For the past week, we tackled one key question facing the USC football team in 2011 and attempt to answer it logically. Feel free to leave your potential answer in the comments section each day.
Thursday's question involved how to replace the departed Jurrell Casey and Tyron Smith. Today, we present the last of our five questions: What role -- if any -- will Dillon Baxter have with the 2011 Trojans?
There's still a few hours left in this year, but it's safe to say USC running back Dillon Baxter has already exceeded his quota of news items in 2010.
First came former coach Pete Carroll's departure in January, after which the then-committed Baxter said he would seriously reconsider his choice of schools. Then, after he stuck with his early enrollment to USC and began participating in spring practice, he found his way onto YouTube in April with a rip-roaring 51-yard run on Howard Jones Field that has gathered almost two million views to date. That day, Trojans coach Lane Kiffin compared Baxter to former USC back Reggie Bush.
Baxter, 19, later riled some of his teammates up with his ultra-confident demeanor during players-only on-field workouts during the summer months. When fall training camp began in mid-August, Kiffin began downplaying Baxter's capabilities some, beginning the he-has-a-lot-to-learn refrain that would be heard many, many times before the season was over.
Then, roughly a week after the start of camp, Baxter was suspended for the season opener against Hawaii. The only reasoning provided by Kiffin and the school was that both Baxter and fellow freshman receiver Markeith Ambles, who also did the drills for one practice, were simply "late."
Asked to explain why Baxter's punishment was worse than Ambles', Kiffin characterized Ambles' mess-up as a mistake and Baxter's as a deliberate decision -- a telling comment, especially when considering that Ambles left the team in November for good after being suspended earlier that month.
But Baxter would return to the field, of course, and he showed flashes of his YouTube-quality skills in his debut against Virginia and games against Washington State and Arizona State. But he was largely kept under wraps and never experienced the so-called "breakout game" many expected from him.
Fast-forward to mid-November -- although some interesting things in the Baxter saga did happen during that time, including his admittance that he had gone "through the motions" for a time at USC and an occasional dig directed at Baxter from Kiffin. On the Thursday of the Oregon State game week, Baxter showed up late to practice and was reported ill by Kiffin afterward. The next day, it was revealed he did not make the trip to Corvallis, Ore. because of potential contact with a student-agent.
Baxter would later regain his eligibility and play in the final two games of the season against Notre Dame and UCLA, where he carried the ball a combined two times for four yards. He did throw a five-yard touchdown pass to Rhett Ellison against the Bruins, but that very well might have been the highlight of his freshman season with the Trojans -- something nobody expected.
So, tumultuous describes Baxter's 2010. But what can we expect from his 2011?
Well, first of all, it's not a foregone conclusion that Baxter will return for his sophomore season at USC. He and Kiffin clearly clashed at times this year, and, although their relationship appeared improved toward the end of the year, a transfer could be a possibility.
But assuming he does return, it's reasonable to expect Baxter will see a much more varied role next season. Much is made of Baxter's high-school quarterback days, but he also spent his early years in high school catching more balls than he ran or threw. USC did not utilize his receiving adequately this season. Part of that can surely be attributed to him not knowing the entire playbook, but the offense did appear stagnate and unimaginative for stretches during the season.
The Trojans spent quite a while working on the Wildcat formation in practices but used Baxter in it on a handful or two of plays during the season. Coaches talked often about him splitting out wide -- how often did we see that?
Baxter's talents are not best suited for a strict running back role. Not at all. Fellow freshman D.J. Morgan is certainly the faster runner of the two and may end up being the better running back. But Baxter has a big-play ability few others possess, and that was wasted in 2010.
Kiffin said this year that Baxter was potentially the most talented player on the USC roster. It's time to use those talents.
That's it for today and that's it for our week-long feature. Thanks for following along. Have a good 2011, folks.