Ok so I’m just going to assume for a second that we are all in a judgment free zone. Chuck Bass is able to say things like, “I’m Chuck Bass”, because his name carries a cache. USC football is no different. The Trojan brand is one of the most marketable, recognizable, and synonymous with winning in the sport. However, it’s been a little while since USC lived up to that name on the field, despite continuing to churn out top notch talent. However, this year many consider the Men of Troy a favorite to win the loaded Pac-12 South, but it won’t be easy.
Cody Kessler was the most underrated quarterback in the country last season. The fact that he never really got into the Heisman discussion is a little bit of a sham. He threw for over 3,800 yards, 39 touchdowns and five interceptions last season. And if that wasn’t enough, he did that while completing just shy of 70% of his passes. Now, Kessler is getting the attention he deserves, and hopefully his play continues to live up to these increased expectations.
Nelson Agholor may be gone, but Juju Smith and Darreus Rogers are an athletic tandem at receiver. Smith caught 54 passes for 724 yards as a freshman last season, and it’s safe to say that we are only scratching the surface of what he can do at the college level. Rogers wasn’t quite as productive as Smith last season, but he did make the most of his opportunities catching 72.4% of his targets for over 11 yards per catch. Steven Mitchell is another receiver to watch as he should step into a more expanded role in the offense in his sophomore season. Fellow sophomore Ajene Harris would have also been included in that sentence, but he recently suffered a season-ending hip injury.
USC’s offensive line may fit into that rare category of having too many players that need playing time. All-Pac-12 center Max Tuerk returns for his senior season, and headlines potentially the best line in the conference. Chad Wheeler and Toa Lobendahn are currently listed as co-starters at left tackle, and given both of their pedigrees it’s safe to say that both will find their way onto the field. Zach Banner and Viane Talamaivao make up the right side of the line and have 24 combined starts. Left guard will be the least experienced position unless Lobendahn ends up starting there, but Damien Mama did start four games as a freshman last season too, and is currently listed as the starter.
Tre Madden’s return is a huge boost to a running back stable that is easily the biggest source of concern for the offense. Madden rushed for over 700 yards in 2013, but missed all of last season after breaking his foot. He will be joined primarily by Justin Davis, who rushed for 595 yards and four touchdowns as Javorius Allen’s main running mate last season.
Adoree’ Jackson and Kevon Seymour make up a solid pair of corners, even with Jackson being only a sophomore and expected to make a contribution on offense. The pair only intercepted one pass last season, but broke up 22 passes last season. Leon McQuay III also pitched in two interceptions and four pass break-ups last season. Sophomore John Plattenburg ought to round out the back end of the starters on defense.
Su’a Cravens and Anthony Sarao return at linebacker for the Men of Troy. Cravens was an absolute monster last season with 17 tackles for loss, five sacks, three interceptions and five pass break-ups. Sarao pitched in 56 tackles and two interceptions. Lamar Dawson missed all of 2014 with a knee injury, but his return for the 2015, but his return to the field will be a welcome sight considering that he will have to replace last season’s leading tackler Hayes Pullard. Scott Felix will also be expected to step in full-time as the “Rush” backer, after being J.R. Tavai’s main back-up last season. Felix had five tackles for loss and a forced fumble last season.
Leonard Williams is the only major loss up front, but he is a big one. Williams, as many of you draft junkies may remember, was widely considered the best player in the draft even though he slid to sixth to the Jets on draft day. The remaining lineman don’t have a whole lot of production to their names even if two starting linemen return. No returning player on this line had more than 2.5 sacks last season, and only Claude Pelon had more than three tackles for loss. Pelon will replace Williams in the starting lineup alongside Antwaun Woods and Delvon Simmons.
I confess myself skeptical of the Trojans, as a playoff team at least. There are several landmines on their schedule, and in recent history it hasn’t even been the landmines that USC has had to look out for. They’ve had a big trouble with losing games that they really ought to not lose. Trips to Arizona State, Notre Dame and Oregon will all be rough trips, and home dates against Stanford and UCLA won’t be a walk in the park either. USC has a great quarterback and a roster loaded with athleticism, and the depth issue created by the sanctions are finally starting to alleviate, so the Trojans just might have the best team they have had since the Pete Carroll era.