The Steve Sarkisian era is underway at USC, and with it, comes a lot of optimism and promise as the 2014 season begins on Saturday.
The NCAA sanctions are, for the most part, in the rear-view mirror, and Sarkisian inherited a lot of talent from a 10-win team, albeit one that will still be dealing with depth issues due to one final year of roster reductions.
There will be a lot of attention paid to the offensive side of the ball with an up-tempo style of play that Sarkisian insists will remain a run-first, pro-style system with an emphasis on physicality up front. The most notable change for a school like USC, one that is synonymous with the I-formation, is the fact that the quarterback will most often line up in the shotgun formation with a single back, and there will be no huddling.
The numbers for this offensive system were impressive in 2013 when Sarkisian implemented it for the first time at Washington. The 1,870-yard rushing mark by Bishop Sankey is one that should be noted. There is certainly no shortage of skill talent on the roster, and Sarkisian can creatively take advantage of his athletes in a way that should allow for big numbers.
When transitioning to a new system, it’s always good to have an established veteran at quarterback, and the Trojans have that in Cody Kessler. The no-huddle, shotgun elements of the offense are familiar to Kessler after playing in that system in high school. He has made a smooth transition through spring ball and fall camp. As would be expected after a year’s starting experience, Kessler is playing with more confidence, and Sarkisian has really praised his decision-making.
It helps when Kessler has weapons like Nelson Agholor on the outside. USC fans have been spoiled in recent years with guys like Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, and there is every reason to think Agholor is ready to carry that torch. Randall Telfer had a strong camp as he returns from a knee injury, and the veteran could benefit as much as anyone from playing in an offense that produced the 2013 Mackey Award winner (Austin Seferian-Jenkins). It also looks like it will be a running back-by-committee approach, and that’s a good thing when you have a stable of backs that includes Buck Allen, Tre Madden, Justin Davis and even Soma Vainuku. Look for Sarkisian to play to the individual strengths of these backs, as all of them can do something a little different.
Of course, when talking about the offense you have to pay attention to the offensive line, where there has been a lot of shuffling, and things are still not set. The two spots where the starters appear secure are Max Tuerk at center and Chad Wheeler at left tackle. Zach Banner is the likely starter at right tackle, although Aundrey Walker could get a look as well. Walker is returning from an ankle injury and could plug in at guard as well. His 18 career starts could provide experience for a young line that will start at least one true freshman in the opener, and possibly two.
The other side of the line will be a real strength, as part of a front seven is led by two of the premier defensive players in the country in Leonard Williams and Hayes Pullard. It helps to be strong up the middle, and there aren’t many who do it better than these two. Look for Antwaun Woods at nose tackle to put up bigger numbers with all the double-teams Williams will see, and J.R. Tavai will be a versatile player on the edge.
Depth is still an issue for the Trojans, who will be playing this fall with fewer than 70 available scholarship players. That not only means a thin margin for error with injuries, but with an up-tempo style of play, it also means more plays per game, which can put a greater strain on the roster. Sarkisian has made it clear that he plans to rotate a lot, so the reserve players will get opportunities for game action, and they will need to be ready. The good news has come in the form of George Farmer and Greg Townsend. Both have been injured a lot during their USC careers but have looked good in camp and could provide legitimate options if healthy. There was also a season-ending knee injury to Jabari Ruffin to serve as a reminder of how quickly things can change with the depth chart.
One of the brightest spots of camp came from the members of the Class of 2014. There were 18 freshman players signed, and you can make a case that all 18 showed something promising for the future. The future is now for guys like Adoree’ Jackson, JuJu Smith, Ajene Harris, Bryce Dixon, Toa Lobendahn, Damien Mama and Uchenna Nwosu, as all are expected to see extended time in the rotation on Saturday.
The expectations for this team are varied, most preseason polls have the Trojans anywhere from No. 15-20, with the thought that USC could end up playing UCLA at the end of the year for a spot in the Pac-12 title game.
Both the players and their coach have something to prove. The players want to show that the 10-win season of 2013 wasn’t a fluke, that the “one-team, one-heartbeat” mantra that they adopted last fall was real and that the lessons they learned about being accountable to each other have carried over to the new year. For Sarkisian, while he has done a great job in the offseason of winning over boosters, recruiting and preparing his team for the season, there are still some skeptics who question if he is the right man for the job. The best way for the first-year coach to prove that he is will be to get it done on the field.
That process starts on Saturday.