LOS ANGELES -- Much ado was made regarding the USC quarterback competition between incumbent junior starter Cody Kessler and redshirt freshman Max Browne, a highly talented and likeable thrower by way of Sammamish, Wash.

As much as the wide-open quarterback competition theory was advanced prior to and during spring ball, it’s been quite obvious that Kessler has taken first-year head coach Steve Sarkisian’s new offensive system and elevated his game. While Browne has shown improvement in his game, he hasn’t been quite able to keep pace with his older and more experienced teammate.

Kessler’s superior spring performance, however, may actually be a blessing in disguise for Sarkisian, who heavily recruited both Kessler and Browne when he was the head coach at Washington.

Besides the actual on-the-field competition between Kessler and Browne, there are four other underlying factors that may also be taken into consideration when Sarkisian names his quarterback, which appears likely by the end of spring ball on April 19.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsThere are several factors that could lead USC coach Steve Sarkisian to name Cody Kessler the starting quarterback by the end of spring.
Factor 1: The Trojans open the 2014 season on Aug. 30 by hosting Fresno State, a team the Men of Troy hammered 45-20 back in December at the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl. The quarterback of that lopsided demolition was Kessler, who threw for 345 yards and a Las Vegas Bowl-record and career-high four touchdown passes.

Obviously Sarkisian, who was in Las Vegas to watch the game, saw firsthand as Kessler dissected the Fresno State defense, and No. 6 also knows about the Bulldogs' returning personnel. Given the fact that Sarkisian can’t afford his new team to stub its toes against a squad it beat handily, it would be reasonable to think that with Kessler at the helm, chances would increase substantially for a season-opening victory in the Coliseum.

If the Trojans went into the Fresno State opener with an inexperienced Browne, they would still probably stand a good chance of winning. However, with a rookie quarterback starting his first collegiate game and the Bulldogs aware of it, the possibility of a Fresno State upset would notably increase. A Bulldogs upset would set up a worst-case scenario heading into the following week’s Pac-12 opener at Stanford and, no doubt, a quarterback controversy.

Factor 2: Considering the Trojans shocked highly ranked Stanford last season in the Coliseum, 20-17, you don’t have to be ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit or Lee Corso to know that Stanford head coach David Shaw and his team will be looking to hand it to the Trojans in revengeful fashion. And for good measure, they have the returning players to do it.

If the Trojans are to pull off another upset of the host Cardinal -- who return a successful, experienced senior quarterback in Kevin Hogan -- Sarkisian knows he needs an experienced quarterback, and he already has one in Kessler, who passed for 288 yards and one touchdown last season against Stanford.

Again, as talented as Browne is, would it be fair to start an inexperienced freshman quarterback against a team with a tough defense? You can bet Shaw would throw the defensive kitchen sink at a rookie quarterback, something that would be less effective against the experienced Kessler.

Factor 3: Since his hiring and by his own admission, Sarkisian has made no bones about the 2014 Trojans not rebuilding but already being championship caliber. In fact, he recently said that when healthy, his team is more talented than people think. That comment by itself puts increased expectations on the Trojans' new coach.

After the Stanford game, the Trojans travel across the country the following week for a battle at Boston College. Regardless of the Stanford outcome, an experienced quarterback and leader like Kessler would go a long way toward preventing a letdown.

Most would agree that the early schedule could bring immediate praise and early validation for Sarkisian’s new program or unwanted scrutiny. A potential 3-0 start to the season would go far in establishing more answers than regurgitated questions regarding his hire by USC athletic director Pat Haden. Kessler at quarterback would likely position the Trojans for a positive early-season scenario.

Factor 4: Fair or unfair, if things go south early in USC's 2014 schedule, Sarkisian knows that Trojans Nation will point out quickly how the 2013 team beat Stanford and Fresno State with former interim head coaches Ed Orgeron and Clay Helton, respectively, and even Boston College under Lane Kiffin.

In a perfect world, Sarkisian should be objectively judged not on the first three games of 2014 but the season in its entirety. However, it’s inevitable that during the early part of the season, comparisons between Sarkisian and Orgeron will be well documented.

All of which brings us back to the competition between Kessler and Browne and potential scenarios with either quarterback starting the season. Of course, given the way Kessler has performed with just six spring practices remaining, all the conjecture, hypotheticals and analysis could be a moot point.
As the Trojans move into the fourth week of spring ball drills, the coaches are still searching to balance the desire for physical play with the need to keep players healthy on a reduced roster.

[+] EnlargeShaw
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsThe USC defense is likely to look much different in the fall with injured players like Josh Shaw back in action.
When Steve Sarkisian set the agenda for spring ball, he made it clear that one of his goals was to have all the injured players healthy for the fall. With injured veterans like Leonard Williams and Josh Shaw, the decision was made to sit them out entirely. And there was a lot of caution shown in terms of bringing other players back as well.

Sarkisian chose to focus a lot of attention this spring on the installation of new schemes on both sides of the ball, including morning walk-throughs and in-practice teaching sessions that would allow those injured players the opportunity to mentally stay with the rest of the team.

One of the trade-offs has been fewer opportunities for live tackling during practice, a concession that no coach wants to make but that sometimes can come into play. There were a few dozen live plays during a recent practice session at the Coliseum -- including a spirited Oklahoma drill -- and other isolated physical sessions, but they have been limited in scope.

“You would love to practice [live tackling] all the time, but you have to be smart about the way you do it,” USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. “You work on tackling in controlled environments where you limit the number of bodies potentially going to the ground, you work that way in one-on-one drills, you work it on bags. But when you get to go live, you have to go. There’s nothing like live tackling.”

It’s not like the Trojans don’t have plenty of opportunities to tackle if they want. Through nine days of spring ball, the new up-tempo offensive system has run more than 1,000 plays (more than 2,000 if you include morning walk-throughs), and there is an added benefit there as the defensive players must also adapt quickly to the new pace of play.

“The offense can have the advantage late in the game with the up-tempo,” Sarkisian said. “That’s why we practice this way, to prepare for games.”

That late-game advantage would be evident based on what Wilcox has seen so far from his defense.

“We have a tendency to start practices fast and we play well for the first half, but we don’t do as well in the second half,” Wilcox said. “That’s where we have to continue to emphasize finishing strong because the end of the game is when you get up there in play count. When you get to plays 100 to 120, that’s when you really need to sustain things mentally and that’s something we’ve got to work on. The effort has been good, we just have to get better. I would have thought through nine days that we would have it down pat and look great, but I don’t know if that’s reality.”

It would be natural to expect things to look better in the fall, especially when so many of the injured players return. In addition to starters such as Williams and Shaw, there are also players with starting experience like J.R. Tavai, Lamar Dawson and Anthony Brown who are expected back in action.

In the meantime, other players will continue to fill in during the last two weeks of spring to get as much experience as they can.

“With the injured guys out, there’s some guys taking reps right now who won’t be getting reps in the fall,” Wilcox said. “But that’s OK, we need everybody and you’re always looking to build on your depth. It’s a chance for those guys to show us something to maybe earn a bigger role.”

USC Spring Risers

April, 5, 2014
Apr 5
4:14
PM PT


video

With nine practice sessions now in the books for the Trojans, WeAreSC's Garry Paskwietz and Greg Katz discuss some under-the-radar players who have begun to emerge as potential key contributors this spring at USC.
Welcome to the mailbag. It's Friday, and that is always a good thing.

Follow the Pac-12 blog on Twitter.

To the notes.

Bryan from Portland, Ore., writes: Now that Northwestern football players have been declared employees, and are eligible to unionize, can they be taxed for their scholarship? Nobody would be very happy to have to pay $15K in taxes for a full ride scholarship to NW.

Ted Miller: You are correct. And if college football teams in the major conferences unionized across the country, things would become complicated.

In fact, I don't think that's what's going to happen. Further, despite my mailbag last week and tweak of Texas AD Steve Patterson here about being all business until it comes to the issue of treating college football players like employees, my feeling at present is unionizing college football would be fraught with potentially negative unintended consequences and probably not a good thing for the sport -- both for those who play as well as those who coach and administer.

Yet the threat of unionization, the threat of players uniting to get a better cut of the action, is what I view as a positive good. Unionizing should be a last resort if the folks who run things don't figure out a way to treat the players better.

To repeat myself from last week, my thinking on this aligns with Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples, and I keep linking his article because he wrote things I was thinking before I did, so he merits acknowledgment.

Further, this represents a change of heart for me. For a long time, I saw a scholarship as enough payment, and I resented the ignorance of the drive-by-columnists who took shots at college football without regularly covering the sport. My feeling was only a handful of players owned real star power, and that the jersey players wore on Saturdays actually held the enduring value and ultimately created the revenue. But that position was developed in the 1990s. Over the past three to five years, with conferences realigning and then signing mega-deals for broadcasting rights, as well as the coming College Football Playoff, I've adjusted my thinking.

What should players get? Glad you asked.
  • Full cost of attendance scholarships. My feeling is this is going to happen pretty soon.
  • Lifetime disability coverage for injuries suffered while they played college football.
  • Players should be able to profit from their images, though we certainly understand this could get complicated to monitor.
  • Transfer rules need to be reevaluated, making it easier for players to change schools. That will make life difficult for coaches, but they are paid $3 million or so a year to deal with difficulties.
  • There should be a need-based fund that pays for parents to go on recruiting visits and to attend games.

I also think we need to reevaluate player-agent contact. While pay-for-play with boosters is about a program gaining a competitive advantage, player-agent contact is about a player looking out for his future. You'll notice that the carping about agents tends to come from coaches, ADs and fans because they don't want their star players entering the draft before their eligibility has expired. Rules against agents have zero benefits for players.

Sure, you could open up some unsavory situations, but it seems like it would be better to have as much as possible happening out in the open than what we have now.


Gret from Salt Lake City writes: Hey guys, the Big Ten blog did this a while back and I thought it would be fun to try here! If you could be the dictator of the Pac-12 for a day, and could only make three changes, what changes would you make?? and no school, no matter how powerful, could fight you on anything. They would all just have to go along with whatever decisions you made.

Ted Miller: First, I adopt much of what I wrote above.

Second, I'd force the Pac-12 Network and DirectTV to reach a compromise deal. This is mostly because I am sick of hearing about the impasse between Pac-12 Network and DirectTV.

Third, I'd schedule more day games. There would be no more than two 7 p.m. PT (or later) kickoffs during the Pac-12 schedule.

Fourth, I'd make Kevin call me "The Great and Powerful Oz." Oh, oh … or "Heisenberg."


Ryan from New York writes: Ted, Nice "puff" piece on the Bruins. But they need to beat somebody other than embattled Bo Pelini and a depleted USC team that dressed less than 50 scholarship players in LA last fall. UCLA is 1-6 in the last couple of years against Oregon, Stanford and ASU. Not good. Before you start popping off about being a national title contender, you have to beat the good teams. Oh, and beating an underachieving Virginia Tech team that played more than half the game with a backup QB who had thrown less than 5 passes all year doesn't count. Peace out.

Ted Miller: I was wondering where you'd been. I fear it's going to be a long and frustrating year for you, Ryan.

UCLA welcomes back 19 starters from a squad that beat five teams that won eight or more games last year, including a 10-win USC team. By 21 points! Also back is QB Brett Hundley, leading a team that finished the season 10-3 and ranked 16th.

The Bruins are going to be ranked in or very near the preseason top 10. Oregon, USC and Stanford all visit the Rose Bowl.

You can stew and frump all you want, but the reason people think highly of the Bruins’ chances is something called "supporting evidence."


Brian from San Diego writes: You know how cities across the U.S. have sister cities? Los Angeles has Athens, Greece for example; and San Francisco has Naples, Italy. Just for fun what schools would you say are "sister schools" of Pac-12 members?

Ted Miller: Just for fun.
  • Arizona-Florida: If you've hung out at both places, you'd get it. Close color schemes, too.
  • Arizona State-Florida State: Hey, bud, let's party!
  • California-Michigan: Great state schools. And not afraid to tell you about it.
  • Colorado-Texas: Perhaps the nation's two best college towns.
  • Oregon-Ohio State: Our fan base is more obnoxious. No, our fan base is more obnoxious. Wait. I like how you think. Same here! (Hugs). [70 percent of Oregon fans will find that at least reasonably funny; 30 percent will swear a blood oath against the Pac-12 blog].
  • Oregon State-Kansas State: Great coaches, overachieving programs, folksy atmosphere, cool towns.
  • Stanford-Duke: They could talk about computer code and James Joyce. Only problem is Duke students are mostly folks who got rejected by Stanford and the Ivy League.
  • UCLA-North Carolina: Good schools. Great hoops tradition. And shades of light blue!
  • USC-Alabama: They'd argue endlessly about which program is the "Greatest in College Football History," and the experience would be absolute bliss for each fan base.
  • Utah-TCU: The Pac-12 is hard! The Big 12 is hard!
  • Washington-Miami: They shared a national title and are presently trying to regain their national stature. And this pairing would give Hurricanes fans somewhere to go in the summer and Huskies fans somewhere to go in the winter.
  • Washington State-LSU: These programs are very different but if you got the fan bases together the party would be absolutely epic, whispered about for centuries, as in: "Great Granddaddy, tell me about the time you partied for four weeks with those Cajuns."



The possibility of landing a scholarship offer from USC has several in-state recruits antsy for the looming spring evaluation period, with three-star receiver Austin Aaron, three-star cornerback Jihree Stewart and fast-rising defensive end Trevor Howard among the hopefuls.


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Happy Friday!
Hayes Pullard has learned a thing or two about dealing with change in his time at USC. A fifth-year senior with 39 starts and 282 career tackles, he’s playing in the third defensive system in as many years for the Trojans.

Yet to the 6-foot-1, 230-pound inside linebacker’s credit, as well as that of the rest of his defensive teammates, you certainly wouldn’t know it based on the way they’ve performed this spring. Making what appears to have been a seamless transition from Clancy Pendergast’s 5-2 to Justin Wilcox’s 3-4 multiple front scheme, the entire group -- particularly the front seven -- has shined throughout the vast majority of the workouts. And that includes during the team’s practice on Thursday, when Pullard opened things up by intercepting a Cody Kessler pass.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Williams, Hayes Pullard
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsLB Hayes Pullard (10) and the Trojans are learning to play defense faster under the new coaching staff.
So just how have they been able to do it? According to Pullard, it’s easy: The difference between Pendergast’s defense and Wilcox’s system isn’t nearly as dramatic as some might imagine.

“There are a lot of similarities,” said Pullard, who chose to return to USC for his final year. “It’s just the different types of concepts that you have to watch out for, and the different types of verbiage that you have to learn, but it’s all similar.”

One thing that has taken some getting used to, however, is the frenetic pace of practice -- a direct byproduct of USC head coach Steve Sarkisian’s newly introduced no-huddle offense. Eight practices into the spring schedule, however, Pullard says that he has gradually adjusted to it over time.

“The first day it was most definitely shocking to everybody, but then Day 2 came, Day 3 came, and you just forgot about it,” Pullard said. “We’ve been conditioning without knowing it.”

Having acclimated themselves to the increase in tempo, Pullard believes the defensive players are now more prepared than they’ve ever been before to take on those lightning quick offensive attacks that have become so en vogue in the Pac-12 over the last several years.

“It’s just about the mindset of being able to play against the fast-paced offenses,” Pullard said, “being able to go down in six or seven seconds, just being able to think about the Oregons, and the Washingtons … they’re doing the same thing, so it’s already preparing us.”

But it’s not all about speed at USC this spring. The common routine at each practice has the team switching back and forth between 11-on-11 or 7-on-7 sessions, and periods where the offensive and defensive groups break apart and go over plays and schemes in meticulous detail at a much slower pace. Personally dealing directly with Wilcox and linebackers coach Peter Sirmon during these teaching sessions, Pullard believes they have been extremely beneficial for all of those involved.

“We always use the example, it’s like if you’re going into a midterm, you’re going to meet with your professor and learn about what’s going to actually be on the test,” Pullard said. “They aren’t going to give us the answers, but they’re going to help us and tell us how we defend each and every play that the offense is going to throw at us, so when you go out there you won’t think too much, and you’ll be able to go out there and play full speed. I just look at it as them giving us the answers to the test.”

And speaking of Sirmon, Pullard has already developed a close relationship with his new position coach, and it’s safe to say that his coaching style, which grants the players a certain element of freedom on the field, has been a big hit with all of the linebackers.

“When he gets us on the field he just lets us go out there and go full speed,” Pullard said. “He isn’t just in your ear all the time. If he see’s something drastic then he’ll let you know. But he just lets you make a decision going full speed, and if you mess up then we get back to it in the film room.”

Of course, the linebacker corps also has the added benefit of possessing a virtual player-coach on the field at all times in Pullard. A seasoned veteran who served as a team captain in 2013 and led the team with 94 stops, he has made it a priority to ensure that the other members of the unit -- especially those younger players -- are all on the same page, but he has done so in a calculated manner.

“I try to do all of my teaching in the meeting rooms, and when I’m on the field I try to lead by example,” Pullard said. “I remember when I was younger, I didn’t just want a teammate yelling in my ear. I try to lead by example and let them know, ‘Let’s go. I know you messed up on the last play. We’re about the next play.’ “

With seven practices remaining on the schedule this April, the USC defense still has plenty of time to progress even further this spring, particularly with Pullard in the fold. And with the promise that they’ve shown already, Pullard believes that there’s reason for optimism when it comes to their long-term future.

“I’m definitely confident we have what it takes to succeed,” Pullard said.
video Throughout this recruiting cycle, RecruitingNation will profile a number of ESPN 300 prospects in the 2015 class, including an inside look at the prospect, his recruitment, a scouting report and what college program could benefit when he ultimately makes his decision.

Unlike a number of ESPN Junior 300 prospects, Keisean Lucier-South didn't grow up dreaming of becoming a football star. In fact, he had to be convinced that it was the best path for him.

Lucier-South began playing sports at an early age, but it was always basketball that grabbed the majority of his attention and passion. It became his primary sport when he was 5 years old, and even though he picked up football only a few years later, the gridiron couldn't captivate his imagination quite like the court.

But a conversation before his sophomore season between his head coach and defensive coordinator -- a conversation he wasn't initially involved in -- turned things around for Lucier-South.


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Athlon Sports is big on lists. And we’re big on bringing you their lists because, well, it's the offseason, and it’s fun.

One annual list in particular always seems to get folks all hot and bothered, and that’s their annual ranking of the Pac-12 coaches.

Before people go all crazy on Twitter, remember, THIS IS NOT A PAC-12 BLOG LIST. We are simply sharing it because we think it’s interesting. Your thoughts are always welcomed in the mailbag.

Here’s the 2014 list that Steven Lassan put together:

  1. David Shaw, Stanford
  2. Chris Petersen, Washington
  3. Todd Graham, Arizona State
  4. Mike Riley, Oregon State
  5. Mike Leach, Washington State
  6. Rich Rodriguez, Arizona
  7. Jim Mora, UCLA
  8. Steve Sarkisian, USC
  9. Mike MacIntyre, Colorado
  10. Kyle Whittingham, Utah
  11. Mark Helfrich, Oregon
  12. Sonny Dykes, California

Some thoughts:
    [+] EnlargeRodriguez/Graham
    AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez (right) is ranked sixth on the Pac-12 coaching list by Athlon.

  • I went back to their 2013 and 2012 rankings and noticed a few interesting moves. Rich Rodriguez was No. 3 last year and is No. 6 this year. I find that interesting since he won the same amount of games last season as in 2012 (8-5), scored a signature win last season by topping No. 5 Oregon and did it without his 2012 quarterback. Granted, Arizona had a light nonconference schedule last fall, but does that warrant being dropped a quarter of the way down?
  • Two years ago, Shaw was No. 9 on their list, despite being named Pac-12 Coach of the Year in 2011. Last year, he bounced up to No. 1 and is in the top spot again. For having won back-to-back Pac-12 titles, I see no problem with him being No. 1 again.
  • My first thought was that Petersen was way too high, considering he has never coached a single game in the conference. Then I pushed that silliness out of my mind. He has coached against this conference, going 5-2 during his stint with Boise (not counting games against Utah when it was in the Mountain West or the bowl loss to Oregon State last season when he wasn’t the head coach). Plus, he’s a two-time national coach of the year. That’s a better résumé than anyone else in the league. I’ll buy him at No. 2.
  • My biggest gripe with the list is Mora at No. 7. He was No. 11 on the 2012 list and No. 8 on the 2013 list. All he has done is go 19-8, win the South title one of those two years and beat USC twice. Doesn’t that get you a statue on campus? He has bolstered the national reputation of the program and was given a nice contract extension for his work. I would slot him in either the No. 3 or No. 4 spot with Todd Graham. Both have nearly identical résumés so far. Both are 2-0 against their rival. Both have won the Pac-12 South. They have split their head-to-head games with each winning once on the road. Both have had one blowout bowl win and one bad bowl loss. The only reason I’d probably put Graham ahead is that he was named coach of the year. But Mora belongs in the upper third.
  • Sarkisian is interesting. People are quick to rip his hire at USC, but recall the coaching job he did at Washington when he first got there. He turned a winless team into a pretty good program. Petersen is coming into a much more advantageous position than when Sark first got there. How that translates to USC remains to be seen.
  • Helfrich was No. 12 in 2013. For winning 11 games in 2013, he gets that big boost all the way up to No. 11. I get the sentiment -- that the Ducks were “supposed” to go to the BCS title game last season. He can’t control an injury to his quarterback. Don’t be shocked if he’s in the top five when Athlon releases its 2015 list.
  • Whittingham has stumbled from the No. 4 spot he occupied in 2012. Like Helfrich, he can’t control the unfortunate rash of injuries that have plagued his quarterbacks since coming into the league. I know this, there aren’t many defensive-minded coaches I’d take over Whittingham.
  • Riley continues to be in the upper half of the list. Which is completely fair. He’s done more in that setting than most people could. Oregon State fans seem to clamor annually about what’s on the other side of the fence. When the day comes that Riley does step down (and I have to imagine it will be on his own terms), those complaining about change will miss him.

You get the idea. Lists are hard to put together, because everyone has a bias and an opinion. I think MacIntyre has done some great things at Colorado, and I think Washington State’s progress under Leach has been outstanding. As for Dykes, well, let’s give it another year and see what he can do with a healthy roster.

So we once again salute Athlon for making the list. Even if we don’t always agree with it.

Roundtable: Spring superlatives

April, 3, 2014
Apr 3
3:00
PM PT
At the midway point of spring practice, the WeAreSC staffers give their choices for some of the top performers.

MVP

Garry Paskwietz:
Nelson Agholor. The Trojans have been fortunate in recent years to have guys like Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, who set a high bar for work ethic and production at the wide receiver position, and it looks like Nelson is prepared to step in as the next guy in line. He looks terrific.

[+] EnlargeZach Banner
John Pyle/Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesFollowing hip surgeries, Zach Banner has seen a lot of time with the first team offensive line.
Johnny Curren: Cody Kessler. With his starting role on the line, Kessler has more than risen to the challenge this spring. Throwing with a great deal of accuracy, he’s done a nice job directing the new offense downfield with the command that you’d expect of a veteran leader with 14 starts under his belt.

Greg Katz: Kessler. What competition? Kessler has taken his experience and talent from last season and upped his game and leadership skills to another level. He is the glue of the offense and the team’s pulse.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

GP:
Scott Starr. Starr had a couple flashes last year to indicate progress in his game, but he’s made another jump this spring with his performance so far at the rush end spot. The position fits his pursuit skills so well and he appears very comfortable.

JC: Zach Banner. The offensive tackle has looked the best he has during his time as a Trojan, and he’s been running exclusively with the No. 1 unit for almost a week now.

GK: Toa Lobendahn. This kid is a true freshman who should still be completing his final semester at La Habra (Calif.) High. Really? Lobendahn has surprised with his ability to play offensive guard and hold his own against his older and more experienced teammates.

DEEPEST POSITION GROUP

GP:
Running back. We’ve seen all of the tailbacks and fullbacks in action either in full drills or in walk-throughs, and it’s been a reminder of just how much talent is at that spot.

JC: With mammoth-sized contributors like Delvon Simmons, Claude Pelon, Antwaun Woods and Kenny Bigelow in the mix, the Trojans possess some unique size on the defensive line that you just don’t typically see.

GK: The defensive line is fully healthy. This group has some spirit and attitude, and all this without All-American Leonard Williams, who is still rehabbing.

MOST IMPROVED

GP:
The hip surgeries Banner had last fall have made a dramatic impact on his agility, and the results on the field are obvious. The best should still be yet to come since Banner says he is only back to roughly 60 percent strength, but lately that has been good enough to earn a spot with the first team at right tackle.

JC: Antwaun Woods has made tremendous strides from just last fall. Easily in the best shape of his career, he’s noticeably quicker and has been making plays in the offensive backfield with great regularity.

GK: The 6-foot-9, 345-pound Banner can now bend lower naturally and is a major threat to win the starting right tackle job heading into fall camp.

FUTURE STAR

GP:
Lobendahn. There’s no mistaking the maturity and physicality of this early enrollee, who doesn’t look overwhelmed at all while getting first-team reps at left guard.

JC: With Randall Telfer sidelined due to injury, Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick has received extended playing time in Sarkisian’s new tight-end-friendly offense, and he’s certainly made the most of it. Showcasing soft hands, he’s been catching nearly everything thrown in his direction.

GK: Starr. Finally free of injury, Starr has shown flashes of why he was such a coveted prospect out of Norco (Calif.) High. Now he just has to stay healthy.

BIGGEST TBD ITEM

GP:
Kicking game. There has not been a ton of work done in terms of full-speed live kicking drills, so it’s difficult to judge where this all-important element stands right now.

JC: With potential contributors like Aundrey Walker, Jordan Simmons and Nico Falah sidelined due to injury and a number of talented freshmen not due to arrive on campus until this summer, there simply is no way to really evaluate this offensive line group as it stands currently.

GK: The true fate of the offensive line, which still doesn’t have the full strength of numbers due to rehabs and the yet-to-arrive heralded freshman linemen class.

Pac-12's lunch links

April, 3, 2014
Apr 3
2:30
PM PT
Oh, you mean my pilot's license? That's out back in the Cessna. Or perhaps you're referring to my license to kill. Revoked. Trouble at the Kazakhstan border. I could give you the details but then I'd have to kill you, which I can't do because my license to kill has been revoked.

LOS ANGELES -- At San Clemente (Calif.) High in 2011, Christian Tober lived the football life that many high school players only dream about.

As a senior, Tober’s accomplishments included honors such as Cal-Hi Sports All-State second team, All-CIF Pac-5 Division first team, Orange County Register All-Orange County first team, All-South Coast League first team and Special Teams Player of the Year.

Yet despite the acclaim from one the nation’s hotbed areas of high school football, Tober's only college offers came from FCS schools. That didn’t quite appease his desire to play on college football’s highest level.

So when the USC Trojans offered him preferred walk-on status, Tober jumped at the opportunity and has never regretted his decision to wear the cardinal and gold.

[+] EnlargeChristian Tober
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsScholarship limitations give walk-ons such as Christian Tober a bigger chance to contribute.
“It’s really a dream come true because my mom and my dad went here and my brother went here, a walk-on his senior year, so I kind of grew up going through the Trojans lines,” said Tober, sporting a million-dollar smile.

As the Trojans complete their third week of spring practice, Tober’s relentless effort to make his team better has caught the eye and respect of his teammates, especially quarterback Cody Kessler.

“He’s a great guy and he works so hard,” Kessler said after Tuesday’s practice. “You saw it last year when he got time. He never complains and he’s not afraid to run 11 yards over the middle with (linebacker) Hayes Pullard waiting for him.”

Tober, who is just 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds, knows his place on the Trojans roster, but his goals are team-oriented and that makes his desire to excel greater.

“I am just trying to step in wherever the team needs me and do whatever I can to help the team best,” said Tober, who as a senior high school wide receiver made 23 receptions for 612 yards (a 26.6-yard average) and five TDs on offense in leading the Tritons to the 2011 CIF Pac-5 final.

“I am not out there trying to earn a scholarship or anything. I am just working my butt off, and if it happens, great, but I am just trying to help the team in practice and maybe get in a game or two.”

Tober is among seven walk-on receivers with various degrees of experience. First-year head coach Steve Sarkisian is grateful to have them all aboard, especially with NCAA roster limits in place.

“You look at (George) Katrib, you look at (David) Mellstrom, and you look at Tober, and they’re doing good stuff for us,” Sarkisian said. “Like I’ve been telling the team from the day I got hired, everybody has a clean slate and there were no expectations for anybody.

“You’re going to earn what you get. Everybody on this team is going to have a role in some capacity or another. How big or how small is up to them. Those three guys are really working hard to find a role, whether it’s on offense or special teams. That’s part of the team mentality that we’re developing right now.”

And Tober has taken Sarkisian’s words to heart. In fact, he knows what advice he’d tell others thinking of accepting a preferred walk-on invitation from the Trojans.

“You have to work your way up the ranks and it’s not going to be easy,” said Tober, now a junior. “You’re going to come in at the lowest and keep working your way up, gaining people’s respect and trying to get to the top.”

Tober can recall the adjustment from his high school days to his first college practices. The step up in class was quite an awakening.

“The speed is very different and it took me probably at least a year to adjust,” said Tober, who has yet to declare an academic major but is strongly considering business.

Having adjusted to the speed of the game from his freshman season, No. 28 is now challenged by the speed of the new offense.

“Now, I need to get into the groove with this new offense’s fast pace because I am going in and out a lot,” Tober said. “I kind of get gassed a lot.”

Despite the fact that Tober rightfully laments that a walk-on can’t even eat scholarship meals with his teammates, the benefits still far outweigh some of the detachment from the team atmosphere a walk-on can feel, thanks to the NCAA regulations.

One of those positive benefits is taking the field and actually playing in the Coliseum.

“My first game on the field was here last season against Arizona, and I was pretty worried going up the whole week of the game,” Tober said. “I just came out finally calmed myself down a little bit and got a few plays in and it was awesome.”

While his personal goal for 2014 is to still catch his first pass in a real game -- something that’s not a problem during spring ball -- Tober still dreams of that surrealistic moment when he actually walked down the famed Coliseum tunnel for the first time.

“It was against Hawaii and it felt awesome,” Tober said. “My heart was pounding and it was a full stadium and sold out. It was crazy, just awesome.”

And no lack of scholarship or reduced benefits can ever take away those memories. Ever the optimist, Tober now looks toward the future where hope springs eternal, especially in spring ball.

“I feel like I am coming into my own, and I am just trying to help the team and do my best,” he said.

That’s old school, baby, walk-on or not.
video Throughout this recruiting cycle, RecruitingNation will profile a number of ESPN 300 prospects in the 2015 class, including an inside look at the prospect, his recruitment, a scouting report and what college program could benefit when he ultimately makes his decision.

Iman Marshall is already one of the most well-known and sought-after recruits in the West region, but don't expect to hear that name much between now and signing day.

Around the Long Beach (Calif.) Poly campus and the entirety of Southern California, Marshall is simply referred to as "Biggie."

"It goes all the way back to when I was a baby, from my mom," Marshall said. "I guess I was a chubby little baby."


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Reviewing the Pac-12 pro days

April, 3, 2014
Apr 3
12:00
PM PT
Washington was the final Pac-12 school to host its pro day Wednesday, essentially putting an end to 40-yard-dash season. Here is a look at some of the conference's top prospects and a few others who helped their cause over the past month.

Arizona (March 6)
Big name: RB Ka'Deem Carey. After getting clocked at 4.70 in the 40 at the combine, Carey's pro day was a bit more intriguing than some of the other big-name players. There was some improvement -- various reports had him in the high 4.6-range -- but it wasn't enough to change the book on him. Still, Carey's production should make up for his perceived shortcomings.
Sleeper: OLB Marquis Flowers. Flowers reportedly ran in the 4.4s and had a good showing in position drills.

Arizona State (March 7)
Big name: DT Will Sutton. The Sun Devils' pro day further cemented what scouts learned at the combine, when he turned in below average numbers. There was slight improvement at the pro day, according to several reports, but nothing to save his falling stock.
Sleeper: RB Marion Grice. Grice was invited to the combine, but didn't participate as he recovers from a broken leg suffered late in the season. He also didn't participate at the pro day, but will hold an individual workout for NFL scouts on April 8.

California (March 19)
Big name: DT Deandre Coleman. Coleman only participated in the bench press at the combine, but fared well in field drills on campus with a reported 40 time in the mid 4.9-range. Coleman is projected by most to be a mid-round selection.
Sleeper: RB Brendan Bigelow. Bigelow was perhaps the player with the most to gain at pro day. The book on him has always been that he's loaded with talent and the physical skills necessary to be an impact player. It didn't happen for the Bears before he decided to leave early for a shot at Sunday football. Despite injuring his hamstring midway through his 40, Bigelow still was reported as running in the high 4.4-range with former Cal running backs Marshawn Lynch and Jahvid Best looking on.

Colorado (March 12)
Big name: WR Paul Richardson. There were 24 teams on hand, with Richardson the obvious prize of the nine that worked out. He only participated in the vertical jump, short shuttle and three-cone drills.
Sleeper: LS Ryan Iverson. Iverson will not be drafted, but after four years as the Colorado long snapper he has a chance to make some money at the next level. His 27 reps on the bench press were a team high. All the Colorado results can be viewed here.

Oregon (March 13)
Big name: RB De'Anthony Thomas. Thomas' 4.50 40 time at the combine was among the disappointments for the conference and turned a perceived strength into average attribute. After his showing in Eugene -- a 4.34 40 time -- the world is back on its axis. On his combine performance, Thomas told the Ducks' official website: “I ran a 4.5 in ninth grade, so I was like, ‘Wow, that’s crazy’. I feel like that made me train harder and I used it as motivation.”
Sleeper: CB Avery Patterson. Patterson was left puzzled by his own performance after putting up just 10 repetitions in the bench press, but the two-year starter remains focused on making the jump to the next level. He's likely the type of player that will have to earn his way on a team via a training camp invitation and possibly a practice squad.

Oregon State (March 14)
Big name: WR Brandin Cooks. The Biletnikoff Award winner could have showed up to the Beavers' pro day as a spectator and it likely wouldn't have mattered. His showing at the combine was enough to solidify his stock as a first-round pick. Cooks didn't take part in field drills, but did run routes.
Sleeper: WR Micah Hatfield. Yes, a receiver with 20 career catches helped his cause. One scout told the Oregonian he had Hatfield at 4.33 in the 40 -- the same times Cooks clocked when he was the fastest receiver at the combine.

Stanford (March 20)
Big name: OL David Yankey. Kansas City, Tampa Bay and St. Louis were the only no-shows at Stanford. If the mock drafts are to be trusted, Yankey figures to be the first Stanford player of the board. He improved slightly on the bench press (22 to 25) and clocked the same 40 time (5.48) from the combine.
Sleeper: DE Ben Gardner. Is it fair to call Gardner a sleeper after earning some form of all-Pac-12 recognition the past three years? Probably not, but after not being invited to the NFL combine we'll go ahead and list him here anyways. Gardner benefitted most from the day, quantifying his explosiveness and athleticism with a 39.5-inch vertical jump.

UCLA (March 11)
Big name: OLB Anthony Barr. After running a 4.66 40 at the combine, Barr was clocked at 4.45 to ease any lingering doubt about his straight-line speed. Barr helped his case to become a top-10 pick and will likely be the first player from the Pac-12 selected.
Sleeper: RB Malcolm Jones. The Gatorade national high school player of the year never developed into the player UCLA fans were hoping for, but he's still hanging on to hopes of an NFL career. He was credited with a 4.57 40 at the Bruins' pro day.

USC (March 12)
Big name: WR Marqise Lee. Lee went Jerry Seinfeld and chose not to run, letting his combine performance serve as the final measurement of his ability. After not lifting in Indianapolis, Lee finished with 11 reps in the bench. He's tagged for the first round.
Sleeper: DE Morgan Breslin. Like Gardner, who he has been working out with in San Ramon, Calif., Breslin was a combine snub. He ran a 4.75 40, put up 26 reps on the bench and registered a 35.5-inch vertical jump. Here are the complete results for the 18 players who took part.

Utah (March 19)
Big name: CB Keith McGill. One of the fastest risers since the season has ended, McGill decided to participate in every drill despite a good showing at the combine. His 40 time (4.52) was a hundredth of second slower than what he did at combine, and his vertical leap (35.5) was about four inches less.
Sleeper: FB Karl Williams. The 240-pound former walk-on clocked a 4.5, which will could give him a shot to get in a training camp.

Washington (April 2)
Big name: RB Bishop Sankey. Content with his good showing in Indy, Sankey elected to just run the 60-yard shuttle and catch passes. Most mock drafts have Sankey, who left with a year of eligibility remaining, as the No. 2 running back.
Sleeper: QB Keith Price. There were 19 quarterbacks at the combine, but Price was not one of them, marking the first time since at least 1999 that the conference didn't send a quarterback -- and it could be longer -- we could only find combine rosters dating back that far. Price got good reviews for his performance Wednesday, but it would still be surprising if he gets drafted.

Washington State (March 13)
Big name: S Deone Bucannon. WSU's remote location and limited number of pro prospects resulted in less than a dozen scouts on hand, but those that were there got to see one of the conference's most intriguing prospects. Bucannon just participated in position drills after performing well across the board in Indianapolis.
Sleeper: K Andrew Furney. Furney showed a leg capable of hitting from beyond 60 yards and further established himself as a potential candidate for training camp invitations.
FONTANA, Calif. -- In the passing league circuit, Keyshawn Johnson Jr. wears the same number that his father made famous at USC two decades ago. He lines up at receiver, a position his father played in the NFL for 11 years, and made noise in recent weeks by bursting onto the scene with seven early scholarship offers, most notably from Florida State and Ohio State.

Yet, despite the buzz that comes along with being Keyshawn Johnson’s son, the Class of 2017 prospect wants his own identity.

“I don’t want to be in my dad’s shadow for the rest of my life,” Johnson said. “I want my own name.”


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

SPONSORED HEADLINES