2015 CFB Preview – USC

    USC TrojansGo to Team Page TrojansGo to Selection Page           As the Trojans inch closer to national relevance, will they be

    July 1, 2015

     
       

    As the Trojans inch closer to national relevance, will they be worthy of such lofty expectations in 2015?

    By Rich Cirminiello | @RichCirminiello

    USC is likely to begin the upcoming season, Steve Sarkisian’s second one in charge, somewhere within the top 10. Senior Cody Kessler is back at quarterback, NCAA sanctions are becoming less and less of a drag and Sark continues to sign some of the truly elite players on the West Coast.

    A shortage of pure talent doesn’t figure to be an impediment to overall success and Pac-12 title contention this fall. However, hitting the bar will require Troy to become a more consistent fourth-quarter team after losing two pivotal 2014 games in the waning seconds. And that’ll be a product of late-game coaching and strategizing, both of which will be under greater scrutiny this year.

    The Trojans were visibly more comfortable this past spring—less confusion and more confidence among the players and the staff. The program can’t help but be in a better place after enduring so many changes in 2014. But what impact will the stability and familiarity have on the bottom line? Troy has won 19 games over the past two years, with five of its eight losses coming by less than a touchdown. However, the team has yet to fully get over the hump, the one currently obstructing the view of the Pac-12 championship trophy.

    USC wants to take those things that went well a year ago and then fine-tune them, while integrating another blue-chip class of recruits. While there are specific holes on both sides of the ball, the Trojans are most concerned with line development, defensive improvement and finishing games.

    Oh, and snapping arch-rival UCLA’s three-game winning streak in the series will be a crisis-level priority when the Bruins visit the Coliseum on Nov. 28.

    If Sark loses ground to Jim Mora, especially when he has the edge at quarterback, it’s going to ripple into other areas of the crosstown rivalry.

    Lane Kiffin helped loosen the NCAA’s heavy-handed choke hold on the program. Sarkisian is poised to be the beneficiary, as he ushers the Trojans into another era of prosperity. USC is close to being whole again, the roster finally approaching maximum occupancy following three years of crushing scholarship reductions.

    However, after witnessing Oregon or Stanford win each of the last six Pac-12 championships, Troy won’t be all the way back until it resumes restocking the trophy cases at Heritage Hall.

    What you need to know about the offense: The early returns on Steve Sarkisian’s up-tempo, no-huddle attack were generally positive. But now the Trojans want to raise the bar higher out of a balanced system that will run the ball assertively to set up the pass. Eight starters are back, none more important than QB Cody Kessler, who’s coming off a stellar year. Kessler lost his top back, best receiver and starting tight end, which opens the door for a new set of skill position stars, like RB Justin Davis and receivers JuJu Smith and Steven Mitchell. And Adoree’ Jackson, the team’s top-flight cornerback, will again serve as a wild card to be used at Sark’s discretion. The team is particularly excited by the trajectory of the offensive line, an area of concern last year that has evolved considerably. After going with a ton of youth in 2014, USC is excited to unveil a front wall that’s a year old and much stronger. C Max Tuerk is the bell cow, while Toa Lobendahn, Damien Mama and Viane Talamaivao are ready to take flight after starting as rookies. Lobendahn could shift from guard to left tackle if Chad Wheeler is still recovering from last season’s knee injury.

    What you need to know about the defense: The USC defense was a bit of an enigma a year ago, Justin Wilcox’s first as the coordinator. Yeah, the aggregate numbers were solid, but there were too many missed tackles, penalties and untimely blown assignments. Plus, the unit buckled badly in losses to Boston College, Arizona State and UCLA. So, predictably, Wilcox is feeling the pressure to manufacture a more consistent product in 2015. He’ll have to do so without his best player, lineman Leonard Williams. In fact, Williams’ former linemates will play a pivotal role in the defense’s evolution. Someone from the group must step up and become a regular presence in opposing backfields. If not, expect more blitzes from Wilcox, which would help turn multi-faceted LB Su’a Cravens into one of the nation’s best-known defenders. While the Trojans boast the right corner duo, Adoree’ Jackson and Kevon Seymour, to turn the back seven loose, the safeties are far less certain. John Plattenburg has the post-spring edge at strong safety, as Leon McQuay and Chris Hawkins duke it out at free safety.

    What to watch for on offense: Adoree’ the explorer. Sophomore superstar Adoree’ Jackson will be roaming everywhere in 2015, but how much does the staff plan to use him on offense? Remember, he’s a corner by trade and a dynamite special teamer, but everyone needs a breather from time to time. Jackson’s role as a pass-catcher could depend on the develop of the receivers now that Nelson Agholor and George Farmer are gone. While JuJu Smith is the likely No. 1, it’s incumbent upon Darreus Rogers, big-play Steven Mitchell and the untested tight ends to emerge into reliable targets for Cody Kessler.

    What to watch for on defense: More blitzing? Up-and-coming coordinator Justin Wilcox fielded a lot of criticism in his first year, since his kids were hardly vintage Troy. The fan base would like to see more heat and greater exploitation of the Trojans’ speed and athleticism. But while the team tinkered with a number of different blitz packages in the spring, it remains to be seen how often Wilcox will employ them in the fall. When the coach does sell out, he can take solace in corners Kevon Seymour and Adoree’ Jackson being on the last line of defense. This is an important year for Wilcox, who’s facing more adversity than at any point of his promising career.

    The team will be far better if… it becomes a better finisher. Think of how the narrative of the 2014 season would have changed had USC done a better job of closing out games. The Trojans lost on an inexcusable Hail Mary to Arizona State and fell to Utah on a touchdown pass with eight seconds left. Hold on against the Sun Devils and the Utes, and Troy, not Arizona, would have faced Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game. After being outscored by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter of games last year, USC must work on its knockout punch.

    The Schedule:
    The annual Notre Dame tilt aside, which will be played on Oct. 17 in South Bend, Troy has a soft non-conference schedule comprised of visits from Arkansas State and Idaho.
    – However, the Pac-12 slate is going to be brutal. The Trojans drew arguably the three most talented teams from the North, Oregon in Eugene, Stanford and Washington.
    – Worse yet, the key showdown with UCLA to close the regular season is preceded by the aforementioned trip to Autzen Stadium, so USC’s South Division aspirations likely won’t be determined until late November.
    – The Trojans play only five road games this season, including just once, at Arizona State on Sept. 26, before the middle of October.
    – The Oct. 3 off week nicely intersects a tough stretch in the first half of the season. On the front end is Stanford and Arizona State, while U-Dub and Notre Dame follow the only break in the season.
    – WATCH OUT FOR … Colorado. Arizona will be in the rear view mirror. A trip to Oregon is up ahead. How can USC possibly maintain its focus on the Buffs for a chilly Friday night affair at Folsom Field?

    Best offensive player: Senior QB Cody Kessler. On a roster littered with flashy stars and former can’t-miss recruits, Kessler brings much-needed moxie and grit to the entire program. He wasn’t even supposed to be the starter, yet he’s been in the saddle for two years, operating with poise, accuracy and a dearth of mistakes. Kessler is the conductor that helps make the Trojans go and the face of the team. If he can perform better versus ranked opponents in 2015, the opportunity is there to truly become the next great USC quarterback.

    Best defensive player: Junior LB Su’a Cravens. Cravens is so gifted and so versatile that he challenges his coaches to figure out the best ways to employ him. He arrived as a ballyhooed safety, earned all-league as a linebacker in 2014 and could be used situationally as a rush end or back in coverage this fall. Cravens is the quintessential Swiss Army knife, and he’s still getting better. The junior could be to the back seven what Leonard Williams was to the front four a year ago, a dominating defender requiring the undivided attention of opposing quarterbacks and offensive coordinators.

    Key players to a successful season: The defensive linemen. As it stands today, USC is just slightly above average up front, which won’t cut it for a squad with title aspirations. The Trojans need to become more assertive at the point of attack, a tall order now that Leonard Williams is a wealthy professional. The team is steady at the nose with Antwaun Woods, who’s ready to accept more of a leadership role. The tackles and the ends, though, still have a lot to prove. There’s cautious optimism that Kenny Bigelow can rebound from last year’s season-long knee injury, and that seniors Delvon Simmons and Claude Pelon author the best season of their winding college careers.

    The season will be a success if … the Trojans win the Pac-12 title. Considering where Troy will begin the season, and that Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley left school early, there’s no reason to aim any lower. USC was a pair of late-game collapses away from winning the South Division in 2014, and the 2015 edition boasts as much individual talent as anyone in the conference. Plus, the second year with essentially the same coaching staff is going to benefit all parties involved, from the holdovers and the new recruits to each of Steve Sarkisian’s assistants.

    Key game: Nov. 28 vs. UCLA. This city rivalry always matters, but even more so of late. It’s been a long time since both programs were nationally relevant, so the battle for the Victory Bell will be for a lot more than just local bragging rights. The South Division could hinge on the outcome, and the best athletes in Southern California will certainly be paying close attention. Plus, the Bruins have won three straight in the series by double-digits, providing Jim Mora with talking points when he gets in front of boosters, high school coaches and targeted recruits.

    2014 Fun Stats:
    – Penalty yards: USC 1,023 – Opponents 713
    – Sacks: USC 33 – Opponents 32
    – Fourth-quarter scoring : USC 72 – Opponents 86

    What you need to know about the offense: The early returns on Steve Sarkisian’s up-tempo, no-huddle attack were generally positive. But now the Trojans want to raise the bar higher out of a balanced system that will run the ball assertively to set up the pass. Eight starters are back, none more important than QB Cody Kessler, who’s coming off a stellar year. Kessler lost his top back, best receiver and starting tight end, which opens the door for a new set of skill position stars, like RB Justin Davis and receivers JuJu Smith and Steven Mitchell. And Adoree’ Jackson, the team’s top-flight cornerback, will again serve as a wild card to be used at Sark’s discretion. The team is particularly excited by the trajectory of the offensive line, an area of concern last year that has evolved considerably. After going with a ton of youth in 2014, USC is excited to unveil a front wall that’s a year old and much stronger. C Max Tuerk is the bell cow, while Toa Lobendahn, Damien Mama and Viane Talamaivao are ready to take flight after starting as rookies. Lobendahn could shift from guard to left tackle if Chad Wheeler is still recovering from last season’s knee injury.

    What you need to know about the defense: The USC defense was a bit of an enigma a year ago, Justin Wilcox’s first as the coordinator. Yeah, the aggregate numbers were solid, but there were too many missed tackles, penalties and untimely blown assignments. Plus, the unit buckled badly in losses to Boston College, Arizona State and UCLA. So, predictably, Wilcox is feeling the pressure to manufacture a more consistent product in 2015. He’ll have to do so without his best player, lineman Leonard Williams. In fact, Williams’ former linemates will play a pivotal role in the defense’s evolution. Someone from the group must step up and become a regular presence in opposing backfields. If not, expect more blitzes from Wilcox, which would help turn multi-faceted LB Su’a Cravens into one of the nation’s best-known defenders. While the Trojans boast the right corner duo, Adoree’ Jackson and Kevon Seymour, to turn the back seven loose, the safeties are far less certain. John Plattenburg has the post-spring edge at strong safety, as Leon McQuay and Chris Hawkins duke it out at free safety.

    Players You Should Know

    1. QB Cody Kessler, Sr.
    The days of overlooking Kessler may be officially over. Kessler is finally getting the respect that he’s richly earned after completing 315-of-452 passes for 3,826 yards, 39 touchdowns and only five interceptions. He’s a precise dart-thrower who doesn’t make many mistakes. Detractors suggest the 6-1, 210-pounder doesn’t bring a ton of wow factor, but all he does is make sound decisions and consistently put his skill guys in a position to make plays. Kessler is now a seasoned veteran in his second year in Steve Sarkisian’s system, so the sky’s the limit for his senior season.

    2. LB Su’a Cravens, Jr.
    Through two seasons, Cravens has been every bit as good as advertised with the Trojans. After starting as a safety in 2013, he made a smooth transition to outside linebacker a year ago. Just 6-1 and 225 pounds, he fit right in closer to the line of scrimmage, getting voted to the All-Pac-12 First Team. Cravens is a punishing and highly instinctive run defender, yet he’s maintained the coverage skills from his days in the secondary. His flexibility was evident in last year’s output, 68 tackles, 17 stops for loss, five sacks, three picks and 12 pass breakups.

    3. CB Adoree’ Jackson, Soph.
    Jackson is one of the most electrifying and diverse talents in all of college football. And he’s just getting started. He exceeded the blue-chip hype in 2014, impacting all three phases of the game. Jackson was the Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year as a lockdown corner, caught 10 passes for 138 yards and three touchdowns and scored twice on kickoffs. He completely took over the Holiday Bowl to emerge as one of the stars of the postseason. The 5-11, 185-pound lightning bolt has the total package to become a household name nationally this fall.

    4. C Max Tuerk, Sr.
    Tuerk is the linchpin of a young offensive line that should be one of the Trojans’ strengths this season. USC has been fortunate to have Tuerk this long, because his combination of size, experience and versatility usually results in an early exit to the NFL. The three-time All-Pac-12 pick has started games at every line position, rising to the all-league first team as a first-time center in 2014. Tuerk is a solid 6-6, 285-pounder, with the long arms, good feet and smarts to earn All-American nods this fall.

    5. WR JuJu Smith, Soph.
    One star receiver leaves for the NFL, and another prepares to take his place. Smith left few doubts during his smashing rookie debut that he’ll be the next elite pass-catcher at Troy, supplanting Nelson Agholor. Just a few months removed from high school, Smith was second on the team with 54 receptions for 724 yards and five touchdowns. He’s an imposing 6-2, 210-pounder, whose long arms and acrobatic grabs make it distinctly harder for opposing defenders to keep the ball out of his large mitts.

    6. RB Justin Davis, Jr.
    Javorius Allen is off to the NFL. Davis is poised to take advantage by grabbing a starring role in 2015. He was a solid complement a year ago, rushing for 595 yards and four touchdowns on 129 carries. With a larger role in the running game, the coaching staff is confident that its 6-1, 195-pound junior could be one of the Pac-12’s most productive backs. Davis is a fluid slasher, with the vision and the speed to perforate the seams of a defense.

    7. CB Kevon Seymour, Sr.
    Seymour forms one-half of one of the Pac-12’s best cornerback tandems. He’s a little overlooked at this stage of his career, which ought to change now that NFL scouts are beginning to pay closer attention. Seymour is a two-year starter, with the smooth hips and the 6-0, 185-pound frame to hang with receivers of all sizes and abilities. Despite being slowed by injuries in the early going, he still finished 2014 with 49 tackles and a team-high 14 breakups.

    8. OL Toa Lobendahn, Soph.
    Lobendahn performed with uncommon poise and consistency for a rookie in 2014, starting the first eight games at guard and the final five at tackle. He’s fundamentally sound, but he’s also focused and grounded well beyond his years. The 6-3, 280-pounder, who’s best-suited to play guard, is not going to be outworked in his pursuit of excellence. Lobendahn was named honorable mention All-Pac-12 last year, a rarity for a true freshman.

    9. LB Anthony Sarao, Sr.
    Football really matters to Sarao. And it shows in his on-field intensity and off-field preparation, particularly in the weight room. He flourished at weakside after Lamar Dawson was lost to injury, ranking third on the team with 74 tackles, while picking off two passes. Sarao is only 6-0 and 220 pounds. But he closes quickly, packs a punch and can fluidly drop back into to coverage to neutralize tight ends and backs swinging out of the backfield.

    10. NT Antwaun Woods, Sr.
    Troy is searching for a new line leader now that Leonard Williams is in the NFL. The program, even Williams, believes Woods is set to be that guy up front. He’s entering his third season as a starter, bringing a stout, at times immovable, presence to the interior of the D-line. At 6-1 and 325 pounds, he’s strong enough to eat up blocks and allow teammates to make plays. Woods collected a career-high 37 stops a year ago, and will be back at full strength after sitting out the spring to recover from a chest injury.

    11. LB Lamar Dawson, Sr.
    The Trojans will no doubt miss Hayes Pullard at middle linebacker this year, but the return to health of Dawson should soften the blow. Gone since the middle of 2013, but not forgotten, Dawson has finally recovered from a left knee injury that derailed a once-promising career. The veteran of 20 starts not only shook loose some rust in the spring, but he impressed the staff with how well he performed. Dawson is not only the frontrunner to succeed Pullard in the middle, but he’s expecting to be one of the team’s anchors versus the run.

    Head Coach: Steve Sarkisian
    2nd year: 9-4
    7th year overall: 43-33
    Schedule
    Sept. 5 Arkansas State
    Sept. 12 Idaho
    Sept. 19 Stanford
    Sept. 26 at Arizona State
    Oct. 3 OPEN DATE
    Oct. 8 Washington
    Oct. 17 at Notre Dame
    Oct. 24 Utah
    Oct. 31 at California
    Nov. 7 Arizona
    Nov. 13 at Colorado
    Nov. 21 at Oregon
    Nov. 28 UCLA
    Ten Best USC Players
    1. QB Cody Kessler, Sr.
    2. LB Su’a Cravens, Jr.
    3. CB Adoree’ Jackson, Soph.
    4. C Max Tuerk, Sr.
    5. WR JuJu Smith, Soph.
    6. RB Justin Davis, Jr.
    7. CB Kevon Seymour, Sr.
    8. OL Toa Lobendahn, Soph.
    9. LB Anthony Sarao, Sr.
    10. NT Antwaun Woods, Sr.

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