Starting on the right foot

The USC Trojans finally put an end to the long offseason on Tuesday afternoon, hitting the practice field for the first day of spring ball.

The phrase "PREP NOT HYPE" was painted on the field and greeted the USC players as soon as they stepped through the gate. USC coach Lane Kiffin has gone out of his way to keep his players from getting caught up in the media attention that already has begun circling the program for the 2012 season. From the looks of the first day of spring ball, the team is listening, as the Trojans -- still fairly young at many positions -- looked to have a good mixture of enthusiasm and a businesslike attitude toward Tuesday's practice.

"I thought there were some really good things," Kiffin said of the first day. "Thinking back to two years ago and being on the same field, I think we've come a long ways. As you look around at our players, the way they look and how they run ... I think that our guys look really good."

Kiffin said it was "refreshing" to be able to begin this season with an unwritten ending, as after two years, the Trojans finally will be playing for a bowl game to cap off the year. Kiffin was very careful to emphasize that nothing will change as far as preparation. He said much of the upbeat attitude on the team has less to do with the possible bowl game and more to do with so many returning players having success last season.

Of course, one of those returners is quarterback Matt Barkley, who begins his fourth spring ball at USC. Barkley did throw two interceptions during the course of the practice, but Kiffin said he was pleased that Barkley didn't force throws and began his breakdown of Barkley's day by saying, "It's pretty easy for Matt, obviously."

With his spot cemented, Barkley said he is looking to take the next step this spring and turn himself into an extension of the coaching staff. He said he's doing what he can to help the younger guys along at every position, and he is sure to receive more than a few questions from the three quarterbacks battling for his backup spot.

"For me," Barkley said, "just challenging myself with every play -- how accurate can you be? How perfect can you be?"

Barkley came away pleased with the team's effort on Day 1, remarking on the positive tempo and energy. He also cautioned against letting that atmosphere drop as practices roll on and said there were some "little kinks" that can be worked out. Overall, he called it a successful practice.

Replacing Woods
Wide receiver Robert Woods is going to provide a big impact this fall, but that might not be the case this spring as he recovers from the ankle injury that hampered him last fall. Woods was held out for much of the first day, but fellow receivers Marqise Lee and George Farmer did their best to mask his absence.

Lee picked up right where he left off in the season finale against UCLA. He made his first impression just minutes into practice, diving along the sideline to come up with a catch during walk through. He made catch after catch during team drills to close the day and earned a few oohs and aahs with a move he put on cornerback Anthony Brown in the open field. Still just a freshman, Lee said he is making an effort to carry himself as a veteran leader out on the field.

"Based off the things I've done, I have to," Lee said. "A lot of people see what I've done previously, and if I come out here and try to sit out most of the time or not go hard, they'll try to do the same thing -- the young guys or the guys even in my class. Therefore, I try to have a good mindset on things and keep myself motivated so they can look up to me."

But Lee's performance Tuesday, as impressive as it was, may not have even been the best authored by a wide receiver.

"The MVP of the day probably was George Farmer," Kiffin said. "To see him healthy out here, and the way he caught the ball today, his confidence is very different than last time we were with them. Obviously that was great to see."

It was obvious Farmer had taken his game to another level from the very start of the practice, as he seemed far more locked in than during fall camp last year. The highlight of his day came when he soared over cornerback Isiah Wiley on a deep ball down the sideline and made the catch while falling to the ground.

"I thought that George was very confident," Kiffin said. "He looks great. He looks healthy. He looks strong. He's going after the ball, and I think that comes from his confidence."

Practice Notes
• Tuesday's injury report: Kevin Greene (ankle), Joshua Shaw (back), Nathan Guertler (hamstring), Jesse Scroggins (hip), Woods (ankle), Torin Harris, Christian Heyward, Kyle Negrete, Christian Thomas, Chad Wheeler and DeVante Wilson. Greene and Woods took part in some of Tuesday's practice. Kiffin said Harris, Heyward, Negrete, Thomas, Wheeler and Wilson all likely would be out for all of spring. Tight ends Xavier Grimble and Junior Pomee were injured during practice and did not return to action.

• The starting offensive line, from left to right: Kevin Graf, Marcus Martin, Khaled Holmes, John Martinez, Aundrey Walker. Behind that group was David Garness, Cyrus Hobbi, Abe Markowitz, Jeremy Galten and Walker. Hobbi rotated in with the first team at left guard. Kiffin said there are no plans to give Walker a look at left tackle and as long as both Walker and Graf are playing well where they are currently slotted, there is no reason to move either of them.

George Uko and J.R. Tavai were the starting defensive tackle and nose tackle, respectively. Greg Townsend Jr. took second-team reps behind Uko, and Antwaun Woods worked as the second-team nose.

• The catch of the day goes to fullback Soma Vainuku, who hauled in a Barkley pass down the sideline. It was a laser that Vainuku had to fully stretch for, but was able to haul in with his fingertips and continue moving down the sideline.

• The new coaches were on display on Tuesday. Defensive backs coach Marvin Sanders stepped up quickly and led the first special teams drill of the day. It was only the first day, but Sanders comes across as the most vocal of the three. Kiffin praised the coaches -- Sanders, linebackers coach Scottie Hazelton and wide receivers coach Tee Martin -- for their teaching ability as well as their confidence. Lee said there will be a few slight adjustments in moving from former coach Ted Gilmore to Martin, citing hand placement as one of the more obvious differences.

• Linebacker Tre Madden really jumped out early in the practice. He has noticeably bulked up and drew praise during special teams drills as well as one-on-one pass coverage against the tailbacks. The linebackers made several plays throughout the day. Lamar Dawson had several pass breakups and Hayes Pullard intercepted Barkley on the first play of 7-on-7.

Drew McAllister (off Max Wittek) and Wiley (Barkley) added interceptions, but the day was marked by several drops by the defensive backs. Nickell Robey had his hands on two passes and heard about it from Sanders after practice, as Sanders jokingly told a reporter stopping Robey that the cornerback hadn't done anything yet to warrant an interview, as two turnovers were left out on the field.

• Kiffin said the backup quarterback reps would be split equally between Wittek, Cody Kessler and Scroggins until something dictated the need to change. Kiffin praised both Wittek and Kessler for the way they threw the ball on Tuesday and their poise in the huddle. "It looked like they've been here for a while," Kiffin said.

• Kiffin called the running back spot a scary position for them at this time. He admitted there was a need to be safe with Curtis McNeal, as he is the only proven tailback, but he also said there are some things they want to improve with him, and there is a need to continue to bring him along. Kiffin, like running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu, said the jury is still out on Buck Allen, as an injury in high school and a year on the scout team has made it very difficult to predict what he'll be able to contribute this year. He added that it will be a big spring for Allen and D.J. Morgan, and all eyes will be on them as spring progresses and the pads come on.

Erik McKinney is the recruiting editor for WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 2004. He can be reached at erik@wearesc.com.