The obstacles were well-documented. USC would be crippled for multiple seasons by NCAA penalties — after all, it had happened before. De’Anthony Thomas’ recruiting defection to Oregon was a program crusher. Lane Kiffin was an overrated coach. For all of the above reasons, impending doom was predicted for the Trojans for seasons to come. But a funny thing happened on the way to mediocrity: SC, under Kiffin and without Thomas, has put its football house back in order with a vengeance — possibly all the way to a national championship.
With 15 of 24 starters returning from a 10–2 team, led by prolific pro-style quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Matt Barkley and a wide receiving corps unmatched in college football, the Trojans are heavy favorites to claim the Pac-12 title and more after serving hard time for Reggie Bush’s indiscretions. If USC can run the ball effectively and plug a few other holes, it just might run the table and disrupt the SEC’s long-running dominance of college football.
Barkley’s commitment to another college season was unexpected and enthusiastically welcomed by the Trojans who have now accelerated their efforts to reclaim what they once had. “The 2012 team has some serious unfinished business to attend to,” Barkley said in announcing his return.
The Trojans easily should rule the Pac-12’s South Division, keeping top challenger Utah and the league’s best defensive lineman Star Lotulelei at arm’s length. The Utes will be formidable because they have the schedule on their side, not playing North contenders Oregon and Stanford while getting USC at home. Plus, quarterback Jordan Wynn is healthy again from shoulder injuries.
In the North, the first one among the Ducks and Cardinal to find a suitable quarterback replacement for Darron Thomas and No. 1 overall NFL draft pick Andrew Luck, respectively, likely wins. Oregon gets the early North nod because of Thomas’ explosive presence in the backfield. Washington will be a factor largely because it has its quarterback issues already resolved, welcoming back the highly productive Keith Price for another season, though defensive shortcomings will keep it from title contention.
With a third of the conference undergoing coaching changes, bringing high-profile and up-tempo leaders to Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA and Washington State, upsets could be far more prevalent than usual.
The Cougars’ Mike Leach, after inheriting promising quarterbacks in Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday, plus the remnants of Paul Wulff’s long-term rebuilding efforts, will be especially worrisome for the Pac-12’s upper echelon.
Athlon's 2012 Pac-12 Team Previews
Oregon’s De’Anthony Thomas started only six of 14 games as a freshman running back. Closing out the season, he rushed the ball just twice against Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. This is the résumé for a potential Heisman Trophy candidate?
More lightning bolt than workhorse, Thomas made the most of his limited opportunities for the Ducks, scoring 18 times and thus positioning himself among the college football elite for 2012. On his two Rose Bowl carries, Thomas, a player christened “the Black Mamba” as a kid by rapper Snoop Dogg, zinged the Badgers for electric 91- and 64-yard scoring jaunts, the first run ranking as the longest in Rose Bowl history.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever had a kid who averaged 77.5 yards per carry,” Oregon coach Chip Kelly wisecracked. “I’ll see if (this season) we can get him an extra carry or two.”
What’s up with the barren stretch of straightaway Interstate 5 freeway that cuts through Albany, Ore., and pedal-to-the-metal defensive backs?
In February, Oregon State cornerback Malcolm Marable was suspended by the Beavers after he was cited for driving 104 mph in Albany, a half hour from campus, at 1 a.m. while in a 2005 Nissan Altima registered to a family member. A potential starter, he is expected to be reinstated for the 2012 season. Eight months earlier, Oregon’s Cliff Harris, an all-conference cornerback, was pulled over south of Albany, an hour from his campus, for driving 118 mph at 4:30 a.m. He was suspended by the Ducks. His car of choice? A rented 2011 Nissan Altima.
WSU’s Mike Leach, who inherited a pair of promising quarterbacks in Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday, had them throwing almost exclusively throughout spring practice, far more than the often air-minded Cougars had done in recent seasons. “I had a lot of fun doing it,” says Tuel, a senior. “It’s only going to make us better, and the more throwing the better, for me.”
To prepare the WSU players for his breakneck approach, Leach subjected them to conditioning drills from 10 p.m. to midnight leading up to spring practice, working toward a wardrobe incentive. Cougars were forced to wear pink T-shirts if a subpar performance was turned in during these late-night encounters, gray shirts for average effort and black shirts for above average.
Not His First Rodeo
A rodeo résumé might not be all that unusual for a high-profile player at, say, Texas or Wyoming, but it is at Stanford. Trent Murphy, a 6'6", 255-pound starting linebacker from Phoenix and potential Cardinal defensive mainstay, counts horseback riding, team roping, steer wrestling and rattlesnake skinning among his diverse talents. Of manhandling a steer, Murphy says, “They’re a little smaller than you think, only about 500 or 600 pounds. The trick is you try to use their momentum against them. As they’re running, you get the right leverage and twist their head right around so they kind of fall over on their back.”
Dan’s the Man
Dan Buckner, Arizona’s top receiver, one-time Texas transfer and resident funnyman, is playing for his fourth college head coach — Mack Brown at Texas, Mike Stoops, Tim Kish (interim) and Rich Rodriguez at Arizona. Yet Buckner should be used to people coming and going in his world: He has nearly 1,900 Twitter followers and roughly 5,000 Facebook friends. He’s a social media maven. He’s definitely his own man, too. “There are good leaders and bad leaders. I just want to be viewed as a positive one,” Buckner said.
In the spring, USC toyed with moving Kevin Graf from starting right tackle to the all-important left tackle slot — to replace NFL-bound Matt Kalil — but opted to keep the 6'6", 295-junior on the right side, at least for now. If the staff revisits the plan in the fall, Graf should be more than up to fill the role.
His father, Allan, was a starting offensive guard and member of USC’s 1972 national championship team before embarking on a career as a Hollywood stunt coordinator. Graf’s brother, Derek, was an offensive guard, center and part-time Trojans starter in 2002 before the sibling likewise became a stunt double.
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