By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.
USC Trojans 2012 Spring Preview
2011 Record: 10-2, 7-2 Pac-12
Spring practice: March 6-April 14
Returning Starters: Offense – 8, Defense – 7
Passing: Matt Barkley, 308 of 446, 3,528 yds., 39 TD, 7 INTs
Rushing: Curtis McNeal, 145 car., 1,005 yds., 6 TDs
Receiving: Robert Woods, 111 rec., 1,292 yds., 15 TDs
Tackles: Hayes Pullard and Dion Bailey, 81
Sacks: Hayes Pullard and Wes Horton, 4
Interceptions: T.J. McDonald, 3
Redshirts to watch: DT Antwaun Woods, DE Charles Burks, WR Victor Blackwell, RB Javorious Allen, DE Greg Townsend, DT Christian Heyward, CB Ryan Henderson
Early Enrollees: LB Scott Starr, DE DeVante Wilson, DE Morgan Breslin, OT Chad Wheeler
JUCO Transfers to watch: DE Morgan Breslin, S Gerald Bowman
Transfers to watch: DB Josh Shaw – may not be eligible until 2013
Sept. 1 Hawaii
Sept. 8 Syracuse (East Rutherford)
Sept. 15 at Stanford
Sept. 22 California
Oct. 4 at Utah
Oct. 13 at Washington
Oct. 20 Colorado
Oct. 27 at Arizona
Nov. 3 Oregon
Nov. 10 Arizona State
Nov. 17 at UCLA
Nov. 24 Notre Dame
Offensive Strength: Thanks to the return of quarterback Matt Barkley and two of the top receivers in college football, USC will have one of the top passing attacks in the nation. Running back Curtis McNeal also returns after rushing for 1,005 yards and six scores last season, while the offensive line is in good shape with four starters returning.
Offensive Weakness: With the Trojans dealing with scholarship reductions, depth is an issue on the offensive line and at running back. Even though four starters are back on the line, losing left tackle Matt Kalil to the NFL Draft was a huge blow for this group.
Defensive Strength: The Trojans showed improvement last year on defense and seven starters return for 2012. The linebacking corps is led by sophomores Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard and both are expected to challenge for first-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2012. Cornerback Nickell Robey and safety T.J. McDonald anchor a secondary that ranked 102nd nationally in pass defense, but should be improved in 2012.
Defensive Weakness: It may seem like a tired cliché, but the success to any defense starts up front. Unfortunately for USC, three starters are gone, including first-team All-Pac-12 end Nick Perry and tackles Christian Tupou and DaJohn Harris. The cupboard isn’t completely bare, but this unit will be a concern for coordinator Monte Kiffin.
Spring Storylines Facing the Trojans
1. The postseason ban is over, and USC should begin 2012 as one of the top contenders for the national title. The Trojans are still dealing with scholarship reductions, but this year’s team is loaded for a run at the preseason No. 1 ranking. Coach Lane Kiffin’s biggest recruit wasn’t a freshman, but rather the return of quarterback Matt Barkley. Although Barkley was considered one of the top prospects for the 2012 NFL Draft, he decided to return for his senior year and will be among the preseason favorites to win the Heisman and first-team All-American honors. The Trojans also caught another break with the NFL Draft, as safety T.J. McDonald also decided to stay for his senior year. The news wasn’t all positive in relation to the roster, as left tackle Matt Kalil and defensive end Nick Perry decided to bolt for the NFL. Although there’s still the sting of scholarship reductions, Barkley’s return and the finish of the 2010 season have USC on the rise going into 2012.
2. Kalil’s departure leaves a mammoth hole on the left side of the line, but there is promising talent ready to step into action. Right tackle Kevin Graf started all 12 games last season and is the early favorite to fill Kalil’s old spot. Guard Aundrey Walker could figure into the mix, but he could fill Graf’s vacated right tackle position. The Trojans could receive immediate help from incoming freshmen Jordan Simmons (No. 47 on the Athlon Consensus 100), Zach Banner (No. 50) and Chad Wheeler on the line this fall. There’s no question Kalil will be missed, but USC has enough returning talent to keep the offensive line playing at a high level.
3. With Robert Woods and Marqise Lee returning next season, there’s no shortage of weapons for Matt Barkley. However, the Trojans could be even more dangerous on offense next year if two wildcards (George Farmer and redshirt freshman Victor Blackwell) step up at receiver. Farmer moved between running back and receiver last season, but has settled at receiver for 2012. With little depth behind running back Curtis McNeal, keep an eye on incoming freshman Nelson Agholor. He won’t arrive until the fall, but the freshman ranked as the No. 26 overall prospect in the 2012 Athlon Consensus 100 and could split snaps at receiver and running back.
4. Just like the offense, the focus on defense this spring will be the battle in the trenches. Three key contributors from last season are gone, leaving end Wes Horton as the team’s lone returning starter. Horton collected second-team All-Pac-12 honors last season, registering 22 stops and four sacks. Senior Devon Kennard moved back to defensive end from linebacker last season and picked up 29 tackles and two sacks. With another spring practice at end under his belt, expect Kennard to make an even bigger contribution to the line next year. Kennard and Holton is a solid combination at end, but there’s not much in the way of proven depth. Redshirt freshman Charles Burks, junior college transfer Morgan Breslin and incoming freshman Leonard Williams will figure into the mix this year. Depth at tackle seems to be a little better, but George Uko is the only proven commodity. Needless to say, the Trojans need big contributions at tackle from redshirt freshmen Antwaun Woods, Christian Heyward and Cody Temple. It’s not unrealistic to think the progress of the defensive line could be the difference between playing for the national title or the Rose Bowl.
2012 Recruiting Rankings: No. 10 USC Trojans
Athlon's Early Top 25 for 2012
Athlon's Early Pac-12 Predictions for 2012
College Football's 10 Biggest Spring Storylines for 2012
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College Football's Transfers to Watch for 2012