With USC beginning fall camp tomorrow afternoon, here are five burning questions the Trojans will hope to answer before they head to Hawaii for the Sept. 2 season opener.
1. What will the short-term effects of the bowl-less season be?
Will the team's motivation be lessened? Will the newfound underdog status for the Trojans be a blessing or a curse?
We won't truly know the answers to these questions until maybe late September (or perhaps a bit earlier, in an extreme case), but we can sure speculate. And fall camp will tell us a lot about this team's mindset.
Lane Kiffin insisted at Pac-10 media day last week that the Trojans were ready to deal with detractors on the field and also underscored an us-against-the-world mentality his Trojans have taken up for 2010.
Kiffin also mentioned a need for USC's coaching staff and players to be "extremely smart and intelligent" about the way they practice.
The Trojans must do things a little bit differently than they have been done before if they are to experience success in 2010.
2. Who will be the team's leaders?
We know sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley will step up and provide leadership throughout camp, but who will the other leaders be?
If we had to guess now, running back Allen Bradford and cornerback Shareece Wright -- teammates since their early years at Colton H.S. -- will lead the team in the fall, both by example and by speaking up. Bradford has earned the respect of his teammates by paying his dues and sitting on the bench for much of his first three years at USC, and Wright has similarly faced hardships while with the Trojans.
At media day last week, Kiffin said that he had his players vote on the top five Trojans, based on "what Trojans should be, on and off the field, including practice intensity."
He said senior Christian Tupou, who will miss the season with torn ligaments in his left knee, was the No. 1 choice on the list. Kiffin said he couldn't remember the rest, but said fullback Stanley Havili and Barkley were on there "for sure."
Havili is another potential leader.
3. Who will win USC's two key position battles at tight end and middle linebacker?
The Mike linebacker spot is the higher-profile battle, but both positions are important -- and, perhaps more importantly, up for grabs in fall camp.
At middle linebacker, Chris Galippo and Devon Kennard are the only two competitors. At tight end, the list is nearly endless: senior Jordan Cameron, juniors Blake Ayles and Rhett Ellison and freshmen Xavier Grimble, Christian Thomas and Randall Telfer, with senior David Ausberry also a possibility.
Kennard was moved over to the middle from the strong side prior to spring practice, whereas Galippo came in to USC as a middle linebacker and started every game of the 2009 season at the spot. Towards the end of spring practice this year, the coaching staff experimented with Galippo at the other linebacker positions.
It seems that could be his role on this team.
Cameron, a converted receiver, was the star at the position during spring practice, but that was largely because Ayles was in and out of practice with a variety of injuries and Ellison missed the entire spring while recovering from mononucleosis.
Those three will compete in the fall to be the starter and will also be joined by the freshmen trio. Of the three, Grimble will probably pose the biggest challenge to the returnees -- in no small part because of his 6-5, 241-pound frame.
As for the eventual winners at each position, our money is on Ayles and Kennard. Ayles has the best combination of talent and experience of any of the six tight ends; Kennard was moved over to the middle for a reason.
4. Can Kiffin really commit to a one- or two-back system given USC's resources?
The Trojans will have a host of talented running backs available, but Kiffin seems intent on using only two of them.
At his end-of-spring meeting with the media, the first-year coach notably said he was not an advocate of the tailback-by-committee system and added that he planned on giving most of the work to one or two players in the backfield.
We can safely assume that senior Allen Bradford -- listed on the end-of-spring depth chart as the starter -- will get his carries, but who else will get chances to run the ball? Who will be left out?
We'll find out during fall camp when Kiffin allocates the second-team snaps at running back. The candidates to be Bradford's primary backup are senior C.J. Gable, junior Marc Tyler, sophomore Curtis McNeal and freshmen Dillon Baxter and D.J. Morgan. Assuming Morgan is a redshirt candidate because of a torn ACL suffered last November, that leaves four players, each of whom possess distinctly different running styles out of the backfield.
What do we think will happen? Gable and Tyler will battle for backup carries, Baxter will get used in a variety of ways, and McNeal may get lost in the shuffle.
5. How steep of a learning curve will there be for the Trojans' youngest position group on the field -- the secondary?
With USC's likely starters at the four spots in the defensive backfield carrying just three collective starts, a definite lack of experience in the back four will certainly harm the defense as a whole -- the question is how much.
That depends, primarily, on the play of a pair of sophomore safeties: Jawanza Starling and T.J. McDonald. With the safety spots switched in USC's hybrid Cover-2 system, Starling is the likely starter at strong safety; McDonald at free. Both saw limited action in 2009 as special-teamers; both will be seeing a lot more than that in 2010, even if they end up beaten out by Drew McAllister for one of the spots.
They are different players, surely. Starling is the more cerebral safety who could stand to pack a bit more punch, McDonald essentially a light-weight, ultra-lanky linebacker. The two will need to work well together for the Trojans' defense to be successful in the long term, against the passing attacks of teams like Washington and Arizona.
When senior safety Taylor Mays missed the Washington game in 2009 with a knee injury and McAllister was forced to step in, there was a clear disconnect between McAllister and Will Harris, the strong safety.
USC lost that game, 16-13.
A functioning Starling-McDonald tandem -- with key development toward that coming in fall camp -- will be key to the Trojans' defensive success in 2010, assuming that Wright and a combination of T.J. Bryant, Torin Harris and Brian Baucham can hold down the fort at cornerback.