Power Ranking USC's Positional Units for 2014

Kyle Kensing@kensing45Contributor IJune 24, 2014

Power Ranking USC's Positional Units for 2014

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    What USC lacks in numbers from three years of NCAA-mandated scholarship limitations, the Trojans make up for in talent. 

    First-year head coach Steve Sarkisian embarks on his debut campaign with a high-potential roster, reminiscent of some of the USC teams of its era of dominance in the 2000s. The offense is built on a multifaceted running game, and all phases of the defense have game-changing playmakers. 

    The Trojans also face some uncertainty, the result of their lack of depth. The full burden of NCAA sanctions takes its toll in 2014, which forces some newcomers and reserves to step up into contributing roles immediately. 

9. Offensive Line

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    Sarkisian played a game of three-card Monte with his offensive line in the spring, shifting players into different positions and interjecting new contributors in an effort to find the right combination.

    Front-five stalwart Max Tuerk played on the interior and outside of the line his first two years in the program. In year three, Tuerk looks primed to take over for NFL early departure Marcus Martin at center.

    "When Max's number is called, whenever that is, he's going to play great football for us," Sarkisian told Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times.

    Fellow veteran Aundrey Walker spent the spring rehabilitating an injury, but will return as one of the unit's leaders. Chad Wheeler took his lumps at tackle in 2013, though the experience should prove invaluable for the coming campaign. 

    Question Marks

    There is a distinct possibility USC will rely heavily on two true freshmen. Toa Lobendahn worked his way into the first-string line during spring workouts, while highly touted prospect Damien Mama is immediately the biggest body USC has at 6'4", 370 pounds. 

    The newcomers are hardly the only unproven commodities who will be vital to the line's progression. Zach Banner, a 6'9", 345-pound redshirt sophomore, must take a significant step forward in his development this season. 

    Why They're Ranked Here

    The offensive line is USC's most mysterious unit. Tuerk is a standout and Walker's experience will be invaluable, but there is plenty of uncertainty, both in terms of depth and along the starting front. 

    Lobendahn's quick ascent up the depth chart in spring is a testament to his potential, but also a reminder that this unit was a weakness for the Trojans a season ago. Certainly losing Martin set the offensive line back in the offseason, but the Trojans have lots of talent set to emerge.

8. TIght Ends

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    USC has a track record of cultivating standout tight ends, and so does Sarkisian. Austin Seferian-Jenkins was a cornerstone of Sarkisian's offense at Washington, earning All-American honors.

    Sarkisian is so steadfast in his use of the tight end as a pass-catcher, he specifically touted that component of the offense in his introductory press conference, per USCTrojans.com.

    Randall Telfer is the sole returning tight end with significant game experience. He was on the receiving end of four touchdowns in 2012, though he saw a diminished role in 2013 with half as many catches—six compared to 12 the season prior—and just one score. 

    Question Marks

    Xavier Grimble bolted early for the NFL draft and Telfer sat out spring practices. Telfer faces a steep learning curve in the new offense before the Trojans' Week 1 contest against Fresno State. 

    Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick shined as the sole scholarship tight end available in the spring. However, Cope-Fitzpatrick is coming off a 2013 with just one reception—which is one more than the likely third tight end, in the rotation, 4-star 2014 recruit Bryce Dixon. 

    Why They're Ranked Here

    Due to Sarkisian's reliance on the tight end, this could certainly be the breakout position for USC in 2014.

    However, it's a lot of potential with little production as of yet. Cope-Fitzpatrick's spring performance is promising, and Telfer has a demonstrated ability as a red-zone threat. 247Sports ranked Dixon the nation's No. 2 tight end prospect in 2014, so his ceiling is obviously high. 

7. Special Teams

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    Nelson Agholor was among the nation's leaders last season with two punts returned for touchdowns. Agholor's speed and shiftiness make him an exceptionally difficult player to handle on special teams and a huge asset in setting the table for the Trojans offense. Even when he didn't take it to the house, Agholor's 19.06 yard-per-return average translated to scoring opportunities.

    Agoholor doubled as kick returner, a duty he split with Marqise Lee. Lee's departure for the NFL opens a possible spot for Adoree' Jackson to show off his breakaway speed in the return game.

    Punter Kris Albarado got plenty of work in his sophomore campaign, booting the ninth-most punts of any player in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

    He has a knack for pinning opposing offenses, most notably landing five punts inside the 20-yard line against Utah State, per USCTrojans.com.

    Question Marks

    Andre Heidari returns as place-kicker with room for improvement. His game-winning field goal to beat Stanford last November was a highlight, but he connected on just 68.2 percent of his attempts in 2013.

    Heidari also missed three extra-point attempts.

    Why They're Ranked Here

    Realistically, special teams have the potential to be a crucial component of the Trojans' success. Agholor's production is top-flight, and USC effectively prevents opponents from making the big play.

    If Heidari is more consistent, this unit can be one of the better groups in the Pac-12.

6. Quarterbacks

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    Cody Kessler emerged as starter from the quarterback merry-go-round a season ago. Former head coach Lane Kiffin did not settle on a clear No. 1 between Kessler and the since-transferred Max Wittek until Week 3, a decision that had an obvious impact on the offense.

    After Kiffin's dismissal and offensive coordinator Clay Helton's assumption of play-calling duties, Kessler found his rhythm. But another coaching change meant he had to once again win a quarterback battle, this time with former 5-star recruit Max Browne

    Sarkisian opted not to let the competition linger long, though, naming Kessler the starter in April. 

    "He’s extremely decisive,” Sarkisian said, per Scott Wolf of the Los Angeles Daily News. “I love his leadership with the players. He can throw the deep ball extremely well."

    Question Marks

    Although Kessler proved himself worthy of the No. 1 spot down the stretch last season, and further solidified his position by winning Sarkisian's vote of confidence in the spring, the murmur for Browne will remain in the background all season. 

    Only a truly stellar campaign from Kessler will truly disprove naysayers—and yet, there is no tangible evidence Browne is ready to step into Sarkisian's offense and immediately flourish. Browne spent 2013 as a redshirt and has yet to take a collegiate snap. 

    Why They're Ranked Here

    Kessler's crescendo to cap off 2013, which included a four-touchdown outing in the Las Vegas Bowl, should be enough to validate his spot atop the depth chart.

    Still, he must build off that finish both to keep his job and to make the Trojans viable contenders for the Pac-12 South crown.  

5. Wide Receivers

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    With All-American and erstwhile Heisman Trophy candidate Marqise Lee fending off injury, drops and double-teams in 2013, Agholor established himself as USC's go-to receiver.

    Agholor ended the season with 916 yards and six touchdowns, both team highs. His 56 receptions were just behind Lee's 57.

    With an offseason to further develop his chemistry with Kessler, Agholor should put up eye-popping numbers in 2014—assuming he gets support from his fellow receivers.

    Question Marks

    As defenses focused on Lee early into 2013, Agholor flourished. Someone must do the same for Agholor this season.

    Darreus Rogers is the most likely candidate, having caught 22 passes in 2013—second most among returning wideouts. However, Rogers went without a touchdown reception. 

    In fact, no other returning Trojans wide receiver aside from Agholor made a scoring grab in 2013. Rogers and Victor Blackwell must establish themselves as scoring threats in order to keep defenses honest. 

    Incoming 5-star prospects Adoree' Jackson and John "JuJu" Smith have the speed and athleticism to be deep threats, but both enter the program as potential difference-makers at defensive backs. There is no guarantee either will have an impact offensively. 

    Why They're Ranked Here

    Agholor is a top-tier threat and preseason All-American, continuing the Trojans' recent run of stellar pass-catchers. Sarkisian could not have a better No. 1 off whom to build, but USC needs viable second and third options to emerge. 

4. Secondary

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    Florida transfer Josh Shaw and true freshman Su'a Cravens were dynamic together in the Trojans secondary, doing what they could to alleviate pressure on what last year was one of the team's potential trouble areas.

    Shaw and Cravens are back to key this unit, coming off a 2013 in which both intercepted four passes. 

    Junior Kevon Seymour is an unheralded but vital part of this unit. His presence at the cornerback position opposite Shaw prevents defenses from focusing on one side of the field. 

    Question Marks

    With Dion Bailey headed to the NFL, defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox is left to find a new rover capable of excelling in both run-stopping and pass coverage. Leon McQuay III is the likely successor filling Bailey's very big shoes. 

    Bailey intercepted five passes in 2013 to lead the Trojans, and his 11 passes defended matched Shaw for the team high. 

    Why They're Ranked Here

    Few secondaries feature a player as talented as either Shaw or Cravens—USC has both. Still, depth remains a concern.

    Jackson and Smith could be integral to defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox's plans, assuming one or both is ready to step into the lineup immediately. 

3. Defensive Line

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    Leonard Williams graces numerous preseason All-America teams, and with good reason. The versatile junior was equal parts pass-rusher and run-stopper for the Trojans in 2013, amassing 13.5 tackles for loss and 74 total tackles.

    Williams gets reinforcements in the form of Texas Tech transfer Delvon Simmons, a potential gap-plugger who started all 13 games for the Red Raiders in 2012.  

    Question Marks

    George Uko's departure leaves a sizable void up front Wilcox is hard-pressed to fill. Uko made five sacks and seven tackles for loss, both of which were second only to Williams among Trojans linemen. 

    Antwaun Woods will take on a more prominent role after recording 19 tackles in 13 games last season, while junior college transfer Claude Pelon competes for immediate playing time. 

    Why They're Ranked Here

    With Williams as its leader, USC boasts arguably the best defensive line in the conference. Certainly Uko's departure looms large, but the Trojans are not lacking for talent. 

    Pelon was a 4-star recruit per 247Sports, and FoxSports.com's Rahshaun Haylock reports Woods earned high praise from Wilcox in the spring. 

    "How he prepares, how he works, his motor in practice, his attitude, I could go on and on," Wilcox said. "I've been extremely impressed with Antwaun."

2. Linebackers

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    Hayes Pullard went against the grain when he opted to return to USC for his senior season. Wilcox has to be happy Pullard did so, because the senior's presence gives the Trojans defense both a vocal leader and leader by example of his play. 

    His 94 tackles led the team and keyed the nation's No. 14 rush defense. Pullard was also effective dropping back into coverage with seven passes defended. 

    J.R. Tavai was something of a Swiss Army knife for the 2013 Trojans defense, playing on the edge and interior of the line while also operating at outside linebacker. More depth on the defensive front should allow Tavai to focus on excelling at linebacker, where he is a candidate to replicate Devon Kennard's production. 

    Kennard, now with the New York Giants, racked up a team-leading nine sacks last season. He'll be difficult to replace, but the Trojans have the talent to make a seamless transition. 

    Question Marks

    Depth is an issue at most positions for USC, the result of harsh NCAA sanctions. The linebacker corps is not spared, though the impact is far less significant than other at positions. Still, the Trojans will rely on reserves stepping up into more prominent roles for the defense to reach its potential. 

    Scott Starr is a candidate, coming off an outstanding performance in the spring game. Jabari Ruffin and Quinton Powell should see heightened roles after combining for 42 tackles a season ago. 

    Why They're Ranked Here

    Linebacker is typically a strength at USC, and the 2014 roster is no exception. Pullard's return was a huge boon for Wilcox, providing the necessary experience on which to foster the potential of a talented supporting cast. 

    Anthony Sarao and Lamar Dawson were key contributors a year ago, and both are primed for breakout 2014 campaigns. Combined with the high upside of Ruffin and Powell and the reliability of Tavai, this unit is a rock-solid foundation for the entire Trojans defense. 

1. Running Backs

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    Redshirt junior Javorius "Buck" Allen was a revelation midway through the 2013 campaign. His ascent from reserve buried on the depth chart to one of the most explosive rushers in the Pac-12 helped power USC's 7-2 finish.

    In Sarkisian's uptempo offense, Allen has All-America potential.

    Tre Madden's injury opened the door for Allen, but the redshirt junior was quite capable in the featured back role as well.

    Madden carried for 703 yards in 2013 and broke the century mark in four of his first five outings before suffering a hip injury. In his one contest without at least 100 yards, Madden accrued 93. 

    The converted linebacker gives USC another hard-charging back able to keep the pile moving, adding a physical touch to go with Sarkisian's heightened tempo. 

    Conversely, Justin Davis is a speed option who rounds out the three-man top of the depth chart. Davis averaged 6.8 yards per carry in his freshman campaign and had outings of 96 yards against Boston College and 122 at Arizona State. 

    Question Marks

    Ty Isaac's transfer to Michigan takes away one possible dimension of USC's multifaceted ground game. At 6'3", 225 pounds, Isaac was a potential goal-line and short-yardage mismatch for opposing defenses. 

    Sarkisian has options to get by without Isaac in that role, should he opt for someone other than Allen or Madden in those situations. Fullback Jahleel Pinner is one possibility. Pinner was an effective receiving weapon last season. 

    Why They're Ranked Here

    Even after losing Isaac, USC is as loaded at running back as any team in college football. Sarkisian opted for a high-volume feature back while at Washington, with Chris Polk and Bishop Sankey pushing or exceeding 300 carries every season. 

    Traditionally, USC backs split the workload. Allen is likely to see more opportunities than past Trojans No. 1 backs, but Madden and Davis will assuredly see their share of carries. 

    Statistics compiled via CFBStats.com. Recruiting rankings and information culled from 247Sports.com composite scores.