USC opens the Steve Sarkisian era with plenty of optimism. The Trojans return 14 starters from a team that went 10-4 last year, and the coaching staff has stability after a season of uncertainty. Sarkisian hired a good staff and inherits a team capable of winning the Pac-12 South. Quarterback Cody Kessler improved as 2013 progressed, and receiver Nelson Agholor should be an All-American in 2014. Eight starters return from a defense that limited Pac-12 opponents to 25.4 points a game last year.
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Previewing USC’s Offense for 2014:
New Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian brings the up-tempo, no-huddle offense to USC, where the old, pro-style, I-formation set wasn’t just merely a staple — it was almost a religion. It will take Trojans boosters a while to adjust to the change, but the weapons are there to make it interesting. Quarterback Cody Kessler is coming off a solid first year as a starter, capped off by an MVP performance in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Javorius “Buck” Allen was the big surprise of 2014 at tailback, and wide receiver Nelson Agholor has the talent to follow in the cleat marks of All-Americans Robert Woods and the sure-to-be-missed Marqise Lee. Randall Telfer, a gifted tight end, is likely to be utilized much more in Sarkisian’s new scheme.
The key will be an offensive line that remains a work in progress. Three important contributors have departed, and several potential starters were held out of spring practice with injuries, leaving the situation slightly muddled heading into fall camp. Max Tuerk, the team’s most versatile linemen, will be asked to replace All-Pac-12 center Marcus Martin.
Clay Helton is the offensive coordinator, but Sarkisian, like his controversial predecessor Lane Kiffin, plans to call the plays.
Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast previews the USC Trojans for 2014:
Previewing USC’s Defense for 2014:
Order a copy of Athlon's 2014 Pac-12 Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 12 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.Justin Wilcox, the new defensive coordinator, will run out of a 3-4 base defense, as opposed to last year’s 5-2. But because there will be multiple fronts, it will occasionally look the same. The trick will be to play as effectively as last year’s defense, which was often the strength of the team. It helps that All-American Leonard Williams returns to lead a defensive line that could be among the finest in the country. Aggressive Antwaun Woods was the team’s most active defensive player in spring practice at nose tackle. He will be flanked by Williams and either Texas Tech transfer Delvon Simmons or junior college transfer Claude Pelon.
Hayes Pullard, the leading tackler in 2013, will be a stabilizer at one inside linebacker, and the secondary is deeper and more experienced than the one that began the season a year ago. Look for sophomore safeties Su’a Cravens and Leon McQuay III to be future stars.
Previewing USC’s Specialists for 2014:
Punter Kris Albarado, who had a good year, and placekicker Andre Heidari, who was somewhat erratic, both return. Agholor is one of the country’s more exciting return specialists. He averaged 19.1 yards per return and scored two touchdowns on punts last season.
Sarkisian is ecstatic to be back at talent-rich USC, where he served as an assistant in the Pete Carroll glory years. But his hiring drew a mixed reaction among Trojans boosters. Many felt Ed Orgeron, who turned the season around as interim coach after Kiffin was fired, should have been offered the job. Others thought Boise State’s highly successful Chris Petersen, who succeeded Sarkisian at Washington, would have been a stronger choice. It is up to Sarkisian to silence the doubters.
He has more than enough good players to do it, but much will depend on an uncertain offensive line and his ability to overcome the final season of NCAA sanctions that limit him to a 75-man roster. The schedule is generally favorable, although that shaky offensive front will receive a severe early test in the season’s second week at Stanford, and after two consecutive losses to Jim Mora-coached UCLA, the Trojans must travel to play the cross-town rival Bruins in the Rose Bowl.
A confident Sarkisian is talking titles already, but it might behoove him to simply match last year’s 10-victory season. Anything less and the pressure will be turned up considerably at USC.
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Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking USC No. 14:
1. Scholarship limitations…but also plenty of talent
USC is still dealing with scholarship limitations due to NCAA sanctions, so overall depth is a concern. However, according to the recruiting rankings, the Trojans have the No. 1 roster in the conference. While USC may not have a solid second unit on offense or defense, its starting 22 is as good as any team in the conference.
2. QB Cody Kessler’s development
Under the guidance of coordinator Clay Helton, Kessler gained confidence over the final half of the season. Kessler threw for 288 yards in a 20-17 win over Stanford and torched Fresno State for 344 yards and four touchdowns. Combine Sarkisian’s background on offense, along with the return of Helton, and it’s easy to see Kessler taking another step forward in 2014.
3. Loaded skill positions
There’s little doubt USC will miss receiver Marqise Lee. However, Nelson Agholor is poised for a big year, and George Farmer and Steven Mitchell are back after missing 2013 due to injuries. The running back stable is deep, headlined by Buck Allen and Tre Madden.
4. Concerns on the offensive line
This is where scholarship sanctions come into play. USC must replace center Marcus Martin and tackle Kevin Graf, leaving Chad Wheeler, Max Tuerk and Aundrey Walker as returning starters. Redshirt freshman Khaliel Rodgers could start at right guard, while true freshmen Jordan Austin and Toa Lobendahn are expected to factor into the two-deep. An injury could be a huge blow to the offensive line.
5. The Pac-12’s top defense?
With eight starters back, USC’s defense has a chance to be the best in the Pac-12. New coordinator Justin Wilcox is one of the top assistants in the conference and inherits four potential All-Americans in end Leonard Williams, linebacker Hayes Pullard, cornerback Josh Shaw and safety Su’a Cravens.