- Greg Katz, Columnist, WeAreSC.com
LOS ANGELES -- With the recent season-ending ACL injury to Kenny Bigelow, a talented redshirt freshman defensive tackle, it makes a USC Trojans fan ponder which players on offense and defense head coach Steve Sarkisian cannot afford to lose?
Here is our list of the top five offensive and defensive players the Trojans need the most in 2014:
1. Quarterback Cody Kessler: Named to the 2014 Davey O'Brien Award watch list, the experienced junior has a burning desire to be among the nation’s elite. He led the Trojans to a 10-4 record last season under extreme circumstances, and adjusted surprisingly well in the spring to Sarkisian’s new no-huddle, shotgun offense. If Kessler goes down, he would be replaced by redshirt freshman Max Browne, an exceptional talent who lacks Kessler’s game experience.
2. Center Max Tuerk: All you need to know is this guy is on the 2014 Outland Trophy watch list as one of the nation’s top linemen. Tuerk has two seasons and 20 starts along the offense line and is a smart, physical student of the game. Although he has never played center, he improved with each 2014 spring practice, showing promise, and has the experience to make offensive line calls. At the moment, it appears the backup candidates include talented, inexperienced true freshmen Toa Lobendahn and Viane Talamaivao.
3. Wide receiver Nelson Agholor: On the watch list for the 2014 Biletnikoff Award, this junior is lightning in a bottle. A preseason All-American and one of college football’s most exciting performers, Agholor will try to emulate the success of former 2012 Trojans Biletnikoff winner Marqise Lee. Also a dangerous punt returner, Agholor is a threat whenever he touches the ball. Should misfortune strike Agholor, the Trojans would probably have to rely on junior Victor Blackwell or maybe explosive redshirt freshman Steven Mitchell, who missed last season to rehab a knee surgery.
4. Left tackle Chad Wheeler: Once considered a young player with an athletic upside, there is no question Wheeler, a sophomore, improved with each start last season. Entering 2014, Wheeler, who enrolled in the spring of 2012, has now become an offensive line leader and is showing maturity to complement his experience. The Trojans have little depth at left tackle, and should something happen to Wheeler they would have to count on a talented, inexperienced freshman like Chris Brown or reshuffle the offensive line.
5. Tight end Randall Telfer: The health of Telfer, a senior, will be paramount in 2014, and the Trojans hope his knee troubles are behind him after an injury-plagued 2013 season. Telfer, who has been mentioned as a 2014 preseason All-Pac-12 selection, potentially fits well into Sarkisian’s tight end-friendly offense. A true NFL prospect, the Trojans need Telfer on the field for an entire season. If bad luck strikes Telfer, they have some intriguing, inexperienced backups like junior Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick and improved senior Chris Wilson. Then there is talented true freshman Bryce Dixon, who brings a wealth of ability and potential from high school but has never played a down of college football.
1. Linebacker Hayes Pullard: Listed on the 2014 Butkus Award watch list, losing a 2014 preseason All-American candidate like Pullard would be like ripping out the heart and soul of the Trojans' defense. Pullard, a probable team captain for 2014, combines athletic ability, high football IQ, and flawless leadership skills. The potential replacements include sophomore Michael Hutchings, but none have Pullard's overall package. Pullard has 32 starts, and none of the backups comes close to that type of experience and production.
2. Defensive tackle Leonard Williams: The question isn’t whether the junior is one of USC's best players in 2014, but is he truly one of USC’s all-time greats? Trojans athletic director Pat Haden, a former starting quarterback on the 1974 national champion, says Williams is already one of USC’s greatest. It’s a given that after this season Williams will be heading to the NFL next year, but with the loss of Bigelow as a backup, it puts added pressure on Williams to stay on the field longer and remain healthy. One potential backup is junior Greg Townsend Jr., whose USC career thus far has been marred by injury. Other backups include redshirt junior Delvon Simmons and junior college transfer Claude Pelon, a junior.
3. Cornerback Josh Shaw: The Trojans were having all sorts of problems at cornerback until the arrival of Shaw from the Florida. He not only brought stability to the secondary, but also immense leadership skills and experience. If the Trojans are going to have a secondary that can withstand Pac-12 passing attacks, it’s imperative that Shaw is in the lineup. He is a three-year starter, including his stint with the Gators. The Trojans have some young talent at cornerback like redshirt freshman Chris Hawkins or highly touted true freshman Adoree Jackson, but the backups are inexperienced.
4. Nose tackle Antwaun Woods: There is something special about watching a player mature, and junior Woods is one of those special stories. He has worked hard to improve his game and has gradually redeveloped his massive body. A 6-foot, 310-pound roadblock, Woods is the Rock of Gibraltar inside and has gained the respect of his teammates. With 10 career starts and 35 tackles, he is an emerging force. However, with Bigelow done for the season, the defensive line could be in for some real challenges. Simmons or Pelon could spell Woods, or perhaps the Trojans could be surprised by junior Cody Temple, who missed spring ball with an ankle injury. Either way, depth here is a cause for concern.
5. Strong safety Su'a Cravens: Nobody argues that this sophomore has superstar written all over him, but does he have “injury prone,” written all over him as well? Playing in 13 games as a true freshman, Trojans fans still remember his late interception against No. 5 Stanford in the Trojans' 20-17 upset victory. Trojans fans, however, also remember that this 2013 Freshman All-American has had his health challenges (knee/groin). If Su’a can remain healthy, the sky is the limit. If he can’t, the Trojans will have to turn to senior Gerald Bowman, who played in just three early games last season before going out with a season-ending shoulder injury. The good news is that Bowman played extensively in 2012 and provides experience.