USC Football: 8 Players with Most to Gain in Spring Practices
Spring ball is on the horizon for USC, and with it comes the promise of a new football season. With a new head coach and lots of vacant positions due to graduations and departures for the NFL, this time of year will be prime for some Trojan athletes to rise to the occasion and make a push for a starting job.
The Trojans will still have their fair share of athletes missing spring ball to fully recover from various injuries, so the guys who are active right now will really be able to move ahead of their competition.
Barring any serious injuries, spring practices—which begins March 11—will be the first real chance for Sarkisian to get a feel for his new team, and to begin molding it into a contender. It all starts now, with seeing who steps up and gauging what it suggests of their abilities come the fall.
Listed in order from offense to defense, here's a look at eight Trojans who stand to gain the most from spring practices.
OL Chad Wheeler
Chad Wheeler redshirted his freshman year in 2012 and then sat out most of spring ball in 2013 due to injury, so this will be his first fully active spring session as a Trojan. Despite missing time during last spring, he emerged in the fall as a co-starter at right tackle with two-year starter Kevin Graf.
The offensive tackle got some looks on both the right and left side of the offensive line during the 2013 season, when Aundrey Walker went down early in the season (and again in December) with injuries.
Walker is still recovering from a broken ankle sustained against UCLA, so this is a key opportunity for Wheeler to take over the left tackle spot. Walker has been less than impressive throughout his entire career at USC—most notoriously giving up the sack against UCLA in 2012 that resulted in Matt Barkley getting injured.
Wheeler will have the entire spring to put that athleticism on display, and will be ready for the full-blown position battle with Walker that will ensue in the fall.
OL Toa Lobendahn
One of USC's early enrollees for 2014, Toa Lobendahn is nearly a game-ready athlete for the Trojans. USC has holes to fill and Lobendahn—who is versatile and athletic enough to play pretty much anywhere up front—is poised to fill one of those holes.
He has quick feet and a dominant run-blocking style, something USC needs if it is to return to its glory days of a powerful assault on the ground. Because of his flexibility, he will be competing with the likes of Max Tuerk, Nico Falah, Khaliel Rodgers and Zach Banner for a spot in the rotation. Aside from Tuerk, the latter three Trojans have yet to make their mark, so Lobendahn is on level playing field with them from the outset.
With a promising spring effort, Sarkisian will have a better idea of where specifically to use him on the O-line.
RB Ty Isaac
Ty Isaac came to USC as a 4-star running back talent in 2013, but given the more experienced running backs ahead of him on the depth chart, we didn't pay much attention to him at the beginning of last season.
And then Silas Redd got hurt. And so did Justin Davis.
By November, USC had to rely on the talents of Javorius "Buck Allen", Tre Madden, and those of Isaac.
That worked out pretty well.
Against California, Isaac rushed for 87 yards on 11 carries, and scored what would be his first touchdown of his USC career. Then he broke off a 37-yard run to the house for another score later in the fourth quarter. In that moment, Isaac arrived on the scene for USC and now this spring he will look to secure himself a spot as the No. 2 running back in Troy.
At 6'3", 225 pounds, he's built more like a receiver than a running back, and that makes him all the more lethal pounding the rock for USC. He's not your every-down back, but when he gets in space he's hard to bring down. That's the kind of versatility Sarkisian is going to want when the run game is implemented in the fall.
He'll have some competition once Tre Madden returns from a hamstring injury,but since redshirt junior D.J. Morgan hasn't done much with his career, Isaac stands a good chance of elevating himself up the depth chart this spring.
WR Nelson Agholor
The spring is an important time for Agholor, not so that he can prove his worth, but so that he can develop as a leader.
We know Agholor is the real deal; his crazy stats and thrilling highlights through two seasons have given us every reason to believe he can seamlessly pick up where Robert Woods and Marqise Lee left off. He's spent his first two seasons learning under others, and now it's his turn to emerge as the leader of a thin, relatively inexperienced wide receiver corps.
Current Trojans George Farmer, Darreus Rogers, Victor Blackwell and Steven Mitchell will be looking to Agholor to be the example of what is expected of them, as will the incoming wide receivers in the fall. With the spot opposite from him entirely up for grabs, Agholor will need to use his experience and veteran position to help groom the next stud wide receiver in Troy.
Agholor has assured us that he can deliver on the field. Now it's time for him to show that he can deliver as a leader as well.
OLB JR Tavai
J.R. Tavai has spent his time at USC as a backup thus far, filling in when various starters on the defensive line went down. He really used his moments in the spotlight to his advantage: Over 11 games in 2013, Tavai had 56 tackles (eight for loss) and 3.5 sacks. He's played every position on the defensive line, and that versatility will earn him brownie points in Sarkisian's and defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox's eyes.
This spring will be the perfect opportunity for Tavai to demonstrate that he's ready to be a starter, and possibly fill the holes left by outside linebacker Devon Kennard and Morgan Breslin. He's dominant against the run thanks to his experience as an interior lineman, but he's also a menacing threat against the pass.
He'll have some competition with a few guys still to come in this slideshow, but his in-game experience should see that he sits in a comfortable position as spring ball transitions to fall camp.
LB Michael Hutchings
Michael Hutchings arrived at USC as a 4-star linebacker, and now it's his time to live up to that vaunted status.
He's spent his career at USC backing up Hayes Pullard and Lamar Dawson, and with Dawson out due to a season-ending injury sustained in October, it's fair to say that the No. 2 mike linebacker job is Hutchings' to lose. He's been groomed as the next big thing patrolling the middle of the field for USC, and the spring will be when he begins to live up to that expectation.
For depth reasons, it's important that Hutchings shows right out of the gate that he can be relied upon to give relief to Pullard during the season. Look for him to showcase his instinctive playmaking abilities during spring practices, and if all goes well, we could see a lot of him come game time in the fall.
LB Quinton Powell
Quinton Powell is yet another star 2013 signee who will be given his opportunity to shine this spring.
The Florida native's 6'2", 220-pound frame meshes perfectly with Justin Wilcox's 5-2 scheme, and he has a proven ability to attack the line of scrimmage as well as drop back into coverage. He had been contributing on special teams in 2013, another testament to how ready he is to compete at the college level.
With added weight to his frame and vacant spots on defense, look for him to be right in the mix of things when it comes to hammering out the linebacker rotation. He could compete with Michael Hutchings to back up Hayes Pullard, or he could move to the outside to complement J.R. Tavai.
It all depends on how Wilcox plans to use him, and we can expect to get a glimpse of what that will be in just a few weeks.
All of the Defensive Backs
This entire position group really needs to step up and show out this spring, or USC is going to be in trouble come the fall.
We know that safeties Josh Shaw and Su'a Cravens are reliable, and we know that Kevon Seymour greatly improved over the course of the 2013 season. Aside from them though, USC's secondary is chock full of either unproven or injured talent.
Devian Shelton, Ryan Henderson, Anthony Brown, Gerald Bowman, Chris Hawkins, and Leon McQuay III will need to use the offseason to show that they're each ready to deliver on the field. Not all will be healthy just yet for spring ball, but those that are should really maximize the reps they get to pad their practice field resumé.
After all, there's a whole gang of new defensive backs coming to Troy in the fall, and a few of them (like JuJu Smith, Adoree' Jackson and/or Jonathan Lockett) will be ready to suit up from day one. If the current defensive backs don't want to fade into oblivion, it is absolutely imperative that they put in work this spring.
Whoever impresses during the spring will be involved in what is surely to be a spirited competition across the secondary in the fall.