July 7, 2008

Should you be worried about the offense?

As fans, reporters and, generally as people, we want answers.

Whenever something goes wrong, we've got to know why. Whether are teams win or lose, we need to know how.

It's not a character flaw; it's a by-product of passion.

Casual observers might not make much of the Trojan football team's summer workouts. There's some stretching, but no hitting. There's running, but no pads.

Despite the lack of certain football practice staples (like coaching), the workouts have spawned some intriguing questions/

Instead of waiting for practices to begin August 6, here's a look at some early answers.

Q: Should USC fans be worried about the offense?

A: Short answer, yes - but not as much as you'd think,

The offense has struggled in seven-on-seven workouts, failing to get into any sort of rhythm.

The Trojan defense hasn't allowed more than a handful of completions down the field, and when a USC quarterback like Mark Sanchez has aired things out, receivers have dropped some passes.

The inability to complete even medium-range (15 yards or so) passes has to be a little worrisome, and that little worry should grow when you consider all of this is happening without a pass rush.

Add into the mix an offensive line that's one of the least experienced units on the team, and it's more than fair to lose a little sleep over this side of the ball.

There's good news, though.

Like always, the backfield will be really talented. If the offense if relegated to passing the ball to the flat on a frequent basis, there are players like Joe McKnight ready to make a big play.

Then there's a stable of talented receivers that's yet to realize its potential. Patrick Turner, who's starred in past preseasons, returns for his final season. Damian Williams has shown flashes of being a strong receiver who can go vertical or over the middle, and Ronald Johnson's speed is virtually unmatched.

Working with offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian and the rest of the offensive staff should help the Trojan offense improve before heading to Virginia.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the odds of the Trojan offense seeing a defense on Saturday as good as the one it will see on the practice field all week.

Q: Who are some guys off the national radar who could find themselves in the spotlight come January?

A: Preseason awards have been bestowed on plenty of Trojan players already, and some, like linebacker Rey Maualuga, safety Taylor Mays and defensive tackle Fili Moala, are near locks to read their names on all-American rosters at the end of the year.

National football experts shouldn't sleep on a few other Trojans, though.

Safety Kevin Ellison will deliver huge, highlight hits in the secondary. With boatloads of experience, savvy and talent, Ellison might just play his way past Mays onto some all-American teams.

Ellison, a first team all-Pac-10 performer a year ago, is poised to cement his place among the nation's top safeties.

Everyone knows Maualuga and Brian Cushing are two of the best linebackers in the country, but Kaluka Maiava could surprise some people this season.

Physically, Maiava has been ready to be on the field for some time, but playing behind Keith Rivers limited his reps. In part-time duty, though, he racked up 44 tackles.

Playing on the weakside, Maiava will have plenty chances for tackles - which means plenty of chances to make big plays.

On offense, Sanchez, like any USC quarterback, has a chance to earn plenty of recognition.

Less obviously, Stanley Havili has a chance to prove he's one of the nation's most productive fullbacks. Havili has a wonderful attitude with the work ethic to match.

He's a versatile weapon who can be used as a rusher or a receiver - and he blocks.

If the Trojan offense struggles to get the ball downfield through the vertical passing game, Havili could be a prime target.

Q: What true freshman has the best chance to play right away?

Blake Ayles, Blake Ayles and Blake Ayles.

Ayles is the easy answer to this question. He's a talented receiver at a position where USC is thin - albeit relatively.

Anthony McCoy has struggled with his hands at times this summer, and Ayles looks like he belongs on the field in his first few workouts with the offense.

Ayles is well rounded, but he will have to adjust to blocking big-time collegiate talent. When he's out running routes, though, Ayles looks right at home.

T.J. Bryant is definitely talented, and he made some big plays in his first seven-on-seven appearance this summer, including an interception. He's got good technique to go along with his speed and athleticism, but he needs to get stronger and add some weight to his slender frame.

Armond Armstead and Tyron Smith both look physically ready to compete today, but the adjustment to line play at the collegiate level is a huge jump.

Brice Butler has impressed his fellow receivers with his route running and his hunger for knowledge. However, there are a lot of young players ahead of Butler on the depth chart right now.


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