USC quarterback Max Wittek talks with Trojans Coach Lane Kiffin during… (Jae C. Hong / Associated…)
HONOLULU — This is familiar territory for Lane Kiffin.
In 2005, he traveled here as a brash offensive coordinator for a USC juggernaut that routed Hawaii in its opener en route to the Bowl Championship Series title game. Five years later, he guided USC to victory in his first game as the Trojans' head coach.
On Thursday, Kiffin and the Trojans return to Aloha Stadium for another opener against Hawaii. But the circumstances for Kiffin are decidedly different.
USC is coming off a 7-6 season that began with the Trojans ranked No. 1, ended with a loss to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl, and put Kiffin squarely on the hot seat with USC fans.
Kiffin, Athletic Director Pat Haden and Trojans players spent eight months answering questions about the meltdown.
"That has nothing to do with this team," Kiffin insisted this week.
Questions still abound — about Kiffin, his decision to retain play-calling responsibilities, and how he will manage a quarterback situation that was not settled after spring practice, summer workouts and training camp.
Kiffin said last week that "we anticipate" quarterbacks Max Wittek and Cody Kessler both will play against Hawaii. He acknowledged Tuesday that the order in which the third-year sophomores would play had been decided, but he did not reveal who would start.
"We're both going to take that mind-set that we're going to be in there first and, ultimately, we're both going to be in the game," Wittek said last week. "So the mental preparation is going to be the same either way."
Said Kessler: "They'll see us play in a game situation, see how it goes and see who the team works with better, and which works worse, and just kind of evaluate things."
The quarterback scenario, and how it might play out, is only one of several unknowns for an offense that features a talented but thin receiver corps led by All-American Marqise Lee.
Last season, Lee caught a school-record 118 passes and won the Biletnikoff Award as college football's top receiver. But with Robert Woods gone to the NFL, he is expected to draw double teams from Hawaii and every other opponent.
"I'm not going to get the same amount of balls I had last year," Lee said, "but at the end of the day, who cares? As long as we're winning."
Senior tailback Silas Redd, the Trojans' leading rusher last season, and junior D.J. Morgan are sidelined for the opener because of injuries.
Neither sophomore tailback Tre Madden — a converted linebacker coming off knee surgery — nor freshman Justin Davis have played a down of offense in a college game.
Madden said his knee was sound and he would be prepared to start if called upon.
"It would mean a lot, coming back from injury," he said. "It's a big step. I'm not going to worry about [the knee] when I'm on the field."
The offensive line also features an inexperienced player at a key position. Chad Wheeler, a redshirt freshman, will start at left tackle for a line that includes converted guard Marcus Martin at center and, possibly, converted tackle Aundrey Walker at right guard.
In the 2010 opener, USC's shaky defensive performance in its 49-36 victory over Hawaii portended many of the issues that plagued the Trojans during coordinator Monte Kiffin's three-year tenure. The sight of then-middle linebacker Devon Kennard helplessly dropping deep into pass coverage remains one of the enduring memories of that game.
So the Trojans are looking for a better start under new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast.
The "52" scheme that Pendergast brought with him from California and the NFL is designed to allow for more blitzing and man-to-man coverage.
After redshirting last season because of injury, Kennard has returned as a hybrid linebacker for a front seven that is expected to pressure quarterbacks and help a remade secondary that could feature four new starters, including freshman safety Su'a Cravens.
Kennard, like Kiffin, is eager to finally put discussion about the 2012 season behind.
"That's dead and gone now," he said. "This is the 2013 team and that's way different."