First Look: 2012 USC Trojans

Matt Barkley and the USC Trojans are poised to make a run at the national championship this coming season. Get a look at the strengths and concerns for the 2012 Trojans.

Strengths

Balance on Offense: For most college football teams the challenge of being a successful offense is about finding the right balance between their running game and passing game, to keep the defense on their heels. Offensive coordinators across the country will scheme and devise game plans that will showcase their strengths and hopefully disguise their weaknesses. But very few coaches have the luxury of arriving on the practice field with all the pieces in place to be a dominating force. USC head coach Lane Kiffin - with a Heisman contender at quarterback, a pair of 1,000-yard rushers at tailback, and the best wide receiver tandem in the country - has just that.

Leadership: In my five years of covering USC football I haven't been around a team that has endured as many distractions as the current group. From a coaching change, to a bowl ban and scholarship reductions, the 2012 squad has been forced to overcome a lot of hurdles in their short time on campus, and through it all players like Matt Barkley, T.J. McDonald and Robert Woods have kept their teammates motivated and focused on the future.

The fact that a program dealing with major NCAA sanctions has emerged as a national championship contender is an amazing feat and a testament to the maturity and determination of the players.

Senior quarterback Matt Barkley spoke about having "Unfinished Business" when announcing his return in December, and that statement has been embraced as the motto for the 2012 Trojans.

After being sidelined for post-season play the past two seasons, Barkley and the crew are now looking to take their talents to South Beach in 2013.

The Back Seven: With the defensive line being a major question mark, Monte Kiffin is fortunate to have a talented and experienced back seven this coming season, led by All-American safety T.J. McDonald.


T.J. McDonald is the leader of USC's talented defense.
McDonald will be joined by a host of familiar faces in returning starters: Hayes Pullard, Dion Bailey, Lamar Dawson, Nickell Robey and Isiah Wiley.

The linebacker corps is built on speed, which is a perfect fit to slow down the high-octane offenses of the Pac-12, and the veteran secondary that was a major liability two seasons ago will now be a strength.

Overall the defense returns 8 starters, including the top four tacklers from 2011, and to make things even better, Florida transfer Joshua Shaw and the top JUCO safety in the country, Gerald Bowman, will add even more depth in the secondary.

The 1-2 Punch at Tailback: A couple of weeks ago the lack of depth at running back was my top concern for the 2012 USC Trojans, but the sudden arrival of Penn State running back Silas Redd has turned a weakness into a strength for the Men of Troy. Redd will team up with senior Curtis McNeal to give USC one of the top 1-2 punches in the country.

It's not everyday that a national championship contender gets a 1,200 yard rusher dropped in their lap a week before the start of fall camp, but as Lane Kiffin said, "I think at USC, right now we kinda feel like we're in a perfect storm with so many good things going we feel good about our current team and about our future teams for years to come."

The arrival of Redd will also allow running backs coach Kennedy Polamula more time to develop younger players like D.J. Morgan and Buck Allen without having to thrust them into action too early.

Concerns

The defensive line: Coming off a better than expected performance in 2011, the USC defense is more experienced and deeper in most aspects this coming season, with the exception of the defensive line.

Replacing defensive end Nick Perry, a first-round selection by the Green Bay Packers, was going to be tough enough, but the recent injury to Devon Kennard have made matters even worse.

The absence of Kennard forces USC to play without one of their top defensive players and best leaders. It also means that Leonard Williams, Kevin Greene, Morgan Breslin or Greg Townsend will have to be much more of a factor than expected.

Along with the issues on the outside, USC will also have to replace DaJohn Harris and Christian Tupou inside. The good news is defensive tackle George Uko looks poised to have a breakout season and J.R. Tavai and Christian Heyward are two intriguing young prospects.

Left Tackle: One of the best stories this offseason has been the hard work that sophomore offensive lineman Aundrey Walker has put in to totally transform his body. The massive lineman has lost nearly 75 pounds since arriving on campus a year ago, but he is still just a sophomore, and has arguably the most important assignment on the field, protecting Matt Barkley's blind side.

Kevin Graf likely would have been a safer pick for the left tackle spot, but the coaches decided that Aundrey Walker's upside was just too good to pass up.

Schedule

The first thing that jumps out when assessing USC's chances to make it to the BCS championship game is the fact that they will likely have to beat Oregon twice in 2012, which is a tall task for any team in the country.

As usual Oregon will be one of the most talented, and challenging teams to prepare for because of their overall team speed, as well as the tempo at which they play.

On offense, you have to deal with Kenjon Barner and DeAnthony Thomas. Thomas, a one-time USC verbal commit and Crenshaw High School star, will return to the Coliseum on Nov.3rd for what should be the Pac-12 game of the year.

The Black Mamba will make his return to Los Angeles with revenge on his mind, and the college football world will be paying close attention.

Opening the season at home against Hawaii, followed by a road trip to the East Coast to face Syracuse, should serve as a good warm-up before entering Pac-12 play.

USC starts off Pac-12 play with three challenging road tests against Stanford, Utah and Washington in their first four conference games.

If the Trojans plays up to their potential there is a good chance they will enter the final month of the season undefeated, with four big games remaining on the schedule: A showdown against Oregon, a revenge game against ASU, and two rival games against UCLA and Notre Dame. The good news - USC will not have to leave Los Angeles once in the month of November.


Curtis McNeal and Silas Redd give USC a strong running game. (Jaime Rodriguez Photo)

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