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August 11, 2009
THE SCHEME: Coach Pete Carroll has lost his past two coordinators to head-coaching jobs: Steve Sarkisian (to Washington) after last season and Lane Kiffin (to the NFL, but now at Tennessee) after the 2006 season. John Morton was promoted to offensive coordinator from receivers coach, but former NFL assistant Jeremy Bates will call the plays. He comes from the Denver Broncos, and his dad, James, is a longtime NFL defensive coordinator now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Trojans still will run a pro-style offense, but expect Bates to be more creative when it comes to getting the ball into the hands of his talented running backs.
STAR POWER: USC's tradition of producing big-play wide receivers continues with junior Damian Williams. In his first season since transferring from Arkansas, Williams caught 58 passes for 869 yards and nine touchdowns last season. With the departure of Patrick Turner, Williams will be the unquestioned No. 1 receiver. Coaches hope his 10-catch, 162-yard performance in the Rose Bowl against Penn State is a springboard to a big season.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: USC has veterans all over the offense except for one spot - quarterback. Sophomore Aaron Corp won the starting job during spring practice. Corp has more mobility than most recent USC quarterbacks and also possesses a nice arm. True freshman Matt Barkley, the top quarterback in the 2009 class, enrolled for the spring and impressed coaches with his maturity in spring drills; he enters fall camp second on the depth chart. And at running back, 5-foot-8 redshirt freshman Curtis McNeal could work his way into the mix despite a deep group of veterans ahead of him at the position.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: RB Joe McKnight has been serviceable in his first two seasons on campus, but USC would like him to be more than that. McKnight was the No. 2 prospect in the 2007 class, but he has scored just seven touchdowns in two seasons. In his defense, he was hampered by injuries last season and USC likes to spread the ball among a deep group of running backs. Now healthy and playing for a new coordinator, McKnight could develop into the Reggie Bush-like threat the Trojans envisioned he would become when he arrived on campus.
STRONGEST AREA: The Trojans return five starters on a line that allowed the fewest sacks in the Pac-10, though not all five returnees are scheduled to start. LT Charles Brown, LG Jeff Byers and C Kristofer O'Dowd started every game last season and should return to those same spots this season. At right tackle, sophomore Tyron Smith could beat out Butch Lewis, who has started nine games in the past two seasons. Besides the experience on the line, USC returns starting TE Anthony McCoy and FB Stanley Havili. Blocking for the run and protecting the passer shouldn't be problematic.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: All the tools - running backs, receivers and linemen - are in place for a monster offensive season. The only thing that could hold the Trojans back is instability at quarterback. Three Rivals100 quarterbacks (Corp, Barkley and third-stringer Mitch Mustain) are competing at the position. Skill isn't the issue; it's experience. Carroll and his staff are looking for a guy with big-play potential who won't turn it over.
THE SCHEME: Coordinator Nick Holt joined Sarkisian at Washington, but this remains Carroll's defense. He calls the defenses, though Rocky Seto, 33, was promoted from secondary coach to coordinator. The Trojans run a 4-3 defense, but Carroll may have less flexibility than usual given USC's inexperience at linebacker.
STAR POWER: Senior FS Taylor Mays will leave USC as one of the most accomplished safeties in recent history. He could have joined some of his teammates as a first-round pick in the NFL draft, but he elected to stay in school to oversee a rebuilt defense. At 6-3 and 230 pounds, Mays is built like a linebacker but runs like a safety.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Though the linebacker position appears to be in good hands with sophomore Chris Galippo and junior Malcolm Smith, a number of freshmen should still see time at the position. The leading candidates are Marquis Simmons and Kevin Greene. The Trojans don't often take junior college transfers, but tackle Hebron Fangupo could be a factor in the middle.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: Pick a linebacker, as the Trojans are looking to replace all three starters from last season. Galippo was the highest-ranked linebacker nationally in the 2007 recruiting class. In his two years on campus, he has redshirted, then backed up Rey Maualuga in the middle. Now the starter, Galippo had a good spring and should emerge as a leader on defense. Smith and junior Michael Morgan locked down the starting spots on the outside during the spring.
STRONGEST AREA: Led by Mays, the secondary should anchor the defense. The Trojans return plenty of experience from a secondary that led the nation in pass defense and pass efficiency defense. If everyone stays healthy, this could be one of the best units in the nation. That's easier said than done, though. Safeties Josh Pinkard and Will Harris and CBs Shareece Wright and Kevin Thomas have injury histories.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: "Problem" is a relative term. The front seven lacks starting experience, but at least the three new starting linebackers appear settled. Jurrell Casey is battling Christian Tupou, a starter last season, for one of the tackle spots. Averell Spicer is penciled in at the other tackle, but he struggled early last season. E Everson Griffen was a freshman All-American but slipped as a sophomore. He appeared to be rejuvenated in the spring.
USC will look to walk-ons at kicker and punter. Billy O'Malley is set to take over at punter, and Joe Houston is the leader for the kicking job. The glut of talent at the offensive skill positions helps on special teams, where RBs C.J. Gable, Stafon Johnson and McKnight and WR Ronald Johnson see regular duty in the return game. While the Trojans allowed the fewest punt returns (12) in the Pac-10 last season, they did a poor job covering those kicks, allowing foes to average 10.2 yards per return. The kick-coverage unit, on the other hand, was a good one.
USC has won at least a share of seven consecutive Pac-10 titles, and the Trojans haven't lost a game by more than a touchdown since Carroll's first season in 2001. USC shows little signs of slowing down as far as the Pac-10 and top-five finishes are concerned. But USC has kept itself out of national championship games by losing to teams such as Oregon State (in '08 and '06), Stanford ('07) and UCLA ('06). The offense could have some new wrinkles with Morton and Bates taking over this season. Changes on defense might be more subtle. Defensive line coach Jethro Franklin, back after spending three seasons in the NFL, has earned rave reviews from Griffen and others.
USC could have the most challenging non-conference schedule of any national title contender. The opener against San Jose State is by far the easiest non-conference game. A road trip to Ohio State on Sept. 12 could be a national-title elimination game. That's not the end of USC's challenging road schedule. Games against Pac-10 contenders Cal and Oregon come on the road, in addition to the annual rivalry game against Notre Dame. For the first time since 2003, USC's regular season will not end against rival UCLA. The Trojans finish with Arizona on Dec. 5.
USC enjoyed one of the best defensive seasons in recent history last season on the way to another Rose Bowl rout. The roles will change this season; the offense will be expected to carry the team while the new starters in the defensive front seven find their footing. An explosive offense, though, is no given because of the new quarterback. Another Pac-10 title and top-four finish is possible, but the Trojans need to prove they can avoid upsets in conference play before returning to the national championship game.
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.