After one of the most tumultuous off-seasons in college football history, USC finally gets back onto the field Thursday night. Staff writer Gary Klein looks at the issues facing the 14th-ranked Trojans and new Coach Lane Kiffin as they prepare for their opener at Hawaii:
Pass or fail
Matt Barkley, USC’s sophomore quarterback, has 12 starts under his belt, along with a slimmer waistline that resulted from a Kiffin-mandated diet and conditioning program that has made the former Santa Ana Mater Dei High star more nimble.
Barkley passed for 15 touchdowns with 14 interceptions in 2009. Not bad for a freshman, but if USC hopes to make any kind of ripple on the national landscape, Barkley must be more efficient. In the opener, he faces a secondary that returns intact.
Hawaii quarterback Bryant Moniz went from walk-on to starter during the 2009 season and nearly led the Warriors to a bowl game. Moniz directs a run-and-shoot offense that features Greg Salas, a Chino High product who caught 106 passes last season and could present problems for a mostly inexperienced Trojans secondary.
Backfield in motion
After enduring four years of tailback by committee, USC fans might see the Trojans revert to a more traditional style. Or at least a variation of the Reggie Bush-LenDale White rotation.
Junior Marc Tyler makes his first start after a long, arduous transformation from oft-injured, seldom-used, depth-chart cellar dweller to the most consistent tailback during training camp.
Senior Allen Bradford will play, and senior C.J. Gable and sophomore Curtis McNeal also should carry the ball, especially if the Trojans get off to a fast start.
The offensive line has been in flux because of injuries, but Kiffin declared Khaled Holmes fit on Tuesday, so all five projected starters should be on the field. The question: Can they block? A moratorium on tackling in practice did not give offensive linemen much of a chance to demonstrate their effectiveness.
Special teams were largely an afterthought under former coach Pete Carroll. Not anymore.
Kiffin plucked veteran assistant John Baxter from Fresno State and has given him free rein — and a good portion of the practice day — to hone the Trojans into a special-teams dynamo.
Former walk-on Joe Houston, a fifth-year senior, will handle field goals and extra points. Punter Jake Harfman also will kick off.
Gable and freshman Robert Woods are the kickoff returners. Senior Ronald Johnson is first up returning punts.
Hawaii kicker Scott Enos made 12 of 19 field-goal attempts last season. Australian punter Alex Dunnachie averaged 39.2 yards per kick for a unit that ranked second nationally in punt-return defense.
Front is center
USC’s front seven is expected to be a strength, but all eyes will be on the Trojans to see if they can tackle, especially in the one-one-one, open-field situations that Hawaii’s run-and-shoot creates.
Nick Perry is probably sidelined because of an ankle sprain, but fellow ends Armond Armstead and Wes Horton are healthy. Tackle Jurrell Casey can be dominating, which might give alternating nose tackles DaJohn Harris and Hebron Fangupo opportunities to penetrate into the backfield.
Sophomore Devon Kennard, flanked by seniors Michael Morgan and Malcolm Smith, starts for the first time at middle linebacker.
Hawaii will look to exploit a secondary that is anchored by senior cornerback Shareece Wright, but also features freshman Nickell Robey, redshirt freshman Torin Harris and sophomores Jawanza Starling and T.J. McDonald.
USC is eager to begin its us-against-the-world campaign, but if Kiffin had his druthers he probably would not have picked an island paradise to begin the new era.
Hawaii fretted when NCAA sanctions appeared to threaten USC’s chances of being able to take advantage of the “Hawaii rule,” which allows teams to play road games against the Warriors without it counting against their limit of 12 games a season. Now that the Trojans are here, Hawaii would like nothing more than to pull off the season’s first huge upset.