The USC Trojans wrap up their first week of fall camp with a scrimmage Friday afternoon, but after just four football practices, it’s still too early to have any solid answers to some of the team’s biggest questions heading into 2012.
Here’s what we’ve seen so far:
Robert Woods is back.
After the first practice, Woods said he felt “100%” but the coaching staff has, rightfully, been bringing him along slowly after an offseason ankle surgery. His participation has increased each practice, and after Thursday afternoon’s workout, the top Pac-12 receiver from 2011 said: “I felt fast. I felt back to normal…It feels good to be back.”
Head coach Lane Kiffin didn’t go quite that far. When a reporter asked “Did Robert look like Robert?” Kiffin took his time before admitting, “I wouldn’t say that.” He did, however, say it was the best Woods has looked so far.
George Farmer is out. Again.
The sophomore wide receiver struggled with injuries and a brief stint at tailback as a true freshman, but everyone hoped he’d have better luck this year. So far, that hasn’t been the case.
Farmer left the first practice with a hamstring injury and though he promised reporters he’d back on Thursday, he has yet to return. He initially injured the hamstring during spring practices in March and reaggravated it at the beginning of training camp. Farmer was the MVP of the only spring practice in which he participated before his injury, but his chances to claim the No. 3 receiver spot are slipping away.
“It’s a concern,” Kiffin admitted on day two. “It’s not his fault, he trains hard, but it’s hard to develop if you aren’t out there.”
With Farmer on the sidelines, redshirt sophomore De’Von Flournoy would be the No. 3 receiver if the season started tomorrow. True freshman Nelson Agholor is talented and is improving quickly, but he’s still very new. By the end of the season, he could still be the next rookie star for ‘SC, but Flournoy has had a few years with the playbook and was consistent through spring workouts and into this week.
The defensive line is the new “No. 1 Concern.”
At Pac-12 Media Day, just before USC landed former Penn State RB Silas Redd, Kiffin said tailback was the team’s biggest concern this season. Add Redd and subtract an injured Devon Kennard, and the D-line just became the Trojans’ main issue.
In the first practice, line coach Ed Orgeron moved J.R. Tavai from nose tackle to left end and put redshirt freshman Antwaun Woods in at tackle. Highly touted freshman Leonard Williams backed up George Uko at tackle rather than filling in for Kennard at left end.
It’s all still an experiment at this point. “We want to see if we can do this,” Orgeron said. “We don’t know yet.”
Tailbacks and secondary are finally back to being strengths, rather than weak spots.
Kiffin said the backfield “has completely changed” since the spring. McNeal and Redd are the established veterans, though Redd is still adjusting to his new squad. D.J. Morgan has improved, and his coach was pleased with the way he, and the other backs, were handling the competition.
The secondary has also been one of the stories of camp. Jawanza Starling, Anthony Brown, Demetrius Wright, and linebacker Dion Bailey all had interceptions in the first few practices. Kiffin picked Wright as an under-the-radar nominee for defensive MVP so far this fall, but that honor could just as well go to secondary coach Marvin Sanders. Kiffin had high praise for the position coach, who has the defensive backs playing as well as Kiffin’s seen them.
“It’s the best I’ve seen our defensive backs play…he knows what he’s doing,” Kiffin said.
The coaches are also excited about the future of the secondary after seeing the size and the aggressive, physical style of freshman cornerbacks Kevon Seymour and Devian Shelton this week.
Injuries and developing talent on the O-line.
Nothing too serious (yet – knock on wood). Senior center Khaled Holmes left the first practice with a minor injury. He played sparingly the following day, with Abe Markowitz handling the majority of the first team reps, but had returned and was in good shape by Thursday.
Left tackle Aundrey Walker missed part of Wednesday due to injury. USC isn’t providing an injury report for practices this year, but at the time, those in attendance speculated it might be a shoulder injury. He was at practice Thursday sporting a brace on his right wrist and did not participate.
Walker is projected to fill Matt Kalil’s very large shoes at left tackle, and his absence sparked rumors about the team’s potential contingency plan if he’s ever unable to play. Freshman Zach Banner and redshirt sophomore walk-on Nathan Guertler subbed for Walker this week, but in a game situation, it’s more likely that Kevin Graf would switch from right to left tackle.
Max Tuerk, currently a backup at right tackle, is reportedly the freshman most ready to start on offensive line. He probably won’t start unless there’s a big need, but Kiffin said he’s ahead of where Marcus Martin was last year, when Martin ended up as a freshman starter.
Cornerback Brian Baucham has not practiced yet because of a concussion. Incoming freshman receiver Darreus Rogers watched the first session in street clothes because he has yet to be cleared by the NCAA Eligibility Center. (When USC was going after Redd, it was rumored that Rogers might be ineligible, which would make a scholarship available for Redd without taking one from a former walk-on.) Cornerback Isiah Wiley and linebacker Marquis Simmons have not practiced, either. They’re both still waiting on summer school grades to be eligible, which may take another week or more.
Game Time: USC’s first scrimmage will be Friday afternoon at 12:30 PT. The Trojans will be in full pads, but the coaching staff had not yet announced whether the team would tackle.