2015 USC Spring Football Preview|
March 2, 2015
(USC starts spring football practice on Tuesday, March 3. The dates of the practices that are open for free public viewing from the stands at Loker Stadium's Cromwell Field are March 3-5-7-12-24-26-28-April 2-4-9. Tuesday and Thursday practices start at 3:30 p.m., Saturday practices tentatively at 11 a.m. The public cannot come down onto the field before, during or after practice. The Spring Game is on April 11 at 3 p.m. in the Coliseum; $10 tickets can be purchased at the door.)
Expectations are high for the 2015 USC football team.
Many media outlets predict the Trojans will finish among the nation's top teams this season and could land in a College Football Playoff game.
Those pundits likely are basing that on the fact USC returns 16 starters--including one of the nation's top quarterbacks along with experienced, dynamic young talent on both sides of the ball--from a team that went 9-4 in 2014 (including wins at No. 10 Arizona and No. 13 Stanford) and won the Holiday Bowl despite never suiting up more than 57 recruited scholarship players for a game because of lingering NCAA scholarship limitations and injuries.
The prognosticators also see that USC's depth should be dramatically improved in 2015, as the sanctions-free Trojans welcome a 24-member recruiting class that was ranked No. 1 nationally by many observers (5 of those newcomers enrolled at Troy this January and will participate in spring practice). That should give USC a more complete roster, with at least 76 scholarship players, and perhaps help the Trojans finish games better this year (2 of USC's losses in 2014 came on the opponents' final play of the contest).
Optimism also is high among USC's coaches and players. However, it is tempered with a sense of reality.
"We realize what people's expectations are for the program and we're not going to shy away from them, we're going to embrace them," said second-year USC head coach Steve Sarkisian, who last season posted the most victories by a first-year Trojan coach since 1976. "That's the reason all of us came to USC, to be the best and to uphold the standards that have been set here.
"With that said, now is the time for us to go to work. We need to build a team-first culture. We need to improve our physicality and develop a bully mentality. And we need to take advantage of our speed and athleticism.
"We have signed tremendous recruiting classes here that have added depth to our roster. We expect to be a better team in the fourth quarter this year and finish games stronger."
Last year, USC outscored opponents by nearly double (284-149) in the first half, including 167-53 in the first quarter, and did not let any foe put up points on an opening drive. But the Trojans faded in the second half, holding just a 182-178 scoring edge, and Troy was outscored in the final quarter, 86-72.
Some 80 squadmen return from last year's USC team that tied for second in the Pac-12 South Division at 6-3 and finished 20th in the AP poll. Of those, 53 saw action in 2014. Twenty-eight were on the season-ending 2 deep and 32 have started at least once in their career. But the Trojans relied on youth last season as 11 true freshmen played significant roles, including 8 who combined for 58 starts (4 of them won Freshman All-American first team notice).
USC's 8 returning offensive starters are Heisman Trophy and All-American candidate quarterback Cody Kessler, who had the most efficient passing season in USC history (69.7% completions, 39 TDs, 5 interceptions) while setting or tying 6 school season records; wide receiver JuJu Smith, a 2014 Freshman All-American first teamer who had 54 receptions with 5 TDs and now could be in line for Biletnikoff Award and All-American consideration; the entire offensive line (2014 All-Pac-12 first team center Max Tuerk, now a candidate for the Rimington Award and All-American, 2014 Freshman All-American first teamers Toa Lobendahn at guard-tackle and Viane Talamaivao at guard, plus tackles Chad Wheeler and Zach Banner); and co-starting fullbacks Soma Vainuku and Jahleel Pinner. Other offensive players back with starting experience are wide receivers Darreus Rogers (43 career catches), Steven Mitchell and Ajene Harris, tight end Bryce Dixon (4 TDs among his 14 receptions last year), guard Damien Mama and guard-center Khaliel Rodgers. These players helped the USC offense rank in the national Top 25 in scoring, passing, passing efficiency and third down conversions last fall.
The 7 Trojan starters returning on a defense that was in the nation's Top 20 in turnover margin, red zone defense and third down conversion defense are safety-outside linebacker Su'a Cravens, a candidate for the Bednarik and Nagurski Awards and All-American after being a 2014 Sophomore All-American first team pick when he had 68 tackles and led the Trojans in tackles for loss (17) and interceptions (3); electric Freshman All-American first team cornerback-wide receiver-returner Adoree' Jackson, USC's first 3-way player since 1997 (he had 49 tackles, 3 receiving touchdowns and 2 kickoff return TDs last year) who could be up for major national awards and All-American this year (he was the 2014 Pac-12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year); inside linebacker Anthony Sarao (74 tackles last season); nose tackle Antwaun Woods and tackle-end Delvon Simmons (91 tackles between them in 2014); cornerback Kevon Seymour (a team-high 13 deflections last fall with his 49 tackles); and co-starting safeties Leon McQuay III and John Plattenburg. Other defenders back with career starts are outside linebackers Scott Felix and Jabari Ruffin, inside linebacker Michael Hutchings, tackle-end Claude Pelon and cornerback Chris Hawkins. Punter Kris Albarado and snapper Zach Smith are back for their third seasons in those roles, and holder Conner Sullivan and kickoff man Alex Wood also return. Jackson and Smith handled most of the kickoff return duties in 2014, with Jackson running a pair back for scores.
"I've said it before, our future is ridiculously bright," said Sarkisian, who is just the third Trojan head coach to win his debut against Notre Dame. "We are excited for the upcoming season, but it is important that we understand the work and the team-first attitude that is required to be successful. Because someone says we'll be good doesn't mean it just happens, we need to work hard every day and develop as a team."
Despite all the returnees on USC's 2015 roster, Troy will have to fill some major holes, including those left by 4 players who departed after their junior seasons to enter the NFL draft. They are: Leonard Williams, USC's first 2-time All-American defensive end since 1959-60 (he had 80 tackles with 7 sacks last fall) and a likely high NFL first round pick; 2014 All-American wide receiver-returner Nelson Agholor, who had 174 receptions with 20 TD grabs in his career (104 with 12 in 2014) and also scored a school-record 4 times on punt returns as a Trojan (2 last season); tailback Javorius Allen, who rushed for 1,489 yards in 2014 (the most by a Trojan since 2005) with 11 TDs and in his career had 2,306 rushing yards and 63 receptions; and wide receiver George Farmer (25 catches in 2014). Also gone are 4-year starting inside linebacker Hayes Pullard (his 377 career tackles are sixth most in USC history), who was the first Trojan to lead the team in tackles for 3 seasons since 1977-79, 3-year starting tight end Randall Telfer (65 career catches with 12 TDs), outside linebacker J.R. Tavai (130 career stops), safety Gerald Bowman, cornerback-safety Josh Shaw and offensive tackle-guard Aundrey Walker, as well as 4-year placekicker Andre Heidari, who had 49 career field goals (4 were at least 50 yards) and set Pac-12 career records for PATs (187) and PAT attempts (193).
There's only 1 new face on USC's fulltime coaching staff this season: offensive line coach Bob Connelly, who has spent 20 years guiding the lines at such schools as Alabama, Arizona State, Oklahoma State, UCLA, Washington State and UTEP.
USC's 2015 football schedule, with 7 home games in the Coliseum (USC has won 75% of its games there, including capturing 5-of-6 last year), features 9 opponents who played in bowl games last season. The Trojans open with 3 consecutive home games, first against Sun Belt members Arkansas State on Sept. 5 of Labor Day weekend (it's the first meeting between the schools) and then Idaho on Sept. 12 before hosting Stanford on Sept. 19 in the Pac-12's initial conference game of 2015. USC first goes on the road for a Sept. 26 matchup at Arizona State. Following a bye, Troy returns home for a Thursday night game on Oct. 8 against Washington, the team that Sarkisian previously guided for 5 seasons (it will be just the third non-Thanksgiving or non-bowl Thursday game USC has played in the Coliseum). Next up is USC's traditional intersectional battle against Notre Dame, this time in South Bend on Oct. 17. USC hosts Utah on Oct. 24 as part of Trojan Family Weekend before embarking on its annual Bay Area visit when it plays at California on Oct. 31 (it will be USC's 13th Halloween game). Following that is Homecoming/Reunion Weekend, featuring the Nov. 7 home game against reigning Pac-12 South Division champion Arizona. The Trojans next have a 2-game road trip, first at Colorado for a Friday the 13th night encounter on Nov. 13 and then at defending Pac-12 champ Oregon on Nov. 21. USC concludes its 2015 regular season by hosting crosstown foe UCLA in a Thanksgiving weekend clash on Nov. 28. The Trojans do not play Oregon State or Washington State in the 2015 regular season.
Eight starters return on offense from 2014: quarterback Cody Kessler, wide receiver JuJu Smith, center Max Tuerk, guard-tackle Toa Lobendahn, guard Viane Talamaivao and tackles Chad Wheeler and Zach Banner, plus co-starting fullbacks Soma Vainuku and Jahleel Pinner. Others back with starting experience are wide receivers Darreus Rogers, Steven Mitchell and Ajene Harris, tight end Bryce Dixon, guard Damien Mama and guard-center Khaliel Rodgers.
Although USC's leading passer is back from last year, the Trojans must replace their top ground gainer (however, Troy's next 6 rushers return) and their reception leader (in fact, 3 of their top 4 pass catchers are gone). USC averaged nearly 460 total yards (almost 300 through the air) and 36 points last fall. Troy's total and passing yardage averages were its most since 2005. The Trojans set school records for most completions (318) and highest completion rate (69.1%) in a season, while their 5 interceptions were the fewest since 1962. In its 2014 opener against Fresno State, USC had 701 total yards (its most since 2005) on a then-Pac-12 record 105 plays. Twice, USC threw for at least 6 TDs in a game last year. USC ranked in the national Top 25 in scoring offense (35.8), passing offense (296.6), passing efficiency (165.4) and third down conversions (.466) last fall. However, despite having a 1,000-yard runner in 2014 and hitting the 200-yard team rushing mark in 6 games (including 5 times in a row), Troy's rushing average (160.9) was almost 12 yards lower than the previous season. And USC allowed 32 sacks, its second most since 2001.
"We're not going to stray very far from our offensive approach of a year ago," said Sarkisian, who will continue to call the plays in USC's up-tempo, no-huddle offense with help from offensive coordinator Clay Helton. "We want to continue to be balanced. We love to run the ball to set up the pass, but we know we have a very effective receiving corps, too. And we want to do all this in an up-tempo manner. This spring, we need to develop our physicality and emphasize our speed and athleticism while building an offensive identity and playing to our strengths."
In senior Cody Kessler (315-of-452, 69.7%, 3,826 yds, 39 TD, 5 int in 2014, plus 2 rush TD and 33.0 avg on 7 P), USC has the nation's most accomplished returning quarterback of 2015. The 2-year starter enters this year as a leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy and All-American honors. In 2014 as a finalist for the Manning and Unitas Golden Arm Awards, he put together USC's most efficient passing season ever, completing 69.7% of his passes for 39 touchdowns and just 5 interceptions. No quarterback in the nation last fall threw as many passes as Kessler and had only 5 interceptions, and only 1 besides Kessler (Oregon's Heisman winner Marcus Mariota) threw at least 35 TDs with just 5 or fewer interceptions. Last season, Kessler--the Holiday Bowl Offensive MVP--was third nationally in completion percentage, fourth in both passing efficiency (167.1) and passing TDs, eighth in completions (24.3), 12th in passing yards (294.3) and 24th in total offense (282.6). He set or tied school season records for completions (315), completion percentage, passing efficiency, interception rate (1.11), TD passes and 300-yard passing games (7). His 7 scoring throws against Colorado set a USC game record and his 6 TDs versus Notre Dame was an Irish opponent record. Kessler enters 2015 in the Top 6 of several USC career lists: fourth in TD passes (59) and sixth in completions (553), passing yardage (6,803) and total offense (6,527 yards). His current career completion percentage of 67.9% and interception rate of 1.47 are better than 2004 Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart's USC records (64.8% and 1.85%).
Several young returning players will compete to back up Kessler: sophomore Max Browne (3-of-7, 42.9%, 30 yds in 2014), who saw limited action in 6 games last year (twice playing the entire fourth quarter), and left-handed redshirt freshman Jalen Greene.
Then there are 3 untested walk-ons in junior Conner Sullivan, who was the holder on all placekicks in 2014 (he also has participated on USC's baseball and track teams), and redshirt freshmen Michael Bowman and Larry Tuileta (he also plays volleyball at USC).
A pair of prep All-Americans will join the quarterback competition as freshmen: Ricky Town (St. Bonaventure High in Ventura, Calif.), who will participate in spring practice after graduating high school a semester early and enrolling at USC this spring, and Sam Darnold (San Clemente High in San Clemente, Calif.), who arrives in the fall. As prep seniors, Town threw for 2,639 yards and 29 TDs (just 3 picks) on 66.2% passing and Darnold had 2,985 yards with 39 TDs and 8 interceptions on 67.8% completions.
"It is always an advantage to have a senior quarterback leading your team," said Sarkisian. "Nobody ever has had the kind of season Cody had last year and went as unnoticed as he did, but that serves as great motivation for him this season. He has a chip on his shoulder and I expect him to have another outstanding season. He has good vision and smarts, delivers a very accurate ball, is mobile, is able to make quick decisions and does a great job of leading our offense. Behind him, we have quality depth. There will be a tremendous battle for the backup role and the future starting job."
USC's 2015 running attack will miss 2014 All-Pac-12 first team tailback Javorius Allen, who declared for the NFL draft after his junior season. He finished his Trojan career with 2,306 rushing yards (with 25 TDs), including 13 100-yard performances (all within the past 19 games). Last year, he ran for 1,489 yards with 11 scores and added 41 catches for another 458 yards, ending up 12th nationally in all-purpose running (149.8, tops in the Pac-12) and 23rd in rushing yards (114.5). He had the most season rushing yards by a Trojan since 2005, the most 100-yard games (9) at USC since 1989, the most carries (276) by a Trojan since 1984 and the most consecutive 100-yard outings (6) at USC since 1981.
Only 2 scholarship tailbacks return to USC in 2015: junior Justin Davis (129 tcb, 595 yds, 4.6 avg, 4 TD in 2014, plus 13 rec, 92 yds, 7.1 avg, 2 TD) and senior Tre Madden. Davis was Allen's backup in 2014 and showed flashes of his talent (he rushed for 80-plus yards in 3 games last year), as he also did as a freshman in 2013 when he ran for 361 yards and 6 scores in USC's first 7 games before getting hurt. Madden missed all of last fall with a toe injury (the second season that he was sidelined, as a knee injury felled him in 2012). But, like Davis, Madden also grabbed headlines in 2013 (he started the first 6 games that season) as he ran for 703 yards despite being slowed the second half of that campaign with a hamstring injury. Madden started off 2013 with 3 consecutive 100-yard games, a first at USC since 1981, and his 4 receiving TDs that season were the most by a Trojan tailback since 2004.
The other returning tailbacks on the USC roster are walk-ons James Toland IV (29 tcb, 102 yds, 3.5 avg in 2014, plus 1 tac), who was impressive in his brief late-game appearances, and redshirt freshman Stefan Smith.
Joining the tailback unit this fall as freshmen will be prep All-Americans Ronald Jones II (McKinney North High in McKinney, Tex.), who had 2,000 yards and 28 rushing TDs as a senior, and Dominic Davis (Bishop Alemany High in Mission Hills, Calif.), a speedster (he was fourth in the California state 100-meter dash in 2014) who might also be used as a slot receiver, along with Aca'Cedric Ware (Cedar Hill High in Cedar Hill, Tex.), who led his team to a pair of Texas state championships (he ran for nearly 2,500 yards with 34 TDs in 2014).
"Justin and Tre give us a two-headed monster at tailback," said Sarkisian. "Both are quality players who fit well in our system. We'll be somewhat limited in the spring at this position, but help arrives in the fall with some explosive freshmen who give us depth and make this a position of strength."
Seniors Soma Vainuku (7 tcb, 40 yds, 5.7 avg, 1 TD in 2014, plus 6 tac) and Jahleel Pinner (2 tcb, 6 yds, 3.0 avg in 2014, plus 1 rec, 3 yds, 3.0 avg and 2), who shared the fullback job in 2014, return this year. Both are used primarily as blockers and also see time on special teams (Vainuku made the 2013 All-Pac-12 first team as a special teams performer).
"We are very fortunate to have fullbacks like Soma and Jahleel," said Sarkisian. "They have high football IQs and can do so much for us, which presents a real threat to the defense."
The 2015 Trojan receiving unit was hit hard when Nelson Agholor and George Farmer both decided to enter the NFL draft following their junior seasons (and another 41 receptions are gone now that tailback Javorius Allen also departed early for the NFL). Agholor, who was one of college football's most exciting wide receivers and returners when he earned All-American and All-Pac-12 first team honors in 2014, had one of the best pass catching seasons in USC history last season, grabbing 104 balls (third most ever at Troy) for 1,313 yards with 12 TDs. He also returned 2 punts for scores. He was third nationally in punt return TDs, seventh in receiving TDs, eighth in receptions (8.0), 12th in receiving yards (101.0) and 18th in punt returns (10.4) in 2014. His back-to-back 200-yard receiving games was a first in Trojan history. In his career, Agholor had 179 catches for 2,571 yards with 20 TDs and also returned a school-record 4 punts for TDs (he had 3,572 all-purpose yards). He ranks eighth on USC's all-time receptions list and seventh on the career punt returns chart (540 yards), the only Trojan in both Top 8 rankings. Farmer, who had an oft-injured career at USC, caught 25 passes last season with 4 TDs (he had just 30 career grabs).
But USC has another star wideout in the making--in the mold of recent standouts Agholor, Robert Woods and Marqise Lee--with sophomore JuJu Smith (54 rec, 724 yds, 13.4 avg, 5 TD in 2014, plus 2 tcb, 3 yd, 1.5 avg and 11 KOR, 132 yd, 12.0 avg and 5 tac), a 2014 Freshman All-American first teamer who could be in the discussion for the 2015 Biletnikoff Award and All-American honors. His 123 receiving yards versus Fresno State in 2014 were the most by any Trojan first-year freshman in a season opener and his 3 touchdown catches at Washington State tied a USC freshman record.
Then there's the most exciting player in college football: soph Adoree' Jackson (10 rec, 138 yds, 13.8 avg, 3 TD in 2014, plus 23 KOR, 684 yds, 29.7 avg, 2 TD and 2 PR, 12 yds, 6.0 avg and 1 tcb, 5 yds, 5.0 avg and 49 tac, 4 for loss, 10 dfl, 1 FF, 1 FR), the heralded 3-way performer who earned 2014 Freshman All-American first team acclaim and was the Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year. Also a long jumper on USC's track team, he got 34 snaps on offense in 2014 (expect more this year) and produced 3 touchdowns among his 10 receptions (including an electrifying 71-yard TD catch-and-run against Nebraska). He also should start again at cornerback, where he had 49 tackles last fall, and return kickoffs, where he had a pair of TDs last year. He was the first USC player to see significant action on offense/defense/special teams since 1997 and he became the first Trojan to start a game on both offense and defense (he did so versus Notre Dame last year) since at least the late 1960s. He could be in line for All-American notice and major national awards in 2015 (his statistics last year were comparable to those of Michigan's 3-way star Charles Woodson when he won the Heisman in 1997).
Also back in the wide receiver mix are often-used junior Darreus Rogers (21 rec, 245 yds, 11.7 avg, 4 TD in 2014, plus 1 PR, 5 yds, 5.0 avg and 1 KOR, 11 yds, 11.0 avg and 1 tcb, 5 yds, 5.0 avg and 1 tac), who started 3 times last season and has 43 career receptions, and sophomores Steven Mitchell (7 rec, 82 yds, 11.7 avg, 2 TD and 1 tac in 2014), a 2-time starter last year, and Ajene Harris (4 rec, 38 yds, 9.5 avg in 2014), who was slowed most of 2014 with a hamstring injury (he played in 5 games, starting once), along with senior George Katrib (8 tac in 2014), a one-time walk-on who was awarded a scholarship a year ago.
There also are 4 walk-ons available, although none caught a pass in 2014: senior David Mellstrom, juniors Robby Kolanz and Christian Tober (he missed most of last year with a broken collarbone) and sophomore Aaron Minor.
A pair of 6-4 junior college All-Americans should figure prominently into the wide receiver rotation in 2014 as juniors: Isaac Whitney (Riverside Community College in Riverside (Calif.), who enrolled at USC this spring and will participate in spring drills, and De'Quan Hampton (Long Beach City College in Long Beach, Calif.), who comes aboard in the fall. Whitney caught 49 balls last year in juco, while Hampton had 64 grabs.
Also, a trio of incoming fall freshmen might be used as wideouts in addition to playing other positions: fleet tailback Dominic Davis (Bishop Alemany High in Mission Hills, Calif.), who was fourth in the California state 100-meter dash in 2014, cornerback Isaiah Langley (Foothill High in Pleasanton, Calif.), who had 33 receptions and 12 TDs as a senior, and cornerback-safety Ykili Ross (Riverside Poly High in Riverside, Calif.), who had 50 catches and 15 TDs as a senior. Both Davis and Langley were prep All-Americans.
"History tells us that USC always has great wide receivers and this year will be no different," said Sarkisian. "JuJu has an opportunity to up his game to the next level this year. And I don't think there's a more exciting performer in the game than Adoree', as he can do something spectacular whenever he touches the ball. Their maturation and the maturation of all of the receivers will be critical for us to be balanced on offense. The receivers also must develop a rapport with Cody and they must all play at a high level this season."
USC's most worrisome offensive unit from a depth and experience standpoint in 2015 is tight end, now that Randall Telfer has graduated. He had 34 starts in his career with 65 receptions and 12 TDs (including 21 catches in 2014).
Sophomore Bryce Dixon (14 rec, 198 yds, 14.1 avg, 4 TD in 2014) played often as Telfer's backup last year. A good mid-range receiver, he averaged a touchdown every 3.5 catches. Junior Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick missed the 2014 season while academically ineligible (he is working to regain his status). Before that, he appeared in 23 games as a reserve, but had just 3 catches.
Also available is sophomore walk-on Connor Spears, who had to sit out 2014 after transferring from Columbia.
Freshman Tyler Petite (Campolindo High in Moraga, Calif.), a prep All-American who had 37 catches with 9 TDs as a senior, will push for immediate playing time when he arrives in the fall. Two other incoming fall freshmen who were prep All-Americans, inside linebacker Osa Masina (Brighton High in Cottonwood Heights, Ut.) and outside linebacker Porter Gustin (Salem Hill High in Salem, Ut.), might also get a look at tight end.
"Tight end is the position of our biggest concern because we don't have the depth we want or need," said Sarkisian. "We need everyone to step up here. We might have to rely on some young player to do double duty and use their athletic ability."
USC's entire offensive line--and then some--returns intact in 2015. In fact, the only player missing who had any appreciable experience is graduated Aundrey Walker, but he was a little-used reserve in 2014 (he had 18 career starts at guard and tackle earlier in his career).
Anchoring USC's line once again will be senior center Max Tuerk, a 3-year starter who earned All-Pac-12 first team honors in 2014. The All-American candidate figures to be under strong consideration for the 2015 Rimington Award. He is versatile enough to play any line position (he started at left tackle in 2012 and left guard and right tackle in 2013).
A pair of 2014 Freshmen All-American first teamers return in sophomores Toa Lobendahn, who started the first 8 games last season at left guard before moving into the left tackle role for the final 5 outings when injuries struck, and guard Viane Talamaivao, who started last year's final 11 games at right guard.
Both starting tackles are back in juniors Chad Wheeler, a 2-year starter on the left side who missed the final 5 games of 2014 with a knee injury (he'll sit out 2015 spring drills while recuperating), and massive right tackle Zach Banner (1 tac in 2014), who stands 6-9.
There also are 2 other experienced sophomores: guard Damien Mama, who had 4 starts last year (USC's first 2 games at right guard and last 2 at left guard) and guard-center Khaliel Rodgers, who started 3 late-season games at left guard in 2014. In the Fresno State opener, Mama and Lobendahn became just the second pair of USC first-year freshmen in the post-World War II era to start on the offensive line, but it was the first time that a Trojan first-year freshman O-line duo started an opener.
Vying to get into the playing rotation are junior guard Jordan Simmons, who has been bothered by knee injuries during his Trojan career, sophomore tackle-guard Nico Falah and redshirt freshmen Jordan Austin, a tackle, and tackle-guard Chris Brown.
Three freshmen will battle for time on the line, including a pair of prep All-Americans who graduated a semester early from high school and enrolled at USC this spring: tackle Chuma Edoga (McEachern High in Powder Springs, Ga.) and tackle-guard Roy Hemsley (Windward High in Los Angeles, Calif.). Joining them in the fall will be center Cole Smith (Mission Viejo High in Mission Viejo, Calif.), whose father, Doug, was a 6-time Pro Bowl center with the Rams and then was a USC assistant coach in the mid-1990s.
"When you build a team, you have to start up front, and we've done that now by developing the players we had on the roster as well as bringing in some talented recruits," said Sarkisian. "We are fortunate that all of our starters are back this year, as well as some players returning from injuries and some really good newcomers. I love our line's overall athleticism, toughness and attitude, plus its versatility and depth. I think Max is the best center in the country and Toa is on his way to an all-star career."
Seven defensive starters return from 2014: safety-outside linebacker Su'a Cravens, cornerback-wide receiver-returner Adoree' Jackson, inside linebacker Anthony Sarao, tackle Antwaun Woods, tackle-end Delvon Simmons, cornerback Kevon Seymour and co-starting safeties Leon McQuay III and John Plattenburg. Other defensive players back with career starts are outside linebackers Scott Felix and Jabari Ruffin, inside linebacker Michael Hutchings, tackle-end Claude Pelon and cornerback Chris Hawkins.
Although USC welcomes back last season's team leaders in tackles for loss, interceptions, fumble recoveries and deflections, gone are its top 2 tacklers (and 4 of its top 6) and its co-leaders in sacks and forced fumbles. Under defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, Troy uses a multiple-front defense, run out of a 3-4 base with 4-3 principles applied. Last season, the Trojans did not allow any opponent to score on a game-opening drive and they were the only team in the nation to not surrender a passing touchdown in the first 4 games. Troy was in the nation's Top 20 in turnover margin, red zone defense and third down conversion defense. Among USC's superlative defensive performances in 2014: limiting Oregon State to 181 total yards (USC's fewest since 2009) and Boston College to 54 passing yards (USC's fewest since 2008), keeping Arizona and California under their averages by more than 100 total yards and 10 points, holding Arizona State to 230-plus rushing yards under its average (and Nebraska and Arizona to 100-plus yards under their rushing averages) and forcing the starting quarterbacks at Oregon State, Colorado and Boston College to career-low passing yards. However, USC's total yards allowed average of 407.9 was the highest in its history, while its scoring defense (25.2) was the second highest since 2001, its rushing defense (133.4) was the third highest since 2002 and its passing defense (274.5) was the highest since 2005. And the 302 first downs allowed by the Trojans in 2014 ranked in the bottom 20 nationally.
"We laid down a solid defensive foundation last year, and now we must build on it and improve," said Sarkisian. "We want to play with passion on every play and come with a bully mentality. We have the pieces in place and the scheme to have a successful, stingy defense."
USC's defensive line should be a senior-laden, experienced unit in 2015, despite the huge hole left by 2-time All-American first team defensive end Leonard Williams' early departure for the NFL draft. A likely Top 5 draft pick, Williams had 218 tackles in his 3-year starting career, including 36.5 for losses (with 21 sacks). Last fall, he notched 80 tackles (second on USC), with team bests of 7 sacks and 3 forced fumbles.
However, USC's other line starters from 2014 return in seniors Antwaun Woods (37 tac, 1 for loss, 1 sack, 1 dfl in 2014), the nose tackle who missed the Holiday Bowl with a chest muscle injury (he'll skip 2015 spring drills while recovering), and tackle-end Delvon Simmons (44 tac, 2.5 for loss, 1 sack, 1 FR, 1 dfl, 1 BLK FG in 2014), who had a solid showing after transferring from Texas Tech (he played some at nose tackle last year).
Then there are senior tackle-end Claude Pelon (19 tac, 6 for loss, 2.5 sack, 2 dfl, 1 BLK FG in 2014), who saw lots of time at both tackle and nose tackle last year (he had 3 starts) after transferring from a junior college, senior tackle Cody Temple (10 tac, 3 for loss, 2 sack in 2014), who played a good amount as a backup at nose tackle, and sophomore tackle Kenny Bigelow, who has yet to play at USC (he missed last season with a knee injury after redshirting in 2013).
Senior end Greg Townsend Jr. (9 tac, 3 for loss, 2 sack in 2014) was Williams' backup last fall and saw action in 9 games (with 2 starts). He could be slowed in 2015 spring practice with a foot injury. Simmons and Pelon could work at the end spot, as will redshirt freshman end Malik Dorton, who began 2014 as an outside linebacker.
Entering the line competition in the fall will be 5 freshmen: prep All-Americans Jacob Daniel (Clovis North Nigh in Clovis, Calif.), a tackle, and end-tackle Rasheem Green (Serra High in Gardena, Calif.), plus tackle Noah Jefferson (Liberty High in Henderson, Nev.), whose father played professionally, end Christian Rector (Loyola High in Los Angeles, Calif.) and tackle Kevin Scott (Salesian High in Los Angeles, Calif.).
"We lost a generational player in Leonard, but we are thankful that this year's defensive line has a nice mix of veterans and talented young players," said Sarkisian. "There is lots of senior leadership, while at the same time the new players will be hungry to push for playing time."
USC should be fine at outside linebacker in 2015 even though the eligibility of steady rush outside linebacker J.R. Tavai, who had 20 starts over the past 3 seasons, has expired. Gone are his 130 career tackles (24 for losses, with 10.5 sacks). He had 53 stops in 2014, including 13.5 for losses (with a team-best 7 sacks).
Playmaking junior Su'a Cravens (68 tac, team-best 17 for loss, 5 sack, 9 dfl, team-best 3 int with 1 TD in 2014) returns after playing a hybrid strong safety-strongside outside linebacker role last year. The 2-year starter made All-Pac-12 first team and was a Sophomore All-American first teamer in 2014, and this year the All-American candidate is a nominee for the Bednarik and Nagurski Awards. Cravens was in the national Top 25 in tackles for a loss (1.3) in 2014 and his team-high 17 TFLs were not only the most of any defensive back in the country last year but were the most by a non-defensive lineman at USC since 2000. Always around the ball, Cravens made 68 tackles and 9 deflections last fall, and he also topped the Trojans in interceptions with 3 (including a 31-yard scoring runback against Oregon State).
Junior Scott Felix (36 tac, 5 for loss, 1.5 sack, 2 dfl, team-best 2 FR, 1 FF in 2014) could assume Tavai's spot, as he was the oft-employed backup there last year (even starting 5 times). His 2 fumble recoveries were a 2014 team best.
Others seeking key playing time at outside linebacker are juniors Quinton Powell (13 tac, 2 for loss, 1 sack in 2014) and Jabari Ruffin, who missed the 2014 campaign with a knee injury, senior Charles Burks (1 tac, 1 for loss, 1 sack in 2014) and redshirt freshman Don Hill.
Looking to make an impact when they enroll this fall as freshmen will be Porter Gustin (Salem Hill High in Salem, Ut.), whose father played quarterback at Wyoming and whose mother and aunt played basketball at BYU, and John Houston Jr. (Serra High in Gardena, Calif.). Gustin also might be tried at tight end.
"In our system, the outside linebacker needs to be a versatile player," said Sarkisian. "This position is critical to our success on defense. We have a group of players who have the ability to defend the run, rush the passer and drop in coverage while playing with high intelligence. Su'a is the model for that type of player and I believe he will continue to show this year that he is one of the nation's top defensive players."
Four-year starting inside linebacker Hayes Pullard, whose 377 career tackles are sixth most in USC history, has exhausted his eligibility and his reliable play will be missed in 2015. He was the first Trojan since 1977-79 to lead USC in tackles for 3 seasons, including in 2014 when he had 95 stops with 8 deflections.
But Pullard's partner on the inside, senior Anthony Sarao (74 tac, 1 for loss, 1 sack, 3 dfl, 2 int with 1 TD in 2014), returns for his third year as a starter. Sarao is Troy's top returning tackler (he had 74 last year when he also picked off 2 passes, returning 1 for a TD) and in his career he has made 158 tackles.
Also back in the picture is senior Lamar Dawson, a 3-year starter whose 2013 mid-season knee injury kept him out of action all of last year, too. He has 137 tackles in his career.
Prep All-American Cameron Smith (Granite Bay High in Granite Bay, Calif.) was a semester-early graduate in high school who enrolled at USC this spring and will participate in spring practice as a freshman. Coming in the fall as a frosh is prep All-American Osa Masina (Brighton High in Cottonwood Heights, Ut.), who also might see work at tight end.
"We lost a real leader in Hayes, but Anthony is a veteran who can lead this unit," said Sarkisian. "It's a position of good depth and talent. There will be a healthy competition to see who starts and who plays significant roles for us."
USC's secondary could be improved in 2015 despite losing 2 key components from 2014: starting free safety Gerald Bowman, who posted 72 tackles and 2 interceptions last season, and cornerback Josh Shaw, who only appeared in Troy's final 3 games of 2014 after being suspended in fall camp (he started the last 2 contests) but during his 4-year career between USC and Florida had 130 tackles and 6 interceptions in 24 starts at corner and safety.
This year, junior Su'a Cravens (68 tac, team-best 17 for loss, 5 sack, 9 dfl, team-best 3 int with 1 TD in 2014) could return to the strong safety job he held in 2013 or more likely he again will be used as a hybrid strong safety-strongside outside linebacker as he was last year. The 2-year starter was a 2014 All-Pac-12 first team and Sophomore All-American first team pick and in 2015 could be up for the Bednarik and Nagurski Awards as well as All-American acclaim. He was in the nation's Top 25 in tackles for a loss (1.3) in 2014 and his USC-best 17 were the most of any defensive back in the country last year as well as the most by a USC non-defensive lineman since 2000. He had 68 tackles and 9 deflections last fall and also led Troy in interceptions with 3 (including a TD).
Another versatile playmaker like Cravens who returns as a starter in 2015 is breathtaking sophomore cornerback-wide receiver-returner Adoree' Jackson (49 tac, 4 for loss, 10 dfl, 1 FF, 1 FR in 2014, plus 10 rec, 138 yds, 13.8 avg, 3 TD and 23 KOR, 684 yds, 29.7 avg, 2 TD and 2 PR, 12 yds, 6.0 avg and 1 tcb, 5 yds, 5.0 avg). A candidate for All-American and major national awards in 2015 (he put up stats in 2014 that compared to those of Michigan's 3-way standout Charles Woodson when he was the 1997 Heisman winner), Jackson was a Freshman All-American first teamer and the Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year last season while garnering nationwide attention as a 3-way performer. Besides starting at cornerback, where he had 49 tackles last fall while usually pitted against--and often locking down--the opponents' top receiver, he saw action as a wide receiver (catching 3 TDs) and a kickoff returner (with a pair of TDs). In 2014, he became the first USC player to see significant action on offense/defense/special teams since 1997 and the first Trojan to start a game on both offense and defense (as he did against Notre Dame) since at least the late 1960s. He also is a long jumper on USC's track team.
USC's other starting corner from 2014 also is back: senior Kevon Seymour (49 tac, 1 for loss, team-best 13 dfl, 1 int, 1 FR in 2014), a 2-year starter who topped the Trojans last year with 13 deflections to go with his 49 tackles.
Junior Leon McQuay III (36 tac, 0.5 for loss, 4 dfl, 2 int, 1 FR, 1 FF in 2014) and soph John Plattenburg (32 tac, 5 dfl in 2014) return with 2014 starting experience at safety, McQuay getting 9 starts at strong safety and Plattenburg starting 6 of the final 7 games (half at free safety and the others at strong safety).
Battling to see action at cornerback will be well-tested sophomores Chris Hawkins (32 tac, 1 for loss, 2 dfl, 1 int in 2014), who started the first 4 games last year, and Jonathan Lockett (5 tac, 1 dfl in 2014), plus senior Ryan Dillard (4 tac in 2014), a one-time walk-on who was awarded a scholarship last year, and redshirt freshman Lamont Simmons.
Five walk-ons provide depth in the secondary, but only soph safety Matt Lopes (4 tac in 2014), who played the entire second half at Washington State last year when Cravens went down with an injury, has seen substantial playing time. The others are sophomore cornerback Kevin Carrasco and 3 redshirt frosh: cornerback Jalen Jones and safeties Joe Harding and Davonte Nunnery.
This fall, several touted freshmen will join the defensive backfield, including prep All-Americans Iman Marshall (Long Beach Poly High in Long Beach, Calif.), a corner, and safety Marvell Tell III (Crespi High in Encino, Calif.), as well as a pair of wide receivers who might be tried in the secondary in prep All-American Isaiah Langley (Foothill High in Pleasanton, Calif.) at cornerback and Ykili Ross (Riverside Poly High in Riverside, Calif.) at cornerback or safety.
"We had growing pains in the secondary last year as we played a lot of youngsters who got better as the season went on," said Sarkisian. "This year, I believe the secondary will be a strength for us, especially when you have someone like Adoree' out there who can impact a game quickly. There will be lots of competition to get on the field and that will make us better at every spot."
USC's punter (Kris Albarado), snapper (Zach Smith), holder (Conner Sullivan), kickoff man (Alex Wood) and primary kickoff returners (Adoree' Jackson and JuJu Smith) return from last year, but a new placekicker and punt returner must be found to replace a pair of departed record setters.
Last year, USC returned 2 kickoffs and 2 punts for scores, finished in the upper fourth of the country in punt returns (9.7) and kickoff returns (22.1), missed only 2 field goals, saw its punting average increase from 2013 and blocked a pair of field goals. But Troy also had 2 kicks blocked, gave up a scoring kickoff return and was in the national bottom 5 in punt return defense (16.3), bottom 25 in net punting (35.0) and bottom 30 in kickoff return defense (22.5).
"We really value special teams play and spend a lot of time on it," said Sarkisian. "It showed last year in our return game, where we always want to be explosive and aggressive. But we need to develop consistency in our coverage units. And the competition to find a new kicker will be one of the key battles to watch on the team this year."
Senior Kris Albarado (60 P, 41.4 avg in 2014 with 2 BLK, plus 1 tac) returns for his third year as the Trojan punter. After being asked to be a placement punter in 2013, he let loose last season and upped his punting average by more than 4 yards to 41.4. Eleven more of his boots traveled at least 50 yards in 2014 than the previous year, although his percentage of punts inside the 20 declined by 7%.
Untested walk-on redshirt freshman Reid Budrovich, who can also placekick, will back up Albarado.
After handling USC's placekicking duty the past 4 seasons, Andre Heidari has graduated and leaves behind big shoes to fill. In his career, he nailed 49-of-66 field goals, including 4 that went at least 50 yards (giving him 3 of the 9 longest 3-pointers in Trojan history), and he set Pac-12 records for PATs (187) and PAT attempts (193). Last year, he was good on 9-of-11 field goals (including a pair of 50-yarders) and 49-of-50 PATs. He also kicked off in USC's first 5 games, a role he handled the previous 3 years.
Battling to replace Heidari will be junior walk-on Alex Wood (12-of-12 PAT in 2014, plus 2 tac), who was perfect on all 20 of his PAT tries when he was called up to fill in briefly for an injured Heidari in 2012 and again last year (Wood, however, has not attempted a field goal), and untried left-footed sophomore Matt Boermeester, who redshirted last fall after transferring from a junior college. Wood also handled USC's kickoff chores the last half of 2014, getting touchbacks on 14 of his 48 kickoffs (another 11 pinned opponents within the 20-yard line).
Junior Zach Smith (2 tac in 2014) is back for his third year as USC's snapper after flawlessly filling that role on all placekicks and punts in 2014 (he handled just the placement kicks in 2013).
Junior walk-on quarterback Conner Sullivan is in line to be the holder again on all placement kicks, a job he handled smoothly last season. Senior quarterback Cody Kessler will once again serve as the well-versed backup holder (he spent 2012 as USC's holder).
USC must find a new punt returner with the early departure to the NFL of wide receiver Nelson Agholor, who was always a threat in that role. In his career, he returned a school-record 4 punts for touchdowns, including a pair last season when he ranked third in the nation in punt return TDs and 18th in punt returns (10.4). He ended up seventh on the Trojan career punt returns chart (540 yards). Agholor also returned kickoffs occasionally in his career, averaging 18.5 yards on 24 runbacks.
Sophomore cornerback-wide receiver Adoree' Jackson (23 KOR, 684 yds, 29.7 avg, 2 TD in 2014, plus 2 PR, 12 yds, 6.0 avg) again will be USC's kickoff returner and he is capable of popping for a touchdown whenever he touches a kickoff. USC's first 3-way player since 1997, his 2 scoring kickoff returns last year (100 yards at Utah and 98 yards against Nebraska) were the most by a Trojan since 1996. The 2014 Freshman All-American first teamer was second nationally in kickoff return TDs and fifth in kickoff returns (29.7), and he already ranks 14th on USC's career kickoff return chart with 684 yards.
Soph wideout JuJu Smith (11 KOR, 132 yd, 12.0 avg in 2014), also a 2014 Freshman All-American first team pick, joined Jackson last year returning kicks and could do so again in 2015.
Other possible kick and punt returners include junior wide receiver Darreus Rogers (1 PR, 5 yds, 5.0 avg and 1 KOR, 11 yds, 11.0 avg in 2014), junior tailback Justin Davis or perhaps one of the incoming freshmen.