For No. 25 USC, it’s just three days away.
With an up-and-down off-season behind them, the Trojans can finally turn their attention to their season opener Saturday against Minnesota.
Though some questions regarding the team still linger, junior safety and recently appointed captain T.J. McDonald was excited with how the defense has come together during spring and fall camp.
“We’re just a year better than we were last year,” McDonald said. “We were a young defense last year with a new coaching staff. Now we know what their expectations are and they know what kind of players they have and what to expect from us.”
While the progress made by the defense is assuring, USC coach Lane Kiffin was quick to point out that the Trojans’ defense, which ranked 84th in the country in total defense last year, has not proved anything yet.
“Until you play, it doesn’t really change very much,” Kiffin said. “Even though we feel better and look better, and we’re bigger, stronger and faster, until we prove it, it doesn’t matter.”
Junior quarterback Matt Barkley was pleased with the way the offense was clicking during practice and felt confident that it was game-ready.
“I think we are [ready for the season],” Barkley said. “I think there are always a few things you need to tweak before game day, but overall I think we’re ready.”
A year ago, junior running back Curtis McNeal, had to watch as his team prepared to begin the season at Hawai’i without him. During fall camp last year, McNeal was ruled academically ineligible and did not play a single snap for the Trojans.
What a difference a year makes.
Just a couple weeks after Kiffin declared McNeal had been ruled eligible and could play this year, McNeal saw his name listed at the top of the running back depth chart (along with sophomore Dillon Baxter, redshirt freshman D.J. Morgan and freshman Amir Carlisle).
Though the backfield might seem crowded to some, McNeal is just happy to be out there.
“I’m just amazed right now because I’m really playing football this year,” McNeal said. “We’re just four days away and I’m ready to go.”
With no definite starter listed and last year’s leading rusher senior Marc Tyler suspended indefinitely for comments made to TMZ, the competition for starting running back has yet to be decided by the coaching staff.
Tackling was an area of concern for the Trojans last season. Coaches cited a lack of depth as the main reason for not tackling during practice. This year, however, USC has more bodies, more depth and tackling has been stressed more heavily.
Whether the defense has improved its tackling will be made evident early Saturday, as Minnesota’s mobile quarterback MarQueis Gray, who is listed at 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, will test the Trojans’ defense.
“He’s a huge quarterback, so when we tackle him, we have to make sure we don’t get beat taking chances,” McDonald said. “We just have to wrap him up and take him to the ground.”
Gray, who only attempted eight passes last year, rushed for 110 yards on 23 carries in the Gophers’ last three games of the season.
Carlisle left practice Tuesday with an undisclosed injury and is listed as day-to-day.
Senior linebacker Chris Galippo practiced at full speed after returning from a shoulder injury that had plagued him most of camp. Kiffin was still skeptical as to whether or not Gallipo is ready for game speed.
“I’m still nervous about it,” Kiffin said. “This is a lot different than a real game. We’ll throw him out there and hopefully he’ll do well.”
Senior defensive tackle Armond Armstead remained out with an undisclosed medical condition. Kiffin noted that team doctors have yet to clear him for football activities.