Suffice to say, 2010 wasn’t a banner year for USC.
Finishing the season at 8-5 overall, the Trojans posted fewer than nine wins for the first time since 2001, during then-coach Pete Carroll’s inaugural season in Los Angeles.
Yet, such struggles did not fall at the feet of an offense that ranked No. 26 nationally in total yards per game and No. 37 in points per game, averaging more than four touchdowns a game.
Subsequently, with five returning starters, including junior quarterback Matt Barkley, and a highly regarded incoming recruiting class of 30 freshmen, USC figures to be even more dynamic come Sept. 3 against Minnesota, the team’s season opener.
“We know more about our roster,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “Going into the second season is going to really help us figure out where to put everybody into place.”
Though the program has largely attracted negative headlines in the wake of NCAA sanctions levied in June 2010, its mainstay in Barkley, who tossed 26 touchdowns in 2010, once again lines up under center and figures to be among the best nationally.
“He can have one of those seasons like we’ve seen before here with Carson [Palmer], [Matt] Leinart, John David [Booty] and Mark Sanchez,” Kiffin said. “I think Matt [Barkley] is on schedule to be in the Heisman conversation.”
Despite his pedigree, interceptions have proven to be cause for concern — at least in the past. Among Pac-10 quarterbacks in 2010, Barkley’s 12 interceptions were the second highest, behind Washington State’s Jeff Tuel, who threw 16. And in the previous season, as a freshman, he threw 14 interceptions in comparison to just 15 touchdowns.
“I just need to move the ball and be efficient,” Barkley said. “We have a ton of skill guys. I’m not going to try and be Superman and force things because we have athletes who can do that.”
And the Trojans, unquestionably, have athletes.
Highlighting arguably the Pac-12’s deepest receiving core is sophomore wide receiver Robert Woods, who earned Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honors a year ago after hauling in 65 catches for 792 yards and six touchdowns. Woods isn’t alone.
A flurry of wideouts, freshmen George Farmer and Kyle Prater, as well as junior Brice Butler, have all been either five-or-four-star prospects coming out of high school. Largely unproven, yes, but talented nonetheless.
“I have quite the arsenal at my disposal this year,” Barkley said with a widening grin. “We have all this skill, but I think we’ll finally turn that into production. We have a special group on our hands.”
Similarly, the team’s tailbacks are equally talented but, following the indefinite suspension of senior tailback Marc Tyler after comments made in a TMZ video in mid-July, are inexperienced as well.
Of the team’s three primary returners sophomore Dillon Baxter, junior Curtis McNeal and freshman D.J. Morgan, only Baxter logged carries in 2010, as McNeal was academically ineligible and Morgan missed the entire season after undergoing surgery for a torn ACL.
As a result, the team has relied heavily on freshman Amir Carlisle so far during fall camp.
“Amir’s standing out,” Kiffin said earlier this month. “We don’t have any issues about playing freshmen if they’re the best guy.”
Though depth might not be a factor on the perimeter, in the trenches at least there appear to be some serious concerns regarding depth and experience.
Junior center Khaled Holmes and junior left tackle Matt Kalil are the only two returning starters from last season, and Holmes is already moving from right guard to center.
“A lot of those new guys are going to have to be plugged in,” Kiffin said.
As a result, the offensive line could be rounded out by a particularly young group with junior Jeremy Galten at right guard, sophomore Kevin Graf at right tackle and sophomore John Martinez at left guard. If injuries pile up, incoming freshman Aundrey Walker could also be plugged in at right guard or right tackle.
Nonetheless, with Barkley taking snaps and a ton of offensive weapons still on the roster, the Trojans — at least now — insist they can take the next step in a highly competitive Pac-12.
“Ultimately it’s about wins and losses,” Barkley said. “We had a couple of losses that year riding the line. I think by reversing those and winning more games this year, we’ll be set.”
Because of a two-year postseason ban, the Trojans will not be able to participate in the conference’s inaugural championship game should they finish first in the South division.
Despite being sanctioned, USC was picked to win the division in the annual preseason media poll.