Pac-10 spring practice preview: USC

USC Trojans
2009: 9-4 (5-4)

So maybe Mitch Mustain will get his chance at quarterback in Los Angeles after all. New USC head coach Lane Kiffin did not go back on his word that Mustain and Matt Barkley would begin the spring on equal footing, as the former Arkansas transfer — who has only 16 pass attempts with the Trojans — received the same number of reps as incumbent starter Barkley when USC opened an intense, no-nonsense spring practice Tuesday on Howard Jones Field.

There’s no question that Mustain possesses starting-caliber talent, as he won all eight of his starts as a true freshman at Arkansas. But just how effective can the senior be after so much time on the sideline? His last significant playing time came with the Razorbacks in 2006. While the prevailing sentiment is that Barkley, who started 12 games and threw for 2,735 yards and 15 touchdowns last season, will ultimately win the job, could Mustain actually outperform Barkley this spring and give Kiffin much to think about all summer before the opening of fall camp?

Barkley appeared in better shape on Tuesday than he was during his freshman season, noting that he dropped a few pounds in order to improve his mobility. He added that he’s not feeling any after-effects from offseason surgery on his right wrist and that he’s looking forward to applying what he learned in 2009 toward the 2010 campaign.

It will be very interesting to see which quarterback has the better spring and gets the starting nod in the annual Trojan Huddle game at the Coliseum on May 1.

Allen Bradford is likely to get the majority of the carries at tailback in the fall, but any coach with C.J. Gable, Curtis McNeal and Marc Tyler on his depth chart will have to find ways to spread the wealth. Because he rushed for 668 yards on 115 carries and added eight touchdowns in ‘09, Bradford earned the right to start off as top dog. But how did Gable only carry the rock 24 times last season? McNeal and Tyler are as talented as they come, so it’ll be intriguing to see how much of an impact they make during spring drills. Look for early enrollee Dillon Baxter to get some reps in the wildcat, as the athlete is expected to play running back and a little receiver. He’ll have to be used in a variety of ways to get onto the field and have his value maximized — especially with an already loaded backfield.

Following the early departure of Damian Williams, Ronald Johnson is expected to be the No. 1 wideout for the Trojans in the fall after he was projected as the team’s deep threat last season. After breaking his collarbone at the end of fall camp, he returned to the field at Notre Dame and amassed 378 yards on 34 catches for the year. Coaches expect a big campaign out of the 6-foot, 190-pound speedster. David Ausberry is as physically gifted as any receiver on the roster but has struggled to catch the ball consistently, and there’s a possibility that the 6-4, 235-pounder could end up at tight end. Brice Butler is a solid route runner, while highly recruited Kyle Prater should get plenty of chances to see the field early. The 6-5 early enrollee made an impression on Tuesday with a couple of one-handed grabs despite being hobbled by a strained hamstring.

One of Kiffin’s main concerns entering spring is the play of the linebacker corps, as the loss of top-caliber talent to the draft and graduation seemed to catch up to the Trojans last season. While Devon Kennard, Chris Galippo and Malcolm Smith officially ended ‘09 as the starting linebackers, spring practice could seriously alter the unit heading into fall camp. Kennard will have an opportunity to wrest the middle linebacker job away from Galippo less than a year after the former defensive end switched to strong-side linebacker. Kiffin believes he could be a special player. Michael Morgan will enter his senior campaign coming off a season in which he led the Trojans in tackles for loss with 13 in nine starts. Juniors Jordan Campbell and Shane Horton combined for four starts while filling in for injured starters last season, so they’ll add to the Trojans’ depth. On a serious note, Jarvis Jones — a former top recruit and key reserve who missed the last five games of the season with a neck injury — may not be able to play football again. Kiffin cited concern over potential permanent damage from a hit or a number of hits as the reason Jones may not suit up.

The Trojans will boast tons of depth on the defensive line, led by junior DEs Malik Jackson and Armond Armstead. Nick Perry tallied eight sacks before slowing down toward the end of the season, while Wes Horton started the first half of the year as Armstead nursed a broken foot. James Boyd and Kevin Greene will also rotate at end. Christian Tupou and Jurrell Casey are the projected starters at defensive tackle, but Loni Fangupo, Da'John Harris and Derek Simmons will look to earn playing time with strong showings in the spring. Without question, this unit will be challenged both mentally and physically by assistant coach Ed Orgeron, who helped the careers of All-Americans Kenechi Udeze and Mike Patterson in his first stint at USC.

Shareece Wright enters his senior season as the only cornerback to start a game last year — and that was in the Emerald Bowl after sitting out the regular season because of academic ineligibility. Junior T.J. Bryant made 22 tackles and deflected three passes, while redshirt sophomore Brian Baucham had three tackles and one deflection. Because of the incredible talent in Kiffin’s first signing class at SC, expect incoming freshmen Anthony Brown, Demetrius Wright and Nickell Robey to push for the starting gig opposite Wright once fall camp begins.

Of course, there’s also that little problem of replacing projected first-round draft pick Taylor Mays, along with fellow safety Will Harris. However, the Trojans may be able to soften the blow with good depth, as six players will compete for the two starting spots. The problem is that most of the combatants are banged up. Junior Drew McAllister likely would have had an edge for the starting free safety job, with Marshall Jones, T.J. McDonald, Byron Moore and Jawanza Starling as his primary competition. But after undergoing hip surgery, McAllister will likely miss all of spring practice. Starling is playing baseball for the Trojans, while McDonald recently underwent ankle surgery. Whoever is the healthiest may have a leg up at least going into fall, when the rest of the recruits arrive on campus and the injured players are healthy.

So it’s finally here — Lane Kiffin’s time has arrived to put his stamp on the USC Trojans on the field. Judging from the first day of practice, his squad will be taking a business-like approach to 2010. Practices won’t be so open to the public, toughness and discipline will be constantly preached, and mistakes won’t be tolerated. Kiffin wants the Trojans to be a smarter football team, which would be a welcome trait after USC had the 33rd most penalties per game in the nation last season.

At the end of the day, however, it won’t matter how USC practices, who plays where on the field or how many style points the Trojans rack up during Pac-10 play. It’s about winning — the very thing Trojans fans have been accustomed to in the past decade, and the very thing Kiffin plans on accomplishing in L.A.

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