USC Trojans: USC Trojans
"We were definitely a little bit more well-oiled to start Year 2," Sarkisian said. "There was a lot more familiarity between the coaches and the players and that will allow us to get more work done."
Two of the Trojans' major goals this spring will be to identify which players will step in for guys such as Leonard Williams and Hayes Pullard, and to work on two-minute drills to help prevent late breakdowns that cost USC in multiple games last season.
"We've got to fill some pretty important spots," Sarkisian said. "Leonard, Hayes, Buck Allen, Nelson Agholor, J.R. Tavai, we're talking some really critical guys here and we need to figure out who is going to fill those roles.
"We're also going to have a challenge at the end of each spring practice to simulate the final two minutes of a game. Who can we count on in those situations? Who will be the guy to make the play? If we come through in two of those situations last year we're playing in the conference title game and it needs to be something we really work on. Today we saw the defense come out in a best-of-five setting and they made three plays in a row to get off the field."
Those three plays for the defense, which ended the day, started off with a near interception by linebacker Lamar Dawson, who received some encouraging words from Sarkisian about his overall performance in the practice, and then back-to-back sacks by Leon McQuay and Scott Felix.
There was a standout effort on offense from wide receiver Steven Mitchell, the dynamic sophomore who is looking more and more like the game-breaker he showed before a knee injury almost two years ago. Sarkisian noted that Mitchell has added close to 20 pounds and will get a look at the outside receiver spot on Thursday when Adoree' Jackson is moved from defense to get a look at slot receiver.
Sarkisian also had praise for the tone set by the work ethic of senior quarterback Cody Kessler, who returns as one of the country's high-profile players and a preseason contender for the Heisman Trophy.
"From putting this offense in a year ago to where we are today, I don't know if I could be more pleased with Cody," added Sarkisian. "He's really operating at a high level. There is a chip on his shoulder, he's really hungry and he wants to get better. It rubs off on his teammates and that's exactly what you want from a fifth-year quarterback."
For his part, Kessler said it's a matter of learning from those who have come before him.
"I've been here five years and have seen a lot of different seniors go through it so I've learned from some pretty good ones in terms of how to handle your final year," Kessler said. "I want to leave my mark this last year, and I know the team wants to do the same."
With so many expectations for this USC team, including several "way-too-early" preseason polls that project the Trojans as contenders for the College Football Playoff, Sarkisian said one of the most important things this spring is not to get caught looking ahead.
"We don't play a football game for six months," Sarkisian said. "The key for us is to focus on today. How we are getting better individually and as a team, physically, mentally and emotionally. We can't worry about the stuff that's down the road."
Tight end Bryce Dixon missed practice for what Sarkisian called a student conduct issue….Incoming cornerback Iman Marshall was in attendance at practice, as were former players Nelson Agholor and Tom Malone…..Sarkisian mentioned Jordan Austin, Nico Falah, Kenny Bigelow, Tre Madden and Jabari Ruffin as players who had encouraging practices after missing time in 2014 due to injuries…..Max Browne had a nice deep touchdown pass to JuJu Smith.
Arriving on campus as a highly touted prospect out of Mission Hills (Calif.) Bishop Alemany in the summer of 2013, he suffered a torn ACL in his right knee that forced him to miss his entire freshman campaign. Then, while still in the recovery phase, he also had to deal with a groin injury last offseason that further threw a wrench in his development.
Showing steady signs of progress this past fall, however, Mitchell caught seven passes for 82 yards and two touchdowns for the Trojans, but he still appeared to lack the explosiveness that helped make him such a prized commodity coming out of high school.
But through it all, he always kept his head up.
"It was hard," Mitchell said, "but I knew that God had a plan for me."
And now, with spring practice set to start up on Tuesday afternoon, there's reason to believe that after a long wait, everything is finally coming together for Mitchell.
Finally 100 percent healthy and in the best shape of his Trojans' career, he was one of the stars of the team's volunteer throwing sessions this past January and February, regularly showcasing the burst in his step that had been missing.
"I can say that this is the best that I've felt since I've been here," Mitchell said late last week. "All of the coaches have been pushing us, and that's exactly what I needed."
In particular, Mitchell is quick to credit Trojans strength and conditioning coach Ivan Lewis and his staff.
"The conditioning workouts have been really helpful to me and to all of the guys over the past two months," said Mitchell, who currently weighs in at 190 pounds, after arriving at USC in the 178-pound range. "My breathing, my legs and my body are all feeling good."
With the departure of last season's leading receiver, Nelson Agholor, as well as George Farmer, USC head coach Steve Sarkisian and Co. will be looking for wideouts such as Mitchell to take on a greater role this spring. If the past two months are any indication, he's certainly up to the challenge.
"I'm definitely looking to make a statement," Mitchell said. "I'm going to come out hungry with a whole new attitude. I'm ready."
Plenty of talent here, led by a veteran starter in Cody Kessler who is expected to be one of the top returning quarterbacks in the country. There isn't much for Cody to prove in spring other than to continue to master the offense, work on his timing with teammates and stay healthy. Max Browne will be the primary reserve and the one-time top-ranked recruit has looked strong in off-season throwing sessions as he enters his third year in the program. Jalen Greene wants to continue showing progress and we will also see early enrollee Ricky Town added to the mix. It's a deep group with diversified skills.
Depth chart: Kessler, Browne, Greene, Town
This is a position where the departure of Buck Allen and the injury status of Tre Madden could result in Justin Davis being the only healthy scholarship tailback available for full-time duty in the spring. Davis still needs to show he is all the way back from an ankle injury suffered as a freshman, so he can use a good workload, although it would be ideal to have Madden out there as well after missing the 2014 season. Walk-on James Toland could get additional reps and we could also see fullbacks Soma Vainuku and Jahleel Pinner with the ball in their hands. Both Vainuku and Pinner played tailback in high school and have the ability to be productive options.
Depth chart: Davis, Madden, Vainuku, Pinner
The receiver group had a pair of early departures with Nelson Agholor and George Farmer so numbers might be a little light in spring, but you get the sense the talent level will be just fine. JuJu Smith was one of the leaders of offseason workouts and was probably the best player on the field in those sessions. Steven Mitchell also performed very well as he inches closer to the pre-injury form that made him such a dynamic player. Mitchell will be joined in the slot by Ajene Harris, who is clearly ready to contribute. Joining Smith on the outside will be veteran Darreus Rogers, who should get the first opportunity at the starting spot, and junior college transfer Isaac Whitney, who brings a 6-foot-4 frame and good speed. Of course, there will also be a role for Adoree' Jackson to line up at multiple spots, it just remains to be seen how big that role will be.
Depth chart: Smith, Rogers, Mitchell, Harris, Whitney
There are only two scholarship tight ends available for spring, but they are both good ones. Bryce Dixon showed a lot of potential last season as an athletic true freshman in the passing game and he should be ready to start earning a bigger role in the offense. Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick is back after sitting out last season due to academics. Cope-Fitzpatrick, who is now a senior, showed up for offseason workouts in tremendous shape with a focus that one would expect from a player who was forced to miss an entire year, he could bring a physical blocking option while also serving as a legit pass-catching threat.
Depth chart: Dixon, Cope-Fitzpatrick
This will be a very important spring for the line with the introduction of a new coach in Bob Connelly, who will have plenty of experienced talent to work with but that talent is still young and developing. The entire group that started the Holiday Bowl will return (LT Toa Lobendahn, LG Damien Mama, C Max Tuerk, RG Viane Talamaivao and RT Zach Banner) and then there is also the injured Chad Wheeler, a former starter at LT who will sit out the spring as he continues to rehab after knee surgery. Tuerk is the senior leader and should be up for national honors this year. The reserve group has some players ready to show they are capable of more, from Khaliel Rodgers, Jordan Simmons, Chris Brown, Jordan Austin and Nico Falah to the early enrollee true freshmen Chuma Edoga and Roy Hemsley.
Depth chart: Lobendahn, Mama, Tuerk, Talamaivao, Banner, Rodgers (G), Simmons (G), Brown (G/T), Austin (T), Falah (T), Udoga (G/T), Hemsley (T)
There will be a lot of attention paid to replacing Leonard Williams, which will be no easy task, but a look at the returning group shows there is a lot of experience, including a trio of seniors in the middle of the line. Antwaun Woods is a veteran presence at nose tackle who will sit out spring recovering from a chest muscle injury. Delvon Simmons and Claude Pelon should man the end and tackle spots, both players showed improvement last year in their first season at USC. That's a pretty big group to put out there along the interior when healthy, and there could be some critical reserves behind them who are looking to stay healthy as well. Greg Townsend Jr., has seen his share of injury struggles in his time at USC but he put together a stretch last season which flashed the promise of what he brings to the table. And then there is the potential return of Kenny Bigelow, who was able to take part in winter conditioning sessions after suffering a knee injury last summer. Those two players could really have an impact on the rotation if they are available. Cody Temple has shown he can be a contributor, while Malik Dorton enters his second season looking to make the transition inside.
Depth chart: Woods, Simmons, Pelon, Townsend, Temple, Bigelow, Dorton
This spring will mark the transition to the defense featuring Su'a Cravens in a lead role, and he should be more than ready to shine in his hybrid SS/SLB spot. The other OLB/rush end spot will likely have Scott Felix getting the first look at taking over for J.R. Tavai, but it will be interesting to see how the other players in the rotation are lining up as Quinton Powell, Jabari Ruffin, Charles Burks and Don Hill are all capable of moving around and filling different roles. On the inside, Anthony Sarao returns as a veteran senior with a big hole next to him following the departure of four-year starter Hayes Pullard. Michael Hutchings has been the backup the past two years to Pullard, but other options could include Lamar Dawson, Olajuwon Tucker or early enrollee Cameron Smith. Finding someone here is one of the biggest goals of spring.
Depth chart: Cravens, Hutchings, Sarao, Felix, Powell, Ruffin, Burks, Dawson, Tucker, Smith
Adoree' Jackson enters spring as one of the rising stars in college football and he's just a terrific cover corner with unique athletic abilities. Kevon Seymour has developed into a nice veteran option across from him, while this spring will be important for reserves such as Chris Hawkins, Jonathan Lockett and Lamont Simmons to show the coaches something before Iman Marshall arrives in the fall. Lockett impressed during winter workouts with his ability to make plays. The safety spots appear to be there for the taking for John Plattenburg and Leon McQuay, both players had starting experience last season but both also saw their share of ups and downs. With a lack of depth at safety, and good depth at linebacker, could Cravens be moved to the secondary in certain situations?
Depth chart: Jackson, Seymour, Plattenburg, McQuay, Hawkins, Lockett, Simmons
The Trojans are looking for a new placekicker after the departure of four-year starter Andre Heidari, and Matt Boermeester will get the first look after coming in as a “blueshirt” scholarship recipient last fall. Alex Wood, Wyatt Schmidt and Reid Brudovich are also in the mix. Kris Albarado returns as the punter, and Zach Smith is back at long snapper. Jackson and Smith are back as return men.
This is particularly true on the defensive side of the ball, with a pair of open starting spots at rush end and inside linebacker.
Scott Felix enters his fourth year in the program and had his most productive season in 2014 while appearing in all 13 games and recording 36 tackles, 1.5 sacks and five tackles for loss. Felix started start five games at rush end when J.R. Tavai was out with an injury, so he has that valuable experience. But Felix is going to need to show the coaches he is ready for more if he wants to secure the full-time starting spot.
Felix is likely to face competition from a pair of veterans who are also looking for bigger roles. Jabari Ruffin has been an outside linebacker to this point in his USC career, and he missed the 2014 season due to a knee injury suffered in fall camp so it’s unclear how much he would be available in spring. But there is a lot of speculation about the possibility of Ruffin moving to rush end when he does return. It makes sense to consider, particularly if Su'a Cravens is entrenched in his outside linebacker spot, as Ruffin has a lot of the skill set to make the switch. Charles Burks is heading into his fifth year as a player who has seen limited action with the ability to rush the passer. Burks would definitely want to have a solid spring to get the coaches' attention before one of the true freshmen (Porter Gustin?) gets a look in the fall.
The departure of Hayes Pullard in the middle of the linebacker group leaves a hole that isn’t clear in terms of who will take over. Michael Hutchings has spent two years as the primary reserve to Pullard and would seemingly get the first shot, but I don’t think you can say Hutchings has shown enough so far to think he is definitely ready for the role. Lamar Dawson could get a look here in spring; he missed the 2014 season with injury, but he has the size and experience to warrant giving him a shot. Olajuwon Tucker, who saw time in seven games last season as a freshman, is another spring option, as is early enrollee Cameron Smith. And you can be sure that all three freshman linebackers arriving in the fall (John Houston, Osa Masina and Gustin) could be in the mix as well.
On the offensive side of the ball, it’s a pair of pass-catching options who stand out, as Darreus Rogers and Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick will both head into spring as the favorites to land starting spots.
For Rogers, he was also the heavy favorite to get a starting spot last fall opposite Nelson Agholor, but JuJu Smith steamrolled past him and became that second option in the passing game. With Agholor (and George Farmer) gone and Smith now established as the No. 1 guy, Rogers has a real chance to solidify his role with a steady spring. He will face competition in the spring from early enrollee juco transfer Isaac Whitney, with another talented juco receiver arriving in the fall in De’Quan Hampton.
Cope-Fitzpatrick could be one of the more valuable additions to the USC roster this spring after missing the 2014 season due to academic reasons. Depth is an issue at tight end, even though Bryce Dixon does offer one of the more talented receiving options you are going to find at the position after a promising freshman season. What Cope-Fitzpatrick can offer, in addition to some solid hands, is a more physical presence as a blocking option, and you have to imagine he is highly motivated after being forced to sit out a year.
There are certainly other examples of players who are anxious to show they are capable of doing more. How about Justin Davis? There is opportunity at tailback, as it’s unclear how Tre Madden will return from his toe injury. Is this the time for Quinton Powell to make a move? USC coach Steve Sarkisian made it clear he wanted Powell to add bulk to be more of a physical factor, so it will be interesting to see where Powell is at in the spring. And we haven’t even mentioned Max Browne, the former No. 1 quarterback recruit in the nation who has spent two years progressing and learning, and this spring should be a great chance to judge how far he has come.
Imagine how an NCAA freshmen ineligibility sanction would have crippled the Trojans in recruiting. Unless a blue-chip recruit always wanted to play for the Men of Troy, it's a safe bet that the Trojans would have lost out on a number of high-valued players that helped keep the program afloat and winning during those sanctioned seasons.
Now let's fast-forward to last season, Steve Sarkisian's first at the helm of the Trojans' storied program. Ask yourself, where would the Trojans have been in 2014 if there had been a freshmen ineligibility rule as part of the general college football landscape?
Apparently what the NCAA never did during the Trojans' sanctions -- freshmen ineligibility -- has now become a hot item in college football. The Big Ten appears to be spearheading a potentially seismic shift in the way college sports do business. The Big Ten wants to consider freshmen ineligibility, and it's getting positive support from both the Pac-12 and the Big 12.
And the powerful SEC?
Are you really surprised the SEC hasn't shown public support of the Big Ten's freshmen ineligibility concept? In theory, consider Sarkisian recruiting nationally against Alabama's Nick Saban, and Sark's Pac-12 has freshmen ineligibility and Saban's SEC doesn't. It would be the recruiting theatre of the absurd, and you know which university the high school phenom would likely select.
In all likelihood, a freshmen ineligibility rule won't pass because all stakeholders invested into the College Football Playoff would need to be on the same recruiting playing field. Of course, the SEC would be more than happy if the other conferences went to a freshmen ineligibility rule and they didn't.
From a USC football program point of view, had a freshmen ineligibility rule been in effect last season, it might have been disastrous even after finally being set free from NCAA sanctions.
Given the limited numbers and depth issues, imagine if the Trojans couldn't have had the 2014 services of those three true freshmen prodigies that started along the offensive line -- namely Freshman All-American left tackle Toa Lobendahn and physical guards Viane Talamaivao and Damien Mama.
Picture, if you will, the Trojans being unable to play with sensational true freshman wide receiver JuJu Smith and talented strong safety John Plattenburg?
The crème de la crème of the true freshmen, of course, was Freshman All-America corner/wide receiver Adoree' Jackson, whose sensational 98-yard kickoff touchdown return and electrifying 71-yard TD catch-and-run ignited the Trojans to a 45-42 victory against the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the National University Holiday Bowl.
Speaking of the Trojans' Holiday Bowl win in San Diego, the Cardinal and Gold started six true freshmen -- four on offense and two on defense and also received support from two additional true freshmen talents in tight end Bryce Dixon and corner Jonathan Lockett.
There is little argument that true freshmen need time to adjust to college life academically, athletically, and socially. However, this isn't the 1970s. Priorities and professional career paths have changed dramatically, and players and their parents more than ever see the riches of playing in the NFL and the fulfillment of lifelong dreams.
For those that cry academics are hurt by true freshmen eligibility, after high school graduation many incoming freshmen players immediately enrolled by their university into summer school classes, thus getting a jump-start on a college degree, academics, social life, and immersion into their sports' pathway.
Yes, times have changed.
Just this January at the U.S. Army All-America Bowl, which features many of the nation's premier senior high school football players, two-way star Ykili Ross (Riverside, Calif./Poly) declared on national television that he was taking his talents to the University of Southern California for "the next three years."
Naturally, Ross's "next three years" declaration as opposed to "next four years" brought forth a lot of discussion, but the teenager was just echoing what most incoming freshman football players of today are thinking, and that's heading to the NFL immediately after their junior season.
Yes, times have changed.
The Trojans already have four of Ross's true freshmen teammates (offensive linemen Chuma Edoga and Roy Hemsley, linebacker Cameron Smith, and quarterback Ricky Town) enrolled in USC's spring semester. All four wanted to forego their spring senior semester at their respective high schools and begin their college careers early -- to not only adjust to college life but to participate in spring practice, which begins March 3.
There is very little debate that freshmen ineligibility was once a noble and admirable transition from high school to college, but there are way too many variables and options in today's college football world to go back in time.
And if any university can attest to the values and benefits of freshmen eligibility, the Trojans' football program can because they have lived it in more ways than one.
Nothing probably stimulated USC season-ticket renewals more than the recent bountiful collection of incoming talent as represented by the class of 2015. Depending on your choice of recruiting service, USC recorded the No. 1 recruiting class and no worse than No. 3 if you go by ESPN's final evaluation.
Prior to the recent emailed recruiting pitch for season-ticket renewals, the Trojans' ticket department has been promoting some reward possibilities. A random drawing of a daily prize this month has included such possibilities as pregame home field passes, autographed Trojans' helmets, theme park tickets, and exclusive lunch and photo opportunities.
The Trojans' home schedule also has some solid selling points for ticket renewal. The home slate features seven games in the Coliseum, including contests with crosstown rival UCLA, traditional Bay Area rival Stanford, and a Thursday night game against Washington. Six of those home foes played in bowl games this season.
Season-ticket renewals during the Pete Carroll era were a ticket department's dream. Looking back at it, who really believed Carroll when he proclaimed that one day during his time the Coliseum would be sold out on a regular basis? For longtime Trojans' season-ticket holders, the thought of a regularly sold-out Coliseum seemed as unlikely as the elimination of California earthquakes.
One of the many things that Pete Carroll left as his legacy was his template for Coliseum sellouts. Just win big, baby, recruit exciting and electrifying players, and be a head coach that is extremely fan friendly and accessible.
Ah, yes, recruit electrifying performers. Nothing like Carroll having at his disposal recruits such as tailbacks Reggie Bush and LenDale White, quarterback Matt Leinart, receivers Mike Williams and Dwayne Jarrett, and defenses led by the intimidating likes of defensive tackle Shaun Cody, linebackers Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing, and Keith Rivers, and offensive people movers such as offensive tackle Sam Baker.
Obviously, Trojans' attendance has not been at the Carroll level in recent seasons, but there was short-lived, season-ticket excitement in 2012 when former head coach Lane Kiffin's team was the nation's preseason No. 1 team.
As spring football commences on March 3, the Trojans' ticket department is hoping that season-ticket holders will again feel that Carroll excitement, given the fact that many respected media members and outlets are predicating the Men of Troy to be one of the nation's best in 2015 and a strong contender for one of the spots in the College Football Playoff.
The Trojans open the season by hosting Arkansas State and Idaho, two teams that quite likely won't stimulate season-ticket renewals. However, the 2015 season is really all about the Trojans and the hopes and dreams of fans that the Men of Troy will take another step toward being back in the national championship picture.
Sometimes seaso- ticket renewal is all about a fan's perception of the future. As of the present, that future -- thanks to the recruiting class of 2015 -- should be enough as Steve Sarkisian and staff attempts to emulate the Carroll attendance formula, which the Trojans' ticket department hopes will stimulate the remaining vacillating season-ticket population.
A veteran assistant with 19 years of college coaching experience under his belt, Connelly has worked all over the map, with USC now serving as his 12th stop. He arrives at USC after having spent the past year at Oklahoma State. Before his stint with the Cowboys, he worked on staffs at Arizona State (2012), UTEP (2008-11), UCLA (2007), Alabama (2003-06), Washington State (2001-02), San Jose State (2000), Cal State Northridge (1999), Texas A&M (1998), Cisco Junior College (1996-97) as well as at his alma mater, Texas A&M Commerce (1995).
Possessing significant experience working in no-huddle, up-tempo offensive systems, his specialty has been the offensive line throughout his career, and he also served as the associate head coach at Arizona State and UTEP.
"We are delighted to have Bob join our staff," said USC coach Steve Sarkisian. "He is a great fit for what we do. He is very familiar with Pac-12 and West Coast football, and he is also very versatile as he has coached various offensive styles in his career."
Among those whom Connelly has coached are 2008 Outland Trophy winner Andre Smith, as well as Justin Smiley, Evan Mathis and Antoine Caldwell. All four of those players were selected in the first three rounds of the NFL draft, with Mathis going on to earn a Pro Bowl selection in 2013.
In 2014, Connelly's offensive line unit at Oklahoma State had its ups as well as its downs, giving up a total of 40 sacks -- tied for the sixth most in the FBS -- but also reportedly making strides down the stretch of the schedule.
At USC, Connelly takes the reins of an extremely young, but talented offensive line corps that featured as many as three true freshmen starters this past season. Also, the line is headlined by senior center Max Tuerk, a 2014 First-Team All-Pac-12 honoree.
Offers: K.J. Costello (Coto de Caza, Calif./Santa Margarita Catholic), Malik Henry (Bradenton, Fla./IMG Academy), Shea Patterson (Shreveport, La./Calvary Baptist Academy), Khalil Tate (Gardena, Calif./Serra)
The Trojans just added two signal-callers in the most recent class, so it's a virtual certainty that Steve Sarkisian and his staff will take no more than one this time around. Topping the list looks to be Patterson, the No. 28 overall ranked player in the ESPN Junior 300. A strong-armed, mobile passer, he has unofficially visited the USC campus on at least two separate occasions, and he is also considering Ole Miss and LSU among others. Also right there is the 6-foot-5 Costello, who passed for over 3,100 yards this past season, and whose recruitment appears to be turning into a USC-Stanford battle. Henry, meanwhile, committed to FSU back in November. Tate is another quarterback who has an offer, although he's being recruited as an athlete.
Three highly touted tailbacks were a part of the Trojans' recruiting class of 2015, so the coaches are obviously taking their time in evaluating prospects at the position, but they are still likely to take one or two more in this class. No running back holds an offer at this time, but Beau Bisharat (Carmichael, Calif./Jesuit), Zion Echols (Covina, Calif./Charter Oak), Freddie Holly (Riverside, Calif./Norte Vista) and athletes Damian Alloway (Fontana, Calif./Summit) and Demetric Felton (Temecula, Calif./Great Oak) were all invited to USC's Elite Junior Day event, so there is certainly interest there. Chase Lucas (Chandler, Ariz./Chandler), Bryson Denley (Cibolo, Texas/Byron P. Steele II) and Sean McGrew (Bellflower, Calif./St. John Bosco) are others to watch. Additionally, this could be where someone such as Tate projects, as well as potentially Isaiah Gilchrist (Bellevue, Wash/Bellevue), although he's more commonly thought of as a defensive back. With Jahleel Pinner and Soma Vainuku both heading into their final seasons at USC, it will be interesting to see if Sarkisian targets any fullbacks in this class.
Offers: Sam Bruce (Fort Lauderdale, Fla./Saint Thomas Aquinas), Nate Craig-Myers (Tampa, Fla./Tampa Catholic), Dylan Crawford (Coto de Caza, Calif./Santa Margarita Catholic), Theo Howard (Westlake Village, Calif./Westlake), N'Keal Harry (Tempe, Ariz./Marcos De Niza), Collin Johnson (San Jose, Calif./Valley Christian), Jackie Jones (Long Beach, Calif./Poly), Mykel Jones (Patterson, La./Patterson), Javon McKinley (Corona, Calif./Centennial), Steffon McKnight (San Diego, Calif./Mira Mesa), Darian Owens (Fresno, Calif./Clovis West), Michael Pittman (Westlake Village, Calif./Oaks Christian), Dredrick Snelson (Plantation, Fla./American Heritage), Tyler Vaughns (La Puente, Calif./Bishop Amat)
No position is more loaded this year than wide receiver, particularly in Southern California, and with USC likely to want up to four prospects at the position, the timing couldn't be more perfect for Sarkisian and his staff. The Trojans' coaches have done a nice job of already building up solid relationships with elite playmakers like Vaughns, often pointed to as the arguable jewel of the crop, as well as McKinley, Jackie Jones, Crawford, Howard, Owens and Pittman. With so much talent at wide receiver, the Trojans figure to be in good shape no matter who they ultimately sign from the group that they've offered. Simi Fehoko (Salt Lake City, Utah/Brighton) and Dymond Lee (West Hills, Calif./Chaminade) are a couple of other prospects who were at the recent Junior Day.
Commits: Isaac Garcia (Bellevue, Wash./Bellevue)
Offers: Devin Asiasi (Concord, Calif./De La Salle), Isaac Nauta (Bradenton, Fla./IMG Academy)
While the Trojans did land ESPN 300 tight end Tyler Petite this past signing day, as well as another strong prospect in recruited walk-on Caleb Wilson, this is still a position low on depth, so USC will likely take at least two players here. Garcia, originally from Fontana (Calif.), is a nice start for the Trojans, but he could easily wind up on the defensive side of the ball at rush end. With over 15 offers to his credit, Asiasi is arguably the top in-state tight end target for the Trojans. He's an outstanding two-way star who even took some reps at quarterback this past season due to need. Nauta has a USC offer, but is currently committed to Florida State.
Offers: Greg Little (Allen, Texas/Allen), E.J. Price (Lawrenceville, Ga./Archer)
Counting Clayton Johnston, who will arrive in August as a blueshirt, USC has taken nine offensive linemen over the past two years, but it still wouldn't be a surprise to see them sign three or four more this time around. So far, they've only offered two offensive linemen in national prospects Price and Little, the latter of whom is a Texas A&M commit, but closer to home Frank Martin II (Santa Ana, Calif./Mater Dei) has been getting a lot of interest. He, as well as Alex Akingbulu (Harbor City, Calif./Narbonne) were both invited to USC's recent Junior Day event. Honolulu (Hawaii) Kaiser's Michael Eletise is also on the Trojans' radar, and some others to watch include Tremayne Anchrum Jr. (Powder Springs, Ga./McEachern), Andrew Boselli (Jacksonville, Fla./Episcopal), Tucker Scott (San Clemente, Calif./San Clemente), Luke Wattenberg (San Juan Capistrano, Calif./JSerra) and Sean Wheeler (Santa Monica, Calif./Santa Monica).
Iman "Biggie" Marshall
Long Beach (Calif.) Poly; cornerback; 6-foot-2, 200 pounds
Marshall, the No. 1-ranked cornerback in the ESPN 300, was an absolutely huge get for the Trojans, and he has the talent and physical tools to potentially slide into the lineup on defense and make his presence felt from Day 1. Extremely aggressive in coverage with excellent ball skills and tackling ability, he could vie not only for the starting role at the cornerback position opposite Adoree' Jackson, but he also has the size and skill set to play inside at nickelback.
Ronald Jones II
McKinney (Texas) North; running back; 6-0, 185
With the departure of Javorius "Buck" Allen to the NFL, and the Trojans returning just two scholarship tailbacks in Justin Davis and Tre Madden, it was of vital importance for USC head coach Steve Sarkisian and his staff to reload at this position, and by landing the signatures of Jones, Aca'Cedric Ware and Dominic Davis, it's safe to say that they did just that. With his explosive, playmaking ability and speed, it's Jones, the No. 1-ranked running back in the ESPN 300, who just might have the best chance of the group of making his presence felt early.
Salt Lake City (Utah) Brighton; linebacker/tight end; 6-4, 245
Masina is a rare talent with everything that you look for in a linebacker. He has outstanding size to go along with a physical brand of play, but what really makes him stand out is his athleticism and just how surprisingly fluid he is in his movement. Extremely versatile, he has the instincts to play at inside linebacker, the length and pass-rushing ability to line up on the edge, and having excelled as a running back on the high school level, he could even get a look at tight end.
Riverside (Calif.) City College; wide receiver; 6-4, 205
With the loss of both Nelson Agholor and George Farmer to the NFL draft, there is certainly room for a player like Whitney to step in and become a real contributor alongside guys like JuJu Smith, Darreus Rogers and Steven Mitchell. Surprisingly quick and shifty for a player his size, he has a combination of talents that Tee Martin's group simply doesn't possess at this time. Having played two years at Division II Central Oklahoma prior to landing at Riverside City College, he also has some experience under his belt, and that, coupled with the fact he will participate in spring practice, could play a pivotal role in him being ready to make an instant splash.
Salem (Utah) Hills; linebacker; 6-5, 250
With so much young talent on the roster at linebacker now, it's going to be hard for Peter Sirmon to get everyone on the field, but Gustin is another fantastic all-around athlete who is physically prepared to play on the college level immediately. Most talk has him beginning his career competing at Mike linebacker, where the Trojans lost a four-year starter in Hayes Pullard, but he has the ability to contribute at a number of other spots -- perhaps most likely at rush end.
Powder Springs (Ga.) McEachern; offensive lineman; 6-5, 280
It's not often that offensive linemen see the field early in their careers on the college level, but with Edoga's athleticism and size, combined with his spring practice participation, he has the looks of a player who could start. Having lined up at both guard and tackle in the week leading up to the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, his versatility also gives him a big edge, and as everyone saw last season, Sarkisian certainly isn't afraid to play any of the freshmen if he believes they can help the team.
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Jones, the No. 1 ranked running back in the ESPN 300, is a highly acclaimed 6-foot, 187-pound explosive game-changer who rushed for 2,009 yards (8.4 avg.) and 28 touchdowns in 2014.
Both are solidly committed to the Trojans, and combined with speedy Southern California product Dominic Davis (Mission Hills, Calif./Bishop Alemany), they make up what is sure to be one of the top running back classes in the nation come signing day.
It's been quite awhile since any coaches at USC have spent the time and energy recruiting the Lone Star State that Sarkisian and Co. have over the course of the past year.
USC did pull in John Plattenburg out of Houston (Texas) Lamar last February, but in that case it was actually at Corona (Calif.) Centennial -- where he spent his sophomore and junior seasons -- that the talented safety first caught the eye of the Trojans' coaches. Before that, the last time USC signed a player from Texas was back in 2008 when Houston Aldine offensive lineman Daniel Campbell inked with the Trojans. Campbell failed to qualify, however, and he never played a down at USC.
So how did the Trojans reel in two running backs from the heart of Big-12 country this time around?
For Jones, it actually wasn't that difficult. USC first grabbed his attention at a young age, when he watched former head coach Pete Carroll's teams bring home victory after victory on television.
"USC has just always been one of my favorite schools," said Jones, who de-committed from Oklahoma State in mid-December before choosing the Trojans over Notre Dame a few weeks later. "I grew up watching Reggie Bush and all of those guys, so I knew I would always look at them closely."
Ware's interest, meanwhile, stems more from his desire to branch out.
"I was born and raised in Texas," said Ware, who also held offers from the likes of Florida, Ohio State and Arizona State. "I want to get out and explore the world and experience Cali life, and just have fun outside of Texas. I want to experience new things."
The turning point for both players, however, came when they were able to check out the USC campus in person for the first time. That was especially true for Jones, whose mother was initially hesitant to let her son go to school so far from home.
"My mom didn't want me to go far at all," said Jones, whose mother accompanied him on his official visit to USC in December. "But once she was able to see it for herself, she said that she'd be a fool for telling me not to follow my heart. That official visit was big. I was always sold, but for her, that's what did it."
Ware took his official visit to USC in September, but it was following his earlier unofficial visit for the Rising Stars Camp last July that he made up his mind.
"When I first went out there this summer I really liked the whole environment and the players' and coaches' attitude about football," Ware said. "I could really tell that they were passionate about football, and I knew that was the place that I wanted to be."
Set to arrive on campus early this summer, Jones and Ware, in addition to Davis, all appear to possess the talent to vie for immediate playing time, especially with the recent announcement by last year's leading Trojans' rusher, Javorius Allen, that he will forgo his senior season at USC to enter the upcoming NFL draft.
But the Trojans also still have a pair of talented veterans returning at the position in junior Justin Davis and fifth-year senior Tre Madden. That, coupled with the fact that this year's crop will also have each other to contend with, means that competition will be the name of the game come fall camp.
But that concept doesn't bother either Texas running back. In fact, both Jones and Ware are more excited about the idea of playing each other, as well as Davis, than anything else.
"I love competing and working for it," Jones said. "I don't look at it like those guys are my rivals or anything. I think we can really complement each other. Back when USC was rolling, they would have different running backs with different styles that they would go to, and I think that's what we're doing in this class."
That's something that Ware, who was a part of deep tailback group at Cedar Hill, knows about first-hand.
"At Cedar Hill, my junior year, we had three running backs, and my senior year it was me and Denvre Daniels," Ware said. "When you have that much talent, you can rotate the running backs and wear the defense down. I like that. We can inflict a lot of damage."
And with that trademark Texas confidence, Ware and Jones are determined to do everything they can to ensure that they're more than ready to do their part in making that idea become a reality -- and sooner rather than later.
"We're going to bring that Texas flavor to Cali," said Ware. "We're going to show everybody how it's done."
Here's a look at how programs in the Pac-12 are faring on the recruiting trail heading into national signing day on Feb. 4.
ESPN 300 commitments: 1
Who they have: The Wildcats hit it big with their top two commitments in ESPN 300 offensive tackle Keenan Walker and ESPN JC 50 defensive tackle Anthony Fotu. Arizona also will add four-star tackle Cody Creason, three-star tackle Harper Sherman and three-star guards Alex Kosinski and Nathan Eldrige to the offensive line. There are a number of skill players on both sides of the ball, including running backs Orlando Bradford and Darick Holmes Jr., cornerbacks Shun Brown, Anthony Mariscal, Samuel Morrison and Dane Cruikshank, wide receiver Cedric Peterson and athletes Antonio Parks and Brion Anduze.
Who they want: There aren't many spots left in this class for the Wildcats, but there are a few important names left on the board. The wide receiver spot could see another addition with Jaylinn Hawkins, though rival Arizona State will put up a fight there. Arizona also will look to continue its run of success in Louisiana, as teammates Arthur McGinnis and Darrell Clark (New Orleans/Warren Easton) are two of the top prospects left for the Wildcats, as well as teammates of Arizona commit Kendal Franklin.
To read the rest of our Pac-12 recruiting class breakdowns, click here .
TBD Arizona State Texas A&M TBD Portland State Washington State TBD Grambling State California TBD Stanford Northwestern TBD Virginia UCLA TBD Arkansas State USC TBD Colorado Hawaii TBD Eastern Washington Oregon