Southern California's football practices used to be one of the best parties in a party town. Hundreds of fans, boosters and celebrities — and apparently a few unscrupulous characters, too — all gathered on the sidelines to watch the mighty Trojans' workouts under coach Pete Carroll.
Everything changed last season under the pall of severe NCAA sanctions. The crowds all but vanished due to stricter regulation, and coach Lane Kiffin barely had enough players to run full workouts after several key backups jumped ship.
A week into training camp for Kiffin's second season, it's clear USC still is undergoing changes — but for the first time in a few years, they're not all negative.
"It's good to have a lot of that stuff behind us, and now we can focus on what's in front of us that's really important," Kiffin said.
For starters, Kiffin has a whole lot more Trojans — around 100 players on most days, just like most other big-time programs. Kiffin and his staff kept recruiting tirelessly during USC's ultimately unsuccessful appeal of its NCAA penalties, leaving the Trojans with a roster stocked with topflight talent.
"It's a lot better this way," said Dillon Baxter, a contender to start at tailback. "We've got everything we need to succeed at USC, and guys realize that. We don't make excuses."
And those boosters and shady characters might have trouble even getting to the Trojans' practices these days. The street outside the practice field is blocked off by construction on the $72 million John McKay Center, the Trojans' new training complex.
Although USC still faces serious scholarship restrictions and probation over the next three years, Kiffin is determined to keep the Trojans competitive. For all their setbacks and struggles during the past two seasons, both relatively pedestrian by USC standards, the Trojans still appear loaded and prepared to make a run at the Pac-12 South Division title — even if they're barred from the conference title game this December.
Much of the Trojans' hopes revolve around Matt Barkley, entering his third season as USC's starting quarterback. The once-precocious passer has grown into a mature talent with a bright NFL future, but he still hasn't accomplished what he hoped to do at USC when he left high school early to enroll.
"We're still not where USC should be," said Barkley, who passed for 2,791 yards with 26 touchdowns and 12 interceptions last season. "We've still got a lot of work to do. We haven't accomplished anything yet, really."
Barkley has a tantalizing corps of talented receivers led by Robert Woods, who excelled as a freshman last year. Three more freshmen — Kyle Prater, George Farmer and Marqise Lee — ranked among the best recruits in football over the past two years, while former star recruit Brice Butler has been practicing with newfound passion since deciding not to transfer in the offseason.
"I have quite the arsenal at my disposal," Barkley said. "We have all this skill and all these players, but I think we'll finally turn it into production. We have a special group on our hands."
The Trojans are without Marc Tyler, last season's leading rusher and the presumptive starting tailback this fall. He was suspended last month for a series of increasingly wacky comments to paparazzi outside a West Hollywood nightclub, including an implicit statement that the Trojans paid their players.
Tyler appeared to be intoxicated and joking, but nobody at USC laughed. The school's reputation already has been tarnished enough by the NCAA scandal, and Kiffin suspended Tyler indefinitely — at least through the season opener against Minnesota on Sept. 3.
"After watching what Marc did, none of us felt good about it," said Kiffin, who was on vacation when Tyler's comments appeared online. "Marc has to get right, and until he gets right, he won't be with our program."
By the time Tyler is allowed to play in his senior season, his job might be gone. Baxter appears more mature and focused after an up-and-down freshman season, while D.J. Morgan and Curtis McNeal seem likely to contend for playing time — and freshman Amir Carlisle might be the most promising player at Tailback U, if his strong early camp is any indication.
USC's defensive line could be the strength of Monte Kiffin's defense, with Devon Kennard, Nick Perry and DaJohn Harris poised for dominant seasons. Safety T.J. McDonald is back for another year along with talented cornerback Nickell Robey, but the Trojans are looking for improvement from linebackers Chris Galippo and Shane Horton.
The Trojans still have talent, and they have a measure of peace after their NCAA appeal finally failed. Kiffin hopes that certainty translates into another step forward from last season's 8-5 mark and third-place finish in the Pac-10.
"We had a specific plan in place since the decision first came down before the appeal on how to deal with this," Kiffin said. "I think we're maximizing it by what we've done, and we're going to continue to do to make the most out of it."