As this year's recruiting cycle fades in the rear-view mirror, Steve Sarkisian and the USC Trojans turn their attention to the offseason. The team has about six months to prepare for a successful campaign, and it begins on March 11 when spring practices kick off.
USC is still dealing with the lingering effects of NCAA sanctions, but the Trojans have managed to do relatively well in spite of them. This will be Sarkisian's first season handling the problems associated with the sanctions, but if the offseason goes well, the Trojans will be in good shape heading into the fall.
Here's what needs to happen for Sarkisian to have the perfect offseason in his first year at USC:
A Healthy Spring
USC has a lot to accomplish between now and August—such as naming a starting quarterback and filling holes left by players who have graduated or declared for the NFL draft—and it begins when the team returns to Howard Jones Field for practice in a few weeks. Because he was groomed under Pete Carroll and coaches with a similar philosophy, Sarkisian is inheriting a system that needs minor tweaks more than holistic changes.
With that, Sarkisian can really focus on the biggest challenges facing USC this season: lack of depth and position shake-ups.
The head coach has said all players who were injured in 2013 will be 100 percent by the fall, but ideally the Trojans have as many healthy bodies as possible during spring ball. As Bleacher Report's Michael Felder points out, the Trojans have 71 scholarship athletes on roster for the spring, but only 57 are healthy at this point in time. Those numbers are ghastly for any coach, but especially for a new one trying to get the pulse of his team.
Felder goes on to explain that Sarkisian will have to be flexible in the early stages of offseason prep:
Flexibility will be a key component for Sarkisian when spring ball kicks off. Flexibility in installing his system. Flexibility in what he asks his players to do during spring. Flexibility in managing the practice schedule to get results while protecting his limited bodies. Expect the coach to show just how flexible he can be with his roster.
In a perfect world, all 57 of the currently healthy athletes stay healthy through spring, and the rest trickle back to practice as they become available.
A Call to Action from Early Enrollees
The Trojans signed five early enrollees in 2014, and a handful of them are poised to contribute immediately. For the offseason to go as smoothly as possible, those guys will need to get involved with spring practice from the get-go. Offensive lineman Toa Lobendahn is one such talent, as is defensive end/linebacker Claudeson Pelon (though he spent most of 2013 injured and is still recovering).
Lobendahn is a physically commanding presence that can lend his talents wherever the need be on the O-line. He's essentially a game-ready name, so the looks he gets in the spring will help him make a case for himself as a starter in the fall. USC's O-line needs all the credibility it can get, and Lobendahn certainly brings that.
On the other side of the ball, Pelon has a leg up on the competition because of his experience at the junior college level. He knows how the game works at the college level, and though it's probable he won't practice much in the spring because of that still-healing injury, his presence during practices will see that he picks up the scheme as early as possible. He's ready to play as soon as he heals, bringing a first-step quickness that blends perfectly with USC's aggressive pass rush.
These two in particular will need to use the spring to their advantage and prove their worth in Troy from their very first semester.
A Fierce, Competitive Fall Camp (That Yields Little or No Injuries)
Once summer rolls around, it's time for the Trojans to kick it into high gear. If all goes according to plan, all 71 of USC's scholarship athletes will be healthy, which should allow for some spirited position battles.
Most importantly, Sarkisian will pit the incumbent Cody Kessler against the challenger Max Browne, with the seeds of that battle having been sown during the spring. Kessler has the advantage thanks to nearly a season's worth of starting experience, but Browne more recently played in a no-huddle offense. Sarkisian is very familiar with their respective styles of play, and we can expect that he will work them relentlessly until a true starter emerges.
As previously noted, there will be position battles across the offensive line as well, and newcomers like Damien Mama and Viane Talamaivao will compete against the likes of Max Tuerk, Chad Wheeler, Aundrey Walker, Jordan Simmons, Nico Falah, Khaliel Rodgers and Zach Banner.
On defense, the secondary is entirely in flux outside of safeties Josh Shaw and Su'a Cravens. Cornerback Kevon Seymour stepped up in 2013 and showed his worth, but outside of him USC's gaggle of defensive backs have been injured and remain unproven. Add newcomers Adoree' Jackson, JuJu Smith and Jonathan Lockett to the mix, and things get really exciting as far as options are concerned.
If no major injuries crop up during spring ball, Sarkisian and USC should be able to field the best, most competitive team possible, given their bevy of talent.
A Seamless Transition from the Old Regime to the New
Six months seems like a long time to get things together, but the hurdles in place at USC will not necessarily be so easy to clear. Sure, the Trojans have been dealing with these issues for some time, but now they do it with a new coach, which brings on growing pains in and of itself. Because Sarkisian does coach with a style that is familiar at USC, the transition shouldn't be too painful.
That said, it's likely the implementation of no-huddle elements will take some getting used to.
Sarkisian (and defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, for that matter) will need to hit the ground running in March to get the Trojans familiar with their new assignments on both sides of the ball so come fall, all they need to hammer out is who will play where.
A compelling effort on the recruiting trail has influenced the Trojan community to warm up to Sarkisian after initially rejecting his hire, and now he needs an offseason without any headaches to keep the fans in his corner. If all these elements come together, Sarkisian's first season at USC will be off to as painless a start as possible.
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