USC: Nelson Agholor

Top Pac-12 players: Nos. 10-6

July, 31, 2014
Jul 31
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Our list of the Top 25 players in the Pac-12 continues.

10. Oregon C Hroniss Grasu

Why he's ranked here: Grasu is one of three players in the conference -- all from Oregon -- to have been named first-team All-Pac-12 the last two seasons. As a junior in 2013, he was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy, given to the nation's best center, and the undoubted leader of the Ducks' offensive line that blocked for the conference's No. 1 rushing attack. Grasu enters his final year in Eugene having started all 40 games of his career with a chance to leave his mark as one of the Ducks' all-time greats. And as good as Grasu and the line were a year ago, they should be better this year with all five starters back and some talented players behind them who could push for playing time in training camp.

9. Stanford WR Ty Montgomery

2013 stats: Caught 61 passes for 958 yards and 10 touchdowns, and ranked second nationally averaging 30.3 yards per kickoff return.

Why he's ranked here: When Montgomery is on the field for Stanford, he's the team's best player. Whether that's as a receiver or kick returner, he's the one guy who has consistently proved he can change a game on any given snap. There's minimal concern he won't be 100 percent for the start of the season due to an arm injury, but Montgomery said Wednesday he's not limited when it comes to running, catching or lifting weights. At 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, with just 4 percent body fat, Montgomery certainly didn't look injured. "When he comes back, he might be the most explosive player in college football, and he's going to touch the ball in every single way possible," Stanford coach David Shaw said at Pac-12 media days. It remains to be seen whether we should take Shaw literally and add punt return duties to Montgomery's other responsibilities, but there have been discussion about that as well. When comparing Montgomery as a receiver to the other two receivers listed below, there's really not much separation -- a solid case can be made to have each of them in front of the other.

8. Arizona State WR Jaelen Strong

2013 stats: Caught 75 passes for 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns in his first year with ASU.

Why he's ranked here: Perhaps no one in the conference made as strong an immediate impact as Strong did last year after arriving at ASU from Pierce College in Los Angeles. He eclipsed the 100-yard receiving mark in five of his first six games and finished fourth in the Pac-12 with 1,122 receiving yards. The three players who finished ahead of him -- Oregon State's Brandin Cooks, Colorado's Paul Richardson and Oregon's Josh Huff -- are all off to the NFL. Like Montgomery, Strong is physically imposing and at 6-4, 212 pounds makes a dangerous red zone target for quarterback Taylor Kelly. Of the 25 players the Pac-12 blog has deemed the conference's best, Kelly-Strong is the only quarterback-receiver tandem to be included together on the list (you'll see where Kelly lands Friday morning). They're the main reason ASU coach Todd Graham proclaimed at Pac-12 media days that "This will be the best offensive football team that I've ever coached." If Strong makes the kind of jump Cooks made from 2012 to 2013, it shouldn't surprise anyone.

7. USC WR Nelson Agholor

2013 stats: Caught 56 passes for 918 yards and six touchdowns and also returned kicks (17.5 avg) and punts (19.1 avg)

Why he's ranked here: On a team that featured 2012 Biletnikoff winner Marqise Lee, Agholor was simply the better receiver in 2013 and his value to the Trojans stretched further than that because of how he could impact games as a return man. What Montgomery was to Stanford on kickoff returns, Agholor was for the Trojans on punt returns. He returned two for touchdowns, and his 19.1 average was a new school record and ranked second nationally. With Lee off to the NFL, a second-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Agholor figures to see his receiving numbers improve -- even if that means more attention from opposing defenses. Agholor has developed a reputation for being an NFL-caliber route runner and is among the nation's most dangerous receivers after the catch. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Agholor as the No. 3 receiver on his Way-Too-Early Big Board (one spot behind Strong).

6. Oregon State QB Sean Mannion

2013 stats: Threw for a Pac-12 record 4,662 yards with 35 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.

Why he's ranked here: By the time the NFL draft rolls around, Mannion might just end up being the top quarterback on some teams' boards. He's that talented. With 10,436 career passing yards, Mannion already sits at No. 10 on the conference's all-time passing list and, assuming he stays healthy, should have no problem passing Matt Barkley's record of 12,327. Mannion admits he had a great relationship with former offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, who left to become the quarterbacks coach for the New York Giants, but he has already grown under the tutelage of Langsdorf's replacement, John Garrett. "It has been good to get another perspective, another coach to learn from," Mannion said at Pac-12 media days. "It was tough to see [Langsdorf] go, but I think it'll end up being beneficial." Mannion is also the first Oregon State player to be selected team captain three times. Kiper ranked him as the No. 2 senior NFL quarterback prospect in the country.

Check out the rest of the rankings here: Nos. 25-21, Nos. 20-16, Nos. 16-11

Preseason position reviews: Quarterback

June, 25, 2014
Jun 25
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It's time to start our preseason position reviews. Please, hold your applause until we are finished.

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

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

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

You can review last year's rankings here.

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

GREAT SHAPE

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

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

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

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

GOOD SHAPE

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

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

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

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

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

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

WE'LL SEE

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

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

Kiper eyeballing Pac-12 defenders

June, 11, 2014
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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.

Rank 'Em: Pac-12 spring breakout players

May, 23, 2014
May 23
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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?

[+] EnlargeNelson Agholor
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
May 21
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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
Apr 23
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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.

Agholor makes statement with stellar spring

April, 22, 2014
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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.”

Helton working hard to perfect the offense

April, 8, 2014
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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.”

Kessler, Tuerk already have chemistry

April, 2, 2014
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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.

Offense 3-headed monsters: Pac-12 South

March, 24, 2014
Mar 24
5:30
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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.

Offseason spotlight: USC

February, 28, 2014
Feb 28
4:00
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We're taking a look at a player from each Pac-12 team who could step into the spotlight in 2014.

Spotlight: WR Darreus Rogers , So., 6-2, 210

2013 summary: Rogers caught 22 passes for 257 yards last season.

[+] EnlargeDarreus Rogers
Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY SportsDarreus Rogers has a good chance this spring to put a stranglehold on the USC No. 2 WR spot.
The skinny: Marqise Lee is gone. So Nelson Agholor will step in as the Trojans' No. 1 receiver in 2014, a post he arguably held last season even with Lee on the team. But who will be No. 2? While many will be watching the QB competition between incumbent starter Cody Kessler and touted redshirt freshman Max Browne, USC really needs someone to decisively step into the No. 2 WR role. Rogers, the leading returning receiver after Agholor, flashed plenty of promise last season as a true freshman. He has good size, hands and play-making ability. Further, there won't be too much competition this spring, with the oft-injured George Farmer coming off a knee injury, as is Steven Mitchell. Both figure to see only limited action. Rogers' chief competition might be the Victor Blackwell, but he caught just four passes last season and has yet to show much. Further, there is pressure on Rogers to step up this spring, because a strong incoming receiver class -- Juju Smith, Rahshead Johnson and Ajene Harris -- will arrive this summer, and those guys surely are eyeballing immediate playing time.

Previous spotlights

Top 2013 performances: Nelson Agholor

January, 29, 2014
Jan 29
7:00
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We're looking at some of the top individual performances in the Pac-12 in 2013.

Up next: Nelson Aghol-oh my gosh he did it again.

Agholor
Agholor
Who and against whom: USC WR/PR Nelson Agholor had a monster special teams performance in the Trojans’ 62-28 win over California.

The numbers: The Trojans matched an NCAA record by returning three punts for touchdowns in the game. One came off a block, the other two were of the traditional variety with Agholor returning Cal’s first punt 75 yards for a touchdown. He did it again in the second quarter, this time from 93 yards out. He finished with 168 return yards (a healthy average of 84 yards per return) and added four catches for 35 yards.

A closer look: On Tuesday we honored Oregon’s Bralon Addison for returning a pair of punts for scores against Cal. It’s only fair to return the favor to Agholor. And Cal, if it feels like we’re beating up on your special teams a little bit, our apologies. But then again, stop giving up multiple returns for touchdowns in games. Buck Allen gets a tip of the cap as well for his 135 yards on six carries and two touchdowns (22.5 yards per carry … dang!). But it was Agholor who opened the scoring with a 75-yard punt return after the Trojans stopped Cal’s first drive. His second score came before the half with the Trojans already leading 35-14 (Josh Shaw had already returned a block punt for USC’s second special teams touchdown of the game). This one went for 93 yards to give the Trojans an insurmountable 41-14 lead at the break. The last team to return three punts for touchdowns was when Oklahoma's Antonio Perkins did it against UCLA in 2003.

Replacing the Pac-12 South's early entries

January, 24, 2014
Jan 24
9:00
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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.

[+] EnlargeRichardson
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.

Season wrap: USC

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
7:00
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The big news for USC's 2013 campaign wasn't the season itself but the firing of coach Lane Kiffin. That, however, also was the transformative moment of the season, as the Trojans bounced back from a dispiriting 3-2 start to finish 10-4 and rank 19th, rallying under interim coach Ed Orgeron.

The Trojans went 6-2 under Orgeron, but his hopes for earning the full-time job were likely dashed by two losses to Notre Dame and UCLA, USC's two chief rivals.

The second big news for the Trojans was the hiring of Steve Sarkisian away from Washington, which received a mixed reaction. But that points toward the future. Our concern is the 2013 season.

You can read our graded review of USC here.

Offensive MVP: The Trojans' offense struggled much of the season, ranking ninth in the conference with 29.7 points per game, but its most consistent weapon was receiver Nelson Agholor. With Marqise Lee in and out of the lineup with injuries, it was Agholor, a sophomore, who led the Trojans with 918 yards receiving and six touchdowns. His 16.4 yards per reception also was tops among the team's receivers. Further, he led the conference and ranked second in the nation with a 19.1-yard average on punt returns, which included two returns for touchdowns.

Defensive MVP: Defensive end Leonard Williams became one of the nation's best defensive linemen as a true sophomore. He ranked second on the Trojans with 74 tackles, including 13.5 tackles for a loss and six sacks. He also had four quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles and was named a first-team All-American by ESPN.com and third-team by the Associated Press. He is almost certain to be a 2014 preseason All-American.

Best moment: No. 4 Stanford had rallied from a 10-point first-half deficit to tie the score at 17-17, and it had the ball with more than three minutes remaining on its 40-yard line. There was plenty of time to drive for the winning field goal, but Stanford QB Kevin Hogan threw his second fourth-quarter interception to Su'a Cravens at the USC 44. The Trojans then got a 47-yard field goal from Andre Heidari, who had struggled for much of 2013, with just 19 seconds left to notch the upset, and recorded the fourth and best win of what would become a five-game winning streak under Orgeron.

Worst moment: While the 10-7 loss at home to Washington State was horrible -- the Trojans had just 193 total yards -- and was the beginning of the end for Kiffin, the 62-41 loss at Arizona State was the defeat that ended his tenure. Athletic director Pat Haden was so dismayed with the white-flag performance -- the Trojans gave up 612 yards -- that he fired Kiffin at LAX in the early morning hours of the next day. Of course, that low moment seems to spur the season's transformation so some may see Kiffin's firing as a good thing.

Highs & lows in Pac-12 statistics

January, 14, 2014
Jan 14
8:00
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There were many remarkable performances in the Pac-12 this year. And some remarkably bad ones. Of course, one team rolling is another team getting rolled.

Here are some high & low lights of the 2013 season (conference games only).

And some of these are intriguing because they say the opposite thing.

Such as …

Worst rushing performance: Washington rushed for negative-5 yards at Arizona State on Oct. 19 in a 53-24 defeat.

Best rushing performance: Washington rushed for 530 yards at Oregon State in a 69-27 win on Nov. 23.

Best yards per rush: Washington averaged 9.1 yards per carry at Oregon State.

Most points: Washington at Oregon State.

Most rushing TDs: The Huskies at seven rushing touchdowns at … well, you get the picture.

[+] EnlargeOregon Ducks
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesThe Oregon Ducks had plenty to celebrate when they piled up 755 yards against Colorado on Oct. 5.
Most yards: Oregon gained 755 yards at Colorado on Oct. 5.

Most yards per play: USC averaged 9.8 yards per play at California on Nov. 9.

Longest run: USC running back Javorius Allen had a 79-yard touchdown run at Cal.

Longest pass: Cal QB Jared Goff connected with Chris Harper for an 89-yard TD against Washington State on Oct. 5

Fewest pass completions: Utah completed just six passes against Arizona State in a 20-19 defeat on Nov. 9.

Worst completion percentage: Utes QB Travis Wilson completed 28.6 percent of his throws against the Sun Devils.

Best completion percentage: Arizona's B.J. Denker completed 86.4 percent of his throws -- 19 of 22 -- against Oregon on Nov. 23.

Most interceptions: Wilson threw six interceptions in the Utes 34-27 loss to UCLA on Oct. 3.

Shortest "long" pass in a game: USC's longest completion against Washington State on Sept. 7 went for 8 yards.

Longest field goal: Arizona's Jake Smith (vs. Cal) and Colorado's Will Oliver (vs. Arizona) both made 53-yard boots.

Longest punt: Utah's Tom Hackett posted a 70-yard punt against Arizona State.

Best punt average in a game: Cal's Cole Leiniger averaged 54.2 yards on four punts at Colorado.

Longest punt return: USC's Nelson Agholor returned a punt 93 yards for a TD at Cal. He also had a 75-yard TD on a punt return in that game.

Longest kick return: Stanford's Ty Montgomery went 100 yards for a touchdown at Utah on Oct. 12.

Most fumbles lost: Cal lost four fumbles at Oregon on Oct. 28.

Most sacks allowed: UCLA gave up nine sacks to Arizona State on Nov. 23.

Most sacks by a player in a game: Both Arizona State's Chris Young (vs. UCLA) and Arizona's Sione Tuihalamaka (vs. Arizona State) had three.

Most penalties: UCLA had 13 penalties for 100 yards at Utah.

Most penalty yards: The Bruins had 122 yards in penalties -- on 11 flags -- against Colorado.

Touchdowns in one game: Montgomery had five at California on Nov. 23 (four receiving, one rushing).

Most rushing yards in a game: Washington's Bishop Sankey gained 241 yards against Cal.

Most passing yards in a game: Washington State's Connor Halliday passed for 557 yards at Oregon. (Just don't remind Nick Aliotti).

Most passing touchdowns in a game: Oregon State's Sean Mannion threw six touchdown passes against Colorado.

Most receiving yards in a game: Oregon State WR Brandin Cooks had 237 yards receiving at Cal on 13 receptions.

Most receiving TDs in a game: Montgomery had four against Cal.


SPONSORED HEADLINES

2013 TEAM LEADERS

PASSINGATTCOMPYDSTD
C. Kessler361236296820
RUSHINGCARYDSAVGTD
J. Allen1357855.814
T. Madden1387035.13
RECEIVINGRECYDSAVGTD
M. Lee5779113.94
N. Agholor5691816.46
TEAMRUSHPASSTOTAL
Offense174.2218.1392.3
TEAMPFPAMARGIN
Scoring28.521.37.2