USC Trojans: Nelson Agholor

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
It's hard not to look up and down the Pac-12 rosters and marvel at some of the offensive talent at just about every school. With 10 starting quarterbacks coming back, the fall promises to bring many sleepless nights for defensive coordinators in the conference.

And while the embarrassment of riches under center is one obvious storyline, there are plenty more dynamic position groups to keep an eye on.

We've been highlighting where each position group stands with camp rapidly approaching, and today we discuss which of those groups deserves to be considered the best of the best.

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Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesUSC's Nelson Agholor had 56 catches for 918 yards last season.
Chantel Jennings: This was hard, and for me it came down to running backs and wide receivers. But, considering how great the quarterback situation is in the Pac-12, I think the receivers, conference-wide, are going to have huge seasons. Go down the line and pick out guys who are going to be major, major names to know this year: Arizona State -- Jaelen Strong, Stanford -- Ty Montgomery, Oregon -- Devon Allen, USC -- Nelson Agholor, Utah -- Dres Anderson, Washington State -- everyone and their mother. Quarterbacks are only good when there are receivers on the other ends of their passes and this group of receivers will make this group of quarterbacks look very good (and vice versa).

What makes this even more impressive is to look at the wide receivers that are gone after the 2013 season. Oregon State lost Brandin Cooks. Colorado lost Paul Richardson. Oregon lost Josh Huff. USC lost Marqise Lee. That's some serious yardage and production to lose in one season. But even with that loss, this position group -- in my opinion -- is going to be incredibly impressive this upcoming season. In 2013, the Pac-12 played stage for the eventual Biletnikoff Award winner. I think the same could be true in 2014.

Kyle Bonagura: With so many talented receiving groups out there (don't sleep on Cal), it's hard to go with one over the other, but I'm not convinced that's the case at running back. Kevin Gemmell took a look at each team's group of backs, and while he classified three (Oregon, USC and Arizona State) as being in great shape, it's pretty clear what group stands out: Oregon.

There's only a select few places in the country where Byron Marshall or Thomas Tyner wouldn't be the unquestioned feature back. At Oregon, they might be the second and third best options on their own team. Behind quarterback Marcus Mariota, of course. That's scary. And after the trio combined for 2,464 yards and 32 touchdowns a year ago, there is every reason to expect more in 2014 -- starting with the fact that they'll be running behind one of the best lines in the conference.

Taking everything into account -- especially the element Mariota adds -- finding a better offensive backfield in the country would be a tough task. There are schools that have more impressive workhorse-type backs, but Oregon's unique combination between its style of play and talent, for my money, is unmatched.
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.
Eight Pac-12 players were named first-team preseason All-Americans by Athlon's on Monday, while 11 others were named to the other three teams.

Oregon, Stanford and USC each had a pair of first-team selections. The Ducks were represented by center Hroniss Grasu and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Stanford's pair was OT Andrus Peat and kick returner Ty Montgomery, while USC was represented by WR Nelson Agholor and DT Leonard Williams.

The other two first-team selections were UCLA LB Myles Jack and Washington LB Shaq Thompson.

Oregon QB Marcus Mariota, the Pac-12's top Heisman Trophy candidate was second-team behind FSU's Jameis Winston, who won the trophy last year.

On the third team were three defenders: UCLA LB Eric Kendricks, USC LB Hayes Pullard and Washington DT Danny Shelton. Agholor also was named a punt returner, so he got two spots.

On the fourth team: Arizona State WR Jaelen Strong, Oregon State C Isaac Seumalo and USC O-lineman Max Tuerk, who was listed as a guard even though he plays center. Stanford safety Jordan Richards was fourth team with the defense, while Utah kicker Andy Phillips was a fourth-team specialist.

Roundtable: Future award winners

June, 23, 2014
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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.

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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.

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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?

Most important player: USC

June, 20, 2014
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All players are equal, but some players are more equal than others. That's the basis of our Most Important Players series.

First off, quarterbacks are excluded to make things more interesting. It goes without saying, for example, that Marcus Mariota is Oregon's most important player.

And most important doesn't necessarily have to be "best." An All-American's backup can be pretty darn good, too. USC’s Leonard Williams might be the best defensive lineman in the nation, but is he the Trojans' most important player considering the talent and depth on their D-line?

Our most important guys are players who could swing a win total one way or the other, based on them living up to expectations. Or their absence.

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Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsNelson Agholor figures to improve on his six TD receptions from 2013.
USC: WR Nelson Agholor

2013 production: He caught 56 passes for 918 yards and six touchdowns. Agholor also returned 18 punts for 343 yards and a pair of touchdowns (19.1 average) and 10 kickoffs for 175 yards (17.5 average).

Why Agholor is important: This was a tough one, because there are a lot of players who could be (and are) difference-makers for the Trojans, be it Agholor, the aforementioned Williams, Randall Telfer, Hayes Pullard, Buck Allen, Max Tuerk, Su'a Cravens, etc.

But like Stanford’s Most Important Player, Ty Montgomery, Agholor is the type of player who can change a game on offense and on special teams. With his sure hands and twin V-12 engines … err … feet, Agholor posted the nation’s second-best punt return average with 19.1 yards. He also tied a Pac-12 record with two punt returns for touchdowns against Cal -- including a 93-yard return, which was the second-longest in school history.

Who plays opposite Agholor might still be up for grabs, with Darreus Rogers, Victor Blackwell and George Farmer (yeah, remember him?) among others in the mix.

So is it the running game that opens up the passing game? Or is it the other way around? With a burner like Agholor racing up and down the sidelines, he’s certainly going to draw the extra attention of safeties who might otherwise be focused on the box. And most reports out of USC’s spring session (including the practices witnessed by the Pac-12 blog) saw Agholor emerge as the team’s hardest-working player and team leader. Not a bad thing to have when transitioning to a new head coach. Doesn’t hurt that he was tutored by Robert Woods and Marqise Lee.

You could make a case for a lot of other players. And you'd be right. But with a potential Biletnikoff winner in Agholor, you certainly can't go wrong.

Other Most Important Players:
It will come as no surprise that Mel Kiper Jr. sees two of the five best senior QBs and three of the six best underclass QBs coming from the Pac-12 Insider.

But who would have thought that three of the 11 best defensive tackles Insider would come from the Pac-12, while none came from the D-line rich SEC?

USC's Leonard Williams, a junior, is a likely top-10 pick next spring, and he also is a candidate for top pick overall. But Kiper also really likes Williams' buddy at UCLA, Ellis McCarthy.
Really emerged in 2013 as his first-team reps arrived. McCarthy was a big-time recruit, but he had to learn about leverage and keeping blockers occupied, not just looking to shed them immediately and make plays in the backfield. He has a powerful, 6-4, 330-pound frame and could emerge as a likely first-rounder.

The third Pac-12 DT is Washington senior Danny Shelton.

Kiper also likes Pac-12 cornerbacks Insider. He rates Oregon's Ifo Ekpre-Olomu as the No. 1 senior, USC's Josh Shaw as No. 2 and Oregon State's Steven Nelson as No. 3.

Among the underclass CBs, Kiper ranks Washington's Marcus Peters No. 2 and Stanford's Alex Carter as "5A."

On the defensive downside, Kiper doesn't including any Pac-12 defensive ends on his list Insider, which bodes well for those QBs.

On offense, Kiper likes Pac-12 receivers Insider but not running backs. He rates Stanford's Ty Montgomery the No. 2 senior receiver and Arizona State's Jaelen Strong and USC's Nelson Agholor as the Nos. 2 and 3 underclassmen, but Oregon's Byron Marshall -- at 5B -- is the only conference running back to make the list.
With the Trojans in the midst of their summer training schedule, here’s a look at some of the top offseason storylines for a collection of players whom USC coach Steve Sarkisian will count on to produce at a high level this fall -- the wide receivers and tight ends.

Agholor’s turn in the spotlight

After waiting his turn behind both Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, junior Nelson Agholor looks primed to follow in their footsteps as the next great Trojans wideout. First showing promise as a freshman, when he gave brief glimpses of his ability as a dynamic playmaker, he took his game to another level last year, first as the No. 2 option to Lee, and then, when the 2012 Biletnikoff Award winner was sidelined for a portion of the season, as the go-to receiver.

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Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsNelson Agholor showed in 2013 he can fill the sizable shoes of a No. 1 receiver at USC.
Finishing his sophomore campaign with 56 receptions for a team-high 918 yards and six touchdowns, he firmly established himself as one of the conference’s top pass-catchers, but what has those around USC particularly encouraged these days is the way he came out this past spring and flat-out dominated. Developing strong chemistry with quarterback Cody Kessler, he was arguably the MVP of the entire string of practices.

With the Trojans’ no-huddle attack figuring to allow the offense to potentially run more than 80 plays per game, it’s a safe bet that Agholor will receive plenty of chances to shine as the team’s primary receiving threat, and with what he has shown it’s safe to say that he’s ready to seize the increased opportunity and run with it.

Who else steps up at WR?

While the Trojans do have a budding star in Agholor to rely on, in order for the passing game to really take off, Kessler is going to need to find some solid complements at wide receiver as well. Fortunately for Sarkisian and Co., the team does appear to possess better depth at the position than it did last season.

Right now, sophomore Darreus Rogers looks like the frontrunner to land the role of the No. 2 receiver. A big body with sure hands, he showed well as a freshman, making 22 catches, and he continued to improve his skills in the spring. If his development keeps on its forward path through this summer, big things could be in store for him in 2014.

Fourth-year junior Victor Blackwell is a veteran who has flashed at times as well, and there’s certainly room for him to become a bigger factor in the fall.

This unit will also receive a huge boost with the return of two players who missed the entire 2013 season due to knee injuries – fourth-year junior George Farmer and second-year freshman Steven Mitchell.

Farmer, who arrived at USC as one of the most highly touted members of the Trojans’ signing class of 2011, looked sharp this past spring as he eased himself back into action, providing hope that this might be his year to emerge. Mitchell showed a ton of promise a year ago before he went down. Now back in the swing of things this summer, he has been going hard and making big plays with great frequency during volunteer workouts.

George Katrib -- who earned a spot atop the depth chart in the spring -- Robby Kolanz , Christian Tober and Aaron Minor are some walk-ons who will provide depth, and then there’s a slew of talented incoming freshmen.

Adoree' Jackson might be the most intriguing addition to watch. A phenomenal athlete who starred on both sides of the ball at Gardena (Calif.) Serra, he took reps at cornerback during the first volunteer session that he participated in this past Monday, but Sarkisian has said that he will likely get a look on offense as well in the fall. In either case, he has the look of an instant impact performer wherever he lines up.

John “JuJu” Smith, Ajene Harris and Rahshead Johnson are other new arrivals who might be able to contribute early. Smith and Harris have stood out in the early goings this summer at wideout. Johnson, meanwhile, has been spending his time at corner.

Tight ends poised to flourish

With the success that 2013 John Mackey Award winner Austin Seferian-Jenkins enjoyed in Sarkisian’s offense at Washington, there’s certainly reason to believe that the tight ends will take on a larger role in the passing game this year at USC than they did under the previous regime. Providing evidence of that, there did seem to be more passes headed their way this past spring. Although low on numbers, it’s a group marked by talent.

Xavier Grimble opted to take his talents to the NFL early, leaving fifth-year senior Randall Telfer as the unquestioned leader of the unit. With 22 starts and 44 career catches to his credit, he’s a dependable all-around option, but he missed the entire spring due to injury, and he hasn’t been spotted taking part in the team’s volunteer workouts so far this summer, so he’ll have some catching up to do in the new system whenever he does return.

Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick already got his feet wet in the offense this past spring, making quite an impression as he took the bulk of the first-team reps. Catching virtually everything thrown in his direction, he quickly made a name for himself as a possible breakout candidate for the season ahead.

Without a ton of depth, incoming freshman Bryce Dixon should get a chance to make his mark early. Standing 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, he’s an outstanding receiving threat who hauled in 63 passes during his senior year at Ventura (Calif.) St. Bonaventure.

Walk-ons Chris Willson, Shane Sullivan, Connor Spears and Teddy Baker are others who could see time in the rotation. Willson, in particular, enjoyed a solid spring.
Over the last two weeks we’ve been taking a look at some players who had big springs for their respective teams. Some are upperclassmen finally coming into their own, some are younger guys taking advantage of open spots on the depth chart, while others are leap frogging some older players and making a name for themselves. Regardless, there were plenty of impressive performances in the Pac-12 this spring. All of these players are going to play a big part for their teams this fall, but which player do you think will be the most crucial to his team’s success in 2014? Rank them 1-12 here.

Here’s a breakdown of the players we’ve profiled over the past two weeks:

Arizona: WR Cayleb Jones -- The Wildcats might have the deepest wide receiver group in the entire conference, but could a Texas transfer become the most important one of the bunch? With a year spent studying the offense and learning from the sideline, Jones could be a major factor.

Arizona State: LB D.J. Calhoun -- The early enrollee ended the spring listed as a starter with Antonio Longino at the weakside linebacker position. With the Sun Devils trying to replace three starting linebackers, could Calhoun become a significant contributor as a true freshman? Seems likely.

Cal: RB Daniel Lasco -- Lasco found himself taking some extra reps this spring as Khalfani Muhammad (last season’s leading rusher) split time between the Cal track and football teams this spring. During his career he has been slowed by injury, but now that he’s finally healthy and taking more reps, could he battle Muhammad for the lead spot this fall?

Colorado: WR Bryce Bobo -- Colorado fans should feel encouraged by Bobo’s spring game performance (five catches, 132 yards) as they head into the summer wondering who can replace Paul Richardson's yardage. It’s highly unlikely that it’ll be one single player, but could Bobo carry a large part of it?

Oregon: WR Devon Allen -- When he wasn’t running for the Oregon track team this spring he was running circles around some Ducks defensive backs. The redshirt freshman could prove to be a huge player for Oregon as they look to replace last season’s top-three receivers as well as injured Bralon Addison’s production.

Oregon State: WR Victor Bolden -- Could Bolden be a possible replacement for some of the yardage lost by Biletnikoff Award winner Brandin Cooks? He has seen most of his time on special teams, but could step up as a big contributor in the fall as QB Sean Mannion looks to have another very big season for the Beavers.

Stanford: DL Aziz Shittu -- The sophomore, who can play every spot on the defensive line for the Cardinal, has received high praise this spring. Coach David Shaw said Shittu was, “probably the player of spring for us.” If it’s good enough for Shaw, is that good enough for you?

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Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsHow will USC wideout Nelson Agholor follow up his stellar 2013 season and excellent spring?
UCLA: CB Fabian Moreau -- He was a big contributor to the Bruins last season but during this spring season Moreau became a better leader for UCLA. Coach Jim Mora has given Moreau high praise and if the Bruins are able to take the South Division title next season, a bit part could be because of the breakout year Moreau could have.

USC: WR Nelson Agholor -- Chances are if you’re a USC fan, you know who Agholor is. If you’re not -- then he was the guy who played opposite Marqise Lee. But this spring Agholor took the steps to go from good WR to great WR, and next fall, the fruits of his labor could be on display for the entire conference to see.

Utah: RB Devontae Booker -- Booker is right on the heels of RB Bubba Poole, as displayed by his spring game performance (2 touchdowns, 19 carries, 103 yards). But between Booker, Poole and Troy McCormick, the Utes could have a three-headed monster at running back that Pac-12 teams would not enjoy having to face.

Washington: LB/RB Shaq Thompson -- He was the second-leading tackler for the Huskies last season so it wasn’t a defensive breakout spring for him. But considering he started getting offensive reps, it was a breakout spring for him as a running back. UW needs to replace Bishop Sankey’s yardage, could Thompson’s spring give him a jump start to do so?

Washington State: WR Vince Mayle -- The converted running back had a big spring for the Cougars. This spring Mayle got close to becoming quarterback Connor Halliday’s safety net. Considering Halliday threw for more than 4,500 yards last season, being his safety net would mean major, major yardage next fall.

Spring breakout player: USC

May, 21, 2014
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We continue our look at breakout players from spring practice today with the USC Trojans.

[+] EnlargeNelson Agholor
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsNelson Agholor had a strong season in 2013 for the Trojans.
Breakout player: WR Nelson Agholor

2013 statistics: Started all 14 games and posted 56 catches for 918 yards with six touchdowns. He also averaged 19.1 yards with two punts returned for touchdowns and 10 kickoff returns with an average of 17.5 yards per return. His 19.1 punt return average was a USC record.

The case for Agholor: The term “breakout” doesn’t have to be reserved for players you’ve never heard of. Yes, veterans can break out as well. And there is a good chance in 2014 we’re going to see a good wide receiver become a great one. According to one USC insider, Agholor -- while already an established playmaker -- was by far the strongest player in camp and had a work ethic that was “off the charts.”

This is what Johnny Curren of WeAreSC had to say about Agholor this spring Insider:
From the start of spring ball to last Saturday’s finish no other player performed at such a sky-high level, and with such consistency, as Agholor. A practice didn’t ever seem to go by without the talented junior coming up with at least one highlight catch that caught everyone’s attention. An already solid player heading into the spring, he got even better and appears poised to take his place as the next great USC wide receiver.

He was an all-conference honorable mention last season and was probably a bit overshadowed by the reigning Biletnikoff winner -- Marqise Lee -- playing opposite him. But when Lee missed time, it was Agholor who stepped up and showed the potential to be one of the nation’s elite receivers.

Twice he posted 100-yard receiving games in 2013 -- including a seven-catch, 161 yard performance in the win over Arizona (the first game post-Lane Kiffin) and eight catches for 104 yards in the upset win over Stanford.

Other spring breakout players:

Arizona: WR Cayleb Jones
Arizona State: LB D.J. Calhoun
Cal: RB Daniel Lasco
Colorado: WR Bryce Bobo
Oregon: WR Devon Allen
Oregon State: WR Victor Bolden
Stanford: DL Aziz Shittu
UCLA: CB Fabian Moreau

The best of spring football at USC 

April, 23, 2014
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Here’s our look back at the Trojans’ progress during spring.

MVP

[+] EnlargeNelson Agholor
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsWill Nelson Agholor become the latest standout receiver at USC?
Garry Paskwietz: Nelson Agholor
Johnny Curren: Agholor
Greg Katz: Agholor, Hayes Pullard

Curren: From the start of spring ball to last Saturday’s finish no other player performed at such a sky-high level, and with such consistency, as Agholor. A practice didn’t ever seem to go by without the talented junior coming up with at least one highlight catch that caught everyone’s attention. An already solid player heading into the spring, he got even better and appears poised to take his place as the next great USC wide receiver.

Biggest surprise

GP: Zach Banner
JC: Scott Starr
GK: Banner

Katz: It has to be redshirt freshman offensive right tackle Zach Banner, who came out of nowhere -- thanks to the wonders of hip surgery -- to claim the starting position. He probably surprised not only his teammates with his newfound agility but himself as well. Still a work in progress, he is not only turning into a grizzly bear on roller skates but potentially a future All-Pac-12 selection. When Banner is able to stay at pad level, it’s like a tsunami of human girth stream rolling a mismatched opponent.


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Before Nelson Agholor walked up the Coliseum tunnel on Saturday following USC’s spring game -- which marked the conclusion of five weeks of practice sessions under a new coaching regime led by Steve Sarkisian -- the junior wide receiver took a moment to reflect.

[+] EnlargeNelson Agholor
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsUSC wideout Nelson Agholor is hoping to take the next step in 2014 after finishing last season with 56 catches for 918 yards and six touchdowns.
“This spring wasn’t just about today,” he said, “it was about 15 practices that we got to get better. So, for me, I got better every practice that I had a chance to practice, whether it was weightlifting, field work ... it didn’t matter. I saw it as a wonderful opportunity.”

Few took more advantage of that opportunity than Agholor. Described as a “gym rat” by USC wide receivers coach Tee Martin for the tireless work ethic that Agholor has put on display throughout his time on campus, the dynamic athlete made highlight play after highlight play, standing out as arguably the most consistent performer of the entire slate of workouts.

It was a case of an already proven player taking his game to another level, and according to Agholor, it was his attention to detail that made the difference.

“I felt like I definitely fine-tuned my fundamentals, and that’s what it’s all about,” said Agholor, who made the trek west to USC from Tampa (Fla.) Berkeley Prep as member of the Trojans’ signing haul of 2012. “It’s all about getting the fundamentals back under you, controlling your effort, and practicing with great concentration.”

Martin was anything but surprised by what he saw out of his star pupil. After all, Agholor showed glimpses of what he was capable of last fall, when, with Marqise Lee hobbled during a portion of the season due to injury, he was leaned upon heavily. Agholor responded by catching 56 passes for a team-best 918 yards and six touchdowns, while developing into one of the nation’s most dangerous punt returners.

“You started seeing it last year during the season when he started really taking on that role of, ‘Call my number. I want to be the guy,'" Martin said. “He’s a guy that works hard and he wants to be that guy. I like his attitude and he got a lot better this spring.”

Of course, Agholor figures to have the added pressure heaped upon his shoulders that will come with being expected to follow in the footsteps of Robert Woods, USC’s all-time leading receiver, and Lee, the 2012 Biletnikoff Award winner, as the next great Trojans receiver.

After putting in the time and effort, it’s a role that Martin believes Agholor is more than prepared to take on.

“I think he’s ready for it,” Martin said. “I think that he came to USC for that. If you go back and look at his signing day interview, he said that this day would be here for him today, and he’s worked for it. So I’m happy for him. You know, he’s had Robert Woods to learn from, he’s had Marqise Lee to learn from, and now it’s his turn.”

Unlike Woods and Lee, however, Agholor’s moment in the sun will come at a time when USC will showcase a new up-tempo, no-huddle offense put in place by Sarkisian. Agholor is encouraged by the strides that he, as well as his teammates, made within the system during spring drills.

“I’m very excited because this is an offense that’s really going to show off all of our weapons -- all of our receivers, our tailbacks, our tight ends,” he said. “We’re going to have guys making plays all over the field.”

Before USC’s opener against Fresno State on Aug. 30, Agholor has the long offseason ahead of him, and he’s ready to begin what he expects to be a demanding training regimen with Trojans strength and conditioning coach Ivan Lewis and staff.

“This summer is a great opportunity for us,” Agholor said. “We’re going to get a chance to get a whole summer with our new strength coaches. We had a wonderful spring with them, now we get the summer with them to develop our bodies, and then we’re going to do a lot of fieldwork and stuff like that. It’s going to be good for us.”

With his mindset focused in the right direction, all of the pieces appear to be in place for Agholor to fulfill every expectation thrown his way.

“He’s someone that we know is dependable, and he’s going to come through for us,” Martin said. “I look forward to seeing what his fall camp will be like, and what the season will be like for him.”
LOS ANGELES -- It has to go down as one of the top highlights of the spring so far at USC. During a late 11-on-11 period last Saturday, redshirt freshman quarterback Max Browne stepped back and launched a ball to Nelson Agholor on a post pattern. With the pass just a tad bit off target, the star wideout was able to adjust his position in time to make a beautiful grab on a 70-plus yard scoring play.

It wasn’t exactly perfect, but after all, the end result is what counts most, isn’t it?

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler, Clay Helton
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesClay Helton has been impressed by how well his quarterbacks have adapted to USC's new offense.
Not according to USC offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Clay Helton. Playing a vital role in the installation of Trojans head coach Steve Sarkisian’s up-tempo, no-huddle offensive attack this spring, he’s an admitted stickler when it comes to doing things right.

“These quarterbacks will tell you, I’m a perfectionist,” Helton said. “It was an unbelievable catch by Nelson, but where is that ball supposed to be? It’s supposed to be led away from him to lead him away from the corner. So, we point those things out, we correct it, and we’re always trying to make our players better mechanically, fundamentally and assignment-wise.”

It’s that attention to detail that played an integral part in Sarkisian’s decision to retain Helton from the Trojans’ previous staff, but it certainly wasn’t the only reason.

When Helton took over as interim coach following Ed Orgeron’s emotional departure in early December, Sarkisian was, in his words, “blown away,” by the manner in which the 41-year-old Texas native took command of the team and guided it to a victory in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl.

“For Clay to stand up in front of that team and take the reins -- I was so impressed by that alone,” Sarkisian said. “And his command in team meetings, and his command on the practice field, I just thought to myself, ‘How can I not have this guy on our staff?’”

For Helton, the decision to remain at USC was made just as easily.

“I absolutely love being a part of the USC Trojans staff, working with Coach Sarkisian,” Helton said. “You know, to be a part of this with a guy that is so brilliant, offensively minded, to be a part of this system again and to help in any role that I can is very satisfying and very rewarding.”

And with Helton in the fold, the Trojans have made what appears to have been a fairly seamless transition to the new offense this spring, all while going at a lightning-quick pace. In fact, Sarkisian noted on Saturday that the team has already run over 1,000 plays through nine practices -- over 2,000 if you include walk-throughs.

And while the new system differs dramatically from the prior one in a number of areas, most notably in terms of its tempo, verbiage and the fact that the quarterback now lines up exclusively out of the shotgun, Helton noted the similarities that have helped ease the changeover.

In particular, the emphasis on establishing a physical rushing attack that was present under former head coach Lane Kiffin, and virtually every other USC head coach before him, still exists. That, coupled with Sarkisian’s desire to make plays downfield has resulted in some solid production so far.

“When Coach Sark was at Washington, they were the 15th-best rush team in the country, but then what you see what I really enjoy is the explosion plays down the field,” Helton said. “He really forces the ball down the field. And I think the two go hand in hand, and I think when you add pace to that, and you’re a very explosive offense, and the quarterback makes good decisions, and we make our plays to 15 (Agholor) or to 84 (Darreus Rogers), those type of explosive guys, you’re going to be successful.”

And speaking of those quarterbacks, the position group that Helton has coached since his arrival at USC in February of 2010, all three members of an open competition that includes returning starter Cody Kessler, Browne, and early-entrant freshman Jalen Greene, have looked at home directing the new offense.

Helton was quick to praise each of them on Saturday, especially the two veterans who have been taking the vast majority of the snaps with the first unit.

“I feel like they’re progressing extremely quickly,” Helton said. “I like where they’re going, but we’re nowhere near being a finished product. The things that we’re working on are speeding up our decision-making, we’re working on being a little bit more anticipatory, getting the ball out quicker [and] not allowing for sacks. I like what they’ve done thus far in nine practices -- their completion ratios are right at 70 percent, both of them, and they’re protecting the football.”

And while 70 percent isn’t quite perfect, in this instance, it is close enough, providing more than enough reason for optimism for Helton. And that goes for the offense as a whole, which Helton is just as eager to see in the fall as everyone else.

“I think this system right now fits our personnel perfectly with what we’re doing,” Helton said. “I can’t wait to see it live and in person.”
LOS ANGELES -- They are USC football’s MVRs: Most Valuable Roommates.

Cody Kessler and Max Tuerk are two blossoming leaders on offense for a Trojans team making a dramatic transition from an old-fashioned, take-your-time approach to a new-wave, hurry-up, blur of a style.

Tuerk and Kessler are right there in the chaotic middle of the mad rush, both on the field and off.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler, Max Tuerk
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesCenter Max Tuerk and quarterback Cody Kessler often study film together at their off-campus apartment.
Tuerk, the new center, and Kessler, the incumbent quarterback, have already spent hours developing a rapport both at practice, where Tuerk is constantly working on shotgun snaps to Kessler, and at home, where they share an apartment two blocks from campus with wide receiver Nelson Agholor.

“I think living together makes it easier for both Cody and me,” Tuerk said, “because we’re always together, whether it’s just hanging out, playing video games or going out to get something to eat.”

Kessler grew up in Bakersfield loving country music. Tuerk, from the larger, more urban Orange County, has the same musical taste. “Yeah, I love country,” Tuerk said.

“We’re trying to get Nelson in on that, too,” said Kessler, laughing. “But he’s not buying into it.”

What they’re all buying into is new head coach Steve Sarkisian’s rapid tempo, designed to generate more plays and, they all hope, more touchdowns per game.

Kessler obviously is a key figure as the quarterback with the most experience on the roster. Happily for everyone involved, the personable junior has had little trouble adjusting. He seems to be thriving in Sarkisian’s no-huddle atmosphere.

Tuerk, on the other hand, is making a major position change. After playing and starting at both tackle and guard his first two seasons for the Trojans, the 285-pound lineman from Santa Margarita High was moved to center at the start of spring practice. No big deal -- after not having snapped a ball in his life, all he's being asked to do is fill the cleats of smooth Marcus Martin, an All-Pac-12 standout who left a year early for the NFL draft.

It sounds intimidating, except nothing seems to overwhelm Tuerk, who has calmly moved over a spot or two on the offensive line and settled in as if he’d been playing there all his life.

“I love it,” Tuerk said. “I think I’ve adjusted and I feel really good at center. The more reps I get, the more comfortable I feel. So far, I’ve been enjoying it a lot. I especially like calling out the blocking schemes before every play. The way it works is, Cody gets the call from the sideline, he repeats it to me, then I try to read the linebackers and the defensive linemen and make my call.”

When they’re not working on it on the field, they’re busy talking about it in their apartment.

“The cool thing is we watch a lot of film together,” Kessler said. “We’re always talking about what we can do to get better.”

Said Tuerk: “I’m pretty competitive, and I don’t like it when I make mistakes. Cody is great about that. He’s always telling me if there is a mistake that I should forget about it and go on to the next play.”

Added Kessler: “I think Max is doing a great job so far. He is feeling a lot more relaxed out there. The nice thing about us rooming together is that we can get in extra work. This past Sunday, Max, Nelson and I came out here and worked for an hour and a half. Max was snapping the ball to me and Nelson ran routes. It’s nice to be able to do that whenever you want.”

It’s nice to be able to kick back and relax at home, too.

“Yeah, that’s working out really well,” Tuerk said. “Cody and I, we’re both pretty loose. We just seem to get along.”

Not that they aren’t serious about the task at hand.

“It’s pretty much a perfect situation with us,” Kessler said. “We have the same goals -- to win a lot of games and to someday play at the next level.”

In the meantime, somebody cue the country music. Maybe a little Brad Paisley or Taylor Swift to play in the background.

The Trojans’ two MVRs seem more than happy to be working on a new winning groove.
You remember the three-headed monster, right? It's about returning production that will scare -- terrify! --opponents. Or not.

On offense, it's elite combinations at quarterback, running back and receiver.

On defense, it's elite combinations of a leading tackler, a leader in sacks and leader in interceptions.

[+] EnlargeKevon Seymour, Taylor Kelly
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesTaylor Kelly could have Arizona State's offense off and running this fall.
This year, we're breaking things down by division.

First up: South Division offense three-headed monsters.

There are two "pure" offensive three-headed monsters in the South: USC and Utah. Both welcome back their leading passer, rusher and receiver, though some fans might be surprised to know that Marqise Lee didn't lead the Trojans in receiving last season.

The biggest mystery team? Arizona, which is replacing its leading passer and rusher and has several wild cards who might challenge to be the first pass-catching option. Typically we'd project a starter, but the Wildcats seem to be completely wide open at QB and RB. So they get a "?" at both positions.

Otherwise, the projections of new starters aren't terribly unpredictable.

1. Arizona State

QB Taylor Kelly, RB D.J. Foster, WR Jaelen Strong

The skinny: If you were ranking three-headed monsters nationally, this might be a top-10 troika. You have a three-year starter at quarterback who passed for 3,635 yards and 28 TDs last year, a receiver who caught 75 passes for 1,122 yards and versatile running back who's dangerous as a runner or receiver.

2. UCLA

QB Brett Hundley, RB Jordan James, WR Devin Fuller

The skinny: Hundley starts the season as a top Heisman Trophy candidate. James started off great last year -- 116 yards rushing per game with a 6.3 yards per carry average in the first four games -- before getting hurt. While WR Shaq Evans is off to the NFL, Fuller leads a strong crew of returning receivers.

3. USC

QB Cody Kessler, RB Javorius Allen, WR Nelson Agholor

The skinny: This is a strong threesome, though some see Kessler being threatened by redshirt freshman Max Browne this spring. Allen surged in the second half of the 2013 season, when he rushed for most of his 785 yards (5.8 yards per carry), but the Trojans have a lot of depth at the position. Agholor is a frontrunner for first-team All-Pac-12 honors after catching 56 passes for 918 yards last year.

4. Utah

QB Travis Wilson, RB Bubba Poole, WR Dres Anderson

The skinny: If Wilson is cleared medically and is 100 percent full-go, he's got a chance to be a good QB, building on what he did while healthy in 2013. Poole is the Utes' leading returning rusher, though he could face a challenge from a handful of other backs, including redshirt freshman Troy McCormick and juco transfer Devontae Booker. Anderson will be joined by Kenneth Scott, who suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the 2013 opener.

5. Colorado

QB Sefo Liufau, RB Michael Adkins, WR Nelson Spruce

The skinny: Liufau was solid as a true freshman starter last year. He should be much better this fall. Adkins combined with Christian Powell to essentially split 1,000 yards rushing in 2013, with Powell offering the power option. Spruce was a solid No. 2 behind Paul Richardson last year, but it remains to be seen how he will perform as option No. 1.

6. Arizona

QB ?, RB ?, WR Austin Hill

The skinny: We honestly have no idea who will start at QB and RB next year, and the Pac-12 Blog believes that's probably not far from what Rich Rodriguez is thinking today. If we were going to go with complete conjecture at QB, we'd bet on a showdown between Texas transfer Connor Brewer and redshirt freshman Anu Solomon. Same thing at running back, where it seems likely a true or redshirt freshman replaces Ka'Deem Carey. Even Hill is a projection here based on his outstanding 2012 numbers, as he sat out last season with a knee injury. Sophomore Nate Phillips is the Wildcats' leading returning receiver.

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