With the countdown to the 2012 football season in the single digits, USC Trojans head coach Lane Kiffin says the team is “going in the right direction,” but there’s still a lot of work to do before the Sept. 1 opener against Hawaii.
Players who missed time with injuries early in camp are starting to return, and new faces, including true freshmen WR Nelson Agholor and LT Max Tuerk and Penn State transfer Silas Redd, have stepped up to become familiar with the playbook.
Defensive line, one of the USC’s biggest question marks heading into preseason, is starting to come together. J.R. Tavai, who will replace an injured Devon Kennard at left end, is back after sitting out with an injury of his own, as is veteran end Wes Horton. Greg Townsend, Jr. has been nursing an ankle injury, but junior college transfer Morgan Breslin has begun to improve over the last week of practice.
USC might still have to rely on its “emergency” plan at linebacker. Lamar Dawson, the projected starter at middle linebacker, will play if he’s healthy, but he’s been out since the first week with an injury. If he’s not ready for the Hawaii game, Hayes Pullard will shift to the middle.
On offense, Kiffin said there was a “greater sense of urgency” in practices this week after the defense shut them down during last Saturday’s scrimmage.
Considered by many to be the weak spot of an otherwise championship-caliber squad, the defense outplayed the highly-touted offense, forcing five turnovers and building their confidence. Senior quarterback Matt Barkley never got into a rhythm with his star receivers and tossed two interceptions, while a frustrated Marqise Lee was benched after incurring a personal foul for shoving cornerback Ryan Dillard following a pass interference call.
Kiffin said the offense was “humbled a little bit” after the weekend’s debacle but has done a good job regrouping and getting back to form. Lee and Robert Woods looked sharp and fast in this week’s practices, and Kiffin noted that Barkley and Woods seemed to have their timing back.
He was cagey when asked Monday and Tuesday if Woods was fully recovered from offseason ankle injury. “In his mind, he’s ready to go,” Kiffin said, admitting only that Woods looks fast and is doing well this fall.
Behind Woods and Lee, there’s an all-out battle raging for the third wide receiver slot. Flournoy would’ve been the third guy had the season started a week ago, but with George Farmer back from injury and Agholor quickly gaining ground, Kiffin characterized the race as a “a very healthy battle.”
The other battle is, of course, at backup quarterback, with redshirt freshmen Cody Kessler and Max Wittek still neck and neck for the job. Early in training camp, Kiffin said he’d name the number two guy by the beginning of the season, to ensure that in-season practice reps were most effective.
His stance has softened slightly as neither QB has distanced himself. He said he’d like to name a backup by the first week of in-season practice, the week of the Hawaii game, but isn’t ready to force a decision.
“If we haven’t, it’s not the end of the world. Both have a really good grasp of our offense, and I could see both playing in certain scenarios,” Kiffin said this week.
Kessler was slightly ahead last season and seems more consistent, while Wittek is the big risk, big reward guy. Kessler was the only quarterback to go interception-free during the last scrimmage; Wittek, like Barkley, threw two, but he also connected with Lee and Farmer for some of the best plays in this week’s practices.
The team will practice Thursday and Friday, with a light scrimmage on Saturday, before beginning game week preparation on Sunday.