The Trojans open the 2011 season Saturday amid much uncertainty around where the program stands under second-year coach Lane Kiffin. Perhaps some perspective can be found in looking back at the last time a Trojans coach was entering his second season, as there are many similarities between the 2002 Trojans and this year's squad.
In 2002, nobody really knew what USC had in Pete Carroll. His first season at Troy had resulted in a 6-6 record and a Las Vegas Bowl loss to Utah, but there was optimism for the future, as Carroll had assembled a strong staff and had quality players in key spots. Carroll focused the majority of his time on the defensive side, as that was his area of expertise, and basically left Norm Chow and the offensive coaches alone.
We already are seeing similar traits in Kiffin. He is known for his offensive mind, and rarely do you see him intrude on the defensive coaching led by his father, Monte. After an 8-5 season in 2010, however, Trojans fans have the same kind of feeling they had with Carroll -- the potential is there, but nothing is certain.
At quarterback, both teams featured a much-hyped blonde thrower from Orange County with a strong arm and great potential who had yet to produce a breakout year. In 2001, Carson Palmer threw for 13 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in his first year under Chow, and we all know what happened in his second year in the system. We're not saying Matt Barkley is going to produce a similar Heisman-type performance in his second year under Kiffin, but Trojans fans certainly would be pleased to see things click for Barkley this year in much the same way they did for Palmer in 2002.
"The key turning point for Carson Palmer came when he believed that he no longer had to carry our team," said Darrell Rideaux, a starting cornerback on the 2002 team who now serves as a post-game analyst on Trojans radio broadcasts. "He merely had to trust that the offensive line would protect him so that he could distribute the football to the skilled players he was surrounded with. Similarly, Barkley must trust that the players on the field are capable of doing special things as long as he stays within the system."
The running back position was by committee in 2002, with names such as Sultan McCullough, Malaefou MacKenzie and Justin Fargas. Each played a key role at various points in the season. This year, the backfield has no clear lead guy either, with Curtis McNeal, D.J. Morgan, Dillon Baxter and even Marc Tyler likely to rotate at the position throughout the year.
Much has been made about the offensive line being the biggest area of uncertainty for the 2011 Trojans. In 2002, the line also was a question mark heading into the season. There was a core group of young players with talent but lacking experience. By the end of the season, though, Jacob Rogers, Lenny Vandermade, Norm Katnik and Eric Torres had banded together to produce a solid unit that led the way for much offensive success. It would be great to see similar results this year from the group led by Matt Kalil, Khaled Holmes and Kevin Graf.
One of the keys to the 2002 defense was the relentless pressure from the defensive line, a group that was so renowned it eventually was dubbed "The Wild Bunch 2," in tribute to the original Wild Bunch defensive line from the John McKay era. You simply won't find many lines more talented than the one that featured Kenechi Udeze, Shaun Cody and Mike Patterson. Ed Orgeron was the coach then, and he is the coach now. He will be looking to duplicate that particular brand of havoc with guys like Nick Perry, Wes Horton, Devon Kennard and Christian Tupou.
"We're trying to re-create now what we had back then with the Wild Bunch 2," Orgeron said. "We've got some good players, and we're trying to build that rotation so that we can bring a lot of pressure. Those guys did some pretty special things back then, and we want to do the same thing this year. I think we're gonna get there."
The health of Chris Galippo is a major question mark heading into the season, because it's so important to have an experienced middle linebacker leading the defense. Just as Galippo has been injured throughout his career (right now his shoulder is the issue), so was Mike Pollard heading into the 2002 season, as he faced chronic knee problems. Pollard battled through and wound up second on the team in tackles behind Troy Polamalu. Trojans fans would be pleased to see similar results from Galippo this year.
Speaking of Polamalu, he was the driving force behind the secondary on the 2002 team, a fierce competitor and ballhawk who set the tone for the rest of the defense. This year, T.J. McDonald is expected to play a similar role. Polamalu has gone on to great NFL success, and it wouldn't be a surprise at all to see McDonald follow a similar path.
Another element that both the 2002 and 2011 teams will share is a reliance on some key freshmen. There might not have been a more important key for Palmer's success in 2002 than the emergence of Mike Williams, who took a few games to adjust to the college level then went on a run that was among the best you will ever see from a college wide receiver. And don't forget the importance of freshman punter Tom Malone, a critical weapon in the ongoing battle for field position. We don't know yet which freshmen will emerge in 2011, but you can be sure the coaches will give WR Marqise Lee, K Andre Heidari and OT Aundrey Walker plenty of opportunities.
Obviously, we can't say the 2011 team will achieve the same kind of results we saw in 2002, when the Trojans finished 11-2 and were playing as well as any team in the country by the time they knocked off Iowa in the Orange Bowl. At the end of that game, Pete Carroll stood on the field and proclaimed, "We're just getting started." Trojans fans hope to feel the same way about Lane Kiffin and his team at the end of 2011.
"One thing that Pete Carroll and Lane Kiffin both understand is the psychology of developing a student-athlete," Rideaux said. "They both know how to maximize a player's ability and find a way to bring out the confidence in them. Expectations are lowered for this team, just like they were for us in 2002. Oftentimes that can create such a bond that the team begins to play for each other. If that happens this year for the Trojans, the Pac-12 could be turned upside down."
Garry Paskwietz is the publisher of WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 1997. He can be reached at email@example.com.