The countdown began as soon as USC departed El Paso, Texas, on New Year’s Eve. The countdown continued in earnest as head coach Lane Kiffin announced a perhaps less-than-desirable recruiting class on national signing day. But the countdown to the 2013 season now takes a backseat.
Cue spring practice.
Battered and bruised after a 7-6 finish last fall, the Trojans return to Howard Jones Field on Tuesday for the first of 15 scheduled practices culminating with the annual spring game on April 13 at the Coliseum. It’s a chance to begin writing a new chapter, to turn the page and to begin healing the wounds following a nightmarish 2012 season that began with billboards of Heisman candidates on Broadway and ended with a now-infamous locker room brawl in the West Texas desert.
So as the program regroups this spring, in anticipation for the season opener at Hawai’i in August, here are five storylines to monitor:
A three-way quarterback battle
The race to replace Matt Barkley is on. The Trojans will look to settle on a successor for the former four-year starting signal caller this spring — though the competition could, of course, continue through fall camp. The contenders are redshirt sophomores Cody Kessler and Max Wittek, along with early freshman enrollee Max Browne.
Wittek, who served as the No. 2 quarterback on the depth chart a year ago and started games against Notre Dame and Georgia Tech, stands as the logical frontrunner. Measuring six-foot-four and 235 pounds, he certainly looks the part of a starter, a sort of throwback to the tall, strong-armed USC quarterbacks of years past a la Carson Palmer.
But he struggled mightily in the Sun Bowl. The former Mater Dei High School standout — yes, like Barkley — completed just 14 of 37 passes with one touchdown and three interceptions, seemingly launching every pass all the way to New Mexico.
Kessler stands as perhaps a safer choice, as he’s highly regarded for his accuracy and mobility, the former being a pressing need a year after the Trojans ranked 119th nationally in total interceptions with 20. Browne, the Gatorade National Football Player of the Year, is no doubt young, turning 18 in February, but is certainly capable as well.
Injured players returns
Spring practice also marks the return of two key players who missed all of last season because of injuries: converted redshirt sophomore running back Tre Madden (a torn left knee ligament) and senior defensive end Devon Kennard (a torn pectoral muscle).
Madden, who weighs 220 pounds, is a slightly more bruising tailback, the type of runner USC has lacked in recent seasons. He impressed coaches during spring practice a year ago before his injury. Kennard, meanwhile, started five games in 2011 and very well could be named a preseason All-American. Both should provide depth at the very least and warrant quite a bit of playing time. Kennard, in fact, could start.
A revamped offensive line
USC’s offensive line struggled so much in 2012 that it’ll now have two position coaches tasked with overseeing the group: offensive line coach Mike Summers, who had previously been at Kentucky, and returning offensive line coach James Cregg. It appears they have their work cut out for them.
Gone is center Khaled Holmes, and there’s no doubt replacing the All-American captain stands atop the agenda. Redshirt sophomore Cyrus Hobbi is a candidate, having started last season’s game against Stanford. Then again, he might not be the staff’s first choice, having started last season’s game against Stanford. Other options include junior guard Marcus Martin, who reportedly has been playing the position during the team-only winter workouts, and incoming freshman Khaliel Rodgers, though he won’t arrive on campus until fall camp.
Solidifying the left tackle spot is another challenge, as the team never was able to settle on a full-time starter last season, alternating between then-freshman Max Tuerk and then-sophomore Aundrey Walker.
A young secondary
How quickly a makeover for USC’s defense takes place largely hinges on how quickly its secondary can grow. Three of four starters from last season are gone -— safeties T.J. McDonald and Jawanza Starling and cornerback Nickell Robey.
Enter a pair of freshmen early enrollees: Su’a Cravens and Leon McQuay III. Both played safety in high school and will get a shot to play immediately. Redshirt junior Josh Shaw also returns and has proven capable of playing both the cornerback and safety positions previously.
A new staff
Kiffin’s staff has experienced quite a bit of turnovers in recent months. His father, Monte Kiffin, resigned as the team’s assistant head coach and de facto defensive coordinator. He’s now taken the same position with the Dallas Cowboys. In his place is Clancy Pendergast, the former Cal and NFL defensive coordinator. Others who have left include offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu, linebackers coach Scottie Hazelton and secondary coach Marvin Sanders.
Newcomers, meanwhile, include Summers as well as running backs coach Tommie Robinson and linebackers coach Mike Ekeler. Getting everyone on the same page becomes an immediate priority, especially considering how disjointed the team looked over the final stretch last season, losing four of its final five games.
As expected, USC’s to-do list for the spring is, no doubt, lengthy. Let the spring cleaning commence.
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