2014 USC Spring Football Outlook
March 10, 2014
USC Spring Football Practice Dates: March 11-13-15-25-27-29-April 1-3-5-8-10-12-15-17-19. All practices held on campus, except 3/29 and 4/19 at Coliseum. Practice times: weekdays 4 p.m., weekends 11 a.m. USC Spring Football Game: April 19, Coliseum, 3 p.m. (tickets available at the gate).
Free public viewing of USC practices from Dedeaux Field deck or Coliseum south stands available on all dates except 3/27.
Steve Sarkisian didn't have to be shown around the USC campus or be instructed on Trojan gridiron lore when he was hired as the school's head football coach this past December.
He already was quite familiar with all things Troy, from its physical layout to its academic prestige to its football tradition and culture.
That's because this is Sarkisian's fifth time coming to USC, first as a student-athlete in the early 1990s, then as a graduate assistant coach nearly a decade later, next as an assistant coach, then as the offensive coordinator following a foray into the NFL and now as the head coach after spending the past 5 years guiding Washington.
"This is home for me," said Sarkisian, who was the quarterbacks coach on USC's 2003 national championship squad. "I am very comfortable here and very familiar with everything that is USC. I know the tradition, the passion, the support, the standard of excellence. I know what a great stadium the Coliseum is on game day.
"We will not shy away from the expectations that USC football embodies, we will embrace them. I came here to win championships and so did all of our players." Sarkisian inherits a Trojan team that is coming off a successful, but tumultuous, 2013 season.
USC went 10-4 last year (6-3 for a second place tie in the Pac-12 South Division), including wins over No. 5 Stanford and No. 21 Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl. Troy finished with a No. 19 national ranking.
The Trojans accomplished all this despite having 4 head coaches during a 65-day span last fall. After fourth-year head coach Lane Kiffin was fired 5 games into the 2013 campaign (USC was 3-2 at that point), defensive line coach Ed Orgeron took over as interim head coach and went 6-2 (with a 5-game winning streak) before resigning when Sarkisian was named head coach following the end of the regular season. Offensive coordinator Clay Helton served as the interim head coach for the bowl game.
The Trojans also prevailed last year despite a roster limited by NCAA sanctions and depleted by injuries (by the Vegas Bowl, only 44 recruited scholarship players were available to play).
Eighteen starters (8 each on offense and defense, along with the kicker and punter) return from 2013 for Sarkisian's debut season. In all, 80 squadmen are back, including 53 who saw action in 2013 and 49 who lettered. Twenty-nine current Trojans were on last year's season-ending 2-deep and 29 have started at least once in their career.
Joining them are 19 new scholarship players, including 5 players who enrolled at USC this past January and will participate in spring practice. They make up a recruiting class that was ranked in the Top 10 nationally.
USC's NCAA probation officially ends this June 10, meaning the 2014 team is the last under the 3-year NCAA penalty that caps the annual roster to a maximum of 75 scholarship players and the yearly scholarship signees to 15 (that's 10 fewer than the NCAA maximum in both cases). However, because of early departures from last year's team, the 2014 Trojans will be unable to field more than 70 players on scholarship.
"We're not worried about who we don't have on the roster or what our numbers are," said Sarkisian. "What we do know is we have a roster of very talented football players who are hungry to do well."
Starters back on offense include quarterback Cody Kessler, who threw for 20 TDs and nearly 3,000 yards in a fast-finishing 2013 campaign, tailback Javorius "Buck" Allen, who had 1,027 all-purpose yards (785 rushing) and 15 touchdowns last fall, wide receiver/returner Nelson Agholor, the nation's No. 2 punt returner in 2013 who also had 56 receptions and 1,444 all-purpose yards, fullback and All-Pac-12 first team special teamer Soma Vainuku, tight end Randall Telfer (44 receptions, 10 TDs in his career) and offensive linemen Max Tuerk, Chad Wheeler and Aundrey Walker. Other offensive players who own career starts are tailbacks Tre Madden (703 rushing yards in 2013) and D.J. Morgan, wide receivers Darreus Rogers (22 catches last year) and Victor Blackwell, fullback Jahleel Pinner, offensive lineman Nathan Guertler and tight end Chris Willson. Key 2013 backup tailbacks Justin Davis and Ty Isaac (600-plus yards and 8 TDs between them last fall) also are back.
The returning starters on a defense that was in the national Top 25 in 8 statistical categories last season (including total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and pass efficiency defense) are All-American defensive lineman Leonard Williams, who had 13.5 tackles for loss with 6 sacks in 2013, inside linebacker Hayes Pullard (USC's 2013 tackle leader with 94), cornerback-safety Josh Shaw and Freshman All-American first team safety Su'a Cravens (each had 4 interceptions in 2013), cornerback Kevon Seymour, defensive linemen J.R. Tavai and Antwaun Woods and inside linebackers Lamar Dawson and Anthony Sarao (they combined for 79 tackles while splitting starts in 2013). Other defenders back with career starts are cornerback Anthony Brown, outside linebacker Jabari Ruffin and safety Leon McQuay III. Promising young linebackers Michael Hutchings and Quinton Powell also return.
USC's placekicker, Andre Heidari (he has 40 career field goals), and punter, Kris Albarado (34.2% of his 2013 punts stopped inside the 20-yard line and he had only 4 touchbacks), return from last season, as do both snappers, Zach Smith and Peter McBride. Alex Wood, who has seen time at placekicker earlier in his career, is back, too.
"One of the goals of our staff this spring is to develop our team as individuals, then as position units and then into a team," said Sarkisian, who went to 4 bowl games and beat 8 AP Top 25 teams while at Washington. "That doesn't happen overnight, it takes time. But we pride ourselves on our ability to develop players. That's our focus this spring.
"Ultimately, as we move to the fall and get all of our injured players back, we'll see a team that has better depth than people believe. Every player will have a role on this team. We need to put them all in positions to be successful."
Although USC lost just 3 starters on each side of the ball from 2013, it will have some significant holes to fill.
Gone from Troy's offense are All-American wide receiver/returner Marqise Lee, the 2012 Biletnikoff Award winner who owns 24 USC records (including most career receiving yards, 3,655) and registered 248 receptions, 15 100-yard receiving games, 29 TD catches and 5,152 all-purpose yards as a Trojan, 2013 All-Pac-12 first team center Marcus Martin and 3-year starting tackle Kevin Graf, as well as 2013 co-starters Xavier Grimble at tight end (69 catches, 11 TDs in his career) and Silas Redd at tailback (he had nearly 3,000 rushing yards, including 12 100-yard outings, during his tenures at USC and Penn State) and one-time starters John Martinez at guard and Max Wittek at quarterback.
Defensive starters gone from last year are outside linebacker Devon Kennard, a 2013 Lott Trophy finalist who had 195 career tackles (26 for losses) as a 3-year starter, safety-linebacker Dion Bailey (222 tackles and 11 interceptions in his 3-year starting career), defensive end George Uko (85 career stops) and safety Demetrius Wright, as well as one-time starters Morgan Breslin at defensive end (he was a 2012 Hendricks Award finalist who had 17.5 sacks in 18 career games) and Torin Harris at cornerback.
Lee, Grimble, Martin, Bailey and Uko all departed after their junior seasons in order to enter the NFL draft.
Just 2 full-time assistant coaches from USC's 2013 staff were retained by Sarkisian: Helton, the offensive coordinator who handles the quarterbacks, and wide receivers coach/pass game coordinator Tee Martin, who was named the Pac-12's Recruiter of the Year in 2014. Sarkisian brought 5 assistants with him from Washington: defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, running backs coach/special teams coordinator/assistant head coach Johnny Nansen, linebackers coach/recruiting coordinator/associate head coach defense Peter Sirmon, tight ends coach/associate head coach offense Marques Tuiasosopo and defensive backs coach/pass game coordinator defense Keith Heyward. Strength and conditioning head coach Ivan Lewis also followed him to USC. Sarkisian then hired Tim Drevno from the San Francisco 49ers to be the offensive line coach/running game coordinator and Chris Wilson from Georgia to be the defensive line coach. Two graduate assistant coaches were held over from last year's staff, Ross Cumming (defense) and Jaron Fairman (offense), and 2 others are in the process of being hired.
USC's 12-game 2014 schedule features 9 teams that played in a bowl last season, 6 that won at least 8 games (including 4 that had 10-plus victories) and 4 that were in the final AP rankings. Sarkisian's Trojan head coaching debut will come at home on Aug. 30 against 2013 Mountain West Conference champion Fresno State, the team the Trojans defeated in the Vegas Bowl to close last season (it will mark the first time since the 1916 finale and the 1917 opener that Troy has played the same team consecutively). The Trojans then travel to 2-time defending Pac-12 champion Stanford on Sept. 6 for the Pac-12's first conference game of 2014. USC stays on the road on Sept. 13 when it goes to Atlantic Coast Conference opponent Boston College, Troy's first visit there since 1988. After a bye, the Trojans resume Pac-12 play by returning home for a pair of games, first against Oregon State on Sept. 27 and then versus reigning Pac-12 South Division champ Arizona State on Oct. 4. USC then goes to Arizona on Oct. 11 before hosting Colorado on Oct. 18. Troy is on the road the following 2 weeks, at Utah on Oct. 25 and at Washington State on Nov. 1, then it has another bye weekend. The Trojans return to action by hosting California in a Thursday night contest on Nov. 13, just the second non-Thanksgiving or non-bowl Thursday game USC has played in the Coliseum. USC concludes its regular season with back-to-back encounters with its traditional rivals, first visiting crosstown foe UCLA in the Rose Bowl on Nov. 22 and then hosting Notre Dame in a Thanksgiving weekend clash on Nov. 29
Eight starters return on offense from 2013: quarterback Cody Kessler, tailback Javorius Allen, wide receiver Nelson Agholor, fullback Soma Vainuku, tight end Randall Telfer and offensive linemen Max Tuerk, Chad Wheeler and Aundrey Walker. Others back with starting experience are tailbacks Tre Madden and D.J. Morgan, wide receivers Darreus Rogers and Victor Blackwell, fullback Jahleel Pinner, offensive lineman Nathan Guertler and tight end Chris Willson.
USC's leading passer, top 2 rushers (and 5 of its top 6 ground gainers) and 4 of its top 6 pass catchers (and 13 players in all who had a reception) are back from 2013. The Trojans averaged nearly 30 points and 400 total yards last year while breaking in a new signalcaller, figures that were down just slightly from the previous year when the offense was quarterbacked by a 4-year starter and featured a record-setting wideout and a career 1,000-yard runner. USC was particularly effective last fall in the red zone (sixth nationally) and in time of possession (10th nationally), both best in the Pac-12, and it cut its turnovers in half from 2012 (from 34 to just 17). However, Troy will look for improvement across the board on offense, as its key 2013 offensive stats (scoring offense at 29.7, total offense at 399.9, rushing offense at 172.8 and passing offense at 227.1) all ranked in the middle third of the nation's teams, while it particularly struggled on third down conversions (35.1%) and sacks allowed (2.43), both of which were in the bottom third.
Sarkisian, who will call the plays with help from offensive coordinator Clay Helton, will employ multiple formations on offense. But noticeably different from past USC offensive schemes will be Sarkisian's use of the hurry-up no-huddle system.
"We will be an up-tempo, no-huddle offense," said Sarkisian. "Our style will be somewhat reminiscent of what the offense was at USC when I was here before, but it will just be run at a lot faster pace. We want to be a team that runs the ball effectively and throws the ball efficiently.
"It is critical this spring for our offense to understand the principles of operation of the no-huddle, while at the same time we must teach them the offensive schemes. We want to go fast, but we want to execute at a high level of success. The key is the ability to do both"
USC is in good hands at the quarterback spot.
Junior Cody Kessler (236-of-361, 65.4%, 2,968 yds, 20 TD, 7 int in 2013, plus 1 rush TD) showed continual improvement throughout 2013 in his first year as the starter, completing 65.4% of his passes for 2,968 yards and 20 TDs with just 7 interceptions. In the final 6 games of the season, he hit 70.8% of his aerials with 11 TDs and just 2 picks. He was the Las Vegas Bowl MVP, going 22-of-30 (73.3%) for a career-high 345 yards and a career-best and Vegas Bowl record 4 touchdown passes. He already is 15th on Troy's career passing chart (238 completions).
Despite that showing, Kessler will be challenged by promising redshirt freshman Max Browne, who was the nation's high school player of the year in 2012 when he set Washington State records for passing yards (12,953) and completions (882) while completing 70.4% of his throws for 146 TDs. A 2013 spring enrollee, Browne already has the benefit of spring and fall practices under his belt.
Also keep an eye on freshman Jalen Greene (Serra High in Gardena, Calif.), who went 35-6 as a 3-year starter at Serra while throwing for 6,355 yards with 68 TDs and running for 3,040 yards with 30 TDs. He graduated high school a semester early so he could enroll at USC this spring.
"We have a very talented quarterback group," said Sarkisian. "We have 3 players who can handle the things we'll ask them to do. It's a very competitive position. I'm excited to see Max and Jalen perform and I know they will push Cody to make him even better."
USC remains well-stocked at tailback despite the departure of Silas Redd, who had 2,959 rushing yards in his time at USC and Penn State, including 12 career 100-yard rushing games (5 at Troy, with a pair in 2013 while appearing in just 6 contests because of injuries). He ran for 376 yards at USC last year.
Three players with starting experience, plus a pair of key backups, dot the 2014 tailback corps. Junior Javorius Allen (135 tcb, team-best 785 yds, 5.8 avg, 14 TD in 2013, plus 22 rec, 252 yds, 11.5 avg, 1 TD and 2 tac), USC's 2013 team MVP who goes by the nickname "Buck," led the Trojans in rushing last season with 785 yards and 14 TDs. Most of his 2013 action came in Troy's final 6 games and he lit it up in that span, getting 648 rushing yards with 12 TDs (including a quartet of 100-yard outings) and 19 catches for 243 yards with another score. He started USC's last 4 games. Four of his TDs last year measured at least 43 yards. His 135 yards on just 6 carries at California last fall were the most yards ever on the road by a Trojan with 6 or fewer carries and the most home or away since 1954.
Before Allen burst on the scene, junior Tre Madden (138 tcb, 703 yds, 5.1 avg, 3 TD in 2013, plus 15 rec, 201 yds, 13.4 avg, 4 TD and 0-of-1 passing, 1 int) was grabbing the headlines at tailback until hamstring injuries slowed him for the second half of the 2013 season. He started the season's first 6 games, getting all but 92 of his 703 ground yards and 2 of his 15 catches in that time. He had 4 100-yard rushing outings last fall, including becoming the first Trojan to open a season with 3 consecutive 100-yard rushing games since Marcus Allen did so in 1981. His 4 receiving touchdowns in 2013 were the most by a Trojan running back since fullback Stanley Havili had 5 in 2007 and the most by a USC tailback since Reggie Bush had 7 in 2004.
Two sophomore tailbacks seeking expanded roles in 2014 had impressive debut campaigns in backup duty last year: Justin Davis (53 tcb, 361 yds, 6.8 avg, 6 TD in 2013, plus 1 rec, 7 yds, 7.0 avg), whose action came in the season's first 7 games before being sidelined with an ankle injury (he likely will miss 2014 spring practice while recovering), and Ty Isaac (40 tcb, 236 yds, 5.9 avg in 2013, plus 4 rec, 57 yds, 14.3 avg).
Senior D.J. Morgan, who has 364 career rushing yards and started the first 2 games of 2011, is looking to get back into the tailback rotation in 2014 after sitting out 2013 with a knee injury (he likely will be sidelined for 2014 spring drills while recuperating).
"The tailback position is the deepest on our team," said Sarkisian. "We have 4 quality players ready to battle it out. We need this to be a strength of our team because we love to run the ball. I believe this group will allow us to do that at a very high level."
USC returns a pair of physical, yet versatile, fullbacks in juniors Soma Vainuku (8 tcb, 78 yds, 9.8 avg, 1 TD in 2013, plus 9 rec, 74 yds, 8.2 avg, 1 TD and 2 PR, 16 yds, 8.0 avg and 13 tac and 3 BLK P with a safety) and Jahleel Pinner (7 rec, 33 yds, 4.7 avg in 2013, plus 1 KOR, 1 yd, 1.0 avg). Vainuku started 3 times in 2013 but really made his mark on special teams, where he earned All-Pac-12 first team honors as a special teams performer while notching 13 tackles and 3 blocked punts. Pinner had 5 starts.
There also is redshirt freshman walk-on fullback Pat Hart.
"We have 2 talented, experienced fullbacks who give us a unique aspect on offense," said Sarkisian. "We will be able to be an up-tempo no-huddle offense while keeping a fullback on the field."
USC's wideout unit has a significant void to fill in 2014 with the departure of 3-year starter Marqise Lee, who declared for the NFL draft following his 2013 junior season. The 2012 Biletnikoff Award winner and one of college football's most electrifying offensive performers led the Trojans with 57 catches in 2013 (for 791 yards and 4 TDs). He set or tied 24 USC records (5 were Pac-12 marks) in his USC tenure, including most receptions in a season (118) and most receiving yards in a game (345), season (1,721) and career (3,655). His 248 career catches ranks second on the USC list and his 29 career TD catches is fourth. He notched 15 100-yard receiving games and 5,152 all-purpose yards (for a 15.6-yard average) at Troy. He also finished seventh on USC's career kickoff return yardage ladder (1,305 yards, with 2 TDs).
Junior Nelson Agholor (56 rec, team-best 918 yards, 16.4 avg, 6 TD in 2013, plus 18 PR, 343 yds, 19.1 avg, 2 TD and 10 KOR, 175 yds, 17.5 avg and 2 tcb, 8 yds, 4.0 avg and 1 tac), however, showed signs last fall of being Lee's equal. He had 56 receptions for a team-leading 918 yards in 2013 (he has 75 career grabs). His 6 scoring catches were the most by a Trojan last year, when he had a pair of 100-yard receiving games. He also was a dangerous return man, as he was second nationally in punt returns (19.1) and he shared the team lead in kickoff runbacks with Lee. He tied a Pac-12 record with 2 punt return TDs at California in 2013 (including a 93-yarder, the second longest in school history) and his 168 punt return yards in that Cal game was a USC mark. In all, he had 1,444 all-purpose yards in 2013.
A number of other receivers are vying to get into the starting lineup. Sophomore Darreus Rogers (22 rec, 257 yds, 11.7 avg in 2013, plus 1 PR, 5 yds, 5.0 avg and 1 tac) saw significant playing time last year, catching 22 passes and even starting 4 times. Then there are junior Victor Blackwell (4 rec, 49 yds, 12.2 avg in 2013), who saw limited action in 7 games last year (he started once), plus a pair of high-potential and speedy pass catchers who missed last fall with knee injuries: junior George Farmer and redshirt freshman Steven Mitchell (Mitchell's participation in 2014 spring practice could be limited).
Also available are 7 walk-ons with varying degrees of experience: juniors George Katrib (11 tac in 2013), who played often on 2013's special teams, Christian Tober and David Mellstrom, sophomores Robby Kolanz (1 rec, 3 yds, 3.0 avg in 2013), who appeared in 8 games last fall (a back injury likely will keep him out of 2014 spring practice), Christian Guzman and Robert Flewelling, and redshirt freshman Aaron Minor.
Joining the wide receiving corps in the fall as freshmen are prep All-Americans JuJu Smith (Poly High Long Beach, Calif.) and Adoree' Jackson (Serra High in Gardena, Calif.), who also might long jump on the USC track team, along with Rahshead Johnson (Cabrillo High in Long Beach, Calif.) and Ajene Harris (Crenshaw High in Los Angeles, Calif.). Smith, Jackson and Johnson might also play in the secondary.
"This spring is a great opportunity for Nelson not only to up his game, but to grow into a leadership role," said Sarkisian. "Our other receivers, many of them still young, are very talented, so this spring will be an important time for them to develop. They all have a chance to be very good players."
USC's tight end group lost Xavier Grimble, who had 69 catches and 11 TDs in his career as a part-time starter the past 3 years (he had 25 receptions in 2013), to the NFL following his junior season.
But his equally-effective fellow co-starter the past 3 seasons returns in 2014: senior Randall Telfer (6 rec, 78 yds, 13.0 avg, 1 TD in 2013, plus 2 tac), who has 44 catches and 10 TDs while making 22 starts in his career. He was bothered by a sore knee most of 2013.
Joining him is developing junior Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick (1 rec, 4 yds, 4.0 avg in 2013).
Then there are 4 walk-ons, including a pair from the 2013 squad--seniors Chris Willson (1 rec, 5 yds, 5.0 avg in 2013, plus 1 KOR, 7 yds, 7.0 avg), who started once last year (he also might work some at quarterback this year), and Shane Sullivan, who went out with a knee injury in 2013 (that injury likely will force him out of 2014 spring drills, too)--and 2 who joined the Trojans this spring in senior Teddy Baker, a transfer from Wesleyan who previously was at Connecticut, and sophomore Connor Spears, a Columbia transfer.
Prep All-American Bryce Dixon (St. Bonaventure High in Oxnard, Calif.) enters USC as a freshman in the fall.
"Randall is a skilled veteran, but we will limit him somewhat this spring," said Sarkisian. "That creates an opportunity for Jalen to get quality reps. Our offensive system loves to have multiple tight ends on the field. Our hope is to develop this position and, along with our use of the fullbacks, make us really unique."
Offensive line replacements must be found for 2013 All-Pac-12 first team center Marcus Martin, who started the previous 2 seasons at guard and declared for the NFL following his junior season, and fellow 3-year starter Kevin Graf at tackle. Also gone is reliable guard John Martinez, who had 30 career starts (most coming prior to 2013).
Some quality linemen are returning from last season (until the coaches evaluate the players in spring practice, specific line positions haven't been assigned): junior Max Tuerk, a 2-year starter who is versatile enough to play any line position (he started at left guard most of 2013 after starting at left tackle some of 2012), senior 2-year starter Aundrey Walker, who started at right guard in 2013 until he broke his ankle late in the season (he was the starting left tackle most of 2012), and sophomore Chad Wheeler, the left tackle starter last fall. Walker likely will miss 2014 spring practice while recovering.
There are some mostly-untested linemen looking to break into the lineup or serve as key backups: senior Giovanni Di Poalo, sophomores Zach Banner (he was sidelined most of last year because of hip surgery, which could slow him in 2014 spring drills) and Jordan Simmons (a mid-season knee injury knocked him out for the rest of the 2013 schedule and he likely will sit out 2014 spring drills while he recovers) and redshirt freshmen Khaliel Rodgers and Nico Falah.
Senior walk-on Nathan Guertler played in 12 games in 2013 (starting once), primarily on special teams. Other returning walk-ons are junior Erick Jepsen and redshirt freshman Dane Stevens (he sat out 2013 with an injury).
Two freshmen linemen graduated high school a semester early and enrolled at USC this spring: prep All-American Toa Lobendahn (La Habra High in La Habra, Calif.) along with Jordan Austin (Claremont High in Claremont, Calif.).
Coming aboard as freshmen in the fall are prep All-Americans Damien Mama (St. John Bosco High in Bellflower, Calif.) and Viane Talamaivao (Centennial High in Corona, Calif.), along with Chris Brown (Loyola High in Los Angeles, Calif.).
"We have a unique blend on the offensive line, some players with a great deal of experience and some very young players," said Sarkisian. "All of our linemen, though, will be learning a new system, so our ability to teach it to them this spring will be critical. We hired Tim Drevno to coach them because of his unparalleled ability to teach."
Eight defensive starters return from 2013: defensive lineman Leonard Williams, inside linebacker Hayes Pullard, cornerback-safety Josh Shaw, safety Su'a Cravens, cornerback Kevon Seymour, outside linebacker J.R. Tavai, defensive lineman Antwaun Woods and co-starting inside linebackers Lamar Dawson and Anthony Sarao. Others defensive players returning with career starts are cornerback Anthony Brown, outside linebacker Jabari Ruffin and safety Leon McQuay III.
USC's top 3 tacklers from last year, along with its leaders in tackles for loss, deflections, fumble recoveries and forced fumbles, all return in 2014. Last season, the Trojan defense showed marked improvement from 2012 and finished in the national Top 25 in 8 statistical categories: first in red zone defense (.628), 12th in third down conversion defense (.327), 13th in total defense (335.2), 14th in pass efficiency defense (111.9), 15th rushing defense (120.6), 16th in scoring defense (21.2), 18th in fourth down conversion defense (.364) and 23rd in interceptions (17). Opponents were held to 300 total yards or less in 7 of Troy's 14 games in 2013, and the Trojans also held foes to 14 points or less 7 times. USC allowed just 37 first-quarter points all season and it did not allow any second-half points in 3 games. The Trojans did this despite using 3 or fewer defensive substitutes in 6 games in 2013 because of the effects of the NCAA scholarship limitations.
Sarkisian and new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, whose multiple fronts will have the look at times of last season's Trojan defense, are hoping 2013's stingy defensive performances continue this season. This defense will run out of a 3-4 base with 4-3 principles applied.
"Our defense appears to be the strength of our team," said Sarkisian. "That's a great sign. But we have plenty of room to improve and grow. I like how we can evolve.
"We will play an aggressive, attacking style on defense. The ability to do that starts up front and I think our front 7 is very strong. But we must also play well on the back end of our defense."
Although a key defensive lineman has departed--George Uko, who had 85 career stops (36 in 2013) as a 2-year starter before leaving after his junior season for the NFL--USC returns some equally-impressive linemen (specific line positions won't be determined until the coaches evaluate the players in spring practice).
Dominating junior Leonard Williams (74 tac, team-high 13.5 for loss, 6 sack, 1 FR, 2 FF in 2013), a 2013 All-American first teamer and Bednarik Award semifinalist, headlines the Trojans' returning defensive linemen. He might be college football's best d-lineman in 2014. The 2-year starter had a team-best 13.5 tackles for loss among his 74 total tackles as an end in 2013 (he also had 6 sacks). His participation in 2014 spring practice is doubtful as he recovers from a nagging shoulder injury.
Also returning is junior Antwaun Woods (19 tac, 2 for loss, 1 sack, 1 dfl in 2013), who recorded 19 stops last season as a starter at tackle.
Competing to break into the playing rotation is a pair of juniors who have some experience: Cody Temple, who was bothered by foot and ankle issues last fall, and Greg Townsend Jr. (he sat out last season with an ankle and knee injury). Both players could be sidelined or limited in 2014 spring practice.
Two linemen with loads of potential redshirted last year and are ready to compete for time: junior Delvon Simmons, who started at Texas Tech in 2012 but had to sit out last fall after transferring to USC, and redshirt freshman Kenny Bigelow.
Junior Claude Pelon, a junior college All-American last year at Mesa (Ariz.) Community College, enrolled at USC this spring and looks to contribute immediately.
"The defensive line is a deep position for us," said Sarkisian. "We have a chance to be special here, but the line's development this spring will be critical. With some players limited during the spring, a great opportunity will be presented to the younger linemen to get valuable reps."
USC lost 2 outstanding outside linebackers, but it also returns some talent here.
Devon Kennard, a 3-year starter who had 195 career tackles (26 for losses), including 60 last season (with 13 for losses and a team-best 9 sacks) when he was a Lott Impact Trophy finalist and USC's Most Inspirational Player, and Morgan Breslin, a 2012 Hendricks Award finalist who had 17.5 career sacks but only saw action in 5 games last fall because of injuries, both have moved on.
But well-tested senior J.R. Tavai (56 tac, 8 for loss, 3.5 sack in 2013), who made 56 tackles in 2013 while starting most of last year, returns.
Also back with significant playing time on their resumes are sophomores Jabari Ruffin (22 tac, 1 for loss, 1 sack, 1 FF in 2013), who had 1 start last year, Scott Starr (9 tac, 1 dfl in 2013) and Quinton Powell (20 tac, 2 for loss, 1 sack in 2013), along with junior Charles Burks (3 tac, 1 for loss, 1 sack in 2013).
Then there is freshman Don Hill (Timberline High in Boise, Id.), who graduated a semester early from high school and enrolled at USC this spring. He likely will miss 2014 spring drills while recovering from a 2013 Achilles injury.
Entering the fray in the fall as freshmen are prep All-American Malik Dorton (St. John Bosco High in Bellflower, Calif.) along with Uchenna Nwusu (Narbonne High in Harbor City, Calif.).
"We have a lot of athleticism on the edge here," said Sarkisian. "There is experience and talent. I'm looking forward to watching this unit develop."
All of USC's key 2013 inside linebacking crew returns, led by senior Hayes Pullard (team-high 94 tac, 5.5 for loss, 1 int, 6 dfl in 2013). The 3-year starter, who has 282 career tackles, led the Trojans in stops in 2011 and 2013 (he had 94 tackles last year while serving as a team co-captain) after being second on the defense in 2012.
Senior Lamar Dawson (35 tac, 3.5 for loss, 1.5 sack, 2 dfl in 2013) and junior Anthony Sarao (44 tac, 2.5 for loss, 1 dfl, 1 FR, 1 FF in 2013) combined for 79 tackles in 2013 while splitting starts, with Dawson starting the first 7 games (it was his third year as a starter) before injuring his knee and having Sarao move into the lineup. Dawson likely will sit out 2014 spring practice while recovering.
Sophomore Michael Hutchings (19 tac in 2013) had a precocious 2013 showing as a backup and on special teams.
Joining the inside linebacker corps in the fall as a freshman is prep All-American Olajuwon Tucker (Serra High in Gardena, Calif.).
"When I talk about our defensive front 7 being one of the strengths of the team, a lot of that is because of our linebackers," said Sarkisian. "The inside backers are solid, talented players who have lots of versatility. They have a great leader and mentor in Hayes."
The 2013 Trojan secondary returns nearly intact. Missing are safety-linebacker Dion Bailey, who made 222 tackles and 11 interceptions as a 3-year starter (he started 8 times last year as a nickel back, getting 61 tackles and 5 picks, after playing linebacker the previous 2 years) but now has entered the NFL draft after his junior season, safety Demetrius Wright (59 tackles starting at free safety in 2013) and cornerback Torin Harris (13 career starts, including 4 last year when he had 30 tackles).
The most veteran and versatile among the returning defensive backs is cornerback-safety Josh Shaw (67 tac, 5.5 for loss, 4 int with 1 for TD, team-best 7 dfl in 2013, plus 1 PR TD), who has 119 tackles and 6 interceptions in a career split between Florida and now the past 2 seasons at USC. He had 67 stops, 4 interceptions and a team-high 7 deflections last fall while starting 11 times at corner and 3 times at free safety (he even ran back a blocked punt for a touchdown).
Sophomore Su'a Cravens (52 tac, 1.5 for loss, 4 int, 1 dfl, 1 FF, 1 FR in 2013, plus 1 KOR, 33 yds, 33.0 avg and 1 PR, 1 yd, 1.0 avg) earned Freshman All-American first team honors in 2013 while making 52 tackles and 4 interceptions at strong safety.
Junior Kevon Seymour (48 tac, 2 for loss, 1 int, 6 dfl in 2013, plus 7 KOR, 92 yds, 13.1 avg) returns after starting 2013 at cornerback and posting 48 tackles and an interception (he also returned 7 kickoffs for a 13.1 average).
Several other defensive backs are looking for an expanded role in 2014: senior cornerback Anthony Brown (9 tac in 2013), who has 6 career starts but played in just 2 games last year because of ankle injuries, sophomore safety Leon McQuay III (19 tac, 1 int, 4 dfl, 1 FF in 2013, plus 1 KOR, 3 yds, 3.0 avg), who started once last fall and got lots of time on special teams, senior safety Gerald Bowman, who suffered a shoulder injury after seeing limited action in 3 early games last season and was able to redshirt for medical reasons, soph cornerback Devian Shelton (3 tac, 2 dfl in 2013), who sustained a season-ending foot injury in the 2013 opener, junior cornerback Ryan Henderson (1 tac in 2013), who has played briefly in just 6 games in his career, and redshirt freshman cornerback Chris Hawkins. Bowman and Shelton could be limited in 2014 spring practice.
There are 5 walk-on secondary players, including a pair of sophomores who saw lots of action last year on special teams--cornerback Ryan Dillard (6 tac, 1 for loss in 2013) and safety Rob Dooley (2 tac in 2013)--and 3 who redshirted (soph cornerback Kevin Carrasco, soph safety Adrian Johnson and redshirt freshman safety Matt Lopes).
Looking to make an impact in the secondary when they enroll in the fall as freshmen are prep All-Americans Adoree' Jackson (Serra High in Gardena, Calif.), who also might work at wide receiver and long jump on the USC track team, JuJu Smith (Poly High Long Beach, Calif.), who might also work at wide receiver, and Jonathan Lockett (Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif.) along with John Plattenburg (Lamar High in Houston, Tex.), Lamont Simmons (Raines High in Jacksonville, Fla.) and Rahshead Johnson (Cabrillo High in Long Beach, Calif.), who might also play wide receiver.
"I anticipate we'll see the players in the secondary really mature this spring in all aspects of the game, especially the younger players who will take on bigger roles," said Sarkisian. "It's a great chance for them to earn playing time. Josh is their leader and serves as a great example to all of them on and off the field."
USC's placekicker (Andre Heidari), punter (Kris Albarado), long snapper (Peter McBride), short snapper (Zach Smith), holder (Cody Kessler) and top kickoff and punt returner (Nelson Agholor) all are back from 2013.
The Trojans ranked 13th nationally in punt returns (13.3) last year, as well as second in blocked punts (3) and fourth in blocked kicks (6). Troy allowed zero punt return yards in 8 of its 14 games in 2013 and held 2 other opponents to 5 yards or less. Only 16 of USC's 79 punts were returned last year. And the Trojans had 3 scoring punt returns.
But there are some areas that need to be shored up as USC was dead last nationally in kickoff returns (14.4) in 2013 and 10th from the bottom in net punting (34.5), as well as only 62nd in punt return defense (7.9).
"We have a lot of experience returning throughout our special teams," said Sarkisian. "The objective here this spring is to get them all to perform consistently at their peak capabilities."
Junior Kris Albarado (37.1 avg in 2013, plus 2 tac) is back after averaging 37.1 yards per punt in his first year handling that duty. He was particularly effective pinning opponents within the 20-yard line, as he did so on 27 of his 79 punts (34.2%) and only 4 of his boots were touchbacks.
Also available to punt are a pair of walk-ons who have yet to play--redshirt freshman Jack Basalari and junior Joey Krassenstein (he previously played semi-pro rugby in China)--as well as senior placekicker Andre Heidari, who served as USC's emergency backup punter last year but was never called upon in that role.
Senior Andre Heidari (49-of-52 PAT, 15-of-22 FG in 2013, plus 1 tac) has been USC's placekicker the past 3 years, hitting 40 field goals in his career. He is within range of the school career records for field goals and PATs. He hit 15 of his 22 field goal attempts and all but 3 of his 52 PAT tries last year. Although he missed some key field goals in several games last fall, he nailed a game-winning 47-yarder with 19 seconds to play against No. 5 Stanford, USC's first game-winning last second field goal since 2000. He also kicked off, with 22 of his 76 kickoffs pinning foes within the 20-yard line and getting touchbacks on 19 others. Sophomore walk-on Alex Wood redshirted last year after hitting all 8 of his PATs in 2012 when subbing for an injured Heidari.
Both of USC snappers--junior Peter McBride (1 tac in 2013), who handled the punt snaps, and walk-on sophomore Zach Smith, who snapped on all placement kicks--return from 2013 after performing flawlessly (McBride also was the snapper in 2012).
Junior wide receiver Nelson Agholor (18 PR, 343 yds, 19.1 avg, 2 TD in 2013, plus 10 KOR, 175 yds, 17.5 avg) is back after leading USC in both punt returns (19.1 avg) and kickoff returns (17.5 avg) in 2013. He proved to be a threat in both duties. He ranked second nationally in punt returns (19.1) last season. He tied a Pac-12 record with 2 scoring punt returns at California in 2013 (including a 93-yarder, the second longest in school history) and his 168 punt return yards in that Cal game was a USC mark.
Marqise Lee also was involved in returning kicks and punts last year, as he averaged 16.4 yards on 10 kickoff returns and 5.8 yards on 8 punt returns. Now headed to the NFL, he finished up ranked seventh on USC's career kickoff return ladder (1,305 yards).
A number of returning and new players could have a role in the return game in 2014 in Lee's place, including junior cornerback Kevon Seymour (7 KOR, 92 yds, 13.1 avg in 2013) and sophomore safety Su'a Cravens (1 KOR, 33 yds, 33.0 avg in 2013 and 1 PR, 1 yd, 1.0 avg).