Trojan fans have been eagerly awaiting the battle between John David Booty and Mark Sanchez as much as any other competition to be held this spring but the more you listen to coaches and their teammates talk the more you get the sense that John David heads into spring as the clear cut starter. As opposed to the situation three years ago when Matt Cassel and Matt Leinart (among others) were basically in an open competition to replace Carson Palmer, this time around we have one quarterback (Booty) who has been in the system for three years and has seen extensive playing time in a reserve role. Sanchez has all the tools to be successful and he should provide a strong challenge but the experience factor for John David has him firmly established as the guy right now. Michael McDonald also returns, contrary to rumors in the off-season that he might be leaving the team.
It will be an interesting spring at the running back position because the group we see on the field for the next four weeks will look nothing like the group that will be here in the fall. This spring we are likely to only have one scholarship tailback available, Hershel Dennis, and he is coming off a year-long rehab due to a knee injury. It has been great to see Patch back on the field in workouts and he sure looks in shape and ready to go. We will not see Desmond Reed or Michael Coleman this spring as both continue to rehab from injuries (Reed – knee, Coleman – hip) so that means we could see Brandon Hancock, or even Whitney Lewis, get a lot of carries from the tailback spot. Hancock is in the best shape we've seen during his Trojan career and he is primed for a stellar senior season. Lewis has filled in at tailback before (as recently as last December when Reggie and LenDale were in New York for the Heisman ceremony) but he also needs all the reps he can get at receiver to help solidify his spot in that rotation. Chauncey Washington will sit out the spring with the hopes that he will be academically eligible in the fall. At fullback, Hancock will be the normal starter but we will also see a couple guys who could be interesting options. Jody Adewale isn't flashy but he showed last fall on the practice field that he could be a dependable player. Ryan Powdrell moves over from a crowded linebacker spot and many observers who saw him in high school felt that fullback was his more natural position. Ryan is a very physical player and he could help fill that blocking FB role that was missing last season.
The good news for Booty and Sanchez this spring is the availability of talent they will be throwing to at the wide receiver position. Heading the list are returning starters Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith and they form the top receiving duo in the nation. Jarrett could very well be the top receiver in the country this year and he had a terrific off-season of workouts and is in great shape. Not to be forgotten as he heads into his senior year, Smith impressed teammates with his work ethic as well in recent months and it's always nice when your senior leaders are the ones setting the tone. There had been rumors that Chris McFoy might leave the team but those were unfounded. We know what we are getting from Chris and that is a dependable pass catcher who is simply a terrific blocking receiver. A potential star waiting to break out is Patrick Turner and he should start to emerge this spring as a big-time weapon with his size and athletic ability. We talked earlier about how this spring will be key for Whitney Lewis because there are a lot of receivers arriving in the fall and he needs to take advantage of the reps he will get this spring to show the coaches he is ready to be a factor.
Yes, the Trojans graduated a very good tight end in Dominique Byrd but there is still a lot of talent and depth at the position. In Fred Davis we have a player who is capable of being one of the most dynamic tight ends in the country and he was recently described by Shaun Cody as being a "monster" during off-season workouts. Fred will head into spring as the starter with Dale Thompson and Jimmy Miller being in the rotation as well. Thompson is a physical blocker, Miller is known more as a pass catching threat. Both of them have seen a lot of playing time and are ready for bigger roles. Nick Vanderboom is a senior, a former walk-on, and he is a steady option. Newcomer Gerald Washington is impressive physically and he moves well, he will need to really shine to earn playing time among such an experienced and versatile group.
It's easy to look at the line and assume that this group will not be able to match the success of last year's unit, which was considered one of the best in the country, but at closer glance you realize that this could be a pretty darn good offensive line in its own right when all is said and done. You aren't going to have two better veteran leaders on your line than the Trojans have with center Ryan Kalil and left tackle Sam Baker. Both have two years of starting experience and will be mentioned on all the pre-season All-American lists heading into the season. Kalil is the rock steady "quarterback" of the line, the one who makes all the calls, while Baker will now be the backside protection of the right handed John David Booty and you couldn't ask for much more if you are John David because Sam is as good as any tackle in the nation. Kyle Williams heads into spring as the projected starter at right tackle and he is extremely experienced as a 5th year senior who is ready to claim the job as his own. Both guard spots are open with Chilo Rachal being the favorite to end up the starter at RG and Jeff Byers the favorite at LG. Rachal is already being touted by some as the next great Trojan offensive lineman and he is a powerful blocker. It's almost been a case of "out of sight, out of mind" with Byers for the last year as he sat out with a hip injury but let's not forget that he was the national high school player of the year and that's a pretty talented guy to be plugging in to an open spot. Matt Spanos will enter spring as the starter at LG but, if Byers can stay healthy, it stands to reason that Jeff will take over at some point during spring drills. The good news is that Byers and Spanos can both back-up Kalil at the center spot. Tiny Malu will be the primary back-up to Rachal at RG and his teammates are mentioning Tiny as one of the surprise players of the upcoming season. Charles Brown will be the back-up to Williams at RT while Nick Howell will back-up Baker at LT. It remains to be seen how much Thomas Herring, Drew Radovich or Travis Draper will be able to practice during spring due to injuries.
The Trojans welcome back a familiar face as Nick Holt returns to coach the defensive line and he will bring a fiery style to this unit. The good news for Holt is that he has a pair of returning starters in Lawrence Jackson (end) and Sedrick Ellis (NT) who could be among the best at their positions. Jackson should be a dominant force this season with the possibility for All-American honors while Ellis looked as physically impressive as any Trojan player we saw during off-season drills. With those two position set, Holt will look to fill the other two spots from among a deep group of players. At the end spot opposite Jackson, the early favorites are Jeff Schweiger and Kyle Moore. Schweiger came in as a freshman with a lot of fanfare but seemed to struggle at times last year, will a new coaching style help him regain his edge? We'll see. Moore has a long and lean frame with all the potential in the world. We could also see Alex Morrow and Rashaad Goodrum in the mix although Goodrum is still bothered by rib injuries from last fall. Morrow has bulked up in the upper body and now is the time for him to step up to earn playing time. At the defensive tackle spot, the primary contenders for the starting spot will be Fili Moala, Travis Tofi and newcomer Walker Ashley. It will also be interesting to see if the coaches give Averell Spicer a chance to compete at that spot, Spice spent last season learning the NT role but he is stuck behind Ellis at that spot and he may get a look at DT. Chris Barrett and Lawrence Miles will also be in that rotation of big bodies looking to earn time in the middle of the line.
There is so much talent at the linebacker spot for the Trojans that the biggest problem for the coaches will be trying to find playing time for everybody. At middle linebacker it's hard to imagine a better position battle than the one we should see between Oscar Lua and Rey Maualuga. In Lua you have the savvy, hard hitting veteran who has lost a step due to knee injuries but who can still be a solid force as the signal caller of the defense. Maualuga showed flashes last fall of a playmaking ability that you just don't see come around too often and with his combination of size and speed it will be hard to keep him off the field. As if those two players aren't enough, Luthur Brown is scheduled to return from his back injury and he is eager to remind everyone why he was so highly regarded last year coming out of high school. At the weakside spot we've got Keith Rivers as the starter and, if he can stay healthy, there's every reason to think that Keith will progress into one of the elite players in the country. Backing him up is Kaluka Maiava and all he did last fall was earn Co-Special Teams player of the year and Service Team Defensive player of the year honors. The strongside spot will be an interesting one this spring because the top three players on the depth chart (Dallas Sartz, Brian Cushing and Thomas Williams) are all rehabbing from injuries and will likely miss most, if not all, of spring drills. That will make for an incredible competition in the fall but for now the beneficiary could be Clay Matthews as he should get a lot of reps with the first unit. Clay is a physical guy who has good size.
This is yet another spot where there are holes to fill (three open starting spots) but several of the players who are expected to be in competition for those starting spots will not be available this spring. You can argue that Terrell Thomas, Kevin Ellison and Will Harris are all favorites to earn starting roles in the fall yet all three will sit out spring as they continue to rehab from various injuries. One player who will be available, and who is likely to start at either corner or safety, is Josh Pinkard. Josh was the heir apparent to a starting safety role until injuries to other corners last fall forced to him switch positions and he ended up playing well enough that he could easily end up staying at corner. With his size and aggressive playing style it is a huge bonus to have someone like Pinkard who is talented enough to play both spots. The primary safeties in spring will be Brandon and Ryan Ting as well as incoming freshman Antwine Perez. The Ting brothers saw extensive action last fall and proved that they can contribute to this defense. They were also seen working with Perez after many of the off-season workouts to help the young freshman get adjusted to the college game. Perez has all the athletic ability you want in a big time safety and it's only a matter of time before he is a regular in the rotation. Assuming Pinkard is at corner in spring, we will see three players pushing for the starting spot opposite him and they will include Kevin Thomas, Cary Harris and Mozique McCurtis. Thomas and Harris both had moments last fall as true freshmen which showed their potential while McCurtis remains an unknown commodity after redshirting last fall.
The Trojans must replace one of the best punters in school history now that Tom Malone has graduated and this spring they will look to walk-on Taylor Odegard or kicker Troy Van Blarcom as possible options. Odegard got a lot of practice work last fall while Malone battled hip problems but he could face some interesting competition in Van Blarcom as the tall kicker tries to make the adjustment to punter. Van Blarcom did a nice job handling the kickoff job last year but he is ready for a bigger role and the reality is that Mario Danelo has done a terrific job in the placekicking job so it makes sense to see if Van Blarcom can be a punter. One former USC kicker says Van Blarcom has an excellent frame and kicking motion to be a punter so we'll see how this plays out during spring. As we mentioned, Danelo returns as the placekicker and Will Collins also returns to handle snaps for both punts and placekicks. The return game could be a free for all with any number of candidates getting a look. This is one area where Desmond Reed could have really made an impact if he was healthy.
Pete Carroll enters his sixth spring as the Trojan head coach and the opportunities being presented to his team right now are the kind of challenges which Carroll has thrived on so far in his tenure at USC. The loss of an amazingly talented group the NFL (including a pair of Heisman Trophy winners), the need for inexperienced younger players to step up and fill those holes as well as the question marks from skeptics wondering how long Carroll can keep the Trojan train rolling at a high level. This is the kind of situation which Carroll loves. He has the benefit of welcoming back an old friend in Nick Holt, a coach he thinks so highly of that he handed Holt the title of defensive coordinator. For Carroll, long known as one of the top defensive coaches in the game, to give that title to another coach speaks volumes about how he feels about Holt. Nick will take control of the defensive line and you can be sure there will be greater emotion in the d-line coaching style this year. Carroll also promoted a GA from last year, David Watson, to full-time coach assisting Holt with the group. With the departure of Greg Burns from the secondary (he and Jethro Franklin left to join Tampa Bay in the NFL) Carroll moved Rocky Seto to that role and left Ken Norton to coach the linebackers on his own after sharing that role with Seto last year. On the offensive side of the ball, the staff pretty much stayed in tact. The coordinator duo of Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian enter their second year together and they will be working with a lot of new pieces. Running back coach Todd McNair, offensive line coach Pat Ruel and tight end coach Brennan Carroll also return. In addition to GA Sam Anno, who will work as a defensive assistant and have a role with special teams, the Trojans brought in longtime NFL special teams coordinator Al Everest in a GA spot.