Can the USC Trojans build on a strong finish to 2013, despite the arrival of a new coach?

2014 Pac-12 Preview: USC Trojans

Last season was a strange one for the USC Trojans. Despite starting 4-2, mediocre play and ugly losses to Washington State and Arizona State led to the dismissal of Lane Kiffin. Popular defensive line coach Ed Orgeron took over, and the team took on a different veneer. The Trojans played harder over the last eight games, and more importantly, they looked like they were having fun. Losses to Notre Dame and UCLA took some of the shine off, but considering Orgeron had to work with a roster that was still depleted from NCAA sanctions, 2013 was a solid year. Now, with some key players moving on and a new coach in Washington’s ex Steve Sarkisian, can the Trojans continue to move in the right direction?

Offense

There were some fine performances last season, but one that stuck out in particular was quarterback Cody Kessler. After redshirting his freshman year then playing sparingly in 2012, Kessler beat out Max Wittek for the starting job last season. After struggling early on, Orgeron opened up the playbook for Kessler when he took over, and the results were notably different. In the second half of the season, Kessler was far more assured, despite playing with a gimpy Marqise Lee at receiver.

Against Stanford, despite the running game putting up just 23 yards, Kessler kept the ball moving and led the Trojans to a last minute field goal to win the game. On the season he completed 65.2% of his passes for 2967 yards, 20 TDs and seven interceptions. He held off the challenge of Max Browne in training camp, and should take his game to the next level in 2014.

The running attack wasn’t consistent enough to help out Kessler on a regular basis, but this being USC, there is plenty of talent in the backfield. If you’ve been watching Sarkisian’s Husky teams, you’ll know he likes to run the football, so expect Tre Madden and Javorius Allen to see plenty of carries next season. Madden missed a chunk of the season, but still managed 703 yards and three TDs, while Allen took over down the stretch and led the team with 774 yards and 14 scores on 134 carries. Both are good receivers, catching 37 passes and four TDs combined. They should rack up substantial numbers in Sark’s offense.

With Lee banged up, the Trojans not only lacked their best playmaker, but also allowed defenses to slack off his coverage. Even so, he still caught 57 passes for 791 yards and four TDs. Sophomore Nelson Agholor stepped up, catching 56 passes for 918 yards and six scores, and will be the go-to receiver in 2014. Darreus Rogers, who had some injury problems as a freshman, caught 22 passes for 257 yards, but responded well to the extra game-time when Lee was out. He should take a step forward, akin to the one Agholor took, in his sophomore year.

Also in the mix will be redshirt freshman Steven Mitchell, who is highly regarded by the coaching staff and will play in the slot, while true freshman Adoree’ Jackson is an outstanding talent who may play both ways, while adding another playmaker to Trojans attack. Tight ends Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer were banged up much of the season, combining for just 31 receptions, and only Telfer remains. Telfer looks ready to go, while freshman Bryce Dixon has impressed as a receiver and should see time.

If the Trojans have a weak spot on offense, it’s up front. The offensive line lost it’s lynchpin in center Matt Martin, along with longtime starter Kevin Graf, from a unit that was less than consistent in 2013. The line struggled against the tougher defenses last season, and allowed 34 sacks, both issues that need to be cleaned up. The good news is three starters return. Versatile Max Tuerk started last season at left guard and right tackle (once), and will take over for Martin at center this season. Chad Wheeler started at left tackle as a redshirt freshman, and did a good job. He should take another step forward this season. Aundrey Walker is another versatile body who has played both left guard (last season) and left tackle (2012). He is coming off a leg injury, but the team hopes he’ll be ready to go as the other options are talented, but inexperienced. In camp, true freshman Toa Lobendahn and massive sophomore Zach Branner have seen the most action at left guard and right tackle respectively.

Defense

The Southern Cal defense was good, but certainly not great last season, and is switching to a somewhat different system this year, moving from a 5-2 to a 3-4. The three-man front should help out a thin group, made even thinner by the loss of assumed starting nose tackle Kenny Bigelow to a torn ACL. The other two tackles in the rotation, Antwaun Woods and Cody Temple missed time in camp. Defensive end Leonard Williams, who was second on the team with 73 tackles, making 12½ for loss with five sacks, has been slow to recover from surgery to correct a torn labrum sustained last year. Williams is the star of the unit, so having him healthy is a key to the season. Texas Tech-transfer Delvon Simmons is currently the other starter, but he could play a number of different roles on the line this year.

At linebacker, Devon Kennard is a big loss, having led the team in sacks last season with nine. No one else in the unit looks to have his measure as a pass rusher. Otherwise, the group should be good. Inside linebacker Hayes Pullard led the team with 94 tackles last season, and also broke up six passes. Expect more of the same this year. Anthony Sarao took over for Lamar Dawson when he went down with injury last season. Both are back, and are currently competing for the inside linebacker spot. Whoever wins the job will be more than capable, but Sarao has the edge as Dawson isn’t quite 100%. Quinton Powell was a solid reserve as a freshman last season, and will get the opportunity to start on the outside this season. Scott Felix has had some injury problems so far, but is in line to start at the other outside spot. Also in the mix is JR Tavai, who had 3.5 sacks last season, and could provide the pass rush the Trojans need.

The secondary needs to replace free safety Demetrius Wright and nickelback Dion Bailey, who led the team with 5 interceptions. The cornerbacks will be Kevon Seymour, who had 48 tackles and six passes defended, and Josh Shaw, who was all over the field, making 67 tackles, 5½ for loss, breaking up seven passes and intercepting four. Both are reliable. Su’a Cravens started at strong safety as a freshman, making 53 tackles and four interceptions, and returns this year. Expect improvement this season. Leon McQuay III was a good reserve at free safety last season, and will take over for Wright.

Special Teams

Kicker Andre Heidari hit 15 of 22 field goals last season, including a 52-yard effort, but he also missed some kicks he should have made, and needs to improve his accuracy in 2014. Punter Kris Albarado had a gross of just 37.1 yards per punt, but dropped 27 inside the 20 (four touchbacks), and forced 30 fair catches. The kick return unit was subpar last season, averaging just 14.4 yards per return, but bear in mind opponents were hardly willing to kick to Lee and Agholor. The latter also returned punts, averaging a stellar 19.1 yards per return and scoring twice. Both coverage units were good, while the unit blocked an impressive six kicks, with Sonny Vainuku leading the way with three. Everyone’s back except Lee, and Jackson should be more than capable of making a splash here too.

Predictions

This is USC, so there will always be plenty of talent, but while still in the wake of the NCAA sanctions, they aren’t quite where they want to be with regards to depth. Sarkisian did okay at Washington, but hardly wowed the football world, and many pundits questioned the hire. That’s the bad news. The good news is, Sark has far more talent at his disposal now, and he developed some great stars on his Huskies teams. Trips to Stanford and UCLA will make or break the season, but the Trojans get the other tough teams in the Coliseum. With a ton of good luck in the injury department, the Trojans could go undefeated. The more likely scenario is USC wins 10 games, but keep an eye on them.

*Section Photo credit to Harry How, Getty Images; Featured Photo (above)  credit to Joe Andras, WeAreSC.com