The Kiffin Era: What To Expect
With both local baseball teams struggling to stay on the fringe of their respective races, it is never too early to start writing about football, especially with USC opening fall camp on Wednesday.
Paging Mr. Kiffin, Mr. Lane Kiffin.
Yes, college football’s most controversial figure now prepares to go under the official microscope. Can this guy coach, or not? Nobody really seems sure, but that’s OK. Because we’re all about to find out.
Even with those infamous NCAA sanctions limiting their goals, the 2010 Trojans remain an intriguing group. There is talent here, lots of talent. But is it enough? Well, on the eve of Kiffin’s first fall practice, here are some of the things you can expect from this team:
1. The offense will be better than a year ago. Maybe mind-blowingly better. Offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates was a disaster in 2009, and Pete Carroll, the noted defensive guru, clearly showed that offense isn’t his strength. Kiffin will change that. He knows offense, and the difference in creativity should be stunning. In QB Matt Barkley, RB Allen Bradford, WR Ronald Johnson and FB Stanley Havili, he already has a solid core. But the surprise could be what Kiffin calls “the best skill class ever recruited.” He doesn’t mean by USC. He means by anybody.
Look out for the freshmen. Start with Dillon Baxter, the tailback who was a revelation this past spring. How good is he? He was only the most exciting player in the Spring Game. Then there are the wide receivers. Kyle Prater has the size and hands to make an immediate impact. Explosive Robert Woods was the best receiver to come out of the L.A. area in the past couple of decades. And those who’ve seen Markeith Ambles say he’s in the same class. The tight ends, led by Xavier Gamble, are almost as good. These kids should be fun to watch.
Now if the offensive line can stay healthy and improve off of last year, this team could score a lot of points.
Player to Watch: Baxter. With his moves and natural instincts, he has a chance to be something special.
2. The defense is a question mark. Even with Monte Kiffin, Lane’s ultra-respected dad, running the show, there are huge holes to fill. The defensive front should be a strength, featuring both size and depth.
But the linebacking is thin and shaky behind Devon Kennard and Malcom Smith.
And except for senior Shareece Wright, who should be among the country’s best cornerbacks, the secondary is young and raw. The best thing that could happen to this defense, especially early, is for the Trojans’ offense to control the clock.
Player to Watch: Jawanza Starling. He came right in this spring and won the strong safety job, showing rare athleticism and the ability to hit and make plays.
3. The schedule is softer than a year ago. There is no Ohio State or Auburn early on. In fact, it would be a surprise if the Trojans didn’t open up 4-0. That’s good, because it gives the kids a chance to get their cleats wet before the heavy lifting begins in the Pac-10.
Washington, Oregon, Arizona State and Notre Dame all come to the Coliseum, so that helps. But road games at Stanford, Oregon State and Arizona will test this team’s poise and discipline.
4. The coaching staff has improved. Not by a little, either. Ed Orgeron’s presence has been sorely missed. Now there will be an intimidation factor on the practice field again. Kennedy Pola’s arrival certainly caused a stir, but now that he’s here, he will add an important dimension to a running game that had begun to sag under Carroll. Monte Kiffin is as knowledgeable as any defensive coach on the planet, and new special teams coach John Baxter should make a huge difference.
5. It all comes back to the head coach. Kiffin will call the plays and run the offense. We know he can do that. But is he old enough and poised enough to handle all the other myriad tasks a head coach/CEO has to deal with in college football these days? His arrogance and his penchant for coaching on the edge are well documented. With new athletic director Pat Haden peering over his shoulder now, he not only has to win, he has to run a clean program.
There are already lots of people out there betting that he can’t do it.
Others are adamant that he can.
For the rest of us, it will be fascinating merely to stand back and see what happens.
— Steve Bisheff