Position-by-Position Preview of USC's 2014 Roster
The 2014 college football season kicks off in a little over two months, and the excitement for a new season grows with every passing day. For USC, the summer months mean the coaches will be poring over depth charts and working out the best combinations of talent to field come the fall. This is particularly important this offseason, as new schemes brought on by new coaches means there's still a learning curve to deal with for the players currently on roster, and those to join the ranks in August.
We learned a lot about a few position battles during spring ball, but there is still much uncertainty surrounding a handful of others. But in looking at the results of those practices, coupled with last season's performances, we have a general idea of how the 2014 USC Trojans will look.
In order from offense to defense, here's a preview of what each individual position group's depth chart could look like this coming season.
Definitive starters are listed in bold and position battles still open are italicized. Asterisks indicate incoming freshmen.
Left Tackle: Chad Wheeler, Nico Falah, Jordan Austin
Left Guard: Toa Lobendahn, Damien Mama*, Jordan Simmons
Center: Max Tuerk, Giovanni Di Poalo
Right Guard: Khaliel Rodgers, Aundrey Walker, Chris Brown*, Viane Talamaivao*
Right Tackle: Zach Banner, Nico Falah
Question marks still swirl around this unit, as no given starter is 100 percent set in stone. Injuries kept returning Trojans Aundrey Walker and Jordan Simmons from practicing, which gave younger guys like Khaliel Rodgers the opportunity to step up and show out. Incoming talent in Damien Mama, Viane Talamaivao and Chris Brown will also make things interesting in the fall, as any of them can come in and start, or at least get quality time in the rotation.
While that's good for USC as it goes about installing a new offense that hinges on tough play in the trenches, it's been a bit of a problem through the offseason. If the Trojans go into a fall camp with an O-line that's still undergoing a facelift, that could impede overall development of the offense as a whole.
What we do know is that Chad Wheeler likely has the left tackle spot locked up, having started there all of 2013. Additionally, early enrollee Toa Lobendahn has already impressed in just six months in Troy, and he's proably got the job at left guard. The aforementioned Rodgers and Zach Banner also stepped up in big ways and are guys we should also expect to see in the starting line up.
But anything could happen to shake up the group we saw running with the first-team offense during spring camp.
Back in May, Sark said he intends to line Mama and Talamaivao up as interior linemen, which means tackle depth is cripplingly light. Also in May, Fox Sport's Lindsey Thiry reported that according to Sark, Max Tuerk, who has played everywhere for USC except right guard, could move positions again. That could be to compensate for the shallow corps at right tackle, but nothing is set in stone with this group.
However it shakes down, USC should be able to field a very talented, versatile front line in the fall. But it's important that the starting rotation gets hammered out quickly in the fall. We have seen weak O-line play be the demise of USC football in the past three seasons, and that's the exact opposite of what Sark needs in his inaugural season.
Quarterback: Cody Kessler, Max Browne, Jalen Greene
Cody Kessler flat-out earned the starting job again for 2014, and given his performance in 2013, coupled with his growth and early development in the new offense, it was the right call.
After naming Kessler QB 1, Sark maintained that some competition would still take place in the fall. Max Browne didn't shine as brightly as Kessler did during spring camp, but his killer arm strength is something we are still likely to see this fall, particularly in some of USC's early games that should be easy wins for the Trojans.
Early enrollee Jalen Greene got some quality reps in spring camp but he was never seriously involved in the competition. During the spring game in particular, the young quarterback showed off his agility and his skills out of the pocket. After some grooming, Greene will provide some serious competition to Browne in the seasons to come.
Tight End: Randall Telfer
Tight End: Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, Bryce Dixon*
The tight end position has been an integral part of Sark's offenses at Washington, and as fate would have it, this unit is one of USC's most anemic in 2014. Only Randall Telfer returns to lead the trio of tight ends that will be on roster in August but a nagging knee injury could severely limit his abilities.
That would leave Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick to handle the heavy lifting. He showed sure hands and overall development in the spring, fully capitalizing on exclusive first-team reps. He'll be a reliable starter for USC, which is important if Telfer won't be fully available.
Bryce Dixon will join the corps in August, having signed with USC because of the likelihood of early playing time. He's definitely going to get a lot of it, whether he ends up starting or just filling in for Cope-Fitzpatrick and Telfer.
Tailback: Javorius "Buck" Allen or Tre Madden, Justin Davis
Fullback: Soma Vainuku, Jahleel Pinner
USC maintains a stable of running backs, even with the offseason departure of Ty Isaac. While his skill and depth were a great addition to the corps, USC won't hurt (too much) for Isaac's absence in 2014.
Buck Allen and Tre Madden will lead the tailbacks, and in the fall we should have a better idea of how reps will be divided between them. Once Justin Davis returns from injury, the Trojans are going to have quite the lethal running game.
At fullback, Soma Vainuku earned a lot of love in 2013 by redeeming himself for a 2012 season plagued by ill-timed drops and inconsistent play. He proved last year to be an absolutely beast at fullback, especially on special teams.
After a handful of blocked punts, crushing tackles and big catches last season, Vainuku finally got out from the long shadow cast by former Trojan Stanley Havili and is creating an exciting legacy for himself.
Behind him is Jahleel Pinner, who has yet to record a single carry in his USC career. He spent time with the tailbacks while the starters rehabbed injuries, and he looked pretty good there. His versatility will undoubtedly be rewarded, and we should see more of him this fall.
Wide Receiver: Nelson Agholor, Victor Blackwell, Steven Mitchell, Adoree' Jackson*,
Wide Receiver: Darreus Rogers, George Farmer, John "JuJu" Smith*, Rahshead Johnson*, Ajene Harris*
Nelson Agholor's starting job is locked in, but the spot opposite him could be considered up for grabs. While it's likely that sophomore Darreus Rogers (22 receptions, 257 yards in 2013) gets the job because he's the next most-experienced receiver on the roster, he's got some incoming freshmen and returning Trojans gunning for his job.
George Farmer is healed and finally ready to live up to the high expectations that he entered Troy with three years ago, and both Steve Mitchell (who missed the spring due to injury) and Victor Blackwell will come in to camp with something to prove. It's especially important for Blackwell to make his move, as a formerly thin receiver corps is about to get a bit more crowded with incoming talent.
Adoree' Jackson and JuJu Smith are the pair of incoming freshmen Trojan fans are most excited about, and the dynamic duo are entering Troy looking for some playing time. Sark has said (subscription required) the Trojans are open to playing Jackson on both sides of the ball, and the same can be expected of Smith, at least in this first year.
The other incoming talents will spend the year learning the ropes, with the intention of carrying on USC's tradition of excellent wide receiver play.
Defensive Tackle: Claude Pelon, Greg Townsend Jr., Don Hill*
Nose Tackle: Antwaun Woods, Kenny Bigelow, Cody Temple
Defensive End: Leonard Williams, Delvon Simmons, Charles Burks
Rush End: J.R. Tavai or Scott Starr, Charles Burks, Malik Dorton*
Despite losing some key starters, USC's defensive line is expected to remain one of the best in the Pac-12, as well as the country as a whole.
Leonard Williams will return in the fall to anchor this unit at defensive end, and Delvon Simmons will be lining up behind him. The Texas Tech transfer started in place of Williams this spring while he recovered from injury, and Simmons' preexisting experience saw that he didn't miss a beat in joining USC's defense. Similarly, junior college transfer Claude Pelon has emerged as a quality candidate to start at defensive tackle.
Alongside them will be Antwaun Woods and either J.R. Tavai or Scott Starr, at nose tackle and rush end, respectively. Woods really impressed the coaches during the spring and is blossoming into a stud nose tackle. Tavai impressed last season when he started over the then-injured Morgan Breslin in 2013, and he did so without a hitch. Tavai's experience gives him a leg up over Scott Starr, but he too made strong statements about his play during the spring.
Incoming freshman Malik Dorton arrives on campus in August and will learn his responsibilities from Tavai and Starr, but he won't be involved in vying for a starting role.
Sam Linebacker: Quinton Powell or Jabari Ruffin, Olajuwon Tucker*
Mike Linebacker: Hayes Pullard, Michael Hutchings
Will Linebacker: Anthony Sarao or Lamar Dawson, Uchenna Nwosu*
We know that Hayes Pullard is guaranteed to get his starting spot back in 2014. He led the Trojans in tackles (94) last year and will return to patrol the middle of the field on defense. Michael Hutchings should return from injury in August. He will continue to learn from Pullard's example before getting some time in backup situations this year.
At Will and Sam, competitions are expected to resume in full swing come the summer.
Jabari Ruffin and Quinton Powell duked it out all spring at Sam, each getting first-team reps. It's hard to say who's in the lead at this point, but Powell ended spring camp running with the first team. So it's possible that he has a slight edge going into the fall, though the coaches have remained mum on who really has the upper hand here.
At Will, Lamar Dawson's injury kept him sidelined all spring, so Anthony Sarao had nearly exclusive reps with the first team. Dawson has largely underwhelmed thus far through his career, and Sarao is instead the more promising candidate for the starting job.
Cornerback: Kevon Seymour, Ryan Dillard, Anthony Brown, Jonathan Lockett*, Lamont Simmons*
Cornerback: Josh Shaw, Chris Hawkins, Adoree' Jackson*, John Plattenburg Jr.*
Though there's a lot of bodies in the Trojans' cornerbacks corps, there isn't a ton of experienced talent to go around.
Kevon Seymour has locked his spot down after having a strong second half of 2013 and a similar effort this past spring. Josh Shaw has maintained that he will stay a corner in 2014, but Sark has neither confirmed nor denied this. The option still exists for him to line up at safety, something he hasn't done in his time at USC. If he does move back to safety, Chris Hawkins had a strong enough spring to suggest that he's a capable option as a starter.
As previously mentioned, incoming freshman Adoree' Jackson will arrive in Troy ready for playing time. How he fits into the mix is still up for debate, but it wouldn't be unreasonable to see him vault past the Trojans on roster who have yet to make their mark at USC.
If all the corners stay healthy, the Trojans will be able to have quite the rotation, something they haven't been able to maintain through the sanction years.
Free Safety: Leon McQuay III
Strong Safety: Su'a Cravens, John "JuJu" Smith*, Gerald Bowman
The Trojans are dangerously thin at safety, with no real depth currently available outside of Gerald Bowan. There will be some incoming freshmen like JuJu Smith who are more than capable of earning playing time if need be.
Fortunately for USC, both McQuay and Cravens are excellent starters, with Cravens in particular being one of the Trojans' most reliable playmakers. As a freshman, Cravens finished second on the team in interceptions (four) and had 53 tackles. We can only expect more from him in his sophomore season.
Barring injury to either of these guys, Smith might see more time as a wide receiver in the early weeks of fall camp. But both he and Gerald Bowman will get some reps in the rotation either way.
In the recent past, the Trojan secondary took a huge hit in productivity when the starters came out of the rotation. This season, the talent gap shouldn't be as drastic, as Smith is coming in game ready and Bowman had a strong spring after fully recovering from a leg injury in 2013.
Kicker: Andre Heidari
Punter: Kris Albarado
USC's kicking and punting game have been headache inducing of late, but a solid performance from them in the spring suggests a better effort can be expected in the fall.
Andre Heidari was hot and cold in 2013, thrilling all in Troy when he sealed the upset victory over No. 5 Stanford but frustrating fans and the coaches alike with misses from short range.
Similarly, Kris Albarado has his fair of lackluster punts that didn't do much to help the Trojans defense out. His punts averaged a length of just 37 yards, which was good, but nothing to write home about.
Heidari nailed 4-of-5 attempts in the spring game, including a long of 44 yards. If he can reproduce those kind of results in the fall, USC won't have to reconsider kicking a field goal or going for it as much as it had to last season.