CULVER CITY, Calif. — USC coach Lane Kiffin downplayed the impact all the hype surrounding the Trojans had on last season’s disappointing 7-6 campaign. The projected national championship contenders lost five of their final six games to slide quickly into mediocrity.
“I don’t think the ‘hype’ had anything to do with our performance last year,” said Kiffin, who explained that the USC staff spent a lot of time in January and February figuring out what happened. Coaches looked at everything in the program — focusing on the things that have to do with winning and losing.
“I think we didn’t play very well and we didn’t coach very well,” Kiffin said. “When you do that, that’s what happens.”
Kiffin noted that playing better on third down and in the red zone need to improve, as does tackling better on defense.
“Those are the things that matter and that’s what we’ve gone back to basics in working on all spring and that’s what we will start with (in camp),” he said.
There’s added motivation with the rise of rival UCLA’s program. The crosstown Bruins defeated USC 38-28 last November.
“That rivalry game is obviously very big for us, big for our fans and both universities being so close with so many connections,” Kiffin said. “Obviously, we were on the wrong side of it last year. For a number of years we were on the right side and we got to get that back.”
That, however, will have to wait until the game rolls around.
“Now it’s going to be about having a good training camp and preparing well,” Kiffin said. “And when we get to that game, playing better and coaching better than we did.”
OFFENSE: Junior wide receiver Marqise Lee, who won the Biletnikoff Award last season after making a conference-record 118 catches for 1,721 yards, headlines an offense that must replace stars like quarterback Matt Barkley, wide receiver Robert Woods and center Khaled Holmes. Running back Silas Redd (905 yards) is back to help. Sophomore Max Wittek is the front-runner to start at quarterback.
DEFENSE: New defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast takes over a unit with seven returning starters. Standouts include senior defensive end Morgan Breslin (19.5 tackles-for-loss, 13 sacks) and defensive tackle Leonard Williams, the Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2012. The linebacker corps is comprised of two-year starters Dion Bailey, Hayes Pullard and Lamar Dawson, all juniors.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Lee averaged 28.3 yards on kickoff returns last season. Kicker Andre Heidari is also back. He made 10 of 16 field goals as a sophomore.
EXTRA POINTS: USC athletic director Pat Haden released a video stating that Kiffin was not on the “hot seat.” ... Kiffin has decided to close all practices to the media once the season begins. ... The Trojans’ final two home games are against last year’s Pac-12 championship game participants — Stanford and UCLA.