Expectations run high for USC upon the outset of Trojans fall camp. The media’s pick to win the 2015 Pac-12 Conference championship and a preseason top-10 team, USC is anticipating competing for the program's first league title since 2008.
Current head coach Steve Sarkisian was at USC as offensive coordinator for that last conference championship, and he made no bones at Pac-12 Media Days about aspiring for more of the same in 2015.
"We came here to win championships," he said. "At some point those expectations are going to be what they were."
Heisman Trophy-contending quarterback Cody Kessler leads a talented and experienced roster, which also is USC's deepest in more than three years. But as fall camp opens, marking an official start to the 2015 season, questions loom that the Trojans must address if they are, in fact, to contend for the Pac-12 title.
USC’s Five Biggest Fall Camp Storylines
1. Development of the Run Game
Once he took over as USC’s primary ball carrier midway through the 2013 season, Javorius “Buck” Allen established himself as a cornerstone of the Trojans’ offense. He led USC in rushing each of the last two seasons, last year going for 1,489 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Allen’s running mate Justin Davis returns, as does the back Allen replaced due to injury in 2013, Tre Madden. Both have shown explosive potential in their time at USC, particularly Madden, who was on pace for a 1,000-yard season before his hip injury in 2013.
But shaking off the rust of almost two years on the sideline will determine Madden’s place in the offense in the season to come, while Davis will be in new territory with a heavier share of the workload.
Kessler said, "This year [the offensive line is] going to be doing a really good job at, not only protecting me, but also in the run game."
Playing behind a front five that returns every starter should help, but fall camp will tell us quite a bit about where this facet of the USC stands without its biggest star of the last two years.
2. Wide Receiver Potential vs. Production
Not often can a wide receiver corps lose a player responsible for 104 catches, 1,313 yards and 12 touchdowns, as USC does in Nelson Agholor, yet hold realistic expectations of improving. Such is the case for USC, which adds several new weapons into a group led by standout sophomore JuJu Smith.
Two of the candidates for breakout seasons are Steven Mitchell, who only played the last month of 2014, and junior college transfer Isaac Whitney. Mitchell brings breakaway speed that should give Kessler a home-run threat, while Whitney’s size makes him a possible red-zone target.
The unit’s collective depth is intriguing, but needs to establish a firm pecking order. Who will be the reliable No. 2 to Smith that Smith was to Agholor last season? That’s one question the Trojans will begin to answer at fall camp.
3. Who’s Getting Sacks?
Late into the 2014 campaign, USC blitzed less than any other Power 5 conference program in the nation. Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox is hardly a conservative play caller — his defense the previous year at Washington was one of the most aggressive blitzing teams in the nation — but a number of factors played into his reluctance to blitz last season.
First, the Trojans’ lack of depth precluded Wilcox from getting too aggressive. USC also played one of the youngest secondaries in all of college football; bringing too much heat would have left the youngsters exposed. Third, USC got uncanny pressure up front, thanks to All-American Leonard Williams.
Su’a Cravens playing more linebacker this year likely means more pressure, as he was one of the Trojans' most effective pass rushers when lined up there. The return of Jabari Ruffin to a deep linebacker corps also should allow the Trojans to blitz more regularly.
As far as replacing Williams' production, fall camp will give a glimpse into the prediction Cravens made at media days: "Delvon [Simmons] is poised to have a big, big year."
4. Meet the Freshmen
USC’s top-rated recruiting class embarks on its first year with much fanfare. For many of the newcomers, fall camp is their formal introduction to life in the Pac-12.
The Trojans have held informal, team-run workouts this summer, in which some of the youngsters have had the opportunity to make a splash. Cravens said linebacker Cam Smith is already establishing himself as a potential playmaker come fall.
"He's playing like a veteran," Cravens said of Smith. "He had four or five interceptions in the spring, including two on Cody [Kessler]. He's been carrying himself like a vet."
Smith is part of a linebacker class stocked with talent. Osa Masina and Porter Gustin, a pair of 5-star signees, also could find their way into the rotation.
Other ballyhooed prospects will have the potential to show out come fall camp, like defensive lineman Rasheem Green and cornerback Iman Marshall. Both arrive at USC with 5-star credentials and the potential to make immediate impacts.
5. Solidifying Special Teams
USC’s special teams play was equal parts electrifying and terrifying in 2014. On the positive end, USC had Adoree’ Jackson and Agholor returning kicks. On the negative, coverage was sometimes lacking and a bevy of injuries forced special teams coordinator Johnny Nansen to get creative with his calls.
For example, an injury at long snapper led to Kessler pooch-punting on stalled drives at or around midfield seven times. Resolving the shaky punting situation is a key element of establishing a more consistent special teams.
The biggest question mark on special teams may be replacing Andre Heidari, USC’s placekicker for the previous four seasons. Heidari was sidelined due to injury for a portion of the 2014 campaign, which gave Alex Wood live-game opportunities. Wood connected on all 12 of his extra-point attempts, but didn’t get a shot to try a field goal.