Offseason playoff darling USC is in an exciting but daunting situation. Either the Trojans will be officially "back" in 2015, or they'll fall short of expectations—again.
It's playoff or bust next season, and the first big look into this team's capabilities will be this Saturday, April 11, in the program's spring game.
There's already mounting pressure for second-year coach Steve Sarkisian to surpass last year's 9-4 debut. With the long summer months of the offseason just around the corner, here's what to watch in USC's spring game this weekend.
Finding Playmakers on Offense
Everyone knows what quarterback Cody Kessler can do. Last season, he was one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the Pac-12 (69.7 completion percentage, 3,826 yards, 39 TDs, 5 INTs) but didn't get the attention to match because of Marcus Mariota's Heisman-winning season at Oregon.
That should change next season, but what about the guys around him? Who fills the shoes left by receiver Nelson Agholor? Who becomes the Trojans' leading rusher?
The first question is easier to answer: sophomore JuJu Smith. In his first season with USC, Smith was the team's second-leading receiver with 54 catches for 724 yards and five touchdowns. At 6'2" and 210 pounds, he's a big, physical presence in the passing game with all-conference and perhaps All-American potential.
“I don’t mind being the go-to guy,” Smith said via Scott Wolf of the Los Angeles Daily News. “I’ve been doing more stuff after practice [to get better]. I’m working on my routes. Before, I just knew I had to get to a spot and get the ball. At the beginning of spring, I thought I’ve got to make plays. Now, I’m just having fun.”
Finding a No. 2 option in the passing game could be a job done by committee. Darreus Rogers caught 21 passes a year ago, four of which went for a touchdown. Adoree' Jackson could still play offense and defense because of his athleticism. Tight end Bryce Dixon is supremely talented but has faced off-the-field issues and was suspended earlier this spring for a "student conduct issue."
Meanwhile, running back reps could still be up for grabs. Junior Justin Davis rushed for nearly 600 yards and four touchdowns last season. With the Trojans having depth issues at running back, it's been the Davis show.
That could change once preseason camp rolls around, as Rahshaun Haylock of Fox Sports West wrote last month. Namely, Tre Madden should be at or near 100 percent as he recovers from a season-ending toe injury:
While the running back group may be slim today, it will receive a boost in time for fall camp when Madden should be at full strength and highly touted signees Aca'Cedric Ware and Ronald Jones II will be enrolled. It's believed the freshmen will push for playing time and Davis knows all too well what that's like having done it himself.
For now, there are two players seemingly prepared to take on bigger roles in 2015. Who else is ready?
Building the Protection Up Front
Kessler won't be getting knocked around a lot on Saturday. Along those lines, spring games don't always show how good the offensive line is. Packages are usually pretty vanilla, and the goal is to keep everyone, especially the quarterback, upright.
But if Kessler gets "spring-game sacked" a lot, so to speak, there could be a problem.
USC gave up nearly 2.5 sacks per game last season. To put that into context, that was tied for 96th in the country. Not all of that is on the offensive line, per se. As Kessler explained to Lindsay Schnell of Sports Illustrated, he has a responsibility to avoid unnecessary sacks:
USC surrendered 32 sacks last fall, and Kessler blames himself for lots of them. “The numbers look good,” he says, “but there are sacks I shouldn’t have taken.” Even in the Holiday Bowl, where he was terrific in USC’s 45-42 win over Nebraska (he completed 23 of 39 attempts for 321 yards with three touchdowns), Kessler was sacked twice. It still bugs him.
Still, you can't not acknowledge that the Trojans started three freshmen along the O-line. There are going to be growing pains associated with that.
One of the best things that can happen for an O-line is to grow together. Since the O-line returns intact, it should theoretically be better. New offensive line coach Bob Connelly has been getting plenty of praise this spring, too.
Even though there won't be any major hits on Kessler, his pocket protection will be of the utmost importance.
Replacing Leonard Williams and Filling Out the Defensive Front
Former Trojan defensive lineman Leonard Williams is the biggest loss from last year's group. Williams graded out as the top defensive lineman in this year's draft, according to B/R draft specialist Matt Miller, and is very likely headed for a top-five pick.
Never mind Leonard's stats—which, for the record, included seven sacks and 80 tackles—that's a talented guy to replace period.
Delvon Simmons should remain a staple of the defensive line. Elsewhere, there could be a lot of moving pieces. Redshirt senior Claude Pelon is the favorite to earn one of the defensive end spots, according to Johnny Curren of ESPN.com:
This is probably the hardest unit to get a read on right now. Pelon suffered a shoulder injury late in practice on Saturday, and if it winds up being serious, it will certainly shake things up here. When Pelon went to the sideline, [Malik] Dorton took his place with the No. 1 group, while also taking reps with the No. 2 unit at nose tackle. [Don] Hill, normally a rush end, lined up on the interior at defensive end. Temple has spent the entire spring going with the No. 1 group at nose tackle in place of the injured Antwaun Woods (pectoral muscle).
Though less heralded, the loss of middle linebacker Hayes Pullard is every bit as big as the loss of Williams from purely a production standpoint. Pullard led the team with 95 tackles.
Cameron Smith, an early enrollee, has shown flashes of potential throughout spring. Last month, he intercepted two passes in back-to-back practices.
“We wanted a big, physical middle linebacker and we got that,” Sarkisian told Wolf. “He’s a better athlete than we expected.”
The Trojans were good but not great against the run and in points per game allowed last year, finishing fifth in the Pac-12 in both categories. The major concern heading into next season is that three of the departures on defense are in the front seven.
For as much emphasis as the quarterback gets, having a stout defensive front is just as important. To be sure, the Trojans will be breaking in plenty of new names in that area. How those new starters perform on Saturday will be closely watched.