LOS ANGELES -- The countdown to USC's first spring practice hit the two-week mark on Tuesday, as Trojans players hit the practice field for another conditioning and throwing session. There continues to be a strong leadership presence from players such as Matt Barkley, Robert Woods and T.J. McDonald, but Tuesday offered an opportunity to catch up with several players USC fans didn't get to see much in 2011.
Brown is back
Anthony Brown battled in the secondary during his redshirt freshman season last year, eventually earning a starting assignment against Arizona before breaking his ankle against California. Several months removed from surgery, Brown is looking to get back to full health for spring ball.
"That's coming around the corner kind of fast, and I'm really excited," he said. "I'm fully back with the team and training, but I'd say I'm about 80 percent right now. When I cut, there's still a little pain and it's kind of stiff, but I'm getting there. I'll be back for spring ball for sure."
Brown said he is enjoying simply being a part of the defensive backfield again. The Trojans return all four starters and a number of key reserves.
"The chemistry we have with the DBs right now is very vicious," Brown said. "T.J. McDonald is the captain of the defense, and he's doing a really good job right now calling out the defense and getting everybody involved. Nickell Robey is probably the best corner I've seen in person; I really look up to Nickell. He has that spot locked up, but I'm back and working to sew up the other spot. Everybody is working like that, so I'm just another guy working right now."
Barkley's return to the offense -- to go along with Woods and Marqise Lee -- has USC fans excited about that side of the ball, but the USC defensive backs might be looking forward to seeing them on the practice field just as much.
"You know if you can hold Marqise and Robert, you can go against anybody," Brown said. "I think those two are the best receivers right now in the nation, so there's a real competition we have with the wide receivers right now."
After his first year on the field was cut short due to injury, Brown said he is eagerly awaiting the chance to get out there again. He said he is up to 190 pounds and putting together good grades this semester.
"Everything is just falling into place," he said.
No doubting Thomas
The tight end duo of Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer surpassed just about every expectation of the position heading into the season. And while those could form the best tight end twosome in the conference, the depth behind them could border on unfair this year.
Christian Thomas entered USC in the same recruiting class as Grimble and Telfer, but an early position switch and a nagging hip injury he had since high school has kept the fanfare surrounding him to a minimum. Thomas eventually underwent surgery on the hip and is now working toward a return to the field.
"Everything is going good," Thomas said. "I'm training in the weight room and trying to build as a player. Nobody told me how hard this hip surgery was going to be."
Thomas said he appreciates all the extra time and energy spent on him by the USC training staff, adding that they give him more attention and support than he is used to or expected. At this point, a fall return is likely for Thomas, as he has been told that he should be cleared to return to the team when training camp begins.
"I have no idea if I'll be full go by then, but hopefully I will be," Thomas said.
He's certain that once he is able to go 100 percent, there won't be any slowing him down.
"Trust me, I have a lot of things to prove, and I'm not leaving here until I do," he said. "If I get an opportunity, I'm not going to waste it."
Youth on the line
The Trojans lost three starters along the defensive line after last season in senior tackles DaJohn Harris and Christian Tupou, as well as junior defensive end Nick Perry. The first four players along the line in 2012 seem fairly set, but much of the depth likely will come from very inexperienced linemen -- most notably redshirt freshman nose tackle Antwaun Woods and redshirt freshman defensive end Greg Townsend Jr.
Both were able to work behind more experienced players last season and said the time spent learning from Harris, Tupou and Perry should pay off as they move into their second semester at USC.
Woods' biggest obstacle to playing time remains conditioning. He entered USC at 330 poundes and said he felt he would be able to manage playing at that weight but quickly found out he couldn't.
"The speed is different from high school," Woods said. "My first play in practice was so fast, I didn't even know what was going on."
Woods said he currently weighs between 305 and 310 pounds, but needs to hit the 295 or 290-pount mark this year. He understands the opportunity in front of him if he can get his conditioning under control.
"It leaves room for someone to step up," Woods said of losing two senior starters. "It makes me work harder and harder to fill those guys' shoes. I don't want it to seem like there is a problem in that area, so I want to be able to do the job they did last year."
Townsend's situation is slightly different, as two seniors still occupy the defensive end positions. But getting production from the redshirt freshmen could go a long way toward keeping this USC defense on the upswing.
"I got to learn a lot from Nick, who is about to become an NFL player," Townsend said. "Having a first-hand look at everything really prepared me for this year. I'm looking forward to getting some playing time next year and being involved in the next season, because it's looking like a great season."
Townsend said the most difficult part of adapting to this level was simply making sure he was talented enough to play with his teammates, and then managing his conditioning and saying in shape.
"That was my struggle coming in, but I got over that hump and I'm ready now," he said.
Townsend said he currently checks in at 265 pounds, but would like to be closer to 260 this year. Now that the reins of the redshirt season are removed, there is only one thing for him to do this spring.
"I just want to ball out and give it my all," Townsend said. "I'm not trying to take anybody's spot, because I respect my seniors, but I want to have that mentality, because it's making everybody battle. If we're all battling, we're all going to get better."
Erik McKinney is the recruiting editor for WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 2004. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.