The buzz started late last December, when All-American safety T.J. McDonald announced he was returning to USC for his 2012 senior season by saying, “I want to come back and finish things out and be part of something great.” The very next day, Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Matt Barkley declared his intention to return to Troy by saying, “The 2012 team has some serious unfinished business to attend to.” Both players, along with their teammates and many college football prognosticators, realize that 2012 could be a special season for the Trojans.
The 2012 Trojans bring back a 3,500-yard passer, a pair of 1,000-yard receivers, a 1,000-yard rusher, a duo of tight ends who caught 9 touchdowns, the defense’s top 4 tacklers and a kicker who nailed 15 field goals. Returning from 2011 are a Biletnikoff Award finalist, 2 All-American first teamers, 5 Freshman All-American first teamers, the Pac-12’s Offensive and Defensive Freshmen of the Year and the Pac-12 record holders for season receptions and TD passes. It is no wonder that this year’s Trojans feature numerous players who are candidates for some of college football’s top individual honors.
Although the Trojans are eligible to play in the post-season for the first time since 2009, the 2012 season marks the first of 3 years that USC’s roster size will be limited by NCAA sanctions. The Trojans must cap their roster at 75 scholarship players annually and can sign no more than 15 recruits per year (both figures are 10 fewer than the NCAA maximum).
USC appears loaded on offense. Barkley is a 3-year starter who will enter 2012 as the leading contender for the Heisman Trophy after last season setting a Pac-12 record with 39 TD tosses while completing a school record 69.1% of his throws for 3,528 yards. The owner of 4 USC game records, he is on pace to be Troy’s all-time passing and total offense leader.
Biletnikoff Award candidate wide receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee both eclipsed the 1,000-yard receiving barrier in 2011. Their combined receptions (184) and receiving yards (2,435) in 2011 were the most by a pair of Trojans in a season. The 2-year starter Woods, a consensus All-American in 2011 when he had a Pac-12 record 111 receptions and set a USC game mark with 17 catches, is on track to be the school’s career pass catching and kickoff return leader. He was a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award last fall. Lee was a 2011 Freshman All-American and the Pac-12’s Freshman Offensive Co-Player of the Year whose 11 TD catches among his 73 receptions were the most nationally by a freshman last fall.
Tailback Curtis McNeal ran for 1,005 yards with 4 100-yard outings as a co-starter in 2011. His 6.9-yard average per carry was the best by a Trojan since 2005. Tight ends Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble had 9 TD grabs between them as 2011 costarters. Telfer’s 26 catches last year was a record for USC freshmen tight ends. Center Khaled Holmes is a 2-year starter who is the leading candidate for the Rimington Trophy and is also an Academic All-American candidate. Then there are guards Marcus Martin (a 2011 Freshman All-American) and John Martinez and tackle Kevin Graf.
Other offensive players back who have career starts are tailback D.J. Morgan (he started the first 2 games of 2011), offensive tackle-guard Jeremy Galten, who became the first junior college transfer since 1990 to go directly from a J.C. to USC and start an opener at guard, and linebacker-turned-tailback Tre Madden, who will miss 2012 with a knee injury.
USC is almost equally well-stocked with returning starters on defense. McDonald, a 2011 All-American and a 2-year starter, is the top Thorpe Award and Lott Trophy nominee. He has 163 tackles and 6 interceptions in his career. Linebackers Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard, 2011 Freshman All-Americans, were the first freshmen to lead USC in tackles (they each had 81 stops last season). Bailey was the Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year. Cornerback Nickell Robey, a 2-year starter who is a Thorpe Award candidate. He has 6 career picks.
Defensive ends Wes Horton and Devon Kennard, 2011 co-starters, combined have 209 tackles and 40 starts in their careers. Safety Jawanza Starling, a 2-year starter whose 80-yard scoring fumble return changed the momentum in last year’s win at Notre Dame. Then there is 2011 co-starting middle linebacker Lamar Dawson and cornerback Isiah Wiley. Others on the 2012 roster with defensive starting experience are cornerbacks Torin Harris and Anthony Brown, who respectively started the first 4 and next 2 games last year before suffering season-ending injuries, tackle George Uko, safety Drew McAllister and cornerback-turned-linebacker Tony Burnett.
Both of USC’s specialists return. Placekicker Andre Heidari, a 2011 Freshman All-American and All-Pac-12 first teamer who is now a Groza Award candidate, hit 15-of-17 field goals and all 50 of his PATs last year. His 88.2% field goal percentage was third best in the nation (tops among freshmen) and his 50-yard field goal versus Stanford was USC’s longest since 1990. Punter Kyle Negrete, a candidate for the Burlsworth Trophy who excels at directional punting, saw nearly half of his 39 punts in 2011 pin opponents within the 20-yard line (and only 10 were returned).