Under most circumstances, 2015 would have qualified as a crazy year for any college team having to deal with the circus USC had to deal with. The Trojans’ once-promising season fell apart early and it wasn’t long before head coach Steve Sarkisian was suspended and ultimately fired for drinking on the job.
After that, Clay Helton took over as interim-turned-permanent coach and kept the old staff until a blowout in the Pac-12 Championship Game signaled it was time for drastic change. As a result, Helton completely overhauled his coaching staff as part of the comprehensive rebuild the program has gone through during the offseason. But that is under normal circumstances and USC had already been down this road once before in 2013, so this was just a routine training exercise.
The most difficult aspect of analyzing USC’s season is trying to parse out which problems were the result of poor coaching, poor play or a poor previous regime. The instability around USC has made it nearly impossible to get a feel for where this team sits in the developmental process and the program won’t get a ton of time in 2016 to sort things out. The Trojans open with the defending national champion Alabama at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. As far as first games of the season go, this one will be a doozy.
Spring is important for every team, but it becomes especially important when you open the season with the most successful program in college football historically and certainly over the last decade. If USC is going to take down Alabama, the work the Trojans put in during spring ball will be critical to their chances. It also means that we may see some position battles decided sooner to give guys a chance to settle in and learn their responsibilities.
5 Storylines to Watch in USC’s Spring Practice
1. Who Will Replace Quarterback Cody Kessler?
Kessler may not have the awards and accolades of some USC quarterbacks, but he held the locker room as well as any of them. Kessler was an undeniable leader for the Trojans and the team followed him into battle. Now he is gone and a new voice will have to emerge at the position. Veteran Max Browne looks like the man to beat, but Sam Darnold has impressed at every step and he could challenge for the starting job if new offensive coordinator Tee Martin feels like opening things up.
Darnold and Browne appear to be the front-runners to start, but the Trojans also have Jalen Greene and early enrollee Matt Fink ready to compete for the job. Greene has previously impressed in spring practice, but necessity dictated a move to wide receiver, where he also has excelled. The point here is that Greene is an excellent athlete and nobody would be surprised if he pushed the two favorites to their limit. Fink seems incredibly likely to redshirt and observe, but stranger things have happened.
Regardless of who gets the nod, the expectations will be through the roof for them when the season starts. Browne was one of the nation’s top recruits in his class and Darnold has been the talk of the town since his arrival. In fact, Darnold’s presence may have been a factor in Ricky Town’s decision to transfer. The experts have certainly tabbed Darnold as a player to watch for USC. Darnold and Browne bring a little something different to the table, so this may be one of the most exciting quarterback battles the Trojans have had in a long time.
2. Can Clancy Pendergast Recreate His Magic?
Pendergast, the new (old) defensive coordinator, was the most exciting hire of the offseason. His aggressive brand of defense was a fan favorite and the fact that he was not originally retained by Sarkisian was a sore spot for many. After several seasons of Justin Wilcox’s defenses giving away the middle of the field on a routine basis, USC opted to return to a brand of defense that takes advantage of its speed, talent and athleticism.
It’s been several years since Pendergast has been at USC and the college game has changed a bit in his absence. That is not to say that he cannot adjust, but that there may be a learning curve for both the coach and his players. Expecting USC to hit the ground running may not be reasonable given the amount of turnover, but Pendergast’s base 5-2 won’t be a huge schematic departure from Wilcox’s 3-4 and that should allow the Trojans to make a smoother transition.
3. Neil Callaway’s Impact Up Front
USC’s offensive line lacked physicality in 2015. The Trojans brought on Bob Connelly to replace Tim Drevno and the hire was justifiably questioned out of the gate. The ensuing results were rather predictable given Connelly’s history and the Trojans’ line drew national attention for its lack of cohesion and physicality. The Trojans hired Callaway away from Western Kentucky and that was questioned at first, but it’s starting to look like USC may have found a forgotten treasure.
Callaway’s pedigree is strong. He played and coached at Alabama in addition to having coaching stints at Auburn and Georgia. His time at Western Kentucky was impressive enough to land him the USC job and his approach since his arrival has won people over. If Callaway has even half the impact people think he can have, USC’s offensive line could go from a major liability to significant strength almost overnight. He has the talent in the garage.
4. Embracing Multiple Receiving Targets
Much like many of USC’s problems, diagnosing the root cause is pointless. Some people point the finger at quarterbacks failing to notice other receivers. Some people point the finger at simplistic play design and others at an offensive line that couldn’t buy a quarterback enough time to survey the field. Regardless of the argument, this is an aspect of USC’s offense that simply must change. The Trojans have been far too predictable on offense the last five years and they must find a way to keep defenses guessing.
This does not mean that the Trojans have to adopt spread concepts, though that does seem to be the way of things. It just means that USC has the weapons on offense and they need to find a way to make defenses respect every position on the field like the great Trojan teams of the past have. Funneling 45 percent of the offense through JuJu Smith-Schuster is unacceptable when a quarterback has players like Ronald Jones II, Adoree’ Jackson, Steven Mitchell, Darreus Rogers and more at his disposal. It’s a simple matter of making the numbers work for USC, and previous teams haven’t found a way to do that.
5. Tuning Up the Texas Tesla
RoJo 2.0 might have been one of the most exciting players many people didn’t hear about in 2015. Jones introduced himself to the Trojans by breaking the 39-year-old freshman season rushing record set by Charles White in 1976. He did that while mysteriously not being called upon in games where he was the most dominant running back on the field. In fact, he was USC’s leading rusher as a true freshman, but struggled as a receiver out of the backfield. If USC can refine his pass-catching skills, it is scary to think what Jones could accomplish before his time at USC is over.
Pre-Spring USC Outlook in the Pac-12
Outside of placing a bet on the Philadelphia 76ers to win an NBA title, predicting any USC season is the biggest exercise in futility. It doesn’t matter what people expect the Trojans to do, they’ll somehow accomplish the opposite. The past five seasons for USC have been a mix of impressive, unimpressive, and impressively unimpressive. Sanity requires a wait-and-see approach with this team.
The Trojans likely have enough talent to compete for another Pac-12 South crown, but the road to the Rose Bowl has gone through the North for a while now and that division is showing no signs of slowing down. Troy’s cross-town rivals still have Josh Rosen and the Bruins managed to lure a few of Sarkisian’s old staffers over to Westwood, surely increasing the intensity of that rivalry. It would seem likely that the two L.A. schools are poised to settle the South once again.
As usual, how far USC goes is largely dependent upon the players. The past several offseasons have been littered with bad press, suspensions, dismissals and growing pains for young Trojans. On the field, self-inflicted mistakes did more damage to USC than anyone not named Christian McCaffrey. The Trojans have been the kings of getting in their own way and any success they plan to have in 2016 must start with them getting out of their own way for a change.
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Webb is a recruiting analyst for BarkBoard, Scout’s Fresno State affiliate. A contributor to USCFootball.com, Scout’s USC affiliate. He is also a regular guest and contributor for CFBHuddle. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.