For the 16,850 USC fans in attendance, Saturday’s annual spring game at the Coliseum was not pretty, littered with interceptions, incomplete passes and missed field goals.
With senior tailback Marc Tyler and sophomore wide receiver Robert Woods sidelined with various ailments, USC’s offense was noticeably out of sync and overwhelmed by a defensive front that has made significant strides in the past year.
But it wasn’t supposed to look like that.
With Trousdale lined with cardinal-clad fans and Traveler trotting around on the sidelines, it was supposed to mirror a fall game, where the Trojans would at least show some cohesiveness.
Instead, it became plainly evident the festivities were taking place in April, not October, based on the number of botched plays, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
Still, for a team severely handicapped by injuries and scholarship restrictions, a perfectly legitimate argument could be made that the team performed admirably considering the hand it was dealt.
In other words, it might be a tad premature to start scaling back expectations for the 2011 Trojans.
Because at certain moments Saturday, albeit brief ones, they looked rather sharp, particularly in regard to the ground game.
On a play mid-way through the first quarter, freshman tailback D.J. Morgan reeled off a 34-yard run, showcasing breathtaking speed that could enable the Taft High standout, who redshirted last season because of a torn ACL, to crack the team’s starting rotation next September.
Minutes later, junior tailback Curtis McNeal, who was academically ineligible last season, put his speed on display as well, finding the endzone on a 49-yard run down the north sidelines.
The tandem combined for 196 yards on 27 carries.
“I just matured,” McNeal said of his newfound success this spring. “I told myself ‘If I want to go to the NFL, I have to change my attitude.’”
Yet the team’s success on the ground was not limited to either back. Sophomore tailback Dillon Baxter, who also received criticism for his immaturity last season, reminded those in attendance why he was such a highly touted prospect coming out of high school with 104 yards on 14 carries, despite recovering from an ankle injury.
“I liked Dillon’s toughness there at the end,” said USC coach Lane Kiffin. “He came back in there pretty banged up.”
And on the last play of the game, Baxter threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to Barkley to cap off his afternoon.
Considering the team’s depleted offensive line, their performances were not anything to shrug off, as four of USC’s projected starters for next fall were unavailable Saturday. Sophomore right tackle Kevin Graf and junior center Khaled Holmes missed all of spring practice with injuries, and freshmen guards Cyrus Hobbi and Aundrey Walker have not yet enrolled in school.
Such circumstances might explain some things on the offensive side, particularly with Barkley, who looked uncharacteristically erratic, throwing 42 passes and completing just 20 of them in addition to throwing two interceptions.
“The lack of depth was obvious throughout this whole spring, Barkley said, “but I do believe we made progress.”
Provided you’re scrambling for a few positives, most of the issues Saturday stemmed from injuries. No Woods. No Brandon Carswell. No Rhett Ellison. No Kyle Prater, either.
Barkley, as a result, was forced to throw almost entirely to his cousin, 6-foot Robbie Boyer, and Markeith Ambles, who seemingly spent most of the spring trying to fix his alarm clock.
“It is hard to assess with so many people out all of spring and so many people coming in that are going to have to play for us,” Kiffin said, trying to maintain perspective.
Fortunately, many of the depth issues could be shored up.
With the return of at least 11 players from injury, as well as 24 incoming freshman, according to Kiffin, the Trojans will be afforded at least some depth, and whatever positive glimpses that were seen on Saturday could be magnified.
In short, it boils down to depth. It always has.
It’s no small secret USC lost games last season in the final minutes, against Washington, against Stanford, against Notre Dame. What it has in talent (see: Barkley, Woods, etc.), it lacks it depth.
And if somebody like Woods is out, there aren’t a lot of options behind him — walk-ons mostly.
But come fall at least, those walk-ons turn into highly-touted freshman recruits from across the country — Walker, Hobbi, wide receiver George Farmer and tailback Amir Carlisle, among others.
Reinforcements are coming, in a few months. Yet nonetheless, it remains to be seen, whether any of them will be effective.
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