As the Trojans continue with their bye-week practices, we take a look at some of the key issues surrounding each position group for the remainder of the season:
Can Matt Barkley take his game even higher? Barkley has answered a lot of the questions in terms of his ability to raise his game in his third year as the USC starter. His passing numbers speak for themselves, and his performance last week against Arizona was USC's all-time best as far as single-game yardage is concerned. The next step is consistency. The offense struggled against Arizona State when Barkley was not sharp, and the next step in his development will be the ability to maintain that high level week in and week out. One thing to watch is whether Lane Kiffin can get any meaningful snaps for a backup quarterback at some point in the year.
There isn't much more to ask for right now than what Marc Tyler is delivering. Tyler combines strong running with the ability to make defenders miss, and the Trojans will rely on that running style throughout the year. Now the big quest becomes finding a weapon to complement him. Curtis McNeal seems to be the best option for that role. McNeal has produced in his limited time on the field, and there's a sense he is ready for more. It'll be interesting to see whether D.J. Morgan gets a chance to redeem himself after some early fumbling that seemed to push him down in the rotation. Using Rhett Ellison more would be nice, but the coaches seem to have also found another good position switch, as former linebacker Ross Cumming is being used as a blocking fullback.
This has been arguably the most productive position group to date, with the duo of Robert Woods and Marqise Lee leading the way. To think about what these two underclassmen have done is truly impressive, and they don't show any sign of slowing down. Woods deserves mention among the top receivers in the country, while Lee has accomplished more than Woods did at this point as a true freshman last year. Brandon Carswell also has looked good, and it seems that Brice Butler is ready to play a bigger role, too. One can only imagine how good things will be if Kyle Prater gets in the mix.
It was a rough start in the first game for Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer, with some dropped passes, but since then both have looked very good. This spot suffered a bit of a blow last week, when it was learned that Christian Thomas would be lost for the season due to surgery, but Grimble and Telfer seem capable of carrying the load right now.
This hasn't been one of the glorious lines of USC lore, but it also hasn't been the huge worry that many predicted coming into the season. Kiffin clearly did some planning early on to help ease the pressure on his inexperienced line, but things seem to have settled a bit. The starting lineup has stabilized, and the playbook should continue to open up as the season goes along. Matt Kalil has been one of the elite tackle prospects in the country, as advertised. Khaled Holmes has been fairly steady at center, and both Holmes and Kalil have been a huge help in mentoring true freshman left guard Marcus Martin after he was thrust into a starting role. It's amazing to think of how the left guard options have transpired since the end of last season, with Michael Reardon, John Martinez, Abe Markowitz, Jeremy Galten, Martin Coleman all getting shots before Martin got the spot. Martinez has found his position at right guard, although freshman Aundrey Walker will continue to push him. Kevin Graf has been mostly solid -- save a couple rough spots -- and is well-entrenched as the starter at right tackle.
This is a unit that needs to improve if the Trojans are going to really challenge some of the better remaining opponents on the schedule. There was so much hope at the beginning of the season for an improved pass rush. The D-line did contribute well to the early wins, but in the last two weeks, quarterbacks have had a lot of success without seeing much pressure, and defensive line coach Ed Orgeron isn't too happy about that. Losing Armond Armstead was a blow to the interior, taking away a contributor from the rotation. George Uko is coming along, but he needs to come along quicker in order to give DaJohn Harris and Christian Tupou some rest. Harris in particular has been a bright spot so far with his solid play. Nick Perry has been really good at defensive end, but the Trojans need him to be great. Perry has that potential. Also, the combination of Wes Horton and Devon Kennard hasn't met expectations so far. If the line can see more bottom-line results, it would go a long way toward helping the rest of the defense.
It has been a mixed bag at linebacker, as Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard have been two of the pleasant surprises on the team. Bailey was moved last spring from safety and now leads the team in tackles, just ahead of Pullard. Having two redshirt freshman linebackers leading the team in tackles is a great sign for the future. Senior Chris Galippo started off with some solid games where he played key roles, but then his backup, true freshman Lamar Dawson, hurt his ankle and has missed the past two games. The result has not been good for Galippo, whose performance has dropped due to a lack of rest. The coaches point hopefully to the return of Dawson as a key factor to get Galippo back on track.
The coverage and tackling in the secondary have been another problem for the defense, problems the coaches haven't been shy about pointing out. As expected, the top players so far have been T.J. McDonald and Nickell Robey. Sure, McDonald had three personal foul penalties against Arizona State, playing a big role in that loss, but his two interceptions against Arizona were arguably the difference in that game. The safety spot opposite McDonald is going to be a spot to watch as the season goes along. It would be nice to see Drew McAllister get a real look there, with his pass coverage ability. Torin Harris should be coming back soon from injury at cornerback. Harris had a couple of highlight plays to end the first two games but also has struggled at times. It will be interesting to see how much Anthony Brown can push him for the starting spot.
This group has seen a good start, primarily because of freshman place-kicker Andre Heidari, who has made 7 of 8 field goals. Punter Kyle Negrete has put 7 of 13 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. With John Baxter coaching the special teams, it seems like only a matter of time before Woods, McNeal or Robey return a kick for a touchdown.
The jury is still out on Kiffin's performance this year. Yes, 4-1 is a nice record, but that's the minimum record the Trojans were expected to have at this point. The offense has proved capable of scoring points almost at will, but the defense can surrender them just as fast. Will the Trojans become a more balanced and fundamental team, or will future wins rely on simply piling up points faster than the opponent? The answer will be known soon enough.
Garry Paskwietz is the publisher of WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 1997. He can be reached at email@example.com.