Return of Robert Woods energizes USC’s offense

Quarterback Matt Barkley must play at a high level and USC’s defense must improve greatly if the Trojans are to build on their first season under Coach Lane Kiffin.

But add another item to the list:

Receiver Robert Woods must be able to play through the pain of a high ankle sprain.

That was abundantly clear Sunday when the Trojans scrimmaged at the Coliseum.

Woods’ return to the lineup started a positive chain reaction in what had been an inconsistent and sometimes sluggish passing attack during training camp. The sophomore made Barkley look like a top NFL prospect and allowed freshman receiver Marqise Lee to continue his ascent to a possible starting role.

Barkley connected with Woods on three touchdown pass plays, all against the second-team defense, during the 123-play scrimmage.

“I don’t know what it is but we’re just on the same page, whether it’s telepathically or something else,” Barkley said. “I just know what he’s going to do.”

Woods is not operating at top efficiency because of an injury initially suffered last spring while playing basketball.


He participated in USC’s first scrimmage two weeks ago but was sidelined for the second scrimmage because of soreness. His return to drills late last week, even though he was running gingerly, seemed to energize a team preparing for its Sept. 3 opener against Minnesota.

“You could feel the need for speed out there,” Kiffin said after observing the difference in the Trojans’ offense Sunday.

Meanwhile, Lee grabbed seven passes for 165 yards and a touchdown.

“He’s making plays, standing out… breaking tackles and making moves,” said Woods, who was teammates with Lee at Gardena Serra High.

Lee also displayed an intangible that impressed coaches and teammates. After Lee caught a pass on a short slant pattern, safety T.J. McDonald hammered him with a tackle that left the freshman on the turf for a few moments. Instead of heading to the sideline when he got up, Lee returned to the huddle.

“He hasn’t been one of the guys to come in all hyped up, thinking that he’s going to get every rep,” said Barkley, who completed 15 of 25 passes for 261 yards and five touchdowns, with one interception. “But he’s just been working hard, putting his head down and proving that he can play.”

Tale of the tailbacks

Junior Curtis McNeal started at tailback but was sidelined for most of the first half after suffering a leg injury. He returned in the second half but finished with only two carries for 20 yards.

The 5-7, 180-pound McNeal also started last week’s scrimmage before he was sidelined because of a knee bruise suffered on his third carry.

“He’s tough as can be but we’ll still look at [the tailback competition] over the next two weeks,” Kiffin said. “The one downside he has right now is almost every time we get in a tackling format he gets banged up.”

D.J. Morgan, who was not expected to play because of knee soreness, rushed for 44 yards in 12 carries. Dillon Baxter gained 31 yards in 10 carries, Amir Carlisle 10 yards in seven carries.

Quick hits

Cornerback Torin Harris and safety Drew McAllister intercepted passes for the second consecutive scrimmage…. Nickell Robey muffed a punt that resulted in a lost fumble. On the ensuing possession, he picked up a fumble by Baxter and returned it 90 yards for a touchdown. … Cody Kessler completed 13 of 19 passes for 228 yards and two touchdowns, with one interception. Max Wittek was 11 of 23 for 119 yards and two touchdowns….Freshman Andre Heidari kicked field goals of 48 and 32 yards…. Junior receiver Robbie Boyer and sophomore linebacker Will Andrew were awarded scholarships Saturday night.