This is the biggest question headed into the 2015 campaign. Last year, USC’s offense went in spurts. They were able to dominate and move with pace at the beginning and end of the season, but that same torrid pace we saw against Fresno wasn’t on display again until the Holiday Bowl.
It’s partially understandable why this was the case, however. USC HC Steve Sarkisian knew that he had to be protective over the players during last year’s season. With the scholarship sanctions coming to an end and USC short on bodies, Sark actually used iron-man football as a recruiting pitch, but more on that later.
Knowing that he had to cut down on the amount of reps his guys saw, Sark likely figured that using the same pace they ran against Fresno for an entire season might not be ideal. Now that USC have a few more bodies on offense, there is a reasonable chance that Sark could call on those bodies to participate in a more blinding offense come 2015. Whether or not this offense will be HUNH for an entire season is something that will largely be dictated by injuries and progression of developing players.
Kessler for Heisman? – Coming off a rather impressive season, Cody Kessler is sure to be in the vast majority of Heisman contender talks this offseason. Adding nearly 1,000 more passing yards to his 2013 campaign, Kessler threw for an astounding 3,826 with 39 touchdowns to only five interceptions. He completed nearly 70% of his passes in Sarkisian’s offense, averaging nearly 8.5 YPA.
As Cody Kessler goes, so will this USC offense. The bar will be set unbelievably high for Kessler in his final season, but you don’t take the starting QB job with the Trojans amid lowered expectations.
Question marks at running back – USC’s backfield will be a little cause for concern, though. After the departure of Buck Allen, USC has seen a major dropoff in production out of the backfield. Whereas Buck ran for 1.489 yards last season and added another 458 receiving, USC’s next leading back had only 595 rushing yards and 92 receiving yards.
Sark has traditionally favored using a primary back to a two back system, but he may need to rethink that strategy if Justin Davis can’t establish himself early. The additions of Ronald Jones II and Aca’Cedric Ware in this latest class should give Sark some options to choose from with Davis and James Toland IV already in the fold.
The biggest area of concern on offense is the tight end position. USC announced last week that former blue-chip prospect Bryce Dixon was no longer enrolled in the university. While the particulars surrounding his departure are fuzzy and varied, what is not up for discussion is the impact the Trojans were expecting Dixon to have in this offense. These are now expectations that will shift to incoming freshman Tyler Petite, Oklahoma-transfer Tyler McNamara, and Columbia-transfer Connor Spears.
USC will also have the added bonus of Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick returning to eligible status after having to sit all of last year out. If he can stay eligible this year, he could be the beneficiary of being the only tight end in this offense with any deep understanding of what USC is trying to do on offense.
Of course, he wasn’t even able to play during Sarkisian’s first season as HC, so there is no real way to tell how much of an impact he will have. As an added bonus, Sarkisian has said they will use incoming five-star linebackers Porter Gustin and Osa Masina in offensive packages. Whether or not this actually happens remains to be seen.
Ridiculous talent at WR – We finally come to USC’s most ridiculously loaded position group, the receivers. Even with the departures of George Farmer and Nelson Agholor, USC returns and signed some ridiculous talent during the offseason.
The conversation starts with Juju Smith, though. After setting the world on fire against Fresno State, Smith went on to have the kind of season that made USC fans say “Juju’s only staying for three years.” It’s going to be a tough ask for him to assume the veteran role in only his second year, but Smith carries the talent and mindset to do so. He will be aided by another standout, Steven Mitchell, who had a spectacular spring.
Of course, there’s also the ever-deadly Adoree’ Jackson, who has been seeing more and more offensive packages during the spring. There’s also the matter of four-star JUCO transfer Isaac Whitney, who is expected to have a big role in this offense this coming season. And if all of that wasn’t enough, USC has guys like Darreus Rogers, Ajene Harris, De’Quan Hampton, and Ykili Ross who can break a play on a moment’s notice.
With all of the talent at the receiver position, it will be somewhat surprising if Kessler doesn’t enjoy another statistically impressive season, at the very least.
Entire offensive line returns – One of the reasons you can probably bank on Kessler being healthy enough to have that impressive season is the talent blocking for Kessler up front. Aside from the fact that Kessler is returning his entire line, the Trojans will also benefit from the return of Chad Wheeler from an ACL injury. Wheeler’s injury last year forced a shuffling on the offensive line that saw three true freshman earn immediate playing time and what an impact those freshman had.
It started with the early entrance of Toa Lobendahn, who has quietly become one of the best grabs from USC’s 2014 class. Lobendahn was able to come in and establish himself early, earning a spot almost immediately out of spring camp. With another year under their belt, the offensive line of USC ought to develop into one of the scariest in the nation by the time this season draws to a close, certainly setting up well for USC’s tilt with Alabama to open the 2016 season, but I digress.
USC return Wheeler, Lobendahn, Damien Mama, Max Tuerk, Zach Banner, Viane Talamaivao, and that’s just the talent from last year. That doesn’t even factor in guys like Jordan Simmons, Nico Falah, Khaliel Rodgers, Jordan Austin, and Chris Brown, nor does it account for guys like Chuma Edoga and Roy Hemsley, both of whom enrolled early like Lobendahn did last year.
If you’re looking for what will make this USC offense go, it’s very clearly the protection and time this offensive line can provide Kessler such that it will enable him to locate one of his many absurdly talented and fast receivers. Whether or not that will win USC enough games to meet expectations is another story.
Two-way stars – As mentioned earlier, Sark has carved out a niche in recruiting. Going after two-way players like Adoree’ Jackson, Juju Smith, Ykili Ross, Osa Masina, and Porter Gustin has given USC an edge that likely won’t last too much longer. It’s not enough just to recruit those guys, as many schools were vying for their services, you have to come good on your promise to play them on both sides and Sark has done that rather noticeably.
With that fact playing a significant role in where a couple of these kids signed, it wouldn’t be shocking to see other coaches make similar concessions, even if USC uses this approach due to scholarship numbers. But for right now, Sark has a stockpile of guys who could be four and five star guys on either side of the ball, judicious use of their talent will determine how far this team can go in the future.
2015 offensive expectations – For right now, the expectations for USC’s offense ought to be no better or worse than they were last year. The talent is there for USC to compete, but it’s young and unproven. As such, it’s best to temper expectations to a dull roar. After all, Kessler posted some extremely impressive stats last year, but they came at the expense of any significant regular season victories, with the exception of Stanford.
Kessler knows that this season will require an improvement not just from him, but from the entire team. The overturn in the Pac-12 has this offense poised to be the conference’s best, but whether or not they reach those lofty goals will be something everyone will be hoping to see.
Depending on who you ask, USC’s defense under coordinator Justin Wilcox is either on the verge of being dominant or headed toward proving why teams have cooled on the idea of Wilcox as their new HC. It wasn’t very long ago that Wilcox’s name was being bandied about as the hot up-and-comer.
Given the talent Wilcox was able to recruit during the offseason and the progression of guys like Su’a Cravens and Adoree’ Jackson under his leadership, it’s more likely that this defense is headed back toward dominance, but keep an eye open for the other.
Last year, USC’s defense was baffling at times. They could seemingly throw away a game or completely take one over on a moment’s notice. If you look back on some of the dominant defenses of the BCS era, however, many of them started out much like Wilcox’s. They showed flashes of dominant talent before wilting due to inexperience and questionable personnel decisions, but you never got the sense that any game truly got away from them. Sark himself even noted that the team were a couple of plays away from a much more impressive season. They were also a couple of plays away — Nebraska, Stanford, and Cal — from a very different season.
Loaded secondary – To address some of those holes on defense, Sarkisian went out and recruited in a big, big way. Adding Iman Marshall, the No. 1 cornerback recruit in the nation, to go alongside Adoree’ Jackson is likely to pay some ridiculous dividends for USC moving forward. When you add in the completely unsung talent that is Kevon Seymour, the Trojans have as good of a defensive backfield as you’re going to get in the high-scoring era of college football.
All three guys are capable of being a shutdown corners and Seymour has been called upon to do so several times without the plaudits given to his much younger and less proven battery-mates. Adoree’ and Iman are transcendent talents to be sure, but overlooking Seymour to compensate for those two guys may end up costing an offensive coordinator a game or two. If you’re going purely off of projected talent, these USC DBs are the stuff nightmares are made of.
Those are just the cornerbacks, we haven’t even gotten to the safeties. With guys like Leon McQuay III, John Plattenburg, Chris Hawkins, Lamont Simmons, and Jonathan Lockett, USC has blue-chippers to replace blue-chippers in the defensive backfield. There is also the matter of incoming recruits Ykili Ross and Marvell Tell.
Regardless of how the defensive backfield eventually shakes out, Wilcox has some toys in his chest that are sure to excite. What Wilcox can get out of his men in a second year under his scheme will go a long way in determining how dominant this defense can become under his stewardship.
How do Trojans replace Leonard Williams? Speaking of dominance, one person USC will undoubtedly spend a season or two searching to replace is Leonard Williams. Williams’ departure to the NFL was expected, but finding someone who could replace his talent, fire, and leadership was always going to be a challenge and that challenge became even more difficult this past spring, as the expected competitors for spots on the line were unable to participate due to injuries.
Further compounding matters is the fact that highly-touted defensive line recruit Rasheem Green played most of last year on a bum knee and was eventually lost for the season due to that injury.
Not all is dire on the USC defensive line, though. Sarkisian is known to hold guys out if he feels that they would benefit from recovery. So precautions could end up aiding USC as the season draws closer and guys are closer to their peak rather than worn down by the rigors of camp.
Injured returns include Antwaun Woods, Kenny Bigelow, and Greg Townsend Jr. They also return Claude Pelon and Delvon Simmons, both of whom will be expected to contribute more than they did last year. Pelon may not even be able to participate this year if he can’t get his academics in order, he was already ineligible for the Spring Game.
Cody Temple also proved to be an extremely capable backup last year and could insert himself into the conversation again this year. Incoming players like Kevin Scott, Christian Rector, Noah Jefferson, Jacob Daniel and Rasheem Green could be expected to mature sooner rather than later and it’s even more likely that one or two of those guys will push one of the incumbents for their spot.
Last but not least, we come to USC’s vaunted linebacking corps. The star of this group is easily Su’a Cravens and expectations will be higher for Cravens than ever before. Hell, coming out of Spring, Sarkisians expectations for Cravens may be higher than most fans’ expectations. Cravens will need to step up and replace the impressive leadership of Hayes Pullard, who departed to the NFL along with J.R. Tavai, another revelation for USC.
Fortunately for Cravens, he will be able to enlist the help of veteran MLB Lamar Dawson, who had his most impressive Spring since Mike Ekeler was the linebackers coach. Scott Felix, Jabari Ruffin, Michael Hutchings, Malik Dorton, Quinton Powell, Buddha Tucker, and early entrant Cameron Smith all competed this past spring and with more backers set to come in during fall, this position group will be among the most hotly contested moving forward. With USC’s linebacker friendly scheme, the possibilities are theoretically endless.
USC sought to strengthen their linebacker spot through recruiting and they did so with a bang. The Trojans cleaned up in recruiting by landing five-star linebackers Osa Masina and Porter Gustin, both of whom were among the most highly recruited linebackers in the nation. They also added four-stars Cameron Smith and John Houston.
All told, USC probably added more talent at the linebacker spot than anywhere else on the field, but it’s going to take time for them to develop and expecting that to occur primarily in 2015 is probably unwise.
How good is this defense? In terms of pure talent and projected impact, this is probably one of the best defenses USC has ever had. Right now it’s nothing more than a theory and projection, though. This USC defense definitely had their moments in 2014, the good and the bad.
It’s likely that they’ll be more consistent in 2015, but it’s hard to say that they will be as impactful because of the talent they lost along the front seven. The strength of this defense is in their backfield and they’re going to need to be the early foundation of success while the defensive line sorts itself out.
BUYING OR SELLING?
I am not buying the Trojans in 2015. While this USC team will be favorites to win the Pac-12 among many pundits, it’s hard to see the Trojans making the leap from the Holiday Bowl to Playoff contenders after losing guys like Nelson Agholor, Leonard Williams, and Hayes Pullard.
With the SEC almost sure to grab one spot, Ohio State largely returning everyone, and the Big XII looking for retribution, it’s extremely hard to see USC overcoming all of those hurdles in one season. After all, this is a team that hasn’t beaten their crosstown rival in several years and a coaching staff yet to prove they can win a Pac-12 title.
The bar will be high, but 2016 seems to be the year for USC to achieve greatness. Expect 2015 to be a table-setter for a legitimate national title run in 2016. That is when USC will have an optimal mix of upperclassmen and young talent, a dominant offensive line, and an abundance of weapons on offense. They also kick off their year in what will likely be the year’s most publicized contest when they take on Alabama at Cowboy Stadium in Arlington.
2015 will likely see USC return to the level fans have come to expect over the years, but it’s unlikely to yield any serious hardware with USC’s relatively weak non-conference schedule. One benefit the Trojans will enjoy in 2015 is the fact that Oregon will have to play Stanford right before playing the Trojans and teams will no longer enjoy a bye-week before USC comes to town, as every team in the Pac-12 seemed to enjoy last year.
USC media rightfully raised concerns over this fact and the schedule seems to be more balanced in the Pac-12 as a result. As a matter of fact, it really looks like Oregon took over USC’s bad luck vis-a-vis scheduling, drawing Arizona State, Cal, Stanford, USC, and Oregon State in successive weeks. This is another reason why the Trojans are likely to return to the top of the Pac-12.
Where the Trojans are likely to be tested is in their road constitution. The Trojans will have to play at Arizona State, Notre Dame, and Oregon. With only Arkansas State and Idaho on the schedule before early dates with Stanford and Arizona State, the Trojans won’t have much time to figure things out before they are truly tested.
Any early losses could derail their Playoff hopes, but the matter of Oregon and UCLA at the end of the season could put them right back in the picture. As always, you should expect that USC will inexplicably drop a game to someone they have no business losing against. Last year it was Boston College, this year the possibilities are endless.
No matter what happens, USC knows that empty 10-win seasons won’t cut it in 2015. Sarkisian et al. will be firmly aware of the fact that fans demand more. As a bar for success, Lane Kiffin was able to put together a trophyless 10+ win team and recruit like a son of a bitch. Sarkisian will have to build upon the foundation he’s created or people are going to scream even more loudly that he’s Lane 2.0 with better social skills.
Sarkisian would also be wise to avoid the drama that seems to plague USC during the offseason every year and by the way they handled Bryce Dixon’s departure, you can tell that USC learned from last year’s Josh Shaw debacle. Sark is not going to have control over some of the stuff his players do, no coach would, but avoiding the media circus is something the Trojans have struggled with in recent years.
In sum, USC will likely be a good team in 2015, possibly even very good. But at the end of the day, picking this USC team to make a Playoff run is a lot like picking Arsenal to win the Premier League or make a run in Champions League play; it could happen, it has happened, it may even be likely to happen, but it probably won’t. In other words, get ready for USC 2016.
Prediction: 11-3, winning Pac-12 South, Pac-12, and a New Year’s Day non-Playoff bowl.
For more USC analysis and commentary, follow Josh on Twitter @FightOnTwist.