USC Trojans: Adoree' Jackson
The wildly unexpected, looping, 48-yard prayer of a spiral from Cody Kessler to Darreus Rogers in the end zone Saturday night changed the entire complexion of an otherwise sluggish evening. Instead of clinging to a 14-10 lead over Oregon State, the score suddenly expanded to 21-10, sucking all the energy out of Mike Riley's Beavers.
Perhaps most important, this was the Trojans' best defensive performance of the still early season. Certainly, it helped that they were playing a straight dropback passer in Sean Mannion. USC's defense always seems to play better when the opposing quarterback isn't a running threat.
Still, Mannion's credentials were imposing, and Su'a Cravens and friends made it a long, uncomfortable evening for him. For the first time this season, the pass rush was fierce. And Cravens was merely the best player on the field, coming up with an interception touchdown return and a sack while appearing to surround every Oregon State ball carrier on the way to that 35-10 blitz.
Makes you wonder how we'd all be viewing things Sunday if there hadn't been that unsightly blip in Boston two weeks ago. How bad a loss was that? Well, Boston College was last seen losing to Colorado State on Saturday. Yes, Colorado State.
So instead of 4-0 and climbing in the polls, the Trojans are 3-1 and hoping to sneak up a notch or two in the coming weeks. It could happen, because the Pac-12 has begun to look more than a little vulnerable.
Unbeaten Oregon has some gaping holes in its injury-marred offensive line. Stanford struggled mightily to beat Washington by a touchdown on Saturday. Arizona State coughed up 62 points to UCLA at home. Utah was beaten by Washington State. And Cal and Colorado played a ping-pong game of football, trading 14 touchdown passes in a 59-56 can-anyone-here-play-defense Bears' victory.
This is shaping up as one wide-open conference race, and USC's schedule gives it a decent shot to stay in the thick of it, particularly if it can find a way to improve against dual-threat quarterbacks.
Clearly, there were more than a few encouraging signs on Saturday.
Kessler, who still hasn't thrown an interception this season, continues to play effectively, if unspectacularly, at quarterback. He takes what the defense gives him, and it usually gives him plenty once the Trojans' running game establishes itself. It took a while on Saturday, but Javorius Allen eventually slipped it into gear, perhaps motivated by fellow tailback Justin Davis' finest game of the season.
Craven has developed into a monster hybrid safety/linebacker. The young offensive line bounced back nicely. Leonard Williams, seemingly 100 percent healthy, looked as imposing as ever in the defensive line, and if freshman Adoree' Jackson isn't already one of the best cornerbacks in the Pac-12, he soon will be.
Next up is Arizona State, and much will depend on the condition of quarterback Taylor Kelly, last seen on crutches watching his Sun Devils get chewed up by Brett Hundley, Ishmael Adams and the Bruins on Thursday night. If his injured foot can heal enough to allow him to play in the Coliseum, Arizona State's chances obviously are enhanced.
Even then, though, it would seem Kelly would be limited to throwing. He's not likely to do much running on a foot that is still healing.
USC and its new-found momentum will be favored either way, just as the Trojans are once again likely to be favored in every remaining game on their schedule leading up to those two potential November blockbusters against UCLA and Notre Dame.
Funny how, in the wake of one unexpected play, outlooks can change so swiftly.
Hail Mary, indeed.
Everyone knew USC had some excellent freshman prospects, but nobody expected them to make this kind of impact, especially in the first game of the season.
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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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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.
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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OL Chris Brown
6-foot-5, 295 pounds
High school: Los Angeles (Calif.) Loyola
Lining up as a reserve at right and left tackle, Brown has been at virtually every workout. Having some expected struggles in the one-on-one drills against the veteran defensive linemen initially, he's made strides over the last two weeks. This past Monday he had perhaps his best practice session, drawing cheers from his offensive line-mates when he delivered a fantastic punch move that caught Scott Starr by surprise and knocked him back on his heels.
TE Bryce Dixon
High school: Ventura (Calif.) St. Bonaventure
A big target at tight end, Dixon has been working hard with Randall Telfer and Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick to learn the ins and outs of the offense, and it's paid off as he's come on during the last few workouts, hauling in a number of passes. Still fairly lean, it will be interesting to see how he fares in terms of blocking when the pads come on in August.
RE Malik Dorton
High school: Bellflower (Calif.) St. John Bosco
Another consistent attendee at the workouts, Dorton has been taking reps at the rush-end spot behind Starr and J.R. Tavai. He's shown off some nice pass-rush moves already, and he had a big day on Monday when he came up with his first interception of the summer.
WR Ajene Harris
High school: Los Angeles (Calif.) Crenshaw
Primarily a quarterback and defensive back on the high school level, Harris has been making a name for himself at receiver. Possessing sure hands, he's been surprisingly steady at the spot, providing more than enough evidence to suggest that he can be a valuable contributor -- perhaps sooner than most expected.
High school: Gardena (Calif.) Serra
No player arrived on campus with more hype, and to Jackson's credit, he's lived up to every ounce of it so far. Spending the first few workouts at cornerback, he's been playing at wide receiver as of late, and he's shined at both spots. A unique athlete with outstanding football instincts, he certainly has the look of an instant impact performer at either position, and it wouldn't be a shock to see him get reps at both spots in the fall. Jackson came up with an outstanding 60-yard touchdown reception this past Monday where he outleaped Ryan Dillard for a Cody Kessler pass.
WR/CB Rahshead Johnson
High school: Long Beach (Calif.) Cabrillo
Like Jackson, Johnson has seen time at both cornerback and receiver. He's another excellent athlete with plenty of speed, and it will be interesting see which side of the ball he ultimately ends up on.
CB Jonathan Lockett
High school: Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei
Lockett has been the surprise of this group so far. He's only been at two workouts, but he was the arguable star of both of those sessions. He came up with an interception in each practice, and also broke up a number of passes. Strong in coverage, with a nose for the ball, he's certainly someone worth keeping an eye on.
OL Damien Mama
High school: Bellflower (Calif.) St. John Bosco
A mammoth-sized lineman, Mama has been taking reps at left guard, where he's performed more like a veteran than a green newcomer. Remarkably nimble for how big he is, he's more than held his own during the one-on-one sessions. The big question with Mama is whether or not he'll be able to keep up with the frenetic pace of the offense when fall camp begins. If he's able to do that, however, look out.
LB Uchenna Nwosu
High school: Harbor City (Calif.) Narbonne
After spending his first few initial workouts at inside linebacker, the versatile Nwosu saw some time on the outside in the team's most recent practice session. A former high school safety, he's shown a knack for being around the ball when he's dropped back in coverage.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
1. Organization: One of the first things to stand out when watching the workouts is noting how organized they are. In past years, a voluntary throwing session would usually be the players coming onto the field, throwing a few warmup routes and then getting right into 7-on-7 or full-team throwing. This year there is a walk-through, a stretching and agility warmup, rotating drill sessions that include medicine balls and tall bags, the actual throwing session, and then a series of post-workout sprints. This new structure is no accident, as USC coach Steve Sarkisian spent an entire spring ball practice going over the routine with the players.
3. Bulking up: One of the rites of the offseason is to judge which players have bulked up in the weight room. Allen’s upper body is noticeably bigger this year, and receivers such as Rogers and George Farmer stand out, as does walk-on tight end Chris Willson. On defense, Quinton Powell has filled out and cornerback Chris Hawkins is now thicker in the upper body to go along with his long arms. The Trojans have a new strength and conditioning coach in Ivan Lewis, and it will be interesting to watch how he balances building the strength of the players while also getting them ready for the conditioning demands of the up-tempo style of play.
4. Early impact: Several of the incoming freshmen have arrived to take part in these sessions. The biggest performance came in Adoree' Jackson’s initial appearance, as he wasted no time in making a highlight play with a break on the ball to tip a pass that was eventually intercepted by Cravens. It was the kind of instinctive and athletic play that not too many corners can make, and Jackson made it within 20 minutes of stepping on the USC practice field for the first time. This kid is going to be good. Offensive lineman Viane Talamaivao has also been impressive. Talamaivao has seen work at center and both guard spots, and he has shown versatility at all three spots. The thing that stands out about Talamaivao is his athleticism for his size. I’ve long thought he could make a good center, and nothing I’ve seen so far has changed that thinking. Ajene Harris deserves a mention here as well. He has been playing slot receiver and has consistently made plays when given a chance.
5. Injury updates: There was a lot of anticipation about Steven Mitchell, who is returning from a knee injury suffered last summer, and so far the results have been positive. Mitchell looks smooth and fluid while providing multiple long pass receptions. There was also an appearance last week from D.J. Morgan, another player who sat out last season with a knee injury. It’s too early to know if Morgan can make a dent in a crowded backfield, but it’s was a positive step to see him on the field again. Guards Aundrey Walker (ankle) and Jordan Simmons (knee) have not taken part in full drills yet, but Simmons has been able to do limited work.
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.
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.
When former USC wide receiver Marqise Lee walked across the Radio City Music Hall stage last month after being selected by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the second round of the NFL draft, his high school position coach cracked a wide smile from across the country, knowing yet another of his pupils had accomplished a lifelong goal.
Kimbell hardly had any time to bask in the moment, though. Just six picks after Lee came off the board, the Seattle Seahawks took former Colorado receiver Paul Richardson, another graduate of Gardena (Calif.) Junipero Serra, where Kimbell has coached for a dozen years.
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“I think he’s going to get some [reps] at both, quite honestly,” said Sarkisian after practice on Thursday when asked if Jackson would line up on offense or defense.
Jackson, who was ranked as the No. 3 cornerback in the nation by ESPN for the Class of 2014, compiled six interceptions -- three of which were returned for touchdowns -- as a senior at Gardena (Calif.) Serra. But Jackson also averaged more than 21 yards per catch on offense, gaining more than 1,450 all-purpose yards while scoring 12 touchdowns.
During the early part of his recruitment, Jackson stated that he wanted to play wide receiver if he ended up playing for the Trojans. He had developed a good relationship with USC receivers coach Tee Martin and had watched as Robert Woods and Marqise Lee -- who both graduated from Serra -- had a lot of success at the position.
As explosive as he can potentially be on offense, Jackson is also considered to be an elite talent at cornerback. His ESPN scouting report included the following line:
“Cover corners are hard to come by, but he has the speed and skill set to develop into a fine one at the college level if he can continue to add strength and polish his technique.”
Jackson will compete with starters Josh Shaw and Kevon Seymour as well as with Chris Hawkins -- who is working with the first unit this spring while Shaw sits out with a foot injury -- for a spot in the cornerback rotation in preseason camp. There is also opportunity on offense, as Nelson Agholor is the only established returner at wide receiver.
WR opposite Nelson Agholor
Garry Paskwietz: I’ll go with Darreus Rogers right now, but I’m not going to rule out George Farmer being the starter by the season opener. Rogers has all the tools and flashes them often, but the one thing Sarkisian has noted is his inconsistency. Farmer, on the other hand, has been steadily consistent as he continues to come back from a knee injury. He is looking strong and mature right now and if his health holds up, he could make a push for the spot.
Greg Katz: Although Farmer and Victor Blackwell have made strides, the vote here goes to Rogers, who has made some standout plays and continues to improve on his consistency and concentration.
DE opposite Leonard Williams
GP: The Trojans have a pair of veteran options to replace George Uko in Delvon Simmons and Claudeson Pelon. Both are big, strong bodies in the middle who will contribute this year, but if I have to name a starter I will choose Pelon. He got praise from Sarkisian this week for the way his conditioning seems to be paying off, and looks to be an impressive run stuffer.
JC: Simmons is the choice here. Not only does he possess 6-foot-6, 300-pound size, but what has impressed me most this spring is his quickness, and perhaps most of all, his stamina -- something Pelon and Kenny Bigelow appeared to struggle with at times. When you throw Simmons into a lineup that will also include Williams and an improved Antwaun Woods, there’s reason to believe that the Trojans will have one of the nation’s most formidable starting defensive line units in 2014.
GK: Simmons is the choice, having shown his experience of having already played for two seasons at Texas Tech. Simmons, while still striving for consistency on a play-by-play basis, is big and talented and has shown the most progress, which hasn’t been entirely unexpected.
GP: There are two really good options with a lot of upside in Quinton Powell and Jabari Ruffin. I would have said Powell at the start of spring, and while he didn’t do anything to lose the spot in my mind, Ruffin has showed me a little more. Any way you look at it, the Trojans are fine here.
JC: This is the toughest one to choose because Powell and Ruffin have each been stellar this spring. Still, if I have to pick one, it’s Powell. An explosive athlete with strong football instincts and the length that the USC coaches look for at SAM linebacker, Powell is really the total package. I think he has the potential to develop into a difference-maker down the line, and I can’t wait to see what he does in 2014.
GK: With Scott Starr having been moved to rush end, it’s a battle between Powell and Ruffin. Powell has the quickness and the attitude, but as Sarkisian recently pointed out, Ruffin is one heck of an athletic who really brings a physical game. I’ll go with Powell for the moment, but the way Ruffin is improving, Powell better do the same if he wants to hold on to the position.
CB opposite Josh Shaw
GP: Kevon Seymour is the choice, and he should be, but I don’t think you can rule out the possibility of Adoree' Jackson making a run in the fall. Chris Hawkins has stepped up his game to the point where he is in the mix too.
JC: A more refined and physically mature Hawkins certainly proved himself to a certain extent this spring, but I’d still give the edge to Seymour here. Not only has he had a solid spring, but with 11 starts under his belt, he has the undeniable edge in experience. I’d need to see more of Hawkins in fall camp before I’d be comfortable putting him ahead of Seymour, who is coming off the best performance of his career in the Las Vegas Bowl against Fresno State.
GK: There is no reason not to start Seymour, who had an outstanding performance in the Las Vegas Bowl. However, like Ruffin and Powell, the competition gap is closing, and look for Hawkins to continue his quest to unseat Seymour.
The amount of player position movement in the spring could also have an impact on the position options of the incoming freshman class. A case in point would be the highly anticipated arrival this summer of enormously skilled defensive back/wide receiver Adoree' Jackson (Gardena, Calif./Serra). Jackson, however, might not be the only entering freshman whose position could be decided by what happens this spring.
If you don’t think that correct player evaluation and placement doesn’t make a difference, just look back on the recently concluded career of Devon Kennard, who came to USC as a highly touted defensive end. In his five years at Troy, Kennard seemed to be constantly changing defensive positions and responsibilities.
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Spring practice viewing: Talk about a no-brainer and public relations bonanza. It appears Sark has made the decision to allow fans to watch spring ball. Viewing figures to be from atop Dedeaux Field, which to be quite honest, is probably a better viewing spot than on the sidelines. From Dedeaux Field, fans can get a better view of the offensive and defensive linemen doing individual battle, and you can also get a “50-yard-line ” vantage point.
Sark’s decision: Open practices.
Coliseum scrimmages: Sarkisian also has indicated that the public is welcome to spring scrimmages in the Coliseum. Saturday practices in the Coliseum make for a warm, fuzzy and cardinal and gold football day. And, of course, there is the final culmination of spring ball with the annual USC spring game on April 19 in the Trojans’ famous venue. Allowing the public into the Coliseum for a Saturday practice is another public relations windfall.
Sark’s decision: Open Coliseum scrimmages.
Sark’s decision: Reduced hitting and scrimmaging.
Fall blocking and tackling: Sark has already indicated he is going to check with NFL teams on how they deal with hitting and scrimmaging with a small roster. Wait a minute, didn’t Sarkisian coach in the NFL and didn’t he see how lack of hitting hurt Lane Kiffin’s Trojans teams on both sides of the ball? Astute Trojans football fans will keep an eye on Sarkisian’s fall practice decision and probably compare the methodology to that of former interim head coach Ed Orgeron’s last season.
Sark’s decision: To be determined.
The Rising Stars Camp: This two-day, prep evaluation camp is the big one in late June in which the best of the best high school players -- locally and from out-of-state -- show their stuff on Howard Jones/Brian Kennedy Field. Because of the NCAA sanctions -- or so we are told -- the public and the media have been barred from attending. Will that change with the NCAA sanctions being completed in early June and what will the decision be if it is left up to Sarkisian?
Sark’s decision: To be determined.
Fall practice times: It’s a long way off, but practice times in the fall might return to those dreadful early morning sessions, which proved under Kiffin to be ill advised. The team’s GPA went down when practices were held in the early morning. One wonders if athletic director Pat Haden will have any input on Sarkisian’s eventual decision, especially given the fact Haden is very sensitive to academic issues. There is no question that returning players who have experienced both early morning and late afternoon practice have an opinion. Would Sarkisian dare take a team vote on this decision?
Sark’s decision: To be determined.
Credibility: How will the new relationships be between coaches and players once they hit the practice field? Has Sarkisian assembled a coaching staff that will make the returning Trojans forget about last season’s staff? With respected assistant coaches Orgeron, Clancy Pendergast, Tommie Robinson, and John Baxter gone, has Sarkisian put together a staff that can quickly overcome the loss of those respected coaches? Maybe the answers won’t come until the fall, but spring is a beginning.
Sark’s decisions: The head coach is pleased with his new staff, especially coming off a terrific recruiting effort for the class of 2014 and progress already made for the class of 2015.
Uniforms: Well, here is one item that apparently won’t need to be addressed. From his introductory news conference, Sarkisian made his preference clear. Unlike Kiffin, Sark understands the USC “look,” which means everything to the fan base and tradition.
Sark’s decision: No uniform changes.
Media relations: It appears that beginning with the first actual game week, the media will be ushered out of practice once game planning is being implemented. Honestly, Pete Carroll never worried about what the press saw. In fact, he even said that most of the press wouldn’t even understand what they were watching. Kiffin, of course, was understandably paranoid with media, and eventually didn’t let media into practice. Obviously, Kiffin closing practices didn’t help in the Coliseum loss last season to Washington State loss and the trouncing by ASU in Tempe. The reality is that games are not won or lost by the media watching practice. Interim head coaches Orgeron and Clay Helton opened practice up completely to the media -- including injury reports -- and you see how that turned out.
Sark’s decision: As of the moment, restricted media access during the season.
The Jackson factor: Depending on who you are listening to, five-star freshman DB/WR Adoree' Jackson will either be an offensive player who plays occasionally on defense or a defensive player who occasionally plays offense. Sarkisian says defense first, and Jackson seems to say he’ll play defense but will be part of selected offensive packages.
Sark’s decision: Jackson begins on defense, but there are possibilities on offense.
Still, for the defense to really take off under Wilcox in 2014, there’s one position group that will need to elevate its level of play -- the cornerbacks. Plagued by injuries, the USC corners struggled at times in pass coverage, particularly in games against Arizona State, Arizona and Notre Dame. As such, expect Wilcox and defensive backs coach Keith Heyward to hold an open audition this spring as they look to find the most productive starting duo.
Josh Shaw, who started 11 games at cornerback in 2013, stands out as a virtual lock at one of the spots, but with an influx of talent on the way, might we see him make the move back to his more natural free safety position? With Su’a Cravens, Leon McQuay III and Gerald Bowman -- who is coming off shoulder surgery -- serving as the only other scholarship safeties, there is certainly a lack of depth back there, so a potential switch for Shaw seems to make sense. Having proven himself as the team’s most dependable cover man last fall, however, the USC staff might not have the luxury of making that change unless other cornerbacks prove that they can be counted on.
The primary starter on the other side in 2013 was Kevon Seymour, now entering his junior season. The Pasadena (Calif.) Muir product had his ups and downs, but he did cap off his season with an outstanding performance in USC’s Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl victory over Fresno State. The big question now is, was that an anomaly or just the beginning of something special? The answer will likely determine whether or not he remains atop the depth chart in the long run.
Fifth-year senior Anthony Brown has flashed at times, but he has never been able to put it all together on a consistent basis. A veteran with six starts to his credit, it looked like 2013 was going to be his season to make a name for himself. But he suffered a knee injury in the team’s opener at Hawaii that would keep him on the sideline for almost the entire season. He actually returned to start against Notre Dame, but his injury hampered his outing, and he wouldn’t see the field again for the remainder of the season. Standing 5-foot-9 and weighing 180 pounds, he lacks the size of some of his counterparts, but he makes up for that with his speed and quickness. It hasn’t been announced whether or not he’ll be available to practice this spring, but if he is, he'll be in the mix.
Devian Shelton is another player whose status for the spring is still unknown after having foot surgery this past fall, but he too, could factor heavily into the discussion if healthy. Listed at 6-1, he gives the Trojans a taller look, but having redshirted as a freshman, and then missing almost all of 2013, he still lacks experience. Impressing at times last fall in camp with his size, he could even conceivably make the transition back to safety -- where he saw time in high school
One of the more interesting names to keep an eye on is Chris Hawkins. Could this be the time when he emerges from anonymity into a major contributor? A highly touted Class of 2013 prospect, he spent his first season on campus learning the tricks of the trade while redshirting. Although somewhat raw, he showed plenty of ability in practice, especially as the season wore on. If his development continues on its forward path, there’s reason to believe that he has the skills to push for playing time.
Ryan Henderson and Ryan Dillard are two more contenders who have seen limited action in the past in reserve roles. Henderson’s athleticism is undeniable -- he was the 2010 SPARQ Rating National Champion -- but so far that hasn’t translated over to the football field at USC. Dillard, meanwhile, is a walk-on who has certainly held his own, but he would still appear to be somewhat of a longshot. This spring will mark an important time for both players as they attempt to make a move up the depth chart for the first time.