USC Football: Final Winners and Losers from Spring Ball
New head coach Steve Sarkisian and his USC staff got their first, long look at the 2014 Trojans through 15 sessions of spring football.
The new regime can build on some positives from the spring before the season kicks off Aug. 30 against Fresno State. There are also areas where USC can improve.
"I think we have the quality of player in place to make a run," Sarkisian told Kyle Goon of The Salt Lake Tribune. "But we have a lot of work to do to get ourselves to that point."
Winner: QB Cody Kessler
USC's starting quarterback job for the 2014 season may have been Cody Kessler's to lose—after all, he finished the previous campaign strong, leading the Trojans to a 7-2 final stretch and top-20 national ranking.
Still, the pressure was on for him to hold off teammate Max Browne, and Kessler accomplished just that. Sarkisian named Kessler the No. 1 quarterback just prior to the spring game.
"If we had a game this Saturday, Cody would be the starting quarterback," Sarkisian said, via USCTrojans.com. "I think he's deserved it, I think he's earned it. He's performed well."
For Kessler, it's not the end of the competition—but it's certainly a big step.
"It’s another big opportunity for me," Kessler said, per Rich Hammond of the Orange County Register. "At the same time, I can’t thank Max and Jalen [Greene] enough for pushing me. They did a great job."
Loser: QB Max Browne
With a new coaching staff and offensive system, redshirt freshman Max Browne had the window of opportunity he needed to compete for USC's starting quarterback job.
The 5-star prospect and No. 1-rated pro-style quarterback in the 2013 signing class could still take over the job by the time August arrives, but the task is perhaps more difficult with Kessler being officially declared the starter.
"I was hoping (the competition) would go into the summer...but this is the decision he made and I accept it," Browne told Rich Hammond of the Orange County Register.
Winner: Nelson Agholor
Not that there was ever much doubt considering he led the Trojans in receiving yards in 2013, but junior Nelson Agholor established himself as the offense's go-to guy during spring practices.
"Nelson kinda does what he does, keeps making big plays," Sarkisian said, via USCTrojans.com.
Agholor and Kessler demonstrated the same rhythm that made them so compatible last season in workouts.
"I threw it a few times before he even broke out of his route," Kessler told Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times following a March scrimmage.
Loser: The Offensive Line
Offensive line depth was sometimes an issue for the Trojans in 2013. Freshman Toa Lobendahn and redshirt sophomore Zach Banner were surprise standouts, and veteran Max Tuerk made a smooth transition to center.
Still, Sarkisian told Kyle Goon of The Salt Lake Tribune that the unit still has work to do in preparation for the season: "There's still some question marks there. It's imperative for us to shore up that position group. The rest of our skill positions are really in a good place, but our line has to be in position to help those guys succeed."
Indeed, the line struggled in the spring game, as the Trojans offense failed to score a touchdown. The depletion of the running back corps hurt the line's efforts, but the defense's ability to put consistent pressure on the quarterbacks was another vexing issue.
Winner: TE Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick
Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick was the only scholarship tight end who was available for spring practice, and the junior made the most of his unfettered spot in the first-team rotation with an impressive season.
His three receptions were the most in the spring game and the perfect cap to his solid slate of workouts.
"With this new coaching staff in particular, it's been great to have the coaches really break down the offense and learn from the bottom," Cope-Fitzpatrick said, via USCTrojans.com. "It's just been awesome."
Loser: Running Back Depth
Depth has been a concern at USC ever since the NCAA levied severe scholarship reductions against the program.
A remarkable 23 players sat out of USC's spring game, including such notable names as defensive lineman Leonard Williams and cornerback Josh Shaw.
But nowhere was springtime depth more of an issue than at running back, but the position could be a decided strength for the Trojans come fall—assuming Sarkisian and running backs coach Johnny Nansen ever get an opportunity to work with the full unit.
USC never had a full running back corps with which to operate. Justin Davis is still nursing the ankle that sidelined him midway through last season, Ty Isaac suffered an ankle injury in the spring game, and Javorius "Buck" Allen, the Trojans' late-season star, missed the first portion of practices.
Allen told Rahshaun Haylock of FoxSports.com that sitting out was a struggle: "I hate sitting out, man. I love the game of football. It's my life. I feel without football, I wouldn't be here so I hate sitting out. It ate me up so much to see my guys suffer when I can't be on the field."
USC's backfield depth will rival Oregon as the Pac-12's deepest, but first it needs to have everyone healthy at the same time.