As spring football season draws to a close across the country, BlueandGold.com will be providing a breakdown of how things wrapped up for each of Notre Dame’s 2012 opponents courtesy of the reporters that cover them on a regular basis.
USC quarterback Matt Barkley is a Heisman candidate with lots of weapons in his senior season.
Nov 24, 2012 — TBA
Los Angeles Coliseum, Los Angeles, Calif.
Head coach: Lane Kiffin (25-13 entering his 4th season as a college head coach)
2011 record: 10-2
The two-year ban that kept USC out of the college football postseason is over, and the Trojans are poised to make up for lost time in a big way. USC enters the year as the top contender to end the Southeastern Conference’s run of six straight national championships.
Senior quarterback Matt Barkley opted out of an NFL Draft crowded by quarterbacks for his final season in college. He’ll be an early Heisman candidate, especially with the über-talented group of pass catchers that surround him.
Keeping him healthy will be a top priority without former left tackle Matt Kalil to protect the blind side. Sophomore Aundrey Walker, who dropped 60 pounds to get down to 325 this spring, will have the starting job at the beginning of the season, according to the Los Angeles Times’ Gary Klein.
“Walker may be a long range NFL type prospect,” Klein said. “They’re going to give him the first shot, which is going to be interesting to watch because he’ll be protecting the most valuable asset. That will be a work in progress as the season goes on.”
The simplified USC defense returns its entire back seven including a top NFL prospect in T.J. McDonald at safety and a smaller, faster set of sophomore outside linebackers. Hayes Pullard and Dion Bailey break the typical linebacker mold at USC, but provide the ability to cover speedy receivers when facing a spread offense.
The Trojans has enough pieces to make a run for the BCS championship game. They’ll need to stay healthy to avoid having to answer questions about their depth at certain positions. They’ll also have to learn to deal with genuine expectations for the first time as a group. Barkley and Co. haven’t played the past two years with that weight on their shoulders.
Biggest Strength After Spring: Wide Receivers
It’s hard to remember a more talented, deeper group of wide receivers in recent years of college football. Junior All-American Robert Woods made 111 catches and scored 15 touchdowns last season despite playing on an injured ankle late in the year. Rehab kept him out of spring practice, but he’s expected to return at full strength in the summer.
Sophomore Marqise Lee will push Woods for the title of No. 1 receiver after he racked up 1,143 receiving yards as a freshman in 2011. The Lee/Woods duo is potentially as lethal as Reggie Bush and LenDale White once were in the USC backfield.
“In those types of situations, it typically came out pretty even in the terms of carries each one got,” Klein said. “Lane Kiffin as play caller is going to do all he can to spread the ball out. Not only among those guys, but among a very good group of tight ends as well.”
Biggest Question Mark After Spring: Defensive Line
The Trojans lost defensive end Nick Perry a year early to the NFL and have some holes to fill along the interior defensive line. This year’s ends, seniors Devon Kennard and Wes Horton, both have starting experience and should be able to hold their own.
“If the defensive line is a question it’s really more of the two tackle spots,” Klein said.
Redshirt sophomore George Uko looks to have one of the starting jobs locked up there, and Antwaun Woods and J.R. Tavai will start August battling for the other. USC will need a few more players to step up to provide the depth they want in the middle.
Biggest Surprise of the Spring: WR De’Von Flournoy
With Woods on the shelf for the spring, Kiffin and the Trojan staff wanted to see someone earn the No. 3 receiver position this spring. The early money was on sophomore George Farmer who played both tailback and wide receiver during his first season.
“They were hoping to see George Farmer step up and assert himself into that spot. He had a really good first day of spring practice, then he got hurt. It opened the door for Flournoy.”
Flournoy, a redshirt junior, fell off the radar when Kiffin arrived in 2010. The 6-0, 180 pound receiver made enough noise this spring to convince the staff and the media that he can be another contributor at the wide receiver position this fall.
Summer Storyline: Tailback U.?
In 2006, USC had 10 scholarship tailbacks on its roster, most of whom would have been starters on other respectable teams. This season, they’ll go into the fall with only two seasoned options in the backfield. Finding a third back and developing depth will be high on Kiffin’s list before September.
The losses of Dillon Baxter, now playing at an NAIA school in Kansas, and Amir Carlisle, who transferred to Notre Dame, left the Trojans scrambling for players to back up D.J. Morgan and fifth-year senior Curtis McNeal. They thought they had an answer with converted linebacker Tre Madden early in the spring, but he suffered a season ending knee injury, which put USC back at square one.
Javorious “Buck” Allen is third on the depth chart right now. He might be pushed by incoming five-star recruit Nelson Agholor, who is expected to get a shot in the backfield this August.