USC wrapped up its first Camp Kiffin with the annual spring game Saturday at the Coliseum. Here are my top five observations:
1. Position of strength
Although the defenses they faced weren’t entirely the same, there’s no disputing that Mitch Mustain (above) had a more productive day than Matt Barkley to finish a strong spring. There’s also no quarterback controversy at USC. But a QB depth chart featuring a starting-caliber backup and a rising-star starter qualifies as the proverbial good problem to have. Once they have their full complement of receivers (and tight ends … and offensive linemen), I’m fully confident the Trojans could beat just about anybody with Mustain at the helm. The final two scrimmages notwithstanding, Barkley had a better overall spring and could be on the cusp of a Heisman Trophy-caliber season if he continues to progress. Having Mustain around to push him only helps.
2. Front and center
Both quarterbacks were under duress in the first half, when the defensive front seven turned in what USC coach Lane Kiffin described as a “dominant” performance. Defensive end Nick Perry was a regular presence in the backfield, and linebacker Malcolm Smith was all over the place (in a good way). For all the talk about the Trojans’ lack of depth at linebacker — a legitimate concern — they do have four first-team-caliber players in Smith, Chris Galippo (right), Devon Kennard and Michael Morgan. That’s not a bad starting point. Combined with a defensive line that goes at least eight-deep, they should be able to cover up an inexperienced secondary that’s bound to make some mistakes, especially early in the season.
3. Wright on
Well, they aren’t all inexperienced. Senior cornerback Shareece Wright is seasoned and poised for a breakout year. His superb one-on-one coverage skills were on full display Saturday, when he broke up three passes. (The rest of the defense had four.) Two of them came on almost identical plays. Barkley bootlegged to the right and tried to hit Brice Butler on deep comeback routes near the sideline. Both times, Wright stuck to him as if they were velcroed together and knocked the passes down. My advice for quarterbacks who will face USC this season: Don’t throw to Wright’s side. It won’t end well.
4. Start of something?
When the offense did have success through the air, fullback Stanley Havili (far left) and receiver Travon Patterson usually were involved. Havili’s three touchdowns were carbon copies of one another. On all three, Mustain used a play-action fake to freeze the defense before hitting a streaking Havili down the sideline. If he doesn’t catch 4-5 passes per game this season, something’s wrong. Kiffin was looking for someone to deliver on the outside, and Patterson stepped up. No one ever has questioned his speed, which he showed off on both of his touchdowns: the first a post route, the second a nifty catch and run aided by a Kyle Prater block. But we also have seen Patterson excel in scrimmages before. If he wants to have an impact before his career ends, he needs to build on Saturday’s performance, not rest on it.
5. Dynamic Dillon
Saved the best for last! Forget the fact that he mostly worked against the second-team defense (which included a handful of walk-ons — but also some pretty darn good defensive linemen). Freshman tailback Dillon Baxter clearly has some special, God-given skills. Who could even conceive of stringing together consecutive spin moves in tight quarters on fourth-and-2? Baxter doesn’t think about it; he just does it. “Just reacting,” he said. “You don’t really have too much time to think.” Baxter won’t play a leading role as a freshman, but Kiffin & Co. will find ways to get him a handful of touches every game. More YouTube moments beckon.
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