Despite many major moments of the 2010 season being dominated by obvious growing pains and missed opportunities, there remained a constant staple in the Trojans’ offense fans could always get excited about — the exhilarating connection that junior quarterback Matt Barkley shared with then-freshman wide receiver Robert Woods.
Quickly getting time as a starter alongside veteran Ronald Johnson, Woods exploded for 792 yards and six touchdowns on 65 receptions, taking advantage of what Barkley now describes as a “telepathic” connection between the two. His success bolstered a squad that had been weakened by injury and inexperience, and by the end of the season, he had proven he was ready to step into Johnson’s cleats as the position leader.
Even with the promise that Woods brought, questions surrounding the unit have continued to linger: Would any veteran receivers finally make the strides necessary to become reliable starters? Could any of the new guys replicate what Woods did in 2010? And who would step up as the leading second receiver?
Though we won’t know until season’s end, there remains enough reason to believe these questions have an answer — or many, for that matter.
Cue fall camp.
For starters, senior wide receiver Brandon Carswell and junior wide receiver Brice Butler look to have finally embraced their roles as veterans on an otherwise young and inexperienced squad. With both of them seeing a decent share of playing time last season, Carswell recorded 16 catches for 205 yards and Butler had nine grabs for 112 yards, they have been pressured in camp to show their experience and leadership and have responded in turn.
It’s a fortunate turn of events for Butler, who announced in late January that he intended to transfer via Twitter, citing playing time and noting a desire to play in the NFL. Tensions between Butler and USC coach Lane Kiffin appeared to grow after Butler’s father, former Atlanta Falcons defensive back Bobby Butler, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution a week later that the younger Butler did not receive a “fair chance” under Kiffin’s watch. Butler, who rejoined the team in May, has impressed during fall workouts.
Though minor injuries have limited Carswell and Butler at times, they could each be starting opposite Woods come the team’s Sept. 3 season opener at home against Minnesota — provided each continues his upward progression.
“You’d like those to be older guys because they have more experience and more maturity,” Kiffin said, when asked about Carswell or Butler starting alongside Woods. “But we pride ourselves on playing the best players.”
The freshman class, however, might get there first.
Dotted with five-star recruits and overflowing with raw talent, it has been the lesser-known newcomers that have stolen the spotlight during fall camp, perhaps none more so than freshman Marquise Lee.
Lee, who was a former teammate of Woods and fellow freshman George Farmer at Serra High School in Gardena, Calif., has wasted no time in getting acclimated with his surroundings and, in doing so, has garnered some head-turning praise throughout summer and fall camp.
“[Marquise is] definitely making plays and standing out,” Woods said. “Pushing the ball vertically, breaking tackles and making moves.”
Kiffin also expressed similar sentiments, making it abundantly clear that he was thoroughly impressed with Lee.
“We’re still two weeks from the opener, but he’s definitely showed he’s going to play a lot,” he said.
That sounds convincing enough, especially coming from a coach who typically keeps a vacuum-seal on developments regarding the team.
But the list continues. Redshirt freshman Kyle Prater looks to crack the rotation just one season after redshirting because of nagging injuries — a hamstring and a groin injury. If healthy, Prater, with his 6-foot-5 frame, could provide a big target for Barkley much like fellow 6-foot-5ers Mike Williams and Dwayne Jarrett did for Heisman Trophy-winning quarters Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart, as well as John David Booty, in the mid-2000s.
To say these breakthroughs are timely, though, is putting it lightly — the Trojans need consistent pass threats this season. With running back issues on and off the field and an offensive line weakened by injury, USC will have to rely on its passing attack early and often if it is going to put up points.
Considering that Barkley, who threw 26 touchdowns last fall, is primed for his biggest season, this is probably for the best.
There just needs to be someone to reel it all in. Last year he completed passes to 14 different receivers, as the options he had to throw to game to game varied significantly because of injuries. Now, with more consistency in the dedicated receivers corps, there is little standing in his way of putting up career numbers.
“One-Two Punch” runs Tuesdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or email James at email@example.com.