It’s been a relatively quiet offseason for USC, which has been incredibly welcoming after the last few years of seemingly nonstop chaos. But no amount of calm can adequately prepare the Trojans for what figures to be a rigorous 2016 campaign, one that starts with a bang and doesn’t let up much along the way.
Ranked 17th in the preseason Amway Coaches poll and 20th in the preseason Associated Press poll, USC is the defending Pac-12 South Division champion but one that lost eight games last season, including its final two. Those setbacks, to Stanford in the Pac-12 title game and Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl, came after the school elevated interim coach Clay Helton to the permanent job.
Since that final game, Helton has been hard at work making the Trojans his own while also doing his best to avoid the turmoil that plagued predecessors Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian. He shuffled his coaching staff, hauled in a solid recruiting class and made a critical quarterback decision, all with the hope of being able to return USC to the stable and successful level it had from 2002-08.
Will it work? Here’s our in-depth look at what to expect from the Trojans this fall.
Helton has been with USC since 2010. During that time, he has been quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, and twice served as interim head coach, first in 2013 for the Trojans’ bowl game and then last year following Sarkisian’s October dismissal. He’s 6-2 in an interim role and 0-2 as permanent head coach, an oddity that perfectly describes USC’s last few seasons.
The staff Helton has put together for 2016 is a mix of old and new, with all but three assistants having prior experience with the Trojans but not necessarily from last year. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast coached the USC defense in 2013, when it ranked 13th nationally, but was not retained by Sarkisian. He spent last season with the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers before returning to the program.
It’s a similar situation for tight end/special teams coach John Baxter and running backs coach Tommie Robinson, both of whom were on Kiffin’s 2013 staff but spent the previous two seasons elsewhere.
Of the newcomers to USC’s staff, offensive line coach Neil Callaway has the strongest pedigree. The 60-year-old spent a combined 22 seasons working for three different SEC programs and was also head coach at UAB from 2007-11. He and new quarterbacks coach Tyson Helton spent the last three years at Western Kentucky, which averaged 44.3 points and 526.4 yards per game in 2015.
What to watch for on offense
The USC offense returns almost completely intact from a year ago save for one very important position: quarterback. After three seasons with Cody Kessler at the helm, the Trojans spent all spring and much of preseason camp deciding between redshirt junior Max Browne and redshirt freshman Sam Darnold.
Browne spent the last two years as Kessler’s backup but didn’t get much playing time, appearing in three games in 2015 while going 8-of-12 for 113 yards. He proved to be the more consistent of the passers during fall camp, though Darnold should see the field in some capacity and possibly even during the Sept. 3 opener against defending national champion Alabama in Arlington, Texas.
Outside of quarterback, the rest of the USC offense is going to look similar to the 2015 version. The top two running backs and top six receivers are all back, while the Trojans offensive line sports a combined 131 career starts, which is tied for second most in FBS, according to college football expert Phil Steele. Fifty-eight of those starts came last year from six guys, including the two candidates for the left guard position (redshirt sophomore Chris Brown or junior Damien Mama) that is one of just two with an “OR” on the post-training-camp depth chart.
Though not the starter—senior Justin Davis holds that distinction, as he did for the last eight games of 2015—Ronald Jones II is the Trojans’ future in the backfield. Last year as a true freshman, the 6’1”, 195-pound Jones ran for 987 yards and eight touchdowns, both of which were team highs, and his yardage broke Charles White’s school freshman rushing mark from 1976.
Junior receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is arguably the top returning wideout in the country based on his numbers. He had 89 catches for 1,454 yards and 10 TDs in 2015, converting 70 percent of his third-down receptions into first downs.
Smith-Schuster is one of four returners who had at least 20 catches and among the 10 who had 10 or more receptions in 2015.
Besides quarterback, the only other first-time starter will be at fullback, as former walk-on and converted linebacker Reuben Peters is set to assume the role held last season by Soma Vainuku.
What to watch for on defense
The USC defense isn’t nearly as experienced and deep as the offensive side, with only four seniors listed on the three-deep depth chart, including Utah graduate transfer Stevie Tu’ikolovatu. But there’s no shortage of talent thanks to three consecutive top-10 recruiting classes, with the defensive depth chart including seven former 5-star prospects.
The main question mark is on the defensive line, where the combination of graduation and a spring knee injury to redshirt junior Kenny Bigelow has thinned out the herd. Adding Tu’ikolovatu helped, as did the return of Pendergast and his 5-2 front, which moves a pair of linebackers up to the line of scrimmage and takes pressure off the down linemen. Still, two of those five starting spots are up for grabs, with sophomore Rasheem Green battling Malik Dorton and Noah Jefferson at both end positions.
Junior Khaliel Rodgers, currently listed as Tu’ikolovatu’s backup at nose tackle, is the only active and healthy Trojan to have started more than two games in 2015. According to The Ringer’s Riley McAtee, this thinness remains the biggest lingering remnant of USC’s NCAA sanctions stemming from the Reggie Bush scandal that included a two-year bowl ban in 2010-11 and scholarship reductions from 2012-14.
“On an otherwise loaded roster, that unit’s frightening lack of experience and depth is the kind of blemish that could keep the team from competing for a Pac-12 championship again,” McAtee wrote.
USC was 41st against the run last season, allowing 149.29 rushing yards per game, but sophomore Porter Gustin’s 6.5 tackles for loss are the most of any returning player.
Having a healthy Cameron Smith will solidify a linebacker corps that lost superstar Su’a Cravens early to the NFL draft. Smith had 78 tackles and was tied for the team lead with three interceptions in 10 games before missing USC’s last four contests with a knee injury that also limited him this spring.
The Trojans’ defensive strength is in the secondary, where the quartet of corners Adoree’ Jackson and Iman Marshall and safeties Chris Hawkins and Marvell Tell III started a combined 42 games in 2015. Tell is the least experienced of the group, with only two starts, but those came in the Pac-12 final and the Holiday Bowl.
With Jackson expected to see a lot of time on offense again, as well as on special teams, backup corners Ajene Harris and Jonathan Lockett will get plenty of snaps. Lockett started twice in 2015, while Harris, a converted receiver, redshirted while recovering from hip surgery.
What to watch for on special teams
Alex Wood made 13 of 17 field goals and 54 of 56 extra-point attempts in 2015, and though he had a year of eligibility remaining, he left the program during the offseason after finishing his degree. That moves Matt Boermeester, who battled for the starting job last fall and saw action in four games last season, as the Trojans’ third different kicker in as many seasons.
Boermeester was good on all four PATs and averaged 62.4 yards on 22 kickoffs, a slightly better average than Wood, but he’s yet to attempt a field goal in a live game.
USC is also starting over at punter, where Chris Tilbey succeeds three-year starter Kris Albarado. The 6’5”, 220-pound Tilbey, from Australia, redshirted in 2015 after playing tight end and punter at San Francisco City College.
There’s no uncertainty with USC’s return game, however. Jackson averaged 23 yards on kickoffs and returned two punts for scores in 2015, while as a freshman, he had a pair of kickoff-return TDs.
Bigelow’s injury, to the same knee that cost him the 2014 season, is the only one that is expected to have a long-term impact. Minor bumps and bruises occurred during preseason camp, with a number of players missing time here and there, but otherwise, USC is looking healthy heading into the start of the season.
Linebacker Cameron Smith has been sporting a brace on his surgically repaired left knee this month and has had to play catchup after not getting much time on the field during the spring. However, he’s declared himself all the way back—”I have zero pain,” he told Joey Kaufman of the Orange County Register—and will be ready to go barring a setback before the opener.
Much as it’s been the previous two seasons, Jackson is USC’s not-so-secret weapon but one that few opponents have managed to contain. His full-time job is at cornerback, but he’s started at wide receiver as both a freshman and sophomore (including a few times in the same game as starting on defense) while also handling the bulk of the punt and kickoff returns.
He’s yet to throw a pass in a college game, but if he did, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him toss a touchdown, since he’s managed to contribute to the scoring on receptions, returns and interceptions. And if Boermeester struggles in the kicking game, don’t be surprised if the multitalented Jackson gets sent out to attempt a three-pointer.
Jackson, who competed in the U.S. Olympic Trials this summer as a long jumper, might be the most dynamic athlete in college football. Though USC isn’t lacking in talent, it won’t hesitate to turn to Jackson to contribute in as many ways possible.
No one will ever accuse USC of dodging stiff competition, not based on its schedule for this season. And we’re not just referring to the daunting opener against Alabama, played in the Crimson Tide’s second home (AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas). As if that weren’t enough, the Trojans’ other two nonconference games are the annual tilt with Notre Dame and a dangerous Utah State team that’s made a bowl game in five straight seasons.
In fact, 11 of USC’s 12 opponents this fall—sorry, Colorado—made a bowl in 2015, and their combined record from last season is 101-58. According to Phil Steele, that’s the fifth-toughest schedule in terms of 2015 win percentage in the country and far more difficult than any other team’s in the Pac-12.
The Pac-12 schedule itself will be a grind, too. There are nine league games and none of the “strategically placed bye weekends,” as ESPN’s Ted Miller called them, that the SEC and other conferences tend to give teams prior to a major matchup.
The Trojans get an extra two days to prepare for Oregon in early November but only because it will have faced California on a Thursday and thus shortened the break from their lone bye. That’s one of two weeknight games, with the other a Friday visit to Utah just six days after USC opens Pac-12 play at defending champion Stanford.
USC was picked to finish second in the Pac-12 South Division, a few votes behind rival UCLA, though its five conference champion votes were second-most to the 20 that Stanford received. How the Trojans do against the Bruins and Cardinal will play a big role in their overall performance in 2015, but so much can happen in between.
The Pac-12 was the power conference that was left out of the College Football Playoff last season and could be in line for the same fate this fall because of the combination of nine league games and a slew of tough non-league matchups. But if a Pac-12 team were able to navigate all those potential pitfalls and emerge with no more than one loss, the overall schedule strength would figure to serve as a boost to its playoff hopes.
USC’s championship prospects won’t be determined by what happens against Alabama, though a win would serve as a huge bonus. More telling are the two sets of consecutive road games—first in September against Stanford and Utah, and then again in November at Washington and UCLA—that really determine how the season goes.
Helton earned praise for being able to lead the Trojans past the disarray of Sarkisian’s midyear firing and to a division title, but this is a new year. How USC handles a difficult September will set the tone for the rest of 2016.
Overall record (regular season only): 8-4
Conference record: 6-3
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.
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Source: Bleacher Report-CFB News