USC Football: Early Departures Will Test Steve Sarkisian in Year 1

Kyle KensingContributor IJanuary 8, 2014

Dec 21, 2013; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Southern California Trojans coach Steve Sarkisian attends the Las Vegas Bowl game against the Fresno State Bulldogs at Sam Boyd Stadium. USC defeated Fresno State 45-20. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Steve Sarkisian inherited a tenuous situation when he accepted the head coaching vacancy at USC. The upcoming signing period is the program's last under heavy NCAA-mandated scholarship reductions, and the brunt of three years with limited roster space is compounded by a number of early departures for the NFL. 

Tight end Xavier Grimble became the fifth USC underclassmen since the Trojans' Las Vegas Bowl rout of Fresno State to declare for the 2014 NFL draft. The Los Angeles Times first reported Grimble's change of heart on Tuesday, almost a month after hinting he would return

Grimble joins safety Dion Bailey, defensive lineman George Uko, offensive lineman Marcus Martin and wide receiver Marqise Lee on a journey to the NFL that leaves a sizable dent in USC's outlook for next season.

Grimble's departure complicates one of Sarkisian's stated plans for the Trojans offense in 2014. At his introductory after being named the new head coach in December, Sarkisian touted his use of the tight end, namely All-American Austin Seferian-Jenkins, while at Washington. 

Five is not an insignificant number; that's 10 percent of the entire corps that made the trek to Las Vegas last month. 

With everyone returning who had the opportunity to do so, the Trojans looked like a Pac-12 championship contender coming off of their 10-win campaign and a No. 19 ranking in the final Associated Press Top 25.

As it stands, USC is still a possible preseason Top 25 selection, based on very early projections—San Jose Mercury News columnist Jon Wilner has the Trojans all the way up at No. 8 in his initial projection. But Sarkisian’s job in year one is considerably more challenging when left to not only address the depth issues but also replace Bailey, Martin, Uko, Grimble and Lee. 

Sarkisian reminded the nation that NCAA sanctions are lasting on an interview with The Herd on ESPN Radio Tuesday, per 

When we get to training camp, we’ll have between 65-70 scholarship players that are healthy and ready to go. When you think about that, compare it to everybody else in the country that have 85. We’re 20 players less, essentially, at practice. Practice is when most people work with the [first string] and [second string] and sometimes [third string]. We’re going [first] and maybe [second string].

The lack of depth is a greater concern with fewer seasoned veterans accustomed to it, particularly given the style Sarkisian had success using while at Washington. 

He installed a hurry-up, no-huddle scheme there last season that reinvigorated the Huskies offense after a tumultuous 2012. Washington averaged 37.9 points per game and scored at least 38 points five times.

An uptempo system only works with enough to cycle players in and out, or if the few playing are particularly well conditioned. Given the Trojans played just 13 defensive players in the win over Stanford, and early departing Uko and Bailey were two of the them, the pace of an uptempo may prove too rigorous for Sarksian to implement immediately. 

That is unless, of course, Sarkisian is able to get incoming recruits and the few reserves USC did have last season prepared in very short order.  

Reinforcements are on the way on the defensive side. End Claudeson Pelon and safety/linebacker Uchenna Nwosu are intriguing additions. Pelon will practice in the spring, and Nwosu, a recruit of retained wide receivers coach Tee Martin, could settle into a hybrid role similar to Bailey's.

National Signing Day will be paramount for filling USC's ranks, and Sarkisian made an addition this week that sent tremors through the recruiting world with the defensive line coach Bo Davis from Texas. 

Two Longhorns verbal commits—defensive linemen Courtney Garnett and Trey Lealaimatafao as reported by The Dallas Morning News—rescinded their pledges following the news of Davis leaving Texas to join Sarkisian's staff. 

USC was not in the mix for Garnett or Lealaimatafao prior to their decommitting, but Davis' presence adds an intriguing element to their recruitment for the next four weeks. 

Jan 4, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; West tight end Bryce Dixon (89) after the U.S. Army All-American Bowl high school football game at the Alamodome. The West won 28-6. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The new USC staff has worked some recruiting trail magic, landing U.S. Army All-American tight end Bryce Dixon, a prospect heavily projected to go to UCLA. Dixon could prove to be a key addition, as he or sparingly used sophomore Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick may help offset Grimble's departure. 

Sarkisian is obviously severely hamstrung because of the scholarship limitations, which makes every decision of paramount importance.  

That said, he is hardly working from scratch. Sarkisian may have the best returning wide receiver in the Pac-12 in Nelson Agholor, running backs Tre Madden and Buck Allen were both stellar when given the reins as the primary ball-carrier, and quarterback Cody Kessler grew into a capable leader of the offense by season's end. USC also returns Leonard Williams, one of the nation's best defensive linemen.

The departures leave Sarkisian more filling holes than building from the ground, but how those holes get filled is the difference between a trying season and a thriving one.