On a bright and sunny Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles, USC's spring game reintroduced cardinal and gold-clad fans to an old friend -- and now new head coach -- Lane Kiffin.
The song girls were on the field, the band was ripping off old favorites, Traveler was on stand-by to have his picture snapped with wide-eyed youngsters and assistant coach Ed Orgeron's booming voice could be heard from the press box. So far, just another day in paradise.
The fans' biggest concerns of this team -- linebackers and O-line -- still weren't addressed by the end of the day, but some surprises did unfold in the names of quarterback Mitch Mustain and running back Dillon Baxter.
It was widely assumed that Matt Barkley would keep his starting quarterback spot for the 2010 season, and according to Kiffin, he will. But, Mustain's performance was so superb, you have to wonder if this competition between Barkley and Mustain isn't closer than most pundits think. Most fans and reporters I talked to after the game would have put Mustain in the starting spot, based on Saturday's performances.
"Matt is the starter going into the fall," Kiffin said after the game. "Mitch had a great 16 days, made it very competitive. (He's) on a day-to-day basis. He (Mustain) didn't make as good of decisions as Matt did. We're really excited about those two."
And if you are looking for the next marquee running backs at Tailback U, Baxter might be it. The true freshman, fourth on the depth chart, made some incredible runs, including a sick two-spin move behind the line for a 58-yard romp.
"Dillon Baxter was a star today," said Kiffin. When asked if he had ever seen spin moves like that, Kiffin laughed and responded with, "Yeah, on PlayStation. The R2 button."
It wasn't all rosy, however. Kiffin ripped the offense for its first half performance.
"First half was defensive dominated . . . more than any practice or scrimmage had been," Kiffin said. " I thought the offense played terrible. "
"I told the players at halftime they're going to take their scholarships and give them back to the fans that came out today because that was (an) embarrassing performance."
So what did materialize from the Trojans' spring game? Positives Both quarterbacks are very good. Mustain out-performed Barkley, completing 19 of 29 passes for 299 yards and five touchdowns. Mustain also caught a touchdown pass from Baxter in the wildcat formation. Barkley went 7-for-16 for 87 yards and one TD, but injured his hand in the second half. One player cemented himself as a starter, while another introduced himself as a possible starter. Fullback Stanley Havili had a monster day, catching five passes for 129 yards and three touchdowns. Baxter averaged just under 10 yards per play on 13 carries.
The defensive front seven in the first half were stout, but unable to stop human highlight reel Baxter. Negatives The offensive line lacks depth and has not jelled yet in terms of creating a consistent running game. The impressive rushing numbers were primarily a result of Baxter, Allen Bradford and Curtis McNeal making the plays rather than the line giving them open lanes. Asked if any concerns about the offensive line had been alleviated during the game, Kiffin admitted, "No, not at all. We have a long ways to go up front." The wide receiver corps is very thin. Travon Patterson and Kyle Prater each had a good game, but in the first half, there were several perfectly thrown passes dropped by David Ausberry. "We have zero depth at receiver right now," Kiffin said. Inconsistent play from both the offense and defense through four quarters. Needs The offensive line needs to rehab from injuries as well as create more gaps for the running game. The pass protection looks good, but the rushing game needs to improve due to the depth of the line. Secondary looks suspect. Cornerback Shareece Wright had a spectacular day with five tackles and three deflections, but fullback Stanley Havili still scored touchdowns on three passes without much resistance. Offense needs to properly execute screen passes. The kicking game, specifically field goal kicking, has not improved from last year.
Look for Mustain to keep Barkley looking over his shoulder and for more big, explosive plays from the offense rather than a grind-it-out game plan.
Or, as Kiffin says, "Our defense has a chance to be really good. Our offense has a long, long, long ways to go, especially in the run game. "