Trojans’ depth issues will be costly

Though a contradictory figure of speech by definition, oxymorons infiltrate our everyday language. We have the tried-and-true cliches — overused literary paradoxes like “deafening silence” and “sweet sorrow.” We also spread them unwittingly at every turn, with common verbiage such as “act naturally” and “dull roar.”

After scanning the 2013 football depth chart released last week, I wonder if head coach Lane Kiffin understands the inherent contradiction between the terms “2013 USC football” and “depth” and the big oxymoron he has published for the USC fan base. With his job hanging in the balance, Kiffin enters 2013 with a perilously thin roster, once again devoid of honest positional competition and serviceable backups.

Brace yourselves for some dismal math. If everyone returns healthy from their spring injuries, excluding junior wide receiver George Farmer, who is already pronounced out for the season, USC will field 68 scholarship players this season, only 29 of whom are upperclassmen.

The 68 scholarship players are a full seven fewer than what the NCAA allots USC during the sanctions period and 17 fewer than the vast majority of Football Bowl Subdivision teams have on hand.

Despite an abundance of youthful talent, USC noticeably lacks the steadying, if unspectacular, performance of veteran reserves — role players who know their strengths and weaknesses, the level of competition and the playbook.

Two years ago, during USC’s surprising 10-2 season, many veteran upperclassmen — including linebackers Shane Horton and Chris Galippo, offensive tackle Martin Coleman, linebacker Tony Burnett, safeties Marshall Jones and Drew McAllister and wide receivers Brandon Carswell and Brice Butler — contributed meaningfully in their part-time roles. They represented readily playable options for Kiffin in the event a starter sustained an injury or needed extended rest.

Conversely, with a cast of young, unproven wild cards in 2013, the variance on what we might see from this USC team seems exceedingly high, because we have no idea how 18- and 19-year-old depth players will respond once thrown to the wolves of the Pac-12.

Four of the five starting offensive linemen from an underachieving 2012 unit return. The 10 players behind the incumbents, however, own only one career start among them, which came when then-redshirt freshman center Cyrus Hobbi replaced injured Khaled Holmes against Stanford last season. Drawing the unfavorable assignment against a vicious Stanford defensive front seven, Hobbi fared as one would expect an undersized and out-techniqued freshman to perform, failing to demonstrate a readiness to seize a starting role anytime soon.

More inconceivably, inconsistent junior offensive tackle Aundrey Walker doesn’t even have to glance in the rearview mirror next fall, as no scholarship player lurks behind him on the depth chart.

One might put forth other upperclassmen offensive players, such as junior running back D.J. Morgan and fifth-year senior De’Von Flournoy, as likely contributing reserves.

But Kiffin has rarely trusted the oft-injured and fumble-prone Morgan to carry the ball in important situations, outside of Morgan’s short-lived run as the starting tailback to kick off 2011. And Flournoy, despite repeatedly performing well in practice, doesn’t impress Kiffin enough in the vaunted “height-weight-speed” ratio department, thus explaining why he only has one catch so far in his three seasons of eligibility.

A defensive line that experienced a bevy of defections this past winter — first from the 2013 verbal commits, then from a couple of buried depth players — features only one quality upperclassman reserve: junior defensive end J.R. Tavai. In fact, perhaps the only position group on defense that will boast multiple quality veteran reserves is safety, where seniors Demetrius Wright and Gerald Bowman will likely play as experienced second-stringers and impact special teamers.

The purpose of this quick roster survey is not to suggest that experience always trumps young incoming talent. But even on a team with an abundance of young five-star recruits, USC desperately needs backups who understand the conditioning necessary to play against an Oregon offense that runs 90 snaps per game and the determination necessary to go blow-for-blow with Stanford’s bruising linebacker corps. Veteran reserves can buy the young upstarts time as they gradually build up knowledge of the playbook and acclimate to the increased competition.

The drop-off in experience from starter to backup across the board will create headaches for the USC coaching staff when, for all their talents, young players mess up their gap responsibilities on defense or run the wrong route on offense. For every explosive play and glimpse of potential, there will also be mistakes that will cost games.

The confluence of scholarship reductions, poor roster retention and player development has created a fine mess for USC, one that will become quickly evident if the Trojans suffer early-season injuries.


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