With No. 25 USC’s season opener less than 72 hours away, senior tight end Rhett Ellison is ready.
“We’re in a good mindset right now,” Ellision said after Wednesday’s early morning practice. “We played really well today, so hopefully it translates to Saturday.”
Ellison will be a primary check down target for junior quarterback Matt Barkley, for whom USC coach Lane Kiffin has big expectations after the third-year signal caller tossed 26 touchdown passes last season.
“[Barkley] needs to play extremely well, manage the offense, [make] very few mistakes and really put us in a position to win again and again,” Kiffin said. “He did that a number of times last year, but there were some up and down times, so now we’re looking for that consistency.”
Some of those down times included a late-season dropoff, largely because of a sprained left ankle sustained in a Nov. 20 game at Oregon State. The Trojans would eventually fall to Beavers 36-7, and without Barkley under center a week later against Notre Dame, the Trojans also fell to the Irish 20-16.
Though the Trojans’ week one opponent Minnesota won three games during the 2010 season, neither Ellison nor Kiffin is looking past the unranked Golden Gophers.
“They’re a great team,” Ellison said. “They’ve got great coaches and they have had success wherever they’re at. I don’t expect anything less from them.”
After then-coach Tim Brewster was fired midway through the 2010 season, Minnesota replaced the often-maligned Brewster with former Northern Illinois coach Jerry Kill, who led the Huskies to 23 wins in three seasons.
“They’re coached extremely well and they know what they’re doing,” Kiffin said. “I don’t expect any surprises.”
The Trojan defense was unquestionably a liability last season — ranking 63rd in points allowed and 93rd in yards allowed. Kiffin, however, remained uncertain what he’ll see come Saturday.
“I think it’s an unknown,” Kiffin said. “We feel better, but I felt good going into last year, too. The truth will be on Saturday and how well we tackle and how well we play. There are a lot of unknowns going into this game. We’ve got a lot to prove, a lot of places to improve.”
Though Kiffin might be skeptical, Barkley, who was recently named one of the team’s four captains, is not.
“They’re savvy, especially the secondary. There are a lot of leaders on this defense,” Barkley said. “I’m excited to see them play against a different team and see how they play.”
One pleasant surprise for the defense has been linebacker Lamar Dawson’s play. Dawson, a freshman from Junction City, Ky., has already been given the No. 55 jersey — worn in the past by players such as Junior Seau, Willie McGinest and Keith Rivers.
“It’s so rare for a true freshman to make a significant impact. There’s not many Robert Woods stories. It doesn’t happen very often,” Kiffin said about Dawson. “In recruiting Lamar, his 3.7 GPA, team captain, everybody raved about his maturity, that’s what has allowed him to do what he has done so far.”
The team will practice again Thursday at 8:15 a.m.