McNeal provided a much-needed spark to the USC rushing attack last season. After recording 24 carries through the first five games, McNeal closed out the year with five 100-yard performances over the final seven games. He rushed for 145 yards and two touchdowns in the overtime loss to Stanford, while posting 124 yards and a score on 12 attempts in the 50-0 rout over UCLA. McNeal is only 5-foot-7, so the Trojans can’t depend on him for 250-275 carries. Depth at running back is thin, which makes keeping McNeal healthy for the full season a priority for coach Lane Kiffin.
Dion Bailey garnered most of the attention in the USC linebacking corps last season, but Pullard shouldn’t be overlooked. He started all 12 games last season, recording 81 stops and two fumble recoveries. Pullard finished the year on a high note, making 14 tackles in the win over Oregon and nine in the blowout victory over UCLA. He earned All-Pac-12 honorable mention honors last season, but should be a lock for first or second-team accolades in 2012.
Getting more speed on defense was a priority going into 2011 for coordinator Monte Kiffin, which prompted the move of Bailey from safety to linebacker. So far, that move has been a huge success. Bailey is one of the Pac-12’s rising stars and should contend for All-American honors this year. He recorded 81 stops and started 11 games as a redshirt freshman last season, while also earning Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year honors.
With Nick Perry’s departure to the NFL, Horton and Devon Kennard will be in charge of leading the USC pass rush in 2012. Horton earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors last year after recording 22 tackles and four sacks. He has 22 career starts, while also registering 11.5 tackles for a loss. The Trojans have used an effective rotation up front in previous years, but with depth a concern, Horton will be asked to play more in 2012.
Robert Woods shattered the USC record book for most catches in a season, but Lee’s 2011 campaign should not be overlooked. As a true freshman last year, Lee caught 73 receptions for 1,143 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also averaged 28.5 yards per kickoff return on 10 attempts. Lee closed out 2011 on a tear, catching at least eight passes in each of his final four games, while recording 187 yards against Oregon and 224 versus UCLA. The sophomore is an Athlon Sports third-team All-American for 2012.
With Matt Kalil departing for the NFL, Holmes will be expected to be the offensive line’s top performer and leader in 2012. In his first season at center last year, Holmes started all 12 games and earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors. He is expected to be one of the leading candidates for the Rimington Award and is an Athlon Sports second-team All-American for 2012.
Playing cornerback in an offensive-minded conference is never easy. However, Robey has emerged as one of college football’s top covermen after starting the last two seasons, and will help to lead a much-improved USC secondary in 2012. Over his two-year career with the Trojans, Robey has tallied 111 tackles and six interceptions. He earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors last season and is expected to be one of the top cornerbacks in college football.
McDonald had a chance to enter the NFL Draft, but decided to return to Los Angeles for another run at the national championship, while hoping to improve his draft stock into the first round. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound safety has earned all-conference honors in each of the last two seasons and was one of the 15 finalists for the Thorpe Award in 2011. McDonald recorded 67 tackles and three interceptions last season, and was named the Thorpe Award’s Player of the Week for his performance against Arizona. The senior is aggressive and packs a punch with each hit. However, McDonald matches his aggressiveness and big hits with steady play in coverage.
The Barkley-to-Woods combination was deadly and virtually unstoppable last season. Woods finished with 111 receptions (a USC single-season record) for 1,292 yards and 15 scores. He caught 17 passes for 177 yards and three touchdowns in the opener against Minnesota, 12 receptions for 113 yards and two scores against UCLA and nabbed 12 balls for 119 yards and two touchdowns against Notre Dame. In addition to being an All-American receiver, Woods is one of college football’s top return men, averaging 24.8 yards per kickoff return over the last two years. The junior is an Athlon Sports first-team All-American for 2012.
Barkley turned down millions and a spot among the top 10 selections in the 2012 NFL Draft to make a run at the national title. The Trojans are off NCAA probation and eligible for their first bowl game in two seasons. With USC poised to finish among the top five teams in the nation, Barkley will be one of the frontrunners to win the Heisman and is Athlon’s first-team All-American quarterback for 2012. Barkley earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors last season, throwing for 3,528 yards and 39 touchdowns. He has thrown for 80 scores in his career and has completed 64.2 percent of his throws over the last three years.
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