The boys of fall are back.
Nearly four months removed from an 8-5 season, the program’s worst mark since 2001, USC returned to the field early Tuesday morning for the first of 15 spring practices. And by early, try 7:25 a.m.
“Meetings were a little slow; guys were a little tired,” said junior quarterback Matt Barkley. “We’re just getting used to it. The tempo should be better in the days to come.”
Despite not practicing since early December, 19 players were sidelined from Tuesday’s session at Cromwell Field and listed for “no contact.” Many of them, such as junior linebacker Devon Kennard and redshirt freshman wide receiver Kyle Prater, were still recovering from offseason surgeries.
Combine various ailments with NCAA-levied sanctions, and the Trojans’ depth chart is thin, particularly on the offensive line, where there are just “six or seven” healthy linemen, according to USC coach Lane Kiffin.
“You probably noticed,” he said of the team’s nagging depth issues. “The scary thing is, we’re 19 short and we just started. Usually you’re short at the end of spring. Hopefully we don’t add to that list, and possibly get some guys back.”
With declining numbers, Kiffin and his staff resorted to more seven-on-seven drills as opposed to simply 11-on-11s.
But over the course of the two-hour practice, the Trojans’ injury issues worsened, as senior tailback Marc Tyler pulled his right hamstring while running a pass route, causing him to miss the remainder of the practice.
“He’s going to be treated day-to-day,” Kiffin said. “He just pulled his hamstring. We don’t know how severe it is yet.”
Many younger players also got reps Tuesday, even at the quarterback position where Barkley is a lock to start the team’s Sept. 3 season opener against Minnesota.
Three freshmen — Cody Kessler, Jesse Scroggins and Max Wittek, none of whom have taken a collegiate snap — all saw significant reps at quarterback as they vie to become the team’s No. 2 signal caller come fall. The winner of the competition, according to Kiffin, will be the one who makes the fewest mistakes.
“You’re not looking for the guy to have a 400-yard passing game,” Kiffin said. “He’s not going to get a lot of reps during the week in preparation, so he’s going to be a guy who approaches the game very seriously. He has to be a guy who can go in there at any time and run the offense.”
Additionally, redshirt freshman tailback D.J. Morgan, who missed all of last season following surgery to repair a torn ACL, showed flashes of the speed said to make him a candidate to crack the team’s backfield rotation.
“He’s a good player,” Barkley said with a grin. “He’s developing into a good running back. He’s just got to get the mental side of the game down like all the other guys do.”
The Trojans won’t be afforded much rest in the coming weeks, as Kiffin expects the team to partake in tackling drills, possibly as soon as Thursday, despite fewer bodies.
“We’re going to have to, especially in the spring, this far away from an actual game,” Kiffin said. “Obviously when you tackle you get some guys banged up. So even if that happens, hopefully we’ll get them back before we get into the fall.”
Defense, particularly tackling, has remained a primary concern for Kiffin’s staff. A season ago, the Trojans surrendered 400 yards and 26.7 points per contest and did not hold any tackling drills during the fall.
“We had so many missed tackles last year,” Kiffin said. “It cost us a lot, so that needs work.”