After a season in which very little seemed to work, the theme of USC spring football in 2013 seemed to be "Overhaul And Experiment." Try new defenses, try players at a bunch of different positions, and of course, try out three quarterbacks. The results of these personnel experiments have been mixed, but not because they failed, but because the biggest experiment of them all -- full-contact practices -- completely blew up in the team's face. The injuries have piled up over the past few weeks, leaving 20 players unable to play the spring game. The biggest was George Farmer's ACL tear, leaving him once again unable to contribute to the Trojans this year.
Kiffin didn't set anything in stone (nor should he have) after the spring game, but there are some reasonable assumptions we can make four months before the Hot Seat Season is set to begin in four months:
Cody Kessler has the edge in the QB race: For the 15,000 in attendance at the spring game and the very few that were able to watch it on the Pac-12 network, it's clear that Kessler put on the most impressive display. He went 15/22 with 242 yards and 3 TDs. More importantly, he looked much more mobile in the pocket and capable of squeaking out at least a few yards on the scramble, something that many draftniks have criticized Matt Barkley for lacking. By comparison, Max Wittek made 145 yds. with two TDs and two picks.
Replacing Robert Woods won't be a problem: USC's receiving corps remains as stacked as it has ever been. While Marqise Lee remains the top gun, Nelson Agholor has shown the same YAC potential and catch radius that made Woods such an asset. But Agholor's status as the No.2 WR still isn't locked, as the equally impressive Victor Blackwell made some great mid-range catches. Since Lee will likely be double-teamed by many opposing defenses this fall, it will be critical for Agholor and Blackwell to perform when their numbers are called, and for Kiffin to use them effectively.
2013 could be Morgan Breslin's breakthrough year: One of the standout stars of the season aside from Lee was JUCO transfer Morgan Breslin, who won over pundits, fans, and coaches alike with his silent-but-deadly approach to training and playing at defensive end. He has adjusted excellently to Clancy Pendergast's 5-2 defense and earned 3.5 sacks in the spring game. After getting second-team All-Pac-12 honors last season, look for #91 to become one of the key players on the USC defense as he will be needed to force bad passes and stop plays in the backfield.
It's more of the same in the secondary: Unfortunately, one of the reasons why Breslin may be needed so much is that many of the problems that plagued Monte Kiffin's defense have carried over into the Pendergast defense. The defensive backs were able to produce turnovers like last year's team did, scoring three interceptions. But on many other plays, the DBs got burned deep and allowed three long throws to become touchdowns. It should be noted that injuries have made the spring sample a bit questionable. Senior CB Torin Harris was out-of-commission for the spring game, leaving more inexperienced players to take on Lee and Agholor on deep routes. Still, if the corners can't bring the speed and mobility needed to make 5-2 defense effective on man coverage, the key to beating USC will simply change from "throw mid-range down the middle" to "throw deep down the sidelines."
The biggest mystery still surrounding these Trojans is the running game. The semi-contact rules kept ground plays to a minimum during the spring game, leaving untested RBs like Tre Madden and Justin Davis still in the dark. There is some reason for hope in the O-line, though. Marcus Martin has shown improvement since moving to center, as have John Martinez and Aundrey Walker.
And if you want to blame 2012's failures on superstition, then you'll love this last bit of news: the Trojans are giving up their shiny red cleats from last season and going back to the traditional black shoes. After the Ronald McDonald cleats they wore at the Sun Bowl, I can't blame them.