LOS ANGELES >> Marqise Lee says his personal success last season meant little while Southern California plummeted from the No. 1 ranking into a miserable late-season skid.
With four new assistant coaches and no starting quarterback, Lee and the Trojans are already back at work on erasing memories of those disappointments.
The Trojans held their first spring practice Tuesday night, going through drills under new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast and offensive coordinator Clay Helton. Lane Kiffin revamped his staff in hopes of fixing a team that went 7-6 last season and lost the Sun Bowl despite a talented roster and a preseason top ranking.
“We didn’t want to have that season, but at least we have a chance to start over,” said Lee, who caught 118 passes for 1,721 yards and 14 touchdowns as a sophomore on the way to the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top receiver.
Offensive line coach Mike Summers, running backs coach Tommie Robinson and linebackers coach Mike Ekeler were formally hired just 10 days ago, forcing them to learn on the fly along with their players. Kiffin roamed the field while checking in on every position group during the Trojans’ first practice on a chilly evening in downtown Los Angeles.
“It feels good to turn over a new leaf,” said tailback Silas Redd, who rushed for 905 yards and nine touchdowns in his junior season after transferring from Penn State just a few days before fall camp began. “We’re pretty driven this year. Things are smoother. I know the offense now, and I’m not hesitating. There’s none of that in my game right now.”
USC also must learn an entirely new defensive scheme under Pendergast, who effectively replaced Monte Kiffin after USC’s miserable defensive performance last season. The Trojans allowed 178 points while losing four of their final five regular-season games.
Pendergast watched little tape of his new players to avoid making decisions about their ability before practice began.
“We want to get our guys comfortable in what we’re doing, and every day is going to be an evaluation process to see who fits in the right spots,” said Pendergast, the defensive coordinator at California for the previous three seasons. “If we can come out of spring ball with a pretty good idea of who’s going to be lining up where, and in what position, going into the summer and then fall camp, I think we’ll be ahead of the game.”
While Lee adjusts to life without Robert Woods, his NFL-bound high school teammate, he’s also getting used to catching passes from three potential successors to Matt Barkley. Sophomores Max Wittek and Cody Kessler and incoming freshman Max Browne are competing to replace the most prolific passer in Pac-12 history.
“I’ve just got to get used to how they throw,” Lee said. “They all throw a little different, but we’re already getting better.”
Kiffin doesn’t expect to choose a successor to the Trojans’ four-year starting quarterback any time soon, saying the Trojans will “find that out when it shows itself.”
While Wittek started the final two games of last season in Barkley’s place, Kiffin said Kessler had the best performance in the Trojans’ opening workout. Browne enrolled early at USC to participate in spring practice, and the 6-foot-5 freshman from Sammamish, Wash., already looks fairly comfortable.
“My goal is to showcase what I can do best, and if it’s good enough, then that’s a great opportunity,” said Browne, who spent the past few months studying USC’s playbook. “We all knew we were coming to SC to compete. It’s a weird deal, but we’re all going to go out and do our best, and Coach Kiffin is going to make a decision.”
The Trojans also got a visit from Detroit Lions defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh, who spoke briefly about the importance of enjoying college football. The Pro Bowler and former Nebraska star is in town to film a reality diving show for ABC.