1. What were the core questions that you had hoped would be answered by Spring Practice? Were conclusions reached?
Let's put this disclaimer out there right off the bat: A huge chunk of the data from spring practice is inconclusive because of the massive number of injuries that piled up over the past few months. Many second-stringers were out on the field for the spring game, and what was supposed to be a full-contact game was forced to be semi-contact with few running plays to prevent more injuries. The core question is whether or not the Trojans will be able to adjust to Clancy Pendergast's defense. The answer is that certain individuals have adjusted, but the defense is not a cohesive unit yet and still faces many of the problems that were seen under the Tampa system, but we still don't have a real idea of how this defense will do against an actual offense because of the aforementioned semi contact rules.
2. Any major style changes coming our way in the fall? New offense or defense installed?
On offense, Kiffin has been working with his RBs on power running plays in order to set up a more consistent ground game that will open up play action opportunities. To this end, he has thrown out scrimmages during some practices and just sent the team through Oklahoma drills to improve their toughness and help them deal with violent tackles. On defense, of course, we have Pendergast's 5-2 scheme, which is designed to combat the spread offense and let the team be more flexible with their personnel. It's a huge break from the 4-3 defense that has been practically synonymous with the Trojans, and in the best-case scenario, the five-man pass rush that will sport some skilled defensive linemen will force bad passes and take pressure off a secondary that is still very flawed.
3. What players emerged on offense? On defense?
The one part of the Trojans that is worry-free is the receiving corps. Replacing Robert Woods will definitely be easy. Nelson Agholor and Victor Blackwell have performed well with all three QBs, with excellent catch radius and agility. On defense, safety Demetrius Wright was a surprise at the spring game. He got demoted to second string before the game, and answered by making two interceptions. While the range of the secondary is still questionable, there's potential for turnovers, as Wright is one of several players that has shown the ability to feast on bad passes.
4. What are your biggest worries coming out of spring ball for the fall?
The secondary is definitely the biggest concern. The DBs repeatedly got burned deep by Lee, Blackwell, and Agholor. One of the big problems of the Tampa defense is that the Trojans didn't have safeties or linebackers who had the range to cover the pass effectively, allowing opposing offenses to pass up the middle all night long for easy 15-yard gains. So far, the linebackers have shown improvement in stopping those kinds of passes, but the corners have had the most problems with adjusting to the 5-2, resulting in six touchdowns allowed during the spring game. USC fans can only hope that the struggles were mainly due to the fact that our receivers are so darn good, and that this isn't a sign that the Trojans will be giving up a lot of long-ball touchdowns this fall.
5. Project your season. Contender? Pretender? Middle of the pack?
Has to be middle-of-the-pack. UCLA has risen in the Pac-12 South under Mora, and ASU looks like they're on their way up, too. The Trojans have a fighting chance of winning the division, and with Oregon and Washington off the schedule, there's still the possibility of a 10-3 season, which would be enough to earn Kiffin another year. But at the same time, if Pendergast turns out to be Monte without the daddy issues, USC could easily find themselves with 6 or 7 wins. I think that would leave Pat Haden no choice but to fire Kiffin, unless he wants the alumni to turn his shiny new athletic center into a modern-day reenactment of the Storming of Versailles. I'll dare to be optimistic and go with a 10-4 season, with ASU winning the division and USC winning the crosstown rivalry game and the Holiday Bowl.
6. Any frosh you can't wait to get on campus?
RB Justin Davis has been earning high praise from coaches, teammates, and the media this spring. An early entrant, he ran 116 yards during an April scrimmage and ran for over 2,500 yards and 39 touchdowns during his junior season at Lincoln HS in Stockton. He is going to be a key player if the Trojans want to get back to being Tailback U once again.
7. Who will you miss the most from last season? Who will be stepping up to fill those shoes?
Matt Barkley is too obvious, so let's go with Khaled Holmes. The center struggled at times last season, partially due to injuries and other times due to mental lapses and difficulty getting into a good stance due to his height. But his strong blocking ability and leadership skills were sorely missed in the loss to Stanford, and without him, the run game was shut down completely. Holmes spent the months leading up to the draft mentoring junior Marcus Martin to be his successor. Originally a guard, Martin has adjusted well and shown good pass protection. Only time will tell to see if he can creating running lanes as well.
8. Any particular Pac12 match-up/rivalry you are looking forward to this Fall?
It has to be the game against UCLA. After last year's loss, so much will be riding on that game at the end of November. The Pac-12 South could very well be at stake, and depending on how the season goes, that game could determine Kiffin's fate. Combine that with a desperate need by the Trojans to stem the tide in the recruiting war with the Bruins and a fanbase that will never tolerate a loss to UCLA in the Coliseum, and you have the grounds for a season finale that both teams need to win and neither team can afford to lose.
9. What are the specific injury concerns coming out of this spring?
There is NO way this question can be answered. With 20 players on the injury list by spring's end, Kiffin has admitted that a situation like this would make it impossible to do fall practice. Key players like Silas Redd, George Farmer, Su'a Cravens, and Xavier Grimble have been knocked out of commission this week, and with the 75-player sanctions, those who can rehab will need to do so quickly. Come back during fall practice when we will be able to see just how much damage this spring injuries have done to the Trojans' preparation.
10. Based on what you've seen, who is ready to take a major leap this fall?
2013 could be the year Morgan Breslin hits the national spotlight. He made the 2nd team on the All-Pac-12 list last year with 62 tackles and 13 sacks, 3.5 of which came against the Bears. He has been the fastest to adjust to Pendergast's style and was constantly in the backfield during the spring game. He will be up there with Will Sutton as one of the top defensive linemen in the conference and will be asked to stop the offense before they can even get started.
11. What's the sanction scholarship reduction status? Through the worst of it? Major impediment? Minor headache?
The NCAA is getting what it wants. These sanctions are crippling the team's ability to reload and the number of players that have the ability to make the Trojans into top contenders is dwindling fast. You can bet that Lee will be gone next year, and a good year from Breslin could send him off to the pros as well. Kiffin's inability to get results with the talent he does have isn't helping either. There are two ways that the Trojans can lessen the damage. The first is Pendergast. Even if the defense isn't as talented pound-for-pound as it used to be, as long as it can be reasonably effective with the 5-2 scheme it will be an improvement from the Tampa defense that was proven statistically to be the worst defense in the history of Trojan football.
The other way is through the first sanction-free recruiting class in 2015. The prospects in that class are said to be pure gold, particularly the ones in California. If USC can land a big and talented class two years from now, it will go a long way towards restocking the depth charts and decreasing the long-term damage that Haden has been predicting.
12. Are Lane Kiffin's staff changes a move in the right direction, or the shuffling of deck chairs on a coaching regime Titanic?
The Pendergast hire has to be considered a move in the right direction simply because it can't get much worse than Monte's defense. He's going with a defensive style that on paper at least will be able to make things harder for the various spread offenses USC will encounter in Pac-12 play. Any improvement that might have been brought about by the position coach changes has been significantly negated by the injuries that have prevented several starters from working with them. Ultimately, it's all up to Kiffin whether or not these coaching adjustments will work. Are the rumors true that he will give Clay Helton more power as offensive coordinator and interact more with players during the game? Or will we be seeing his face once again buried in his playsheet (or the IHOP menu as one Conquest Chronicles poster calls it) as he tries to micromanage every part of his offense instead of actually being a head coach? The Visor has his destiny in his hands.
13. Are the days of Max Wittek long behind you or does he actually have a shot at earning the starting QB role?
Kiffin hasn't made a final decision on the starting QB job, and the situation could remain volatile if the chosen starter doesn't do well. Wittek still has a chance to be the starter, but for now, Cody Kessler has to be considered the frontrunner for the job. He went 15/22 for 242 yards and 3 TDs in the spring game, compared to 145 yards, 2 TDs, and 2 picks for Wittek. Kessler has also shown solid mobility in the pocket, something that Barkley seriously lacked during his four years here. USC was 105th in 3rd down conversions last year, partially due to the fact that the 3rd & short opportunities were rather infrequent due to all the incomplete passes. If the new QB can show more mobility, it will go a long way to making the Trojan offense balanced again.
14. How have things changed under Clancy's defense? Has the unit improved during spring?
I think I answered this in questions 2 and 4. Strong defensive line, somewhat improved LBs, still porous in the secondary.
15. Who do you want to punch in the face?
LSJUMB. I'm sure you can sympathize.
Also, your band is cool:
Thanks to TheViewFromFigueroa from Conquest Chronicles for chatting with us. What do you guys project for the Trojans in 2013? Will the Bear Raid be able to maul Tommy Trojan? And yes, our band is pretty damn cool.