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Lane Kiffin leaves behind unsettled roster after firing from USC


How good is the USC job, now that head coach Lane Kiffin has been fired? Depends on how the roster you inherit matches up with the style of play you plan to implement.

If you want to feature a punishing running game, the Trojans certainly check that box. Converted linebacker Tre Madden and true freshman Justin Davis have impressed in their first taste of college action, combining for 894 rushing yards (5.8 yards per carry) and eight touchdowns in a largely one-dimensional offense.

Contrast that with an aerial attack that has struggled to do anything right, hindered by poor passing, poor protection and limited numbers (USC had only two scholarship receivers available after Marqise Lee was hurt at Arizona State).

Defense is an equally mixed bag. Sophomore defensive end Leonard Williams anchors a gifted line, where there is a nice mix of proven players and youngsters waiting in the wings. The same goes at linebacker and safety, but that group got shredded by the same Sun Devils that were smothered by Stanford for three quarters the week before. Corner is a glaring weakness in the age of spread offenses.

In short, USC has talent and will always have talent. The disastrous Paul Hackett era left quarterback Carson Palmer and safety Troy Polamalu behind to become the cornerstones of the resurgence under Pete Carroll. Whoever replaces Kiffin inherits a proven player in Williams, one of the emerging stars in college football.

Kiffin largely recruited well, even with significant scholarship reductions because of NCAA sanctions. But the two areas where he failed to evaluate and develop young players were at quarterback and on the offensive line, the two most important spots in all of football.

When Kiffin had Matt Kalil at left tackle, USC was nigh unstoppable in 2011. Go back to the games against Stanford, Oregon and UCLA and every huge run went to the outside with Kalil leading the way. USC allowed only eight sacks in 12 games, second-best in the FBS, with Kalil's outstanding blocking giving quarterback Matt Barkley the time to attack down the field and feature Lee and Robert Woods.

After Kalil left, Barkley had the experience to mask protection issues and keep the offense rolling. Once he was driven into the turf against UCLA, however, it was all downhill from there. USC has scored 16.4 points in the seven games since Barkley's injury, and that tally is inflated by the 41 points scored Saturday night against ASU. Max Wittek and Cody Kessler have been sacked 15 times in those games.

Neither Kessler nor Wittek have shown anything to indicate he is the quarterback of the future, meaning the future rests with true freshman Max Browne or someone not yet on the roster.

Max Tuerk showed some promise at left tackle last season, while redshirt freshman Chad Wheeler has fared better in run blocking starting there this year.

The trait that defines the most successful teams in college football is having a dominant blindside blocker protecting an efficient, top-flight passer. There's a reason Alabama, Oregon, Stanford and Texas A&M are all in position to play for the BCS title.

That's the pairing that modern football demands for success, the conditions that facilitated Kiffin's lone successful season in 2011, and the challenge for whomever comes in to replace him.

Follow Dan Greenspan on Twitter @DanGreenspan.



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