label was placed between his name and that of Chad Wheeler's, a redshirt freshman who showed promise at left tackle before suffering a knee injury. Whether or not Graf is truly at risk of losing his starting job remains to be seen, but the coaching staff appears to have sent a message at the very least, and it will be interesting to see how he responds.