Don’t be fooled by the uncharacteristic heat wave that has been making its way through Southern California; it’s March, not August. Nonetheless, spring football is officially upon us, and this year the stakes are just a little bit higher.
In previous years, spring football focused on ushering in a new coaching staff, postseason bans and the growth of a still-evolving quarterback.
Not so in 2012.
The coaching staff is rock solid, maybe even more so now than when the Trojans last took the field in December.
The ban is lifted, leaving room for the possibility of not just a bowl game, but the national championship.
And that blond, blue-eyed quarterback hasn’t just evolved into a USC Trojan of whom we can all be proud, he’s evolved into the nation’s premier quarterback.
But with the air of good feeling that now envelops Howard Jones Field, questions still remain.
Either way, I intend to answer a few of them.
What’s the rallying point this spring?
The previous two USC squads bonded over this “us against the world” mentality. This year that attitude would be misguided. If anything, those that live and work outside the confines of Troy are almost unanimously predicting Lane Kiffin’s squad to do big things in 2012.
The rallying point — oddly enough — is embracing that praise, but recognizing it means nothing without work being done on the field. Several of the players on the current roster have gotten a taste of what high expectations feel like come next fall. But none of them have ever experienced the whirlwind they are about to enter.
The 2011 team was beloved not just for its knack of making big plays at key moments, but because it played like a family, like the representatives we want for our university.
That can’t change just because the metaphorical storm clouds are gone.
Can Lane Kiffin handle the pressure?
Taking over for Pete Carroll? Check. Guiding a sanctioned team through a highly successful season? Check. Changing the media’s perception? Check.
In two years, Kiffin has not only answered the Victory Bell, he’s made it his own. Not only has he matured and transformed as a coach, but he’s found a way to put his stamp on a program that needed a facelift.
But at no point in his time with the Raiders or at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville did Kiffin enter a season with quite the level of expectations he and his team now face.
It’s a great problem to have and if the recent additions to his résumé serve as a reference point, the moment won’t ever be too big for the 36-year-old.
What’s left for Barkley?
If we’re really going to compare Matt Barkley to the likes of Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart, there are two pieces of hardware that still need to make their way onto Barkley’s mantle: the Heisman Trophy and the national championship trophy.
On top of that, and maybe more important to his future, the USC coaching staff needs to test him as much as physically possible in pro-style situations.
It’s hard to knock a guy who has meant so much to this university, but if Barkley wants to be an instant contributor on an NFL roster, now is as good a time as any to work on polishing his decision-making skills and accuracy issues downfield.
Who’s going to be the next offensive X-factor?
It’s hard to be look to future stars when the Trojans return a Heisman candidate behind center, four starters along the offensive line, the top wide receiving duo in all of college football, two very capable red zone threats at tight end and a 1,000-yard halfback, but part of becoming a great team is getting production where you’d least expect it.
Last spring, no one knew that a slew of redshirt freshmen (Dion Bailey, Hayes Pullard, Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer) would not only start but thrive when given the opportunity.
Even more relevant to the point, no one thought senior Curtis McNeal — a running back who had missed more games than he had played before 2011 — would make a meaningful impact last year, to such an extent that fans were once again reminded why USC was long considered Running Back U.
This year’s crop of characters could be anyone from freshman Nelson Agholor to dual-threat George Farmer to the tremendously talented, yet overshadowed wideout, Victor Blackwell from Mater Dei High School to Javorious “Buck” Allen.
What happens between the white lines while most of you are soaking up the sun in Cabo or relaxing with family members watching the NCAA tournament may not matter to you too much, but it should. The BCS Championship will be won on the second Monday next January, but it will be earned in settings like the one that will take place over the next few weeks.
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