Something To Prove: USC’s Lane Kiffin
By Zac Ellis
Throughout the offseason, SI.com will spotlight several teams, players and coaches with something to prove heading into the 2013 season. To check out every edition of this series, click here.
Lane Kiffin has his share of doubters, but few of those critics had much to say around this time last year. Entering his third season as USC’s head coach, Kiffin had a team that was primed for BCS title contention. The Trojans boasted a potentially Heisman-worthy quarterback (Matt Barkley) and the nation’s top receiving duo (Robert Woods and Marqise Lee). Coming off a two-year bowl ban, USC seemed on the verge of finding its glory days once again.
Then the season happened, and nothing went according to plan. The Trojans limped to a 7-6 finish capped by a loss to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl, and Barkley watched his draft stock plummet from unanimous first-rounder to eventual third-day selection. Now, for arguably the first time since he shot up the coaching ranks, Kiffin heads into a season on the hot seat. It’s time for him to prove his worth.
Kiffin’s defining campaign comes with plenty of question marks, none more pressing than the one under center. With the departure of Barkley, who was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles, USC will break in a new starting quarterback for the first time since 2008. Kiffin is known for his work with high-profile passers; he presided over three of Barkley’s four seasons in Los Angeles and helped develop 2005 Heisman winner Matt Leinart during his stint as the Trojans’ passing game coordinator in Pete Carroll’s regime. But it remains to be seen whether Kiffin has the same level of quarterback talent this season.
Sophomores Cody Kessler and Max Wittek and heralded early enrollee Max Browne battled through spring practice for the starting job, and all three were listed as co-starters on the Trojans’ post-spring depth chart. The uncertainty at the position likely won’t be resolved until fall camp, but whoever gets the nod will have a key weapon at his disposal. Lee returns after leading the nation in catches (118) and finishing second in receiving yards (1,721) in 2012.
Changes are also expected on defense, as Monte Kiffin, Lane’s father and defensive coordinator at both Tennessee and USC, resigned after last year’s continued struggles. The Trojans allowed 394 yards per game, seventh in the Pac-12, and were torched in losses to Oregon, Arizona and rival UCLA. Former Cal coordinator Clancy Pendergast joined the staff to help slow down the league’s spread offenses, and his task won’t be easy. The Trojans’ secondary lost T.J. McDonald (St. Louis Rams), Nickell Robey (Buffalo Bills) and Jawanza Starling (Houston Texas) to the NFL.
There are voids to fill across the roster, but Kiffin’s reputation as a college coach largely rides on his solutions. He’ll also have to avoid landing in the spotlight for the wrong reasons: Ball-deflating and uniform-switching controversies only furthered criticism of USC’s underwhelming performance last year.
In fact, Barkley even took a few swipes at Kiffin’s decision-making in an interview with Yahoo! Sports in April, admitting to witnessing mistakes made by USC coaches in 2012. “You put faith in your coaches, but when you see trends, things not happening the right way, and when the team rests on your shoulders, it’s almost like you have to step up,” Barkley said. “You can’t just let these things go by and watch them disintegrate in front of you.”
Questions surrounding Kiffin’s leadership won’t fade until he proves he can come through when it matters most. And thus far, his rise in the coaching realm does not reflect his success. Kiffin was hired at Tennessee in 2009 after a 5-15 record in fewer than two full seasons with the Oakland Raiders. His one season with the Vols produced a 7-6 mark — though Tennessee saw statistical improvement in several areas — and he’s currently 25-13 during his tenure in L.A. Only one season, the Trojans’ 10-2 effort in 2011, concluded with more than eight victories.
Kiffin brings back the raw talent. He has a favorable conference schedule. (USC gets Stanford at home and avoids Oregon completely.) But entering 2013, he needs to show he can handle the responsibility that comes with a major college-coaching gig. Otherwise, as he joked with reporters this spring, he could end up coaching in high school.