As the Trojans head into the bye week, here are some observations from the first four games of the season.
Cody Kessler has been who we thought he would be. The senior quarterback has guided the USC offense with relatively few mistakes while putting up impressive numbers (73 percent completion for 1,297 yards with 15 touchdowns and one interception). The remaining games on the schedule offer plenty of opportunities for Kessler to put a stamp on his final season, in terms of both team and individual goals.
The running game has shown good production and depth after settling on a three-man rotation of Tre Madden, Justin Davis and Ronald Jones. Each has shown flashes of big-play runs (the trio is averaging a collective 6.8 yards per rush), and it appears they are capable of carrying an even bigger load if called upon.
The question of whether JuJu Smith-Schuster was ready to step into the lead receiver role has been answered in a big way. Smith-Schuster is averaging just under eight catches per game and 20 yards per catch, with six touchdowns. Steven Mitchell Jr. and Adoree’ Jackson have both made big plays with the ball in their hands, something that should happen more as the season goes along. But what also stands out from this group is the downfield blocking. The receivers have played a role in helping to spring long gains with their blocking multiple times already this year.
With all the concern about the tight end group coming into the season, the production from Taylor McNamara and Tyler Petite has been welcome. You get the sense the offense doesn’t really need much more than what they’ve done so far. Petite, in particular, has a bright future as a pass-catching option.
As the offensive line goes, so goes the offense. Although there have been plenty of encouraging signs, not everything has been positive. There has been pressure on Kessler, some untimely penalties and an inability to control the line of scrimmage on key third-down situations. There can be no better help for the offense than to see the line build the kind of consistent “bully” mentality Steve Sarkisian has preached so often this year.
While the D-line is coming off its best performance of the year against Arizona State, there will be challenges ahead when it comes to applying pressure and facing stout offensive lines (see the Stanford game). Delvon Simmons and Greg Townsend Jr. will need to get into the backfield more often, and Antwaun Woods should help hold the line once he gets back from injury. Several of the younger players show promise, including Kenny Bigelow, Rasheem Green and Noah Jefferson.
Su’a Cravens has played at a high level and is getting deserved recognition as one of the best defensive players in the country. Cameron Smith has been a revelation in the middle. He leads the team in tackles as a true freshman and should benefit now that Lamar Dawson is back to form a solid rotation. The Trojans will need to get more production from the rush end spot with the trio of Scott Felix, Porter Gustin and Jabari Ruffin.
There has been some shuffling in the secondary, and that has led to some inconsistent coverage at times. Jackson has been Jackson at one corner spot (which is to say he’s been really good), while an injury to Kevon Seymour has thrust freshman Iman Marshall into the lineup. He has been beaten a few times, but he also shows why expectations are so high for him. It looks as if the safety spot will feature Chris Hawkins and John Plattenburg, with freshman Marvell Tell working his way onto the field more and more. The communication within the group should only improve as they get used to playing together.
Much of the success for the remainder of the season will hinge on the coaching efforts on both sides of the ball. On offense, the explosive athletes are clearly there, but so far, there have been issues maintaining drives and converting on third down. On defense, the ability to create turnovers has been a big step in the right direction, but the issues along the line of scrimmage will be critical against teams such as Notre Dame, Utah and UCLA. The bye week comes at a great time for the coaches to do some self-evaluation as they prepare to adjust to what they’ve seen so far.