USC Trojans: Steven Mitchell

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.

[+] EnlargeNelson Agholor
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.
USC has started voluntary summer throwing sessions, and it's a great time to see where players are at in terms of physical shape and also to gauge the work ethic of the players when no coaches are around.

One of the things that has jumped out so far is just how organized the sessions are. Steve Sarkisian spent an entire practice during the last week of spring ball showing his players how to run a summer workout, the point being that he wanted to provide as much structure as possible so that the players could maximize those workouts.

The result has been sessions that feature a walk-through, a group stretch, various drill areas such as medicine balls and tall bags, a 7-on-7 period and a series of sprints at the end. As would be expected, the leaders of the sessions are players such as Cody Kessler, Hayes Pullard and Nelson Agholor. The veterans are also doing a lot of teaching to younger players, specifically the incoming freshmen who are taking part in USC workouts for the first time.

Leonard Williams and Josh Shaw are taking part in the workouts after sitting out spring ball as a precaution for lingering injuries. Another player back in action is Steven Mitchell, the shifty wide receiver who suffered a knee injury last year in the summer drills. It’s been clear in limited action that Mitchell is well on his way to a good recovery. He is looking very fluid.

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Erik McKinney/ESPN.comUSC signee Viane Talamaivao is working at center in summer workouts.
It will be interesting to watch the situation with Viane Talamaivao, who is getting a look at center. Talamaivao has never played the position before but there was a lot of speculation in the recruiting process that he could ultimately end up at center. He certainly has the athleticism to make the move, but it remains to be seen how he will adjust to snapping the ball, the various reads, etc.

Speaking of Talamaivao, his family is involved with the Prime Time Polynesian Kumite lineman camp, one of which will be held this weekend in Corona, California. Several of top linemen from the area are expected to be in attendance, including Rasheem Green, Keisean Lucier-South and Joseph Wicker.

Another attendee will be Sarkisian, who is scheduled to be one of many college coaches at the camp. The ability of coaches to take part in camps away from their campus has been in the news a lot lately, particularly with coaches from the SEC objecting to coaches from other schools holding camps in their area. It’s something that likely will be addressed in future NCAA rules, but for now it’s something that is perfectly legal and it will give Sarkisian a chance to watch some of the top USC prospects in action.
As the countdown to the college football season inches closer – with less than 100 days to go before the season opener – that means it’s time for the annual rite of passage known as the summer workouts.

These conditioning sessions and throwing drills provide a look into the future when you see the varying degrees of work ethic and commitment that each squad puts in. It’s also the first real look at the incoming freshmen, to see where they stack up against the big boys in their transition to the next level.

One group that is certainly looking forward to these sessions are the players who were forced to miss spring ball because of injury. Steve Sarkisian made it clear that he erred on the side of caution with many players to hold them out – guys such as Leonard Williams and Josh Shaw come to mind – but there were others who missed time with injuries that have slowed their development and adjustment to the uptempo style of play.

Here are five players who missed spring ball but hope to begin the comeback to playing time by taking part in summer workouts.

A look at USC's rehabbing players

April, 10, 2014
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LOS ANGELES -- They observe in jerseys, and for those who can, they participate in controlled spring conditioning drills, walk-throughs, and mental preparation. Some even walk the steep steps of the Coliseum from bottom to top and back down again.

But no matter what they do, USC's walking wounded aren’t remotely in the same condition as their healthy brethren, who are fit enough to stretch the limits of their physical being in Steve Sarkisian’s nonstop practice pace.

[+] EnlargeJustin Davis
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriJustin Davis isn't a factor this spring, but his work ethic and motor will help him be ready for fall camp.
Sarkisian, USC's first-year head coach, is a great believer in muscle memory, which basically means one learns from doing rather than watching. In his incredibly fast paced, no-huddle offense and rotating defense, muscle memory must also go hand-in-hand with muscle conditioning.

Despite watching their teammates practice and condition at a pace not seen on Howard Jones/Brian Kennedy Fields, there is an uneasiness that come regular season camp, in the heat of summer, the currently rehabilitating players could be in for a major conditioning shock.

Sarkisian feels that his available players in spring ball are now rounding into the type of shape needed for the regular season, and spring ball has been a catalyst to being in the type of condition needed for fall competition.

“That’s why we practice the way that we do,” Sarkisian said. “That’s why we make it as hard we can throughout practice. This prepares our guys for a game-like atmosphere.”

Come practice in August, Sarkisian expects his healthy players to return ready to go from a conditioning standpoint, and he also knows the conditioning challenge is even more pronounced for those rehabbing.

“The guys [who] are injured have their work cut out for them when they get back,” Sarkisian said.

Here are six rehabilitating players being held out of spring ball (for the most part) who are expected to be key contributors in 2014. They all will be faced with the challenge of getting into “Sarkisian shape” by early August:

• RB Justin Davis: Given the sophomore’s early track record of success on and off the field, Davis -- who suffered a season-ending broken ankle in 2013 -- figures to be ready with an indisputable work ethic and relentless motor. Expect him to enter fall camp in top condition.

• LB Lamar Dawson: Recovering from a left knee injury, this senior will not only battle junior Anthony Sarao for his starting inside linebacker position, but he will have to be in the type of shape that Sarao knows all too well. Sarao has really come on and plays with a high motor and intelligence, so Dawson has his work cut out for him in more ways than one.

• WR Steven Mitchell: The redshirt freshman is an electrifying player when healthy. Recovering from tearing ligaments in his right knee during the summer of 2013, Mitchell says he is still on the mend but expects to be in ready to go in August. A hard worker, the former Bishop Alemany star’s return would be a major addition for the currently ultra-thin receiving corps.

• OG Jordan Simmons: With his size (6-foot-4, 335) and the pace of the offense, will the sophomore be able to come into camp in the type of shape needed for the no-huddle offense? Simmons, recovering from knee surgery, could very well be a key and the final piece of the offensive line. So far Simmons is still potential and an unproven talent.

• TE Randall Telfer: With Xavier Grimble leaving early for the NFL draft, it appeared that Telfer would step right in. The senior might still do so, but he has been held out of spring ball with a knee issue, and his absence has opened the way for an impressive March and April by junior Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick. It would behoove Telfer to be in the best condition of his Trojans career to hold off Cope-Fitzpatrick and the incoming presence of true freshman talent Bryce Dixon.

• OG Aundrey Walker: There are those both within the team and onlookers who say that Walker, now a senior, has the talent. But does he have the motivation? The Ohio native has spent spring practice observing and going through “soft” drills, but one wonders how the 6-foot-6, 300-pound guard will cope with the physical and mental conditioning demands to play in Sarkisian’s never-take-a-breath offense.
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LOS ANGELES -- The USC Trojans returned to the practice field for the opening day of spring practice, and coach Steve Sarkisian said the impact of the up-tempo style was evident throughout the day.

“I really liked the energy and focus that our players and coaches showed,” Sarkisian said. “We were by no means perfect, and there is plenty to learn from, but it was just awesome to get on the field finally with these guys.

“It’s such a long process after you get hired, you need to fill the staff and finish off the recruiting season, so it was nice to walk through Goux Gate and onto the practice field. We ran 120 plays today, which was similar to what we ran on the first day at Washington when we installed the up-tempo system. I thought the players responded really well to that, we only had one time period where we didn’t meet our quota of plays.”

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsSteve Sarkisian said the Trojans weren't perfect in their first spring practice, but he liked what he saw.
Sarkisian also noted one change from his time as an assistant at USC under Pete Carroll, as his offices are now in the John McKay Center as opposed to Heritage Hall.

“It’s a much shorter walk to the field now,” Sarkisian said with a smile. “I didn’t really have time to think too much about anything. I left the locker room and went up the All-American walk, made a right and, boom, I was at the field.”

Once he got to the field, there was plenty to note about the performance of his team during the first practice session of the spring.

The Trojans have an opening at center, which will be critical to fill on the offensive line, and Max Tuerk was working with the first unit. Tuerk has started games for USC at left tackle, right tackle and left guard and he was projected to move to RT this year to take over for Kevin Graf. Instead, Tuerk will get a look at center, where he played in limited action last spring before being moved back to guard due to struggles with the center/quarterback exchange.

“Max is a very bright young man and talented,” Sarkisian said. “There is a lot of work to be done on the line and we will take a look at options to see how things develop. It was a good day though, he didn’t snap the ball over anyone’s head and there were no grounders.”

Notes: Leonard Williams (shoulder) and Josh Shaw (stress fracture) were among those who did not participate on the defensive side of the ball. ... On offense, Justin Davis, George Farmer and Steven Mitchell all received limited work in walk-through sessions as they return from injury. ... Max Browne made an early impression in the quarterback competition with a pair of deep passes, including a touchdown to George Katrib. … Chris Hawkins had an interception and a pass break-up. ... Among the guests in attendance were Adoree' Jackson, Damien Mama, Ricky Town, Rahshead Johnson and former USC tailback Justin Fargas.

Q&A with Max Tuerk

Q: When were you told you’d be taking reps at center?

A: I was told by Coach [Tim] Drevno a little bit before we started meetings, probably about a month ago.

Q: What are your thoughts on the move?

A: Whatever is best for the team. I’m a big team player. I’ve moved around a lot in the last two years, so moving to center is a new, awesome thing that I can do.

Q: Is it better to not have the quarterback under center?

A: Yeah, I like the shotgun better.

Q: Is this a permanent move to center?

A: Whatever the team needs. If they need me to play center, then yes I will play center.

Q: Is the comfort level more than a year ago when you tried to play center? How is it different?

A: Yes, definitely. I just have a lot more confidence. We are all picking up the offense pretty good. It’s good to learn the offense and then start at center. It’s a little harder to start at a different position and then re-learn the offense at center.

Q: Is there one position you like better than the other in terms of blocking people?

A: I like them all.

Q: How was the speed today with the no huddle?

A: It was a lot of plays. It was good though.

Q: Was it easier to make the move when you saw how Marcus Martin flourished at this spot the last few years?

A: Yeah I definitely learned from Marcus. Marcus was a great player. He’s competing in pro day tomorrow so I’m gonna go watch him. He’s an awesome guy, awesome leader, so anything I can do to be like he was.

The Pac-12 has 26 of the 98 early entrants in the NFL draft. That’s impressive. Some players are locks to get drafted. Others might have jumped the gun a bit and find themselves on practice squads or brushing up on their Canadian. We’ll see.

What we’re more concerned about here is who is going to replace them. Some answers are clearer than others. Some teams might have to alter their schemes just to account for a departed player.

Here’s a look at the possible replacement players in the Pac-12 South. We’ll look at the North later this morning.

Leaving: Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona.

The replacement: Jared Baker should be in the mix, though an injury will keep him out of spring ball. He’s expected to return in time for fall camp. Pierre Cormier and Zach Green will also get looks. Speaking with folks at Arizona, the word right now is that it’s wide open. One player could emerge, or it could end up being a by-committee approach. Nothing is off the table at this point.

Leaving: Carl Bradford, LB, Arizona State

The replacement: There really isn’t anyone who has Bradford’s skill set in the program yet, so the position is wide open. Viliami Latu has potential. So does Chans Cox, who was hurt a lot last season. They are also excited about incoming freshman Ismael Murphy-Richardson. He might not be ready to jump in immediately, but he could be the Devil backer by 2015.

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Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsColorado will have a hard time replacing the explosive plays that Paul Richardson provided.
Leaving: Paul Richardson, WR, Colorado

The replacement: It was probably going to be Jeff Thomas before he transferred. Now it’s probably going to be a rotation of D.D. Goodson, Devin Ross, or redshirt freshmen Bryce Bobo or Elijah Dunston. Nelson Spruce has been solid, but he’s not the breakaway threat Richardson was. This will be a key spring battle to watch.

Leaving: Xavier Su'a-Filo, OL, UCLA

The replacement: Simon Goines should be back after starting six games at left tackle before an injury forced him out. Scott Quessenberry stepped in and played five games at left guard, which is where he’ll likely be next season with Goines back at tackle.

Leaving: Dion Bailey, LB, USC

The replacement: Leon McQuay III saw some playing time and is very highly regarded by the coaching staff. His contributions last season were mostly on special teams, but he’ll take on a larger role with Bailey’s departure.

Leaving: Marqise Lee, WR, USC

The replacement: Remember George Farmer? He’s still around and could be in for a big season if healthy. Darreus Rogers and Steven Mitchell both are promising, but both have missed time with injury. You never truly replace a Biletnikoff winner, but playing opposite a surging Nelson Agholor could help boost the production of whoever gets in the regular rotation.

Leaving: George Uko, DT, USC

The replacement: Transfer Delvon Simmons is coming off a redshirt season, as is freshman Kenny Bigelow. Both should get some serious looks, as this will be one of the hot position battles this spring. Someone will ultimately win the job, but expect a rotation with both next season.

Leaving: Marcus Martin, C, USC

The replacement: Lots of ifs here. It could be Max Tuerk moving over from guard, but he’ll also be in the mix for right tackle to replace Kevin Graf. Khaliel Rodgers redshirted and is an option at guard or center. Giovanni Di Poalo could also get a look.

Leaving: Xavier Grimble, TE, USC

The replacement: Grimble and Randall Telfer were basically co-starters, so all this probably means is Telfer’s workload increases as he becomes the clear No. 1. Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick is the only other scholarship tight end on the roster.

Leaving: Jake Murphy, TE, Utah

The replacement: Westlee Tonga seems like the logical fit. He has been around for a few years and has some experience, but was injured most of last year. He’ll get another opportunity to be the lead tight end in the newest installment of Utah’s offense.

2015 WR Holmes has close support 

October, 1, 2013
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MISSION HILLS, Calif. -- When the final horn sounded Friday night, ESPN Junior 300 receiver Desean Holmes (Mission Hills, Calif./Alemany) immediately sought out a familiar face.

There was something the highly coveted athlete had to do before making his way toward the postgame handshake line. Holmes eventually spotted former teammate Steven Mitchell, a freshman at USC, on the sideline. He smiled at him and put up two fingers. Mitchell returned the gesture, and the good friends later came together just like old times.

A week earlier, the 5-foot-11 Holmes added a scholarship offer from Oklahoma to his list, bringing his total to eight. USC, a school he strongly considered committing to when it offered in early May, has long been a favorite, especially with Mitchell in the fold.

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Notebook: WeAreSC recruiting roundup 

September, 30, 2013
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It took USC interim head coach Ed Orgeron less than a minute and a half to utter the word “recruits” during his news conference Sunday following the firing of Lane Kiffin. Given how important recruiting will be for the Trojans the next two years, nobody would have been surprised if Orgeron blurted that word even more quickly.

[+] EnlargeEd Orgeron
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesEd Orgeron will try to build some recruiting momentum as USC's interim head coach.
Known as one of the nation’s top recruiters, Orgeron figures to play an integral role leading up to national signing day in February. In fact, the energetic, 52-year-old coach had already contacted some top targets Sunday morning.

“We’ve already spoken to our recruits about the value of USC and what’s going on at USC,” Orgeron told reporters Sunday. “Recruiting has been one of our strengths here and it will continue to be one of our strengths. We expect to have a great recruiting class and continue to bring some of the best recruits across the country to USC.”

Orgeron’s pitch, despite his interim status and uncertainty surrounding the coaching situation, will be simple. He will touch on the education, prestige, opportunity and past glory.

“There’s a lot of great things about USC still here,” Orgeron said. “Nothing has changed about USC.”

In this week’s WeAreSC recruiting notebook, we touch on the impact Kiffin’s dismissal could have on USC recruiting and more:

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Notebook: WeAreSC recruiting roundup 

September, 24, 2013
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In this week’s WeAreSC recruiting notebook, we touch on a planned package deal, potential quarterback options and more:

  • As expected, USC outside linebacker commit D.J. Calhoun (El Cerrito, Calif./El Cerrito) set up his first official visit to Arizona State for the Oct. 18 weekend when the Sun Devils host Washington. The four-star prospect intends to take all five visits, though his father, Derik, said he remains committed to USC. With good friend and high school teammate Adarius Pickett now committed to UCLA, the Trojans will have some work to do.
  • While some uncertainty remains with Calhoun, add three-star offensive lineman Jordan Austin (Claremont, Calif./Claremont) to the list of recruits who have been unfazed by the fuzzy USC coaching situation. Like fellow linemen commits Toa Lobendahn (La Habra, Calif./La Habra) and Jordan Poland (La Jolla, Calif./Country Day School), Austin appears headed for Troy no matter how the 2013 season unravels. “I went to the game against Boston College. I loved the whole experience,” the 6-foot-5, 275-pound prospect said. Lobendahn, meanwhile, will be eligible to play his first game this season on Oct. 11 when La Habra travels to Fullerton (Calif.).

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USC recruiting mailbag 

September, 20, 2013
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Recruiting reporter Blair Angulo answers reader questions in his mailbag every week. Have a USC recruiting question of your own? Submit it via Twitter @WeAreSCstaff or @bangulo.

Mike Reed, via @_micahsdaddy_: With rumors of linebacker commit D.J. Calhoun’s status, how long would fans have to wait before recruits decide on USC or look elsewhere?

WeAreSC: Another loss on the field could be the final straw. Still, if there were to be a coaching change, many recruits have indicated they would look at USC differently moving forward. A great hire would instill hope and perhaps provide a recruiting boost. A great season would do the trick as well. The good news for fans is that there is still plenty of time for both scenarios.

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With eight starters returning on offense, there is a lot of talent returning for the Trojans. But there is also the matter of replacing key productive starters, particularly at quarterback. One person who won’t be replaced is play-caller Lane Kiffin, who gave thought to transferring play-calling duties to quarterback coach Clay Helton before ultimately deciding to keep the duties for the coming season.

The Trojans actually put up some good offensive numbers in 2012, including averages of 32 points and 432 yards per game. The struggles came in areas such as turnovers (34, fourth-worst in FBS), 3rd down conversions (34.2 percent, No. 105 in FBS) and red zone execution (74.5 percent). Kiffin has said he wants to return to a more physical approach in 2013 with a run game that can be relied on to close out games when needed.

Quarterback

The competition to replace Matt Barkley will be one of the most highly watched position battles in college football. Right now there are three players in the mix -- Cody Kessler, Max Wittek and Max Browne -- although most speculation has it as a two-man race between third-year players Kessler and Wittek. Kessler has gained a lot of momentum since his performance in spring, when he didn’t throw an interception in five scrimmages, and has continued to look sharp in summer throwing sessions. Wittek has the experience of starting two games at the end of the 2012 season, but injuries and illness have limited him in spring and summer drills. Wittek is known for having the bigger arm while Kiffin has described Kessler as a “gamer”. Browne is a true freshman with loads of potential but the two guys ahead of him have a lot of time in the system, so it stands to reason that one of the veterans will land the job.

Running back

Kiffin has described this as the deepest and most talented running back group of his tenure as USC coach. We see no reason to argue, as there is a nice blend of experience, toughness, speed and ability. Silas Redd is the expected starter and showed last season that he can run hard and carry the primary load. Redd is coming off a knee injury in spring ball he is projected to return in time for fall camp. As for the rotation behind Redd, that is where things get interesting.

Tre Madden made a huge splash in spring of 2012 when he moved from linebacker and dazzled the coaches in practice before suffering a knee injury and missing the entire season. Madden will be given every opportunity to show that he is back to form. D.J. Morgan brings a speed element, but he also has been banged up and will need to show that he can stay healthy and hold on to the ball. Javorius Allen enters his third year and showed promise in spring. Then there are the two freshmen -- Justin Davis and Ty Isaac. Davis was one of the stars of spring, as he looked very good as a slasher. Isaac is a big back who will try to make an instant impact in camp with limited reps to go around.

The Trojans return a pair of fullbacks in Soma Vainuku and Jahleel Pinner. Both players will be entering their second year of on-field action, and they are expected to play a bigger role.

[+] EnlargeNelson Agholor
Jonathan Moore/Getty ImagesExpect Nelson Agholor's production to take a step up as a sophomore.
Wide receiver

It’s always a good situation when the top player at his position returns for another season. Marqise Lee won the Biletnikoff Award in 2012 as the best receiver in college football and has the ability to make a run at the Heisman Trophy this season along with securing his spot as the all-time leading receiver in USC history. Lee will also be the unquestioned leader of the Trojans and seems very comfortable in that role so far.

On the other side of Lee, Nelson Agholor appears set to show that he has similar big play ability. When Lee was sidelined for part of spring with a knee injury, Agholor was the most productive player for the Trojans. Victor Blackwell appears ready for a bigger role after a solid spring and true freshman Darreus Rogers was impressive in summer workouts. Fifth-year senior De'Von Flournoy offers an experienced option as well. Depth could be an issue for this group after season-ending knee injuries to George Farmer and Steven Mitchell.

Tight end

The Trojans don’t have great depth at tight end, but the position group is still strong. Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble are basically co-starters, a talented pair of 6-foot-5, 250-pound options who can catch and block with equal skill. Don’t be surprised if they put up bigger numbers than they did last season. Both players suffered knee injuries in spring ball, which meant an extended audition for sophomore Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, who passed with flying colors. Cope-Fitzpatrick is another big and athletic guy who is clearly ready for a bigger role.

Offensive line

This is the position group that will need to come together for the USC offense to achieve the stated goals of being more physical and controlling the line of scrimmage. There are five players with starting experience returning with Marcus Martin moving from guard to center as a replacement for Khaled Holmes. Martin showed a lot of promise when he was moved midway through spring ball.

On the right side of the line, Kevin Graf and John Martinez return for their third year of starting next to each other at tackle and guard. Both players are on the preseason Outland Trophy watch list. Max Tuerk follows up a true freshman season that saw him named an honorable mention all-conference selection at left tackle by moving to left guard. Aundrey Walker is once again at left tackle and might be the critical piece for the line. Walker has loads of physical potential but there have also been issues with work ethic and preparation, which led the coaches to consider putting Tuerk back at tackle in the spring. If Walker can match the effort from the rest of the group this could be a pretty good line.

For the first time in many seasons there are some solid reserve options including Jordan Simmons, Cyrus Hobbi, Chad Wheeler, Nico Falah and Khaliel Rodgers. Abe Markowitz might also be available as a sixth-year player. He practiced with the team in voluntary workouts all summer, but there has been no confirmation on his status.

-- Statistics were compiled by ESPN Stats and Information
As the Trojans have gone through their offseason workout schedule this summer, freshman wideout Darreus Rogers has been hard to miss.

A mid-year entrant who originally was a member of USC's recruiting class of 2012, he wound up sitting out the fall as a grayshirt before enrolling this past spring. In a very short time, Rogers has emerged as one of the most consistent performers during the team's volunteer passing sessions.

[+] EnlargeDarreus Rogers
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsDarreus Rogers is in the mix for USC's No. 3 receiver spot behind Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor.
And for a wide receiver corps that lost both George Farmer and Steven Mitchell to season-ending knee injuries in recent months -- and is down to just five scholarship players in Rogers, Marqise Lee, Nelson Agholor, Victor Blackwell and De'Von Flournoy -- his lightning quick development couldn't be happening at a better time.

"It feels great to come out here and to work with great players like Marqise and Nelson," said Rogers, who compiled 64 receptions for 1,251 yards and 10 touchdowns as a senior at CIF Los Angeles City Section power Carson (Calif.). "I know that we need every single healthy body that we have out here contributing. We don't necessarily have the numbers, but we're coming out here competing like nothing I've seen before."

At 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, Rogers possesses a skill set that is somewhat reminiscent of what former USC greats Mike Williams and Dwayne Jarrett brought to the table as big, physical receiving threats with off-the-charts athleticism. First showing flashes of his unique playmaking ability back in December, when he took part in two of the Trojans' bowl game workouts, Rogers continued to make strides this past spring.

Despite missing time because of hamstring and shoulder injuries, he came out of the March and April workouts with a newfound level of confidence.

"It was fast and physical -- a lot different than anything that I've ever experienced before," said Rogers, who is now back to 100 percent. "I was still used to what the speed of the game was like in high school, but I made the adjustment after a couple of weeks, and I really got in the flow of everything. Now it's starting to feel like it did in high school again, but now I'm faster, stronger and more explosive. I'm more comfortable, looser, and I'm able to just be myself now."

With Lee -- the 2012 Biletnikoff Award winner -- and Agholor entrenched as the starting wide receiver duo, Rogers is currently involved in a fierce battle for the right to lay claim to the role as the team's No. 3 option, along with Blackwell, a star of the spring, and Flournoy, the veteran redshirt senior. And while both of his counterparts hold a leg up on him when it comes to experience and time spent within the program, with the job still completely up for grabs, Rogers certainly isn't backing down.

"The coaches have told me just to be ready, because it's open," Rogers said. "I'm just going to be working ... just coming out here and competing ... competing for No. 3. Nelson calls me on the weekends and tells me to work out, and I'm always there. Whatever it takes to play and to get on the field, I'm willing to do it."

It has been Agholor, as well as virtually every other member of the wide receiver unit, who has played an integral part in bringing Rogers along over the course of the last six months, and it obviously has paid off with big-time results.

"They all tell me what to do, what not to do ... they've all been there, and they've done it, and they've been a huge help," Rogers said. "I make a point of listening to them and to take it all in, because they're great guys and they have the experience. That really goes for all of them, but Nelson has probably played the biggest part, because he's closer to my age, but also a guy like Marqise -- he just keeps telling me, 'Be ready, be ready' -- so I'm taking it all in."

With a support group like that, on top of the promise that he already has shown, Rogers -- who has some pretty lofty aspirations of his own -- most definitely appears to have a very bright future.

"My goal is just to keep pushing ... to push and to be No. 1, really," Rogers said. "I know you've still got Marqise there, but the way that I look at it, to be the best, you have to compete against the best. And I'm here to compete."
LOS ANGELES -- When opportunity knocks, it’s always a good idea to be prepared to take advantage of the situation.

For Victor Blackwell, a wide receiver heading into his redshirt sophomore season for the Trojans, that means realizing what’s at stake this fall -- a whole lot of opportunity waiting beyond the two projected starters.

The Trojans head into the season with Marqise Lee -- the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner -- and Nelson Agholor established as the starters. There is uncertainty beyond them, though. George Farmer was positioning himself for the No. 3 receiver role in spring ball before a knee injury that will cause him to miss the 2013 season. There was also a similar injury in recent weeks to incoming freshman Steven Mitchell, which means the Trojans will enter the season with five scholarship receivers.

Victor Blackwell
Garry Paskwietz/WeAreSC.comVictor Blackwell made a case for the No. 3 receiver job in the spring game with seven receptions for 155 yards and a touchdown.
“When George went down, I felt like a little more weight fell on me to pick it up,” Blackwell said. “As a receiving corps at USC we’re labeled one of the best in the nation; we’re expected to show up and be prepared.”

Blackwell, the No. 10 receiver in the nation when he signed in 2011, has waited a long time for this opportunity. He was known as an explosive playmaker at Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei, where he played with current USC quarterback Max Wittek and averaged 19.5 yards per reception as a senior with 14 touchdowns.

Blackwell redshirted in his first year at USC and had one catch for nine yards as a redshirt freshman. He sat and watched while Robert Woods and Lee produced eye-popping stats, paying attention to how they did it.

“I just take notes on how Robert and Marqise act or how they handle certain situations,” Blackwell said. “I watch how they maintain their composure and just attack every day. They work hard and grind, every single day.”

It is that consistent level of performance which seems to be the next step for Blackwell in his development at USC. There have been flashes of big-play ability, but they haven’t taken place at a level that suits USC coach Lane Kiffin. In his end-of-spring news conference, Kiffin said the coaches have talked with Blackwell about the need for consistency, and Blackwell heard the message loud and clear.

“To me, consistency means someone who elevates his game, who comes out and dominates every day like Marqise, Robert and Nelson,” Blackwell said. “It means coming out every day and working to better your craft.”

Blackwell did have the benefit of one very good day this spring, putting up big numbers in the Trojans' spring game in the Coliseum. With seven catches for 155 yards and a touchdown, Blackwell showcased the skills that make him a potential game-breaker.

“It was great to be able to do that in the spring game,” Blackwell said. “I’m just thankful the coaches gave me the opportunity to make plays and show what I can do. I’m grateful for it but I want more, I need more, I’m hungry.”

That kind of hunger can build for a former prep All-American who finds himself waiting his turn in college, which has been trying at times for Blackwell.

“The hardest part about that process is to stay believing in yourself as the best receiver and telling yourself that you’re one of the tops at what you do,” Blackwell said. “Now that my opportunity is here I’m working hard this summer to go out and get it. I feel like that No. 3 spot is waiting for me and I need to go claim it. I’m getting faster and quicker and I need to work on my hands just so I’m more confident about catching the ball and being elusive with the ball in my hands. I’m willing to do whatever the coaches need from me to make the team better.”
LOS ANGELES -- With the Trojans back to the grind and hard at work at Cromwell Field, here’s a look at some of the early storylines that have taken shape during the team’s volunteer passing sessions.

Tons of talent at WR, not a lot of depth

The USC receiver corps was dealt a significant blow in the second throwing session of the summer when promising freshman Steven Mitchell went down with a torn ACL that will cause him to miss the entire 2013 season. Already without the services of George Farmer -- who suffered the same injury this spring -- the Trojans now have just five active scholarship wide receivers on the current roster.

[+] EnlargeDarreus Rogers
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsInjuries have given freshman Darreus Rogers a chance to make a move at WR.
The good news is that those five players have looked stellar this offseason and, barring any more injuries, USC should be fine here. In particular, 2012 Biletnifkoff Award winner Marqise Lee, and sophomore Nelson Agholor have made a routine of putting on a virtual exhibition during the 7-on-7 drills, and it’s hard to imagine a better wideout tandem in the country. Just as importantly, with the role of the team’s No. 3 receiver still up for grabs, veteran pass-catchers Victor Blackwell and De'Von Flournoy, as well as freshman , have come out each day more focused than ever, paying off with big time results.

Wittek returns to action, QB competition back on in full effect

The most notable player missing from the Trojans' early passing sessions was quarterback Max Wittek, who battled an apparent case of mononucleosis. The only member of the quarterback competition with starting experience returned to action this past Friday and looked sharp after shaking off some early rust.

The other two members of the quarterback competition -- fellow redshirt sophomore Cody Kessler and early entrant freshman Max Browne -- have performed solidly this offseason. Kessler, in particular, has picked up right where he left off in the spring, looking poised and in command while also throwing with fantastic accuracy. Meanwhile, Browne has continued to make tremendous strides, neither looking nor playing like a green first-year youngster.

With Wittek having returned to compete alongside Kessler and Browne, the race for the role of USC's starting quarterback is underway once again. And with all three players back out there pushing each other, there’s reason for optimism, regardless of who the eventual starter is.

Key contributors back from injury

While the loss of Mitchell marked the obvious low point of the workouts so far, the return of a number of players who missed all, or a portion, of the spring due to injury has been one of the great positives. Fullback Soma Vainuku, offensive lineman Chad Wheeler, tight ends Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer, defensive lineman Greg Townsend Jr., cornerbacks Torin Harris and Kevon Seymour, as well as safeties Dion Bailey, Gerald Bowman and Su'a Cravens are just some of the players who have been spotted back in action. It’s provided a big shot in the arm for a team somewhat short in terms of numbers.

The most talked about return has been that of Bailey, who was out for the entire spring due to postseason surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder. Moving over to free safety after spending the last two seasons as the team’s starting strongside linebacker, he’s looked comfortable, and the competition between he, Demetrius Wright and Leon McQuay III for the starting job is sure to be one of most closely watched position battles of the summer and fall.

Shaw still at safety

With Lane Kiffin underwhelmed by the production of the cornerback unit this past spring, the Trojans head coach noted on more than one occasion that the coaching staff was considering moving redshirt junior Josh Shaw back over from his strong safety spot to corner -- not a huge surprise considering he made seven starts at the position in 2012.

So far, however, there’s been no sign of the former Palmdale (Calif.) standout making that change. Lining up at strong safety during every passing session, he’s currently locked in a position battle with Cravens and Bowman. And while things could always change later in the summer or even during fall camp, it looks as if Shaw has settled in at safety at this time and that Kiffin will ride with what he currently has at cornerback -- collection that includes Anthony Brown, Ryan Dillard, Harris, Chris Hawkins, Ryan Henderson, Seymour and Devian Shelton.

Sightings of the newest freshmen

All six of the Trojans newest freshmen additions are now on campus, and they’ve slowly begun to make their presence felt in the workouts. It was Mitchell who made the biggest impact early on with his unique playmaking skills, giving an all-too-brief glimpse of the kind of talent that the USC offense will have at its disposal down the line. Inside linebacker Michael Hutchings has impressed as well. Figuring to play a key role as the potential backup at the MIKE linebacker spot to Hayes Pullard, he certainly looks the part of an imposing run-stopper with a nice combination of athleticism and instincts to boot. Outside linebacker Quinton Powell has already shown off some nice pass-rush skills during the 11-on-11 periods. At 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, running back Ty Isaac is as big as advertised while also showcasing a surprising burst for a player his size. Rounding out the group, offensive tackle Nico Falah and guard Khaliel Rodgers have also been quick to jump into the action, gaining valuable tutelage from veterans such as Kevin Graf and John Martinez.

Roundtable: Will WR depth be an issue? 

June, 13, 2013
6/13/13
9:35
AM PT
How do you think the recent season-ending injury to Steven Mitchell will impact the USC receiver group, which is now down to five scholarship players?

Garry Paskwietz


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