USC Trojans: Cody Kessler

WeAreSC Roundtable: Stanford preview 

September, 3, 2014
Sep 3
11:00
AM PT
WeAreSC staffers discuss topics relating to USC's game at Stanford on Saturday.

Key to the game

Steve Sarkisian summed up the USC victory with the opening line of his postgame news conference.

“That was fun,” said the Trojans coach.


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The USC Trojans came out in helmets and shorts on Friday and took part in a practice session that head coach Steve Sarkisian said mirrored what the team's Thursday workouts will look like during the season.

An extremely light practice that was around an hour-and-a-half long, Sarkisian said that with the opener coming up in just over a week, the primary focus was on working out the kinks and making sure everyone was on the same page.


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LOS ANGELES -- The football was in the air on Thursday for the USC practice as the Trojans worked a lot on getting downfield in the passing game.

As would be expected, Cody Kessler led the way for the offense and looked to be in sharp command with the season little more than a week away. There were long completions to Victor Blackwell, Adoree’ Jackson, JuJu Smith and Bryce Dixon as Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian continues to spread the touches around to various players.


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USC roundtable: Impact, battles and more 

July, 30, 2014
Jul 30
7:15
AM PT
The WeAreSC staffers discuss various topics related to the opening of USC Trojans fall camp practices next Monday.

Who will have the biggest camp impact? (offense/defense)

Garry Paskwietz: Steve Sarkisian says this will be a physical run-first offense and that should mean plenty of opportunities for Buck Allen to establish himself early as a critical piece of the system. The reigning Trojans MVP is in great shape and appears ready for that kind of role. On defense, Leonard Williams may be the most talented and Hayes Pullard is the most productive -- but in terms of impact, I'm going to go with Su'a Cravens. His athleticism should allow for him to make a lot of plays.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesThe Trojans' offense will run through quarterback Cody Kessler and tailback Javorius "Buck" Allen.
Johnny Curren: On offense, I'm going to go with Allen. The fourth-year junior tailback is in fantastic shape right now, and with Sarkisian showing a real desire to pound the ball on the ground, he should get plenty of chances to shine. On defense, Williams is the one to watch. Close to 100 percent after undergoing offseason surgery on his shoulder, there's every reason to believe he'll have an even bigger 2014 campaign than his season of 2013, when he garnered ESPN.com first-team All-America honors.

Greg Katz: Cody Kessler on offense. The Trojans' offense may have more explosive players, but the system doesn't work unless Kessler works, and he has been relentless in not only learning Sark's no-huddle, fast-paced offense but executing it and teaching others. Williams on defense. Teammates of the "Big Cat" know he played with pain in his shoulder last season and was never 100 percent. In the summer, however, it was darn scary just how must quicker and intense he was during voluntary workouts.

What will be the best position battle?

Paskwietz: The Trojans enter camp with no clear-cut starter at left guard and as many as four candidates for the job. The one veteran in the mix is Jordan Simmons, but he is coming off knee surgery last fall. The other three possibilities are all true freshmen in Toa Lobendahn, Viane Talamaivao and Damien Mama. All are extremely talented, but all will be taking part in their first fall camp practices as Trojans, though Lobendahn did participate in spring drills.

Curren: I'm tempted to say the battle at Sam linebacker between Jabari Ruffin and Quinton Powell, but after seeing J.R. Tavai shine throughout the summer workouts, I'll go with the competition between he and Scott Starr at rush end. Both performers are excellent athletes who play physical and fast to the ball off the edge, and I look forward to watching them bring out the best in each other in fall camp.

Katz: Because of the importance of both offensive guard positions, one would have to lump this as a critical unit position battle. Whether starting senior right guard Aundrey Walker, coming off an ankle injury, and Simmons, coming off of a knee injury, at left guard can be physically in shape and hold up to the pace of the offense remains in question. What isn't in question are the true freshmen O-liners such as Lobendahn, who is a well advanced talent despite his inexperience.

Who will be the surprise player of camp?

Paskwietz: It's hard to call Adoree' Jackson a surprise player in anything when you consider he was the highest-rated recruit in this USC class. The surprise will come, however, in just how good he will be from the word go. And I'm not talking just at one spot, he will make a case for playing time on offense, defense and special teams.

Curren: I really liked what I saw out of Leon McQuay III, both in the spring as well as this past summer. He's going to really open some eyes in his role as the starting free safety. Having bulked up considerably since his freshman season, he's also played with a new level of confidence over the past six months.


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Steve Sarkisian and the Trojans feel the need for speed.

If you're looking for signs of where the new USC coach is going to make his biggest imprint this fall, it would be a good idea to look at the up-tempo offense that the Trojans will utilize.

Huddling? That's a thing of the past, the Trojans will be too busy hustling to the line of scrimmage for the next play. And don't expect to see the quarterback under center much either, Cody Kessler will line up primarily in the shotgun with a single back. That means USC, the home of the modern I formation, will not use a full-time fullback and will run a lot of three-receiver sets.

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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:

Offense

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It's time to start our preseason position reviews. Please, hold your applause until we are finished.

Here's how we do this: We provide three evaluative categories: "Great shape," "Good shape" and "We'll see."

Hint: You'd prefer your team to be in "Great shape."

"We'll see" doesn't mean you're going to stink at said position. It means just what it says -- we'll see because there's no way at present to know.

You can review last year's rankings here.

And away we go ... starting, of course, with quarterback.

GREAT SHAPE

Oregon: Junior Marcus Mariota is -- again -- a leading Heisman Trophy candidate and a two-time first-team All-Pac-12 performer. He would have been an early-round NFL draft pick this spring if he'd opted not to return. The Ducks have some questions at receiver though.

UCLA: Junior Brett Hundley is the conference's No. 2 Heisman Trophy candidate. While Arizona State's Taylor Kelly eclipsed him for second-team All-Pac-12 last fall, Hundley's tremendous upside is why he has NFL scouts eagerly awaiting his entering the draft.

Arizona State: As noted, Kelly was the Pac-12's No. 2 QB last season, which means he was one of the nation's best at the position. It also helps his cause that he's got WR Jaelen Strong, an All-American candidate. However, Kelly does need to take fewer sacks -- you could say the same for Hundley -- and throw fewer interceptions.

Oregon State: Sean Mannion ranked second in the nation with 358.6 yards passing per game in 2013 and is also an NFL prospect. Life might be just a bit harder in the passing game without Brandin Cooks.

GOOD SHAPE

Stanford: Kevin Hogan, a third-year starter, had a good but not great sophomore season while leading the Cardinal to the Pac-12 championship. He was mostly efficient and showed a good touch downfield, but he made some surprisingly bad decisions and needs work with his intermediate passing game. He's got a good crew of veteran receivers coming back, which bodes well for him.

Washington State: Connor Halliday threw for a bunch of yards (4,597) and TDs (34) last season, but he also tossed way too many interceptions (22). Part of that was an inconsistent O-line and a neglected running game. The good news is he's in his third year under Mike Leach and has a strong crew of returning receivers. Of all the Pac-12 QBs, he might make the biggest climb this season.

USC: Cody Kessler didn't put up big numbers last season and didn't beat Notre Dame or UCLA but significantly improved after Lane Kiffin was fired. Like Kelly, he's got an A-list target coming back in WR Nelson Agholor. We expect Kessler to thrive with a new, up-tempo scheme under Steve Sarkisian.

Utah: Utah received good news yesterday when 16-game starter Travis Wilson was medically cleared to play. When healthy, Wilson has been a solid performer with good upside. He'll have to fight off a challenge this preseason from Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson though.

California: Jared Goff averaged 292 yards passing per game as a true freshman. That's good. But the Cal offense struggled to do much else but throw the ball between the 20s -- hence a conference-worst 23 points per game. He had just 18 TD passes on 531 attempts. Still, he flashed potential and has a very good crew of receivers coming back.

Colorado: Sefo Liufau became the Buffaloes' starter at midseason and often played like the true freshman he was. Furthermore, he won't have Paul Richardson serving as a safety blanket and making big plays for him. Still, Liufau's baptism by Pac-12 fire provided some seasoning that was evident this spring. The Buffs feel pretty good about having a returning starter behind center.

WE'LL SEE

Washington: While Cyler Miles flashed potential last season coming of the bench for Keith Price, logging a road victory at Oregon State in his first start, he also had an off-field issue that has muddied the waters at QB for the Huskies. It remains to be seen how quickly Miles emerges from Chris Petersen's doghouse, and if he can beat out Jeff Lindquist and Troy Williams.

Arizona: The Wildcats have no clear frontrunner in their QB competition. That's the bad news. The good news is the performances this spring were generally solid. Rich Rodriguez believes he's got a couple of guys who can win games for him. He's just not sure which guy is No. 1 between Jesse Scroggins, Connor Brewer, Anu Solomon and Jerrard Randall.

USC offseason storylines: QB

June, 24, 2014
Jun 24
7:00
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Here's a look at the top quarterback storylines for USC this offseason:

Quarterback
All eyes were focused on the quarterback position at USC this past spring, and that was for good reason. With the coveted starting role declared up for grabs by new head coach Steve Sarkisian, the offseason departure of Max Wittek and the unveiling of an up-tempo offense run out of the shotgun, there were more than a few factors in play that made this the group the one to watch throughout the March and April practice sessions.

Ultimately, it was fourth-year junior Cody Kessler who, somewhat unsurprisingly, emerged atop the depth chart in the highly-publicized position battle, but there’s still plenty to keep your eye on in terms of offseason storylines when it comes to this unit.

Kessler in charge
[+] EnlargeCody Kessler, Max Tuerk
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesExperience helped Cody Kessler win USC's starting QB job in the spring.
While the fact that Kessler, who started all 14 games for the Trojans in 2013, won out in a competition against a pair of inexperienced youngsters in second-year freshman Max Browne and early-entrant freshman Jalen Greene wasn’t exactly a revelation in itself, the decisive way in which he ran away with the job was.

Making a seamless transition into the new offense, he picked right up where he left off after a MVP performance in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, drawing praise from Sarkisian for his decision-making and arm strength.

Just as impressive, however, was his continued growth as a team leader – another important variable that played a part in the head coach’s decision.

And credit to Sarkisian for announcing his verdict when he did. Forced to share the quarterback job with Wittek through the Trojans’ first two games in 2013 under the previous coaching regime, Kessler admitted to having been rattled by the constant state of uncertainty. By announcing Kessler as the starter in the spring this time around, Sarkisian has allowed his veteran passer to get a whole summer under his belt as the man in charge of what he can now safely call his team.

If the early portion of summer drills are any indication, that move is already paying off, as Kessler has looked confident and sharp. And just how far he continues to come along in the coming weeks will undoubtedly play a significant role in determining just how efficient the USC offense is in Year 1 under Sarkisian.

Browne still competing
Kessler was the undisputed winner this past spring, but the young and talented Browne is right behind him. Kessler knows that he can’t let up for a second, particularly once fall camp starts up -- when Sarkisian said he expects the competition to “wage on.”

Browne, who has improved steadily since his initial arrival at USC as one of the most heralded members of the Class of 2013, bulked up in the spring and had more zip on his throws, but he still couldn’t manage to overtake his more seasoned counterpart.

For his part, however, Browne has said and done everything that anyone could possibly ask of him since Sarkisian announced his decision. He plans to continue to compete each and every day, and he's also made a point of putting the team ahead of himself by embracing the responsibilities that come with being the backup, a fact that has been noticeable during summer workouts when he’s been observed signaling plays into Kessler during some of the team’s 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 periods.

Ultimately, the possibility of Browne overtaking Kessler prior to the 2014 season would have to be considered a long shot. But he certainly has an extremely bright future at USC. Until his time comes, however, the Trojans would appear to have a very solid No. 2 option who will also continue to provide more than enough pressure on Kessler to ensure that he never falls asleep at the wheel.

Greene a glimpse of the future?
While it was Kessler and Browne who garnered the bulk of the attention in the competition for the No. 1 job in the spring, the most intriguing participant in the quarterback derby just might have been Greene, who arrived at USC this past January from local powerhouse Gardena (California) Serra.

As a true dual-threat quarterback, he provides a much different look at the position in USC’s offensive attack than Kessler and Browne, who both fit into the pocket-passer category. So, the big question is does Greene exemplify the kind of signal-caller that Sarkisian, ideally, wants at the helm of his offense? After all, everyone has seen the kind of success that fast-paced offenses like those featured at Oregon have had with athletic quarterbacks running the show.

Throw in the fact that USC seems to be targeting other dual-threat passers on the recruiting trail, such as Westlake’s (California) Malik Henry in the Class of 2016, and it’s not a stretch to assume that Sarkisian might have big plans down the line for a quarterback like Greene.

A strong-armed lefty, he made tremendous strides from the first practice to the No. 15 practice this past spring, drawing heavy praise from USC offensive coordinator Clay Helton as a result. Still, there’s little doubt that he still has a ways to go before he can be considered a serious contender for the starting job. But with the promise that he’s already shown, and where Sarkisian and the offense seem to be headed, maybe Browne isn’t the only quarterback to keep close tabs on with an eye toward the future.

Roundtable: Future award winners

June, 23, 2014
Jun 23
7:00
AM PT
With many postseason awards coming out with their watch lists, here are our thoughts on which members of the USC football team are most likely to win the following awards at some point in their career.

Heisman Trophy

Garry Paskwietz: Javorius "Buck" Allen. Every so often there is an aura around a player when he is “the man,” and Allen has that right now with the Trojans. The players knew what he could do before he got his chance, and they know how special he was once he finally got on the field. He has bulked up in preparation of carrying a bigger load, and he has the combination of quickness as a runner and good pass-catching ability to put up huge numbers.

[+] EnlargeUSC
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesJavorius "Buck" Allen had four 100-yard rushing efforts in USC's final six games in 2013.
Johnny Curren: Allen. After breaking out over the second half of the 2013 season, Allen looks to be in even better physical shape this summer. And as everyone saw last year with Bishop Sankey at Washington, Sarkisian’s offense definitely provides the opportunity for a tailback to put up big numbers.

Greg Katz: Allen. If Sark gets the same type of production out of Allen that he did with Sankey at Washington and the Trojans do well, the Florida native has a chance at the big one.

Davey O'Brien Award

GP: Max Browne. With all due respect to Cody Kessler, who I believe is the right quarterback for the Trojans right now, I think it is Browne who has the best chance to eventually achieve this kind of national honor. Max has very good throwing skills when it comes to touch and accuracy, and he is only building on those while he is waiting his turn.

JC: Kessler. After showing promise last year during a tumultuous season, Kessler has the potential to thrive in 2014 while directing an up-tempo offense that figures to really rack up yardage while also putting up more points.

GK: Browne. Kessler will have a fine career, but when Browne finally steps in with knowledge of the new offense, watch out.

Doak Walker Award

GP: Allen. He has the total package to be in the mix.

JC: Allen. Again, with what he’s show as of late, Allen just might find himself in the running for this award, either in 2014 or 2015.

GK: Allen. If “Buck” continues to improve dramatically and the Trojans’ offensive line can improve each game, Allen could become a national household name.

Biletnikoff Award

GP: Nelson Agholor: One of the key traits that Agholor inherited from Robert Woods and Marqise Lee was preparation, and his work ethic set the tone for the Trojans in spring ball. When you combine that with his game-breaking ability, this award is certainly within his reach.

JC: Agholor. After waiting his turn behind both Woods and Lee, Agholor is the featured wideout at USC now, and it’s a role that he’s more than ready to take on. Having led the team with 918 receiving yards in 2013, he already has proven himself on the field, and now with more passes coming his way, he could really explode in 2014.

GK: Agholor. He can be just as explosive as Lee, in his own way. It’s a matter of consistency and his quarterback.

Mackey Award

GP: Bryce Dixon. He comes to USC with the ability to be a unique athlete at the tight spot. He reminds me a little of former Trojan Mackey Award winner Fred Davis. Maybe not as powerful as Davis but a similar kind of pass-catching weapon.

JC: Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick. Cope-Fitzpatrick had an outstanding spring, catching virtually everything thrown in his direction. Whether it’s this year or next, he just might have the ability to light up the stat sheet in an offense that allowed Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who won this award in 2013, to really flourish at Washington.

GK: Dixon. This kid has the potential to be someone special at tight end. If he can block as well as he can catch and run, he could leave Troy as one of the great ones.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Williams
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsDefensive end Leonard Williams posted 73 tackles and six sacks last season.
Outland Trophy

GP: Leonard Williams. I am starting to look at Williams the way I looked at Shaun Cody in the middle of the USC D-line. Just a special talent who raised the level of play around him and was a great teammate while doing it. I wouldn’t put any limits on what he can accomplish next year.

JC: Williams. Predicted by many to be a top-10 pick in next year’s NFL draft, there’s little doubt that Williams is one of the top linemen in all of college football. It will be interesting to see just how much further he can take his game in the coming months, and if he continues to make strides, this is an award that is definitely within reach.

GK: Williams. The stars are all aligned for Williams to achieve a lineman’s highest honor. Only one Trojan has done it before (OL Ron Yary, 1967) and if Leonard takes this award he’ll always be remembered as one of the legendary Trojans defensive linemen.

Lombardi Award

GP: Viane Talamaivao. You don’t find too many offensive linemen with this combination of size, strength and athleticism. Viane has taken reps at center and both guards spots so far in summer workouts and has looked comfortable in each setting so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see some early contributions this year.

JC: Williams. Again, if it all comes together for Williams on the field in 2014, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see honor after honor come his way.

GK: Max Tuerk. The combination of brains, brawn and nasty to go along with his experience puts Max in a position to be only the second Trojan to win the award. If Tuerk can produce like former Trojans Lombardi winner OG Brad Budde (1979), he stands a shot.

Butkus Award

GP: Hayes Pullard. As a productive three-year starter, Pullard is on the verge of putting together one of the more impressive statistical careers we’ve ever seen from a USC linebacker -- and that is saying something. As the unquestioned leader of a group that could be very good this year, he has a chance to get the kind of spotlight needed for the award.

JC: Pullard. Having led the Trojans in tackles in two of the past three seasons, Pullard has already established himself as one of the conference’s top linebackers.

GK: Pullard. There is something about Pullard from one season to another that seems to cry out for recognition. Hayes is a preseason All-American and should the Trojans defense live up to expectations, Pullard will be having a whale of a season.

Thorpe Award

GP: Su'a Cravens. I’m going to go with Cravens on this one, and the main reason I pick him ahead of Leon McQuay III or Adoree’ Jackson (aside from his overwhelming physical skills) is primarily because I think Su’a has a head start and would be the first of the three to win. All three are capable, but I can see Cravens bursting on the national scene this year and setting the stage for a strong run at the award in 2015.

JC: Jackson. I know, I know… way too early to be talking about big-time honors for a player who has yet to take a snap in college. But from what I saw of him on the high school level, as well as in the early workouts at USC this summer, Jackson is a uniquely talented athlete who has the potential to do some special things at USC.

GK: Cravens. The second coming of Ronnie Lott/Troy Polamalu? It would be hard to say that Cravens didn’t live up to all the hype in his freshman season. Yes, he got injured and that slowed his progress, but he showed enough stuff to warrant great expectations. If he did what he did as a true freshman, what’s he going to look like as a junior?
In 2012, Washington's offense averaged 24 points per game, and QB Keith Price had a horribly disappointing season. In 2013, the Huskies averaged 37.9 points per game, and Price redeemed himself.

The Huskies' friends to the east, the Washington State Cougars, averaged 20.4 points in coach Mike Leach's first season, his Air Raid offense pretty much grounded. In 2013, the Cougars averaged 31 points per game. Much better.

Every season, offenses and defenses improve or regress. Oregon and Arizona both scored fewer points in 2013 compared to 2012.

In 2011, UCLA ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in scoring offense with a measly 23.1 points per game. Oregon State was even worse, ranking 11th with just 21.8 ppg. In 2012, both made huge improvements on offense and continued to trend up in 2013.

So who is poised to make a big jump this fall? We're breaking it down by division, starting with the South.

None of these three was truly lousy on offense last year. USC ranked 60th in the nation in scoring; Colorado, 86th. So we're talking about mediocre and worse.

The good news is all three schools welcome back experienced, promising quarterbacks -- we're going to assume Utah's Travis Wilson shortly gets a clean bill of health -- and a solid collection of returning starters, both on the line and the skill positions.

That supports the notion that all three should improve in 2014, particularly with the Pac-12 losing considerable talent on the defensive side of the ball.

So who makes the biggest jump?

We're going with USC under new coach Steve Sarkisian, who was responsible for resurrecting the Huskies' offense in 2013 with a new up-tempo format. We think that offense will be a productive fit for the Trojans.

The key for USC is the offensive line, which lacks depth and might end up starting one or two true freshmen. It must grow up quickly and stay healthy. If it does, QB Cody Kessler should make a significant leap forward -- see how he mostly played over the second half of the season after Lane Kiffin's termination -- and that could push the Trojans scoring into the high 30s.

And, considering USC also should be stout on defense, scoring in the high-30s should put the Trojans squarely in the South Division race.

LOS ANGELES -- When the Los Angeles Dodgers had their Clayton Kershaw and Yasiel Puig bobblehead nights this season, I was as big a fan as any to take the freebies and put them up in my second-floor ballpark room.

[+] EnlargeYasiel Puig bobblehead
Icon SMIYasiel Puig bobblehead night got Greg Katz thinking along the same lines for the Trojans' upcoming schedule.
Well, it got me to thinking: What if the USC Trojans did a 2014 bobblehead promotion for each home football game and their road-game opponents also paid tribute to Troy with their own bobblehead salute?


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You only think I guessed wrong! That's what's so funny! I switched glasses when your back was turned! Ha ha! You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders -- The most famous of which is, "never get involved in a land war in Asia" -- but only slightly less well-known is this: "Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!"

The Pac-12 entered spring practices with more clarity and quality at quarterback than any conference in the nation by a wide margin. It exits with even more clarity at the position.

With new USC coach Steve Sarkisian announcing that Cody Kessler retained his starting job, and Utah's Travis Wilson's apparently successful return from a career-threatening medical condition (an intracranial artery injury diagnosed in November), the Pac-12 welcomes back 10 returning starters heading into the fall, with a handful -- such as Oregon's Marcus Mariota, UCLA's Brett Hundley, Arizona State's Taylor Kelly and Oregon State's Sean Mannion -- who are candidates for All-America honors and national awards.

Further, it became clear this spring that the Pac-12 is overflowing with quality receivers, with several teams combining depth, talent and experience at the position. So things figure to be pass happy in the fall.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Williams
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsUSC junior defensive lineman Leonard Williams is one of the few Pac-12 defensive stars returning this season.
But what about defense? After all, they say, defense wins championships, and Woody Hayes told us, "Three things can happen when you throw the ball, and two of them are bad," an optimistic take that leaves out the quarterback sack.

While conference teams average 6.4 returning starters on defense, and just three -- Arizona State (3), Oregon (5) and Utah (5) -- welcome back fewer than six starters on that side of the ball, the loss of star power is notable.

Just two first-team All-Pac-12 defenders return in 2014: USC defensive tackle Leonard Williams and Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Only four from the second team return.

Washington defensive end Hau'oli Kikaha and Oregon outside linebacker Tony Washington are the only returning defenders who ranked among the conference's top 12 in sacks last season. The same is true in the secondary: Only two of the top eight interception leaders are back in 2014.

So, without marquee guys chasing them or trying to steal their passes, life seems good at quarterback heading into the offseason. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, few teams seem to be fretting their situation on the mean side of the ball.

Take Stanford, owner of the Pac-12's best defense in 2013. While the Cardinal appeared more settled on offense than defense entering spring practices, the defense mostly ruled when the ball was snapped.

"No question," Cardinal coach David Shaw said. "If you look at our defensive front, it's a bunch of fourth-year and fifth-year seniors ... we've got a lot of guys coming back who've played a lot of football for us."

While Stanford lost some big names, such as linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov, it also welcomes back a strong foundation of seven returning starters and experienced backups. Shaw noted that Aziz Shittu is only non-fourth- or fifth-year guy in the mix for playing time in the front seven. He lauded defensive end Henry Anderson, an athletic 6-foot-6, 295 pounder, this spring as a potential breakout star this season, with an NFL future.

Over at Oregon, the Ducks are not only replacing two of three defensive linemen and three starters in the secondary, they also are breaking in a new defensive coordinator, as Don Pellum moved up from linebackers coach to replace the retiring Nick Aliotti.

Yet even when matched against Mariota and a potent and experienced Ducks offense, the defense held its own.

"I think we've had a great give and take as far as who's had the upper hand," Ducks coach Mark Helfrich said. "Marcus is obviously a difference-maker and a special guy. Defensively, we're building where we need to be. It was good give and take overall."

In the South Division, UCLA and USC both look strong on defense despite losing some marquee players. Both welcome back eight starters from accomplished units. Defending champion Arizona State lost almost all of its star power, but Sun Devils coach Todd Graham was almost defiant all spring about his expectations for his defense.

Of course, he's also counting on a number of newcomers playing key roles, which often is a matter of keeping the ole fingers crossed.

“People come here to play defense, that’s what we’re known for," he said. "We’re known for defense, so I don’t expect anything less than last year.”

While there might be some defensive questions among the teams thought to be competing for division championships, the defenses that finished on the bottom in 2013 could be much improved.

Oregon State, Colorado and California, the Nos. 9, 11 and 12 scoring defenses last season, each welcome back eight starters. The Golden Bears and Beavers, in particular, could dramatically improve if injury woes from 2013 reverse themselves.

"I think our team is tougher and better conditioned and our players are in a much better place than they were last year," Cal coach Sonny Dykes said. "I think that's something players noticed. We have some experience coming back. It's the second year in the system. So, yeah, I think everybody feels like we're a lot better football team than we were a year ago."

It seems certain that Pac-12 offenses will again be high-flying and potent in 2014. But the conference teams that have earned BCS bowl berths the past decade or so also have played good defense. As we exit spring and head into the offseason, there is hope -- but not nearly as much certainty -- there.

Kessler looks to find his niche at USC 

April, 28, 2014
Apr 28
9:14
AM PT
LOS ANGELES -- If USC is going to have the type of season it needs to win the Pac-12 South, it will take all of the Trojans' offensive arsenal to get the job done.

Much of that heavy load will fall on experienced junior quarterback Cody Kessler.

For Kessler to eventually be discussed as one of USC's many great quarterbacks, he must have defining moments and defining games in his final two seasons of eligibility.


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