First-year USC head coach Steve Sarkisian faces one of the most significant disparities of any coach in the Pac-12, if not the nation, in 2014. His Trojans roster features some of the conference's premier playmakers across all phases.
But with a new system and facing the effects of NCAA sanctions, USC has a thin margin for error. Four areas in particular could separate the Trojans from conference-championship contention in the coming season, or finishing as an also-ran.
Depth and Adjusting to No-Huddle Pace
Sarkisian brings a hurry-up offensive philosophy that requires various adjustments. Quarterback Cody Kessler began acclimating to play-calling at the line in the spring.
"I want to know it so well I can help others out,” Kessler told Scott Wolf of the Los Angeles Daily News. “When we get in a game (situation), I can give a signal and tell [other players] what they need to do."
Foremost among Sarkisian's needs is depth, a concern across all positions. The coming season is USC's last immediately following an NCAA-sanctioned recruiting year. Thus, the 2014 Trojans face the full brunt of the scholarship reductions' impact.
Depth issues challenged USC the previous few seasons as well, but the Trojans' more traditional style of play counteracted the roster's lack of bodies somewhat. USC averaged the nation's No. 10 most disparate time of possession at 33:04 per game. Conversely, Sarkisian's Washington team averaged more than four minutes of possession fewer at 28:41 per game.
Former interim head coach Ed Orgeron famously played just 13 Trojans on the defensive side in USC's 20-17 upset of Stanford in November. Do not expect a repeat.
Struggles on the offensive line contributed to USC's 3-2 start a season ago, as the run game was limited and Kessler was under regular duress.
Losing Marcus Martin to the NFL draft forced some reshuffling, starting with Max Tuerk's move to center.
As Sarkisian and offensive line coach Tim Drevno tinker with lineups, first-year players should see meaningful repetitions along the front five. Toa Lobendahn made the most of his early enrollment, possibly working into the starting rotation with his spring performance.
Damien Mama was one of the most highly touted prospects in Sarkisian's 2014 signing class. The 6'4", 370-pound 4-star prospect begins practicing with the Trojans in August, and will leave the program for a two-year Mormon mission after the 2014-15 school year.
Mama's presence for the 2014 season may be crucial as Sarkisian tries to find the right combination to implement his offense.
Some of the most talented players on USC's roster are defensive backs. Safety Su'a Cravens lived up to his 5-star recruit billing in his true freshman campaign. Cornerback Josh Shaw's decision to pass on the NFL draft gave new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox a vital piece in building the team's pass defense.
There are gaps to plug, however, starting with Dion Bailey's hybrid safety position. Bailey was a versatile cog in the Trojans defense a season ago. Leon McQuay III might be the player left to replicate Bailey's production.
That's a tall order. Bailey recorded 61 tackles, broke up six passes and snatched a team-high five interceptions.
Sarkisian and his staff are also left to decide how best to use 5-star freshmen prospects Adoree' Jackson and John "JuJu" Smith. The electrifying tandem can play either defensive back or wide receiver, and the Trojans may have needs at both positions.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
Marqise Lee etched his place in USC lore as one of the most exciting playmakers the program had ever seen, accumulating 3,655 receiving yards and 29 touchdowns in three seasons. A slow start and injuries stifled his production in 2013, but returning Nelson Agholor capably filled in as the team's No. 1 target.
Agholor is back, but Lee's departure leaves a significant void that must be filled to keep defenses from doubling down on their coverage of Agholor.
The No. 2 target has been a linchpin of the USC offense in recent years. Much like Agholor fed off Lee (and vice versa), Lee fed off Robert Woods. Establishing a similar dynamic with Agholor as a new reliable target is a must.
Darreus Rogers is the top returning receiver aside from Agholor, having made 22 grabs in 2013. Rogers did not score a touchdown, however. If he's to be the necessary sidekick to the explosive sidekick, Rogers must find his stride.
"It's not physical for Darreus, it's the mental aspect of having to really lock in on the details every single snap," Sarkisian said via USCTrojans.com. "And he'll get it, he's a competitive guy, it's just a matter of getting it done."
Through various coaching regimes, tight end has long been of importance to the USC passing attack. That won't change with Sarkisian at the helm. His Washington teams relied heavily on Austin Seferian-Jenkins, one of the most productive receiving tight ends in college football.
Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick's performance in spring workouts may have found the junior a permanent spot in the rotation, though Randall Telfer returns from injury. The concern for Sarkisian may not be if he has a tight end capable of filling that pass-catching role, but rather who will emerge as the primary target.
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