Biggest Storylines Heading into USC Fall Camp
A new era of USC football kicks off in a few short weeks when new head coach Steve Sarkisian leads the Trojans against Fresno State.
At preseason camp, Sarkisian and his staff will address some of the more glaring issues the Trojans face in preparation for Aug. 30. Chief among them—and a potential matter of season-long refinement—is the development of new contributors.
Building and maintaining depth will be at the base of every major storyline USC faces in the 2014 season. Heading into fall camp, Sarkisian is still getting a feel for his roster and possible problem spots. But he's learning quickly.
"As we got going into spring ball and watched the development of some of the players that red-shirted," Sarkisian said, "I'm thinking about Chris Hawkins, I'm thinking about an Antwaun Woods who played 20 snaps a game a year ago, I'm thinking about Toa Lobendahn; some of the new faces."
These new faces, blended with a cast of breakout leaders from last year's 10-win team, will chart the course for USC's coming campaign.
The Right Man for the Job
Sarkisian's hire last December may not have inspired the most enthusiastic of reactions. In some cases, such as a tweet by NBC Sports' Chris Huston, the hire attracted outright derision.
But athletic director Pat Haden made a logical choice. Sarkisian is familiar with both the traditions and expectations at USC, has been through five seasons as a Pac-12 head coach and his ties to the Southern California recruiting scene are second-to-none.
Sarkisian's familiarity with USC means the new head coach understands the program's history—and because of that history, nothing short of winning will suffice.
"I'm not here to make excuses for anybody. I'm not here to apologize," he said. "I'm here to lead USC football in the right direction and to try to win championships."
Sarkisian made the right impression when he landed the Pac-12's highest rated recruiting class, per 247Sports. The initial weeks of the 2014 season, which include a visit to two-time defending Pac-12 champion Stanford, will further set the tone of the Sarkisian era.
A strong start can go a long way in silencing some of the detractors.
Adjusting to the No-Huddle Offense
An uptempo offensive style is the most dramatic change the new coaching regime is introducing. The system requires all phases of the Trojans roster to be on their toes.
More snaps obviously translate to more opportunities for breakout stars, such as wide receiver Nelson Agholor and running back Javorius "Buck" Allen. The duo were USC's leaders in the passing and running attack down the stretch last season, respectively.
But to keep opposing defenses from keying in on Agholor and Allen, new Trojans must step up. Per quarterback Cody Kessler, George Farmer is a candidate.
"He can straight fly," Kessler said. "For him to be able to move that fast, for his size...very unique to have."
At 6'1", 220 pounds, Farmer is a possible possession-receiving complement to the deep threat Agholor. But the Trojans need more than just Farmer stepping up for the uptempo offense to realize its potential.
Practice is central to that end, though Sarkisian said striking the right balance of preparation and recovery is necessary with USC's limited roster.
"We practice hard," he said. "It's physical, mentally challenging. How much is the key. If we only have ones and twos, we're not going to run the same amount of plays in practice as we would have if we had ones, twos, and threes on the depth chart.
"We're going to focus on the exact number of reps our starters are getting," Sarkisian added.
What Quarterback Controversy?
Kessler retained his spot as USC's No. 1 quarterback, despite competition from ballyhooed redshirt freshman Max Browne in the spring.
Sarkisian gave the veteran Kessler a vote of confidence in April, and Kessler said he recognizes the standard he must meet.
"Those [previous starting USC quarterbacks] set the bar so high," Kessler said. "Matt Leinart, Matt Barkley, Mark Sanchez, these guys talked to me and these are the guys [who] set the standard."
For Kessler, his part in approaching the high level of past USC quarterbacks is to operate as facilitator.
Sarkisian said the quarterback is comfortable leading the Trojans' new uptempo offense because of his basketball background. Kessler played point guard for Centennial High School in Bakersfield, California.
He agreed with Sarkisian's assessment, saying the mindset for a signal-caller is the same as it is for a floor general.
"The guys in the skill positions are a lot more athletic than me," he said. "My job is to get them the ball, get them the chance to make plays.
"Like [playing] point guard: Getting shooters the ball gives you the best chance to win," he added.
Kessler improved his chemistry with playmakers Agholor and Allen late last season. Should that carry over into fall camp, the Trojans offense will be humming along—and any quarterback controversy will be a distant memory.
Leading with Defense
Sarkisian left no doubt as to which unit will be the Trojans' foundation for the season.
"Our front seven is the strength of our football team," he said. "Leonard Williams, Antwaun Woods, Scott Starr, Hayes Pullard, Anthony Sarao, J.R. Tavai, Claude Pelon: I think it's a great group."
Indeed, USC boasts one of the more formidable defensive fronts, with All-American and potential No. 1 NFL draft pick Leonard Williams serving as its anchor.
The front seven is not a bad cornerstone from which USC can build. In the program's last conference championship season, 2008, the Trojans featured one of the great front sevens in college football history.
Brian Cushing, Clay Matthews, Rey Maualuga and Kaluka Maiava led the linebacker corps, with offensive lines left to contend with Everson Griffen and Fili Moala up front. All told, that defense gave up just nine points and 87.4 rushing yards per game.
The Trojans' 2014 defense may not be at that level, but its outlook gives Sarkisian reason for excitement.
"Really good football teams are good up front on defense, and we have a chance to be that," he said.
Overseeing the group is new coordinator Justin Wilcox, who came to USC alongside Sarkisian from Washington.
"Scheme-wise, I'm not worried. Justin is a tremendous defensive coach," Sarkisian said. "He'll do a great job and have our guys ready to play."
At Washington, Wilcox inherited a defense that ranked No. 108 nationally in points allowed in 2011. Each season under Wilcox, the Huskies improved, to No. 39 in 2012 and No. 29 in 2013.