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USC enters season in unfamiliar position

Posted: July 27, 2013 6:21 p.m.
Updated: July 27, 2013 6:21 p.m.
Southern California head coach Lane Kiffin talks to the media during Pac-12 media day on Friday in Culver City. Southern California head coach Lane Kiffin talks to the media during Pac-12 media day on Friday in Culver City.
Southern California head coach Lane Kiffin talks to the media during Pac-12 media day on Friday in Culver City.

CULVER CITY — Question after question was fired at USC head coach Lane Kiffin at Pac-12 football media day on Friday at Sony Pictures Studios.

Is your job safe? Who is the starting quarterback? How about running back?

Many of Kiffin’s answers were vague and uncertain.

Not a whole lot is certain about the Trojans as they head into 2013.

“I think every team and ever year is different and you’re not going to know your team sitting here right now before opening training camp,” said the fourth-year head coach, who did make a point to say his job was not in danger.

USC athletic director Pat Haden also backed Kiffin in a video he posted on YouTube.

That being said, it was still a considerably different tone Kiffin took on Friday compared to the previous year’s media day, when he was talking about national championship prospects and his at-the-time Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback, Matt Barkley.

The end result for the preseason No. 1 team in the nation was a 7-6 record, a loss in the Sun Bowl and a sub-par season from Barkley, who left for the NFL.

“I don’t think the hype had anything to do with our performance last year,” Kiffin said.

USC returns as the predicted No. 3 finisher in the Pac-12 South Division, according to the media poll released Friday.

It’s hardly the kind of anticipation the 11-time national champion program has grown accustomed to through the years.

The Trojans bring back eight starters on both sides of the ball.

One of them is last year’s Biletnikoff award-winning wide receiver Marqise Lee, who comes into his junior year with Heisman hopes.

“The Heisman, the Belitnikoff, whatever you want to talk about is the last thing on my mind,” Lee said. “I’m self-motivated and I’ve pushed the issue.”

Whether it’s Lee, fellow wideout Nelson Agholor or tight end Xavier Grimble catching passes, it’s unclear who will be throwing them the ball.

USC heads into fall camp on Aug. 3 with three potential starting quarterbacks in Max Wittek, Cody Kessler and true freshman Max Browne.

Only one of the three, Wittek, has any significant playing time under his belt.

“All three are different in the style that they play and also all three are very good quarterbacks and it’s going to be the player that’s going to help us win the most,” Kiffin said.

On defense, several of the unit’s top players return at the defensive line and linebacker positions. Linebackers Morgan Breslin and Hayes Pullard as well as safety/linebacker Dion Bailey all appeared on preseason All-American lists.

Those players will be given the task of implementing the scheme under new defensive coordinator Clandy Pendergast. He’s there to help shore up a defense that gave up 394 yards per game to rank seventh in the conference last season.

“It’s been a great transition,” Pullard said. “Pendergast brings that swagger that’s been great for us … They simplified this defense for us guys to go out there and just play fast and play to the best of our ability.”

Other starting positions in the secondary are up for grabs.

There’s also competition for the starting running back job, but the players fighting for the spot gave Kiffin an optimistic tone.

Last year’s starter and Penn State transfer Silas Redd will compete for carries with Tre Madden and D.J. Morgan. Madden is trying to come back from a knee injury suffered during spring workouts.

“We feel like the entire running back group and the fact that Tre is healthy we have that position back to where it was in that 2004, 2005 range,” Kiffin said.

Whoever is running the ball will get four returning offensive lineman in front of them, including 2012 freshman All-American Max Tuerk.

Add on to that another highly ranked 2013 signing class — ranked 14th in the nation by ESPN — and fans have reason to believe the pollsters underestimated the Trojans.

It’s also worth noting that USC avoids Pac-12 championship favorite Oregon in its regular season schedule and gets to play conference powers Stanford and UCLA at home.

Uncertainty surrounds USC football and the relative lack of preseason hype and publicity puts the team in an unfamiliar position.

Unlike last year, the Trojans don’t have to prove that a No. 1 ranking is accurate. This year, they want to prove the rankings wrong.


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