USC Football: Which NFL-Eligible Juniors Will Still Be Trojans in 2014?
As USC prepares for its annual showdown with cross-town rival UCLA, the Trojans are also preparing to address the crafting of a roster that may look very different in 2014.
Beyond the expected departure of seniors who have finished their college careers, there is a cadre of NFL-eligible players who must answer a important question:
"To return or not return?"
For USC, how those players answer that query will define how the team will look next year and more importantly, just how competitive it will be.
This is because the Trojans aren't in the same position as other programs are.
Crippled by sanctions issued by both USC and the NCAA, USC simply can't absorb a large migration of underclassmen bolting to the pros.
Faced with the prospect of a depleted roster, interim head coach Ed Orgeron and his staff will make their case for those players who could leave for the NFL to stay instead.
This slideshow will look at some of these players by unit and offer some insight as to whether or not they should return to the Cardinal and Gold in 2014.
Which men of Troy will we see again next year?
Let's find out.
In a unit that has only recently begun to play to its potential, USC has two non-senior offensive linemen eligible for the NFL draft:
Marcus Martin (Center):
Martin came to USC as a rather unheralded guard from Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles and surprised everyone by starting at left guard both in 2011 and 2012 where he more than held his own on a solid Trojan offensive line.
When USC needed a center, Martin stepped forward and has done a fantastic job of replacing Khaled Holmes—a former All-Pac-12 snapper and three-year starter.
Because Holmes only has one season under his belt at a new position, look for him to return in 2014.
Aundrey Walker (Guard/Tackle):
Although he was probably the most celebrated of the offensive linemen in the 2011 class, Aundrey Walker certainly has been the most disappointing.
After reporting to the Trojans at almost 365 pounds, the 6'6" Walker lost almost 60 of those pounds. However, while his mobility improved, he still remained inconsistent despite playing in all but one game in his career.
Walker still has a lot to prove so it is likely he will come back for his senior year.
The tight end unit is a tough one to figure out for a number of reasons.
Neither Xavier Grimble nor Randall Telfer has made a huge difference catching the ball, but there is no doubt as to their talent or capability of making an impact.
Much of the reason neither player has put up big numbers is because both are often absent from the game plan. This is due to their blocking prowess and USC's need to keep them in to help a suspect offensive line—especially this year.
Grimble was a highly sought after prospect in the 2010 class who appeared destined for stardom in a USC offense that at one time featured tight ends prominently.
After redshirting in 2010, Grimble shared starts with Randall Telfer in 2011 and 2012. A very good blocker with an NFL-ready body at 6'5", 250 pounds, Grimble has recently found himself becoming a much larger part of USC's passing attack in 2013.
Of the two NFL-eligible redshirt juniors, Grimble seems the most likely to go pro.
Probably the best pass-catcher of the two, Telfer is a bit quicker than Grimble but not quite as good of a blocker.
Telfer has been solid in his time at USC, but he needs to overcome his propensity to be injured to find some consistency overall.
If Grimble goes pro, Telfer will likely come back for his senior season. Otherwise this may be his last year in the Cardinal and Gold.
With three quarterbacks (Cody Kessler, Max Wittek and Max Browne) competing for the 2014 job, it is likely that one guy will be the odd man out...not out of the job but rather, off of the roster.
Guess who that guy will be?
Cody Kessler beat out Max Wittek for the USC starting quarterback job after an extended trial period and after a slow start, Kessler has found his groove and is doing a very good job for the Trojans.
He will face a spirited challenge from 5-star redshirt freshman Max Browne in 2014. However, right now, his chances of retaining his starting job seem pretty good.
Kessler will obviously return for 2014.
Wittek looked like the heir apparent for Matt Barkley's job in 2012 after filling in for Barkley when he got hurt.
However, an uneven performance in spring and fall camps in 2013 allowed Cody Kessler to wrest the gig from Wittek and he has only seen mop-up duty in 2013.
It would be a shock if Wittek didn't either transfer or attempt to go pro in 2014. Either way, he won't be a Trojan next year.
There is only one name on the NFL-eligible list at receiver but man, it is a big one.
Marqise Lee will have a decision to make after an injury-plagued 2013 cost him a chance to follow up on his All-American campaign of 2012.
Still second on the team in receptions despite missing three full games and parts of several more, Lee is still as electric as any player in college football when healthy.
Lee will have to sit down with his people to gauge his place in the draft, but if a first-round slot is determined where he will wind up, then chances are 2013 will be his last in a Trojan uniform.
USC has three NFL-eligible backs in 2013, none of whom I believe will go the pro route although all are good enough to get there eventually:
There will be a time when fullback Soma Vainuku will be plying his trade in the NFL but not just yet.
Vainuku has been nothing short of brilliant in 2014, but it is coming on the heels of two years where he was less than scintillating.
In 2013, Vainuku has put it all together and his value to the team goes far beyond his 70 yards rushing and nine catches for a combined two touchdowns.
Vainuku should be back in 2014 where his blocking and special teams excellence, combined with better rush statistics, will improve his draft status next season.
Speaking of a tremendous talent that stands a chance to be really special, redshirt sophomore running back Tre Madden fits the bill.
Big, fast and possessing a great pair of hands, Madden was almost unstoppable early in 2013 until he got banged up. It's for that reason, however, that Madden should be back.
If Madden can put up a year's worth of numbers in 2014, he will be a wanted man for the NFL in the next draft. Yet, he needs to show he can get through next year in one piece.
Javorius (Buck) Allen:
It would be difficult to imagine a Trojan who has come further, faster than Buck Allen.
Injured early on and then buried on the depth chart under Lane Kiffin, Allen has found a new life under Ed Orgeron and has responded in a big way.
Averaging 6.5 yards per carry to go along with a whopping 12 total touchdowns since he saw regular duty five games or so ago, Allen has put himself squarely in the mix to be the featured back in 2014.
However, Allen will need to prove this year wasn't a fluke and that is why he will be back in 2014.
For the most part, USC has done a very good job on special teams, particularly on the return and punt/kick blocking units.
But that isn't the entirety of special teams and USC has three key members eligible should they decide to go pro.
The good news for Trojan fans is that moving on to the NFL isn't likely for these three:
Andre Heidari (Kicker):
Going into his sophomore season, kicker Andre Heidari looked to be something special for the Trojans. However, two straight seasons where he has struggled mightily has taken some of the luster off his shine.
Still, a huge kick to win the game against Stanford may just serve as an elixir to get the strong-legged kicker back on track.
Heidari will return in 2014.
Kris Albarado (Punter):
Kris Albarado has waited patiently for his chance and in 2013, the redshirt sophomore has come through in a big way for USC.
While his 37.4 average won't wow you, he has placed 26 punts inside the opponent's 20 and perhaps more importantly, he has not had a punt blocked this year.
It would serve Albarado well to come back for his senior year. He will.
Peter McBride (Long Snapper):
Talk about an unheralded position, yet one that is so critical to the success of special teams.
Peter McBride is as steady and accurate as one can get and that is why he is so critical to the Trojans' special teams success next year.
Thank goodness he will return in 2014.
The defensive line is a unit that can ill afford any defections going into 2014 and USC will have to sweat out at least one decision of its NFL-eligible non-seniors:
Uko has been a solid and versatile player who has played everywhere on the defensive line. However, he has been especially effective at defensive end where most of his seven tackles for loss and five sacks have occurred.
At 6'3", 285 pounds, Uko has the body and motor the pros crave. His decision to return will come down to the wire.
Primarily a nose tackle, the 6'0", 310-pound Woods has spent much of 2013 stuffing the middle where statistics don't necessarily describe the value that a player at Woods' position brings to a team in the 5-2 alignment.
Woods only has two tackles for loss and a sack to his credit, but he has been a rock in the middle. As this is the first year that he has had an opportunity to show his stuff, look for the redshirt sophomore to return for 2014.
In the 5-2 defensive alignment USC runs, the outside linebackers are extremely active and responsible for containment as well as penetration.
The Trojans will already be one outside linebacker down going into 2014 and can ill afford to lose anymore.
Further, perhaps the most consistent defensive player of 2013, "mike" linebacker Hayes Pullard will opt to go pro too:
Pullard has been an absolute stud in the second level at linebacker and it shows in his team-leading 75 tackles in 2013.
What you won't find in the stat sheet though, is the leadership Pullard brings to the team where his effort is never questioned nor is his ability to lead by example.
The good news for Trojan fans is that this is a very deep draft for linebackers so Pullard may choose to finish his career for the men of Troy. However, that is not a given.
When outside linebacker Morgan Breslin went down with a hip injury, USC turned to the 6'2", 275-pound Tavai and the junior delivered big time.
He is tied for sixth on the team in tackles despite not starting until the midway point, and his non-stop motor puts him in a position to succeed on every snap.
Tavai will need to show that this season isn't a fluke, so look for him to return.
Sarao and Lamar Dawson battled neck-and-neck for the starting "will" linebacker position and when Dawson went down with an injury, Sarao was right there to fill the gap.
Sarao has been solid since gaining the starting job. However, after getting a sniff of playing time, look for Sarao to return for the 2014 season.
There are two defensive backs who are NFL eligible and USC can ill afford to lose either of them:
Shaw is third on the team in tackles and has three interceptions on his ledger, but despite those impressive stats, that is not where his value to the team is.
Instead, the big redshirt junior has excelled both at cornerback, where he usually takes the opponent's best receiver, and at safety where he patrols the middle with a single-minded ferocity.
Guys like Shaw are coveted at the next level and whether or not he returns is anyone's guess.
Speaking of versatile, that is Dion Bailey's middle name.
Bailey started out as a highly recruited safety, but he spent two years as a very effective linebacker before moving back to safety this year.
Despite not playing every down, Bailey is fourth on the team in tackles. He has also filled the stat sheet with five interceptions, 4.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.
Like Shaw, it is uncertain whether or not he returns in 2014.
Not included in the prior slides but very important to the Trojans' fortunes in 2014 are two players who may be granted medical redshirts for 2013:
Big things were expected from Breslin who had 13 sacks in 2012, but he went down with a hip injury in 2014 after appearing in only five games.
Still, that limited action saw Breslin put up big numbers with 4.5 sacks and eight tackles for loss at his outside linebacker position.
Breslin is a big-time talent who is certain to play on Sundays, but he may come back for 2014 to prove he is completely healthy.
Dawson won the starting "will" linebacker spot from Anthony Sarao and put up solid numbers in the seven games he played before going down with an injury.
Averaging five tackles per game and contributing 3.5 tackles for loss to go along with 1.5 sacks, Dawson could be a key player for 2014 should he decide to return.
With a depleted roster going into next year, USC will need the vast majority of the players profiled here to return for 2014.
If Ed Orgeron gets the permanent head-coaching job, it will likely go a long way toward getting these players to return next year.
And given "Coach O's" prowess at recruiting, getting the non-senior NFL-eligible players back for another year will be his most important recruiting job ever.