Pac-12 Preview Week: Could Depth Derail USC’s Title Hopes?


USC tops many a preseason poll, including our very own rankings revealed earlier this summer. But, many have wondered out-loud if USC should be on top thanks to depth issues created by a combination of NCAA sanctions and players leaving for the NFL. But, for me the question is what do you consider having depth issues? Does it mean having bad players behind starters? Is it that the players behind starters or new starters don’t have game experience? It’s time to take a look into the actual depth chart for the Trojans and decide once and for all if depth really is an issue for this team.

Let’s get one thing out of the way off the top, yes they do have a smaller margin for error than other teams, but that’s because they don’t have the scholarships other schools do right now, it’s not that they lack quality. What may hurt them is if you see two or three players go down at one position, but what team can survive that?

The men of Troy aren’t exactly a team that rebuilds, they reload. In fact, if you are rebuilding at USC chances are you aren’t around long as a head coach. That’s just how high the standards are for the Trojans.

Analyzing a depth chart before fall camp can be a little bit of a silly exercise since we haven’t even seen what the incoming freshman will do and at USC it’s not exactly a rare occurrence to see a freshman making an impact (many a QB, RB, etc. can tell you that). So, it’s only fair to take into consideration that they may contribute at a larger rate overall than at most schools, especially with the limited numbers on the roster as a whole.

In looking at the depth chart, we’ll start in the backfield of the defense at safety. It’s probably the strongest of the positions on the team. Three players (T.J. McDonald, Jawanza Starling, and Demetrius Wright) will see a rotation at the safety spots and there are at least two if not three players behind them that would be starters anywhere else in the United States. Should injury hit anyone in the backfield it isn’t a worrisome spot.

The corners have some nice pieces and they have three players vying for a starting spot at one corner position, so they aren’t exactly hurting for depth there – it’s more about finding a starter. Right now there could be as many as 8 players deep, unless the incoming freshman decide it best to redshirt. To me that’s plenty of depth and most of it of high quality. So, when it comes to depth the secondary isn’t exactly an area of concern.

Moving forward to the linebackers, this is an area were depth is truly a concern. Middle linebacker seems well set, 5 players are currently listed at the position, the problems lie at the outside linebacker positions. Currently there are only two of them with any sort of experience at the position in returning starters Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard. Behind Bailey is a converted safety and behind Pullard is a redshirt freshman without any real experience. Clearly should injury, suspension, or any other unforeseen issue develop along the way, this unit could become very thin, very quickly and it’s got to be a concern to coaches and fans alike.

Some have proclaimed the defensive line as a sore spot as well, but I’m not so sure. True only oneHorton starter from a year ago returns (DE Wes Horton). What they lack in terms of experience is clearly being made up for in terms of potential. Take the case of Greg Townsend Jr. – a redshirt freshman this year – who is already the third defensive end coming out of spring ball.  You may argue that it’s not that good a sign of depth, but could it be a case of the players that are ahead of him in terms of years aren’t that good, but could it also be true that Townsend Jr. is just showing that well? If so, then depth at DE is a bit better than some think.

Defensive tackle is an area people are really pointing to as a weak spot because there aren’t any upperclassmen there in the two deep. The group of George Uko (So), J.R. Ravai (So), and Antwaun Woods (So) all have a shot at becoming playmakers inside.

Well, I’d also remind people of the trump card that the Trojans have in Ed Orgeron as the position coach. If there’s one thing we know about him, he can flat out coach a defense. So I have no doubt that despite experience the group of defensive tackles will play hard. However, if two or three of these guys go down that’s an issue – but what school has the depth to replace two or three defensive tackles and expect the same level of play?

On offense, just like at safety the tight end position is just simply loaded and should anything befell the sophomore duo of Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble there isn’t anything to worry about here, so let’s move along.

Quarterback? Well, they’ve got a Heisman Trophy front runner at the top of the depth chart in Matt Barkely. But what if he were to go down? Well, apparently there’s a great level of competition behind him between Cody Kessler and Max Wittek, but they are both redshirt freshman. Having them replace an entrenched starter like Barkely has to be a bit of a worry since neither has even seen the playing field.

The targets for the QB’s? I doubt you’ll find a better 1-2 punch at WR than what the Trojans offer in Robert Woods and Marquise Lee. After them it looks like a lot of unknowns. It wouldn’t have been so bad had Brice Butler not been dismissed from the team and Kyle Prater not transferred back home to Northwestern. Suddenly, behind them there’s not a lot of depth, at least depth with any significant receiving numbers. Only George Farmer recorded a catch last season and he only had 4. Now De’Von Flournoy has some talent and could become a 3rd target over Farmer by the end of camp, but sitting here in July this is another area USC fans should have some trepidation about.

McNealA big area of concern for most comes at the running back position. Sure they have a clear cut starter in Curtis McNeal (1,038yds, 6TD’s, 6.9ypc) who could become even more of a star this year. But behind him there isn’t much. D.J. Morgan is the backup out of spring ball, but he only had 42 carries last season and averaged only 3.9ypc, not exactly eye popping numbers. Behind them is Javorious Allen who didn’t even see a carry last year. I’d say that’s an unknown position if I’ve ever seen one. But here’s the rub, just because you haven’t seen them produce doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of doing so either. Sure, they need to prove it come camp and come the season, but is it possible for this to become a deep position? I’d say so, especially given the Trojans capabilities to recruit at this position on a historical level.

The offensive line must replace Matt Khalil, but they return literally everyone else. It’s not exactly a worrisome position either because the line has become another plug-and-play unit for this team and they have a very promising crop of incoming freshman that will certainly push those already there for potential playing time.

At the end of the day this team looks to indeed have a heck of a lot less in terms of margin for injury or margin for growing on the job. Should something happen to starters along the offensive and defensive lines as well as at running back and linebacker this team may not be competing for a national title and may end up having a bit of a dog fight for the Pac-12 South title on it’s hands. Now, do I see this happening? Well that’s a whole different story, for a different time (a.k.a later today in MOTM).

If you are a Trojans fan there is a lot to be excited for from an offense that could be the most explosive in the nation, but there’s also a reason to reign in that excitement a bit as well. 2012 could be a memorable year, but maybe not for the reasons some USC fans may think.

Follow Andy Coppens’ musings on all things college sports on Twitter @andycoppens as well as Wisconsin coverage at @MTBadgers. 

About Andrew Coppens

Andy is a contributor to The Comeback as well as Publisher of Big Ten site talking10. He also is a member of the FWAA and has been covering college sports since 2011. Andy is an avid soccer fan and runs the Celtic FC site The Celtic Bhoys. If he's not writing about sports, you can find him enjoying them in front of the TV with a good beer!