Despite the many changes USC is going through this offseason, the fall promises a fresh start for a team that is expected to be fairly competitive in 2014. Even with a handful of early NFL departures and graduations, the majority of USC's playmakers on both sides of the ball return for Steve Sarkisian's inaugural campaign.
Depth issues aside, the Trojans field several talented athletes guaranteed to dazzle on Saturdays. That said, USC also has its fair share of weak spots that, if not strengthened during fall camp, could really plague the Trojans on their quest to a 10-win season. The influx of freshmen set to join the ranks in August brings the Trojans new stars in the making, and with them are sure to come pleasant surprises.
Let's take a look at what some of those are.
Offensively, USC's biggest assets can be found in the running backs and wide receivers corps. Nelson Agholor is a budding star in the passing lanes, and the bruising duo of Tre Madden and Javorius "Buck" Allen gobbles up yards on the ground. Through the Trojans' shaky quarterback transition last season, these athletes did their part to keep the touchdowns coming.
With former Trojan wide receiver Marqise Lee hampered by injury in 2013, Agholor took on additional responsibilities and had a breakout season.
|Yards per Catch||17.89||16.39|
|Receptions per Game||1.5||4.0|
When quarterback Cody Kessler wasn't targeting Agholor, he was handing the ball off to his stable of running backs and watching them grind through defenses for big gains. Madden and Allen will be back to lead the ground game, with Justin Davis also returning from injury to contribute.
|Yards per Game||55.29||63.91|
|Attempts per Game||9.57||12.55|
And those stats for Allen reflect the fact that he spent the first half of 2013 still in Lane Kiffin's doghouse. It wasn't until then-interim head coach Ed Orgeron took over that we really got to see what Allen could do for the Trojans.
That said, USC's biggest strength by far is its defense, one that ranked in the top three of nearly every defensive category among the teams in the Pac-12.
|Total Defense||334.9 yards/game||1st|
|Opponent FGs||53.8% made (7-of-13)||1st|
|Opponent Red-Zone Conversion||11.63%||1st|
|Opponent 1st Downs||18.2/game||2nd (Behind Arizona State)|
|Opponent 3rd-Down Conversions||32.67%||2nd (Behind Stanford)|
|Rushing Defense||120.29 yards/game (14 TDs)||2nd (Behind Stanford)|
|Passing Defense||214.6 yards/game (20 TDs)||2nd (Behind Oregon)|
|Scoring Defense||21.2 points/game||3rd (Behind Stanford and Oregon)|
|Tackles for Loss||6.50/game||3rd (Behind Stanford and ASU)|
With returning starters such as linebacker Hayes Pullard, defensive end Leonard Williams and safety Su'a Cravens leading the pack, the Trojans defense should be able to carry the team through the early stages of the season while the offense is once again sorting itself out.
As impressive as Agholor, Madden and Allen were on an individual basis, USC's overall offensive effort has left much to be desired. The firepower just wasn't there in 2013 for a combination of reasons. First, Cody Kessler was still learning the ropes of being the starting quarterback, and he had to do so behind a shaky, unreliable offensive line.
In 2012, USC's O-line led the Pac-12 in sacks allowed, giving up just 17 on the season. Last season however, the Trojans plummeted to 10th and gave up 34 sacks on the season, averaging 2.43 sacks per game. No quarterback can flourish with a sieve in front of him, and the Trojans' overall offensive statistics reflect that:
|Rushing Offense||172 yards/game||7th|
|Scoring Offense||29.7 points/game||9th|
|Passing Offense||227.1 yards/game||10th|
|Total Offense||399.1 yards/game||10th|
|Tackles for Loss Allowed||7.23/game (94 total)||10th|
Interestingly enough, the only offensive stat where USC finished at the top of the Pac-12 was in red-zone conversions. The Trojans scored on 37 out of 40 trips to the red zone, making 27 touchdowns and nailing 10 other field goals. With a 92.50 percent success rate, the Trojans held down the No. 1 spot.
Sark and offensive line coach Tim Drevno are hard at work giving the O-line a face-lift, and in a few months, we will see how successful that effort has been.
The fusion of experienced talent such as Max Tuerk with that of new and up-and-coming athletes such as Toa Lobendahn and Khaliel Rodgers (not to mention the incoming freshmen) should help restore the integrity of USC's O-line, which used to be one of the Trojans' many strengths during Pete Carroll's tenure.
Beyond the O-line, USC's kicking and punting games have been pretty weak and unreliable the past two seasons. The Trojans finished in the bottom two of the conference in both categories last season, which comes as no surprise, considering how lackluster both Andre Heidari and Kris Albarado were when called upon.
|Field Goals||15-of-22 (68.2%)||10th|
Outside of his game-winner in the upset over Stanford, Heidari couldn't be trusted to give the Trojans points from distance, something he did quite successfully as a freshman. In 2011, he completed 88.2 percent of his field goals, the third-highest percentage in all of college football, and he made all 50 PAT attempts on the season.
The past two seasons, however, he's been on the decline. In his defense, some of that is due to a lingering knee injury, but he will still certainly need to improve not to be viewed as a liability in 2014.
How secret they are is up for debate, but the impending addition of Adoree' Jackson and John "JuJu" Smith is sure to bolster USC's playmaking abilities this fall, on whatever side of the ball they see playing time. This wide receiver-defensive back duo is touted as game-ready, and these athletes have yet to line up for a single down at the collegiate level.
The aforementioned Madden is another player to keep an eye on and will be contributing more than ever to the Trojans this fall. He'll be fully healthy come fall camp and will be even more of a threat for opposing defenses. The same could be said for Agholor, who is such a game-changer on offense and special teams that he is always poised to catalyze a momentum swing for the Trojans.
Beyond them, it's hard to really say what the Trojans' secret weapon will be in 2014. Whether it's the re-emergence of a veteran who's previously been hampered by injury or an incoming talent ready to make waves, so many changes are still going on that we don't have any concrete answers about how USC will look once in top form.
Those answers will become more clear once fall camp starts.