Directing Steve Sarkisian’s no-huddle, shotgun-based offensive attack, USC quarterback Cody Kessler and a strong collection of skill players found plenty of success in 2014, scoring an average of 35.8 points per game -- No. 22 in the FBS. But with an offensive line that featured three freshmen starters by the end of the season, and with the offense as a whole searching for its identity early on, this is a group that had its peaks as well as its valleys.
After starting the entire 2013 campaign in command of Lane Kiffin’s offense, Kessler made a seamless transition into Sarkisian’s scheme and had one of the most efficient seasons in USC football history. The fourth-year junior completed a remarkable 70 percent of his passes – the No. 3 mark nationally – for 3,826 yards and 39 touchdowns with only five interceptions. A finalist for the Unitas Golden Arm Award and the Manning Award, Kessler recently announced that he will return for his senior year.
Tailback Javorius “Buck” Allen picked right up where he left off after asserting himself late in 2013. Going over the century mark in nine of the Trojans’ 13 games, the fourth-year junior rushed for a total of 1,489 yards and 11 touchdowns. Also an outstanding receiving threat, he wound up leading the Pac-12 with 149.8 all-purpose yards per game. He’s currently in the process of deciding whether or not he’ll return in 2015.
Coming back from an ankle injury that forced him to miss the last portion of the 2013 season, sophomore Justin Davis, who battled some fumbling issues, rounded more and more back into form as the season wore on, amassing 630 yards and four touchdowns on the ground, and he also caught two touchdown passes.
Walk-on second-year freshman James Toland IV was a valuable practice contributor as well as the No. 3 tailback, while redshirt junior Tre Madden suffered a bad case of turf toe in fall camp that forced him to miss the season.
Fourth-year junior Soma Vainuku and junior Jahleel Pinner both saw time at fullback, but they were utilized more as blockers than anything else, with the two combining for just 46 rushing yards and one touchdown.
Receivers and Tight ends
Even with the early departure of Marqise Lee to the NFL following last season, Kessler found himself with a stellar collection of wideouts at his disposal in 2014 thanks to a mixture of veterans and youngsters who all produced at a high level.
Not surprisingly, it was junior Nelson Agholor who was Kessler’s favorite target. After making 56 grabs in 2013, the speedy junior caught a team-high 104 passes for 1,313 yards and 12 touchdowns. Having recently declared for the NFL draft, he leaves USC with 2,571 receiving yards and 20 touchdown catches to his credit, not to mention four touchdowns on punt returns.
While Agholor’s output was more or less expected, the standout play of freshman JuJu Smith was a revelation. Big and fast with excellent hands, he finished No. 2 on the team with 54 catches, and he was also a force on special teams for which he garnered second-team All-Pac-12 honors.
The emergence of redshirt junior George Farmer was one of the feel-good stories of the season. Having arrived at USC with a ton of hype out of nearby Gardena (California) Serra, his Trojans career had been stymied by injuries, but he finally began to break through this fall, hauling in 25 passes for 314 yards and four touchdowns.
Another former Serra star, freshman Adoree’ Jackson, might have been the most electric performer of this bunch, even if his primary focus was at cornerback. In limited snaps on offense he caught 10 passes for 138 yards and three touchdowns, and he also returned two kickoffs for scores.
Sophomore Darreus Rogers added 21 receptions, while second-year freshman Steven Mitchell and freshman Ajene Harris factored into the rotation at slot receiver. Victor Blackwell left the team early in the season because he was unhappy with his playing time.
With junior Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick academically ineligible, the Trojans were left with just two scholarship tight ends in fifth-year senior Randall Telfer and freshman Bryce Dixon, and the position never became quite as much of a focal point as it was in Sarkisian’s scheme at Washington, although that could certainly change with added depth. Telfer, a team leader, led the way with 21 catches, while Dixon showed lights-out potential in a season that saw him make 14 grabs for 198 yards and four touchdowns. Walk-on Chris Willson saw significant time early on, although his season was cut short due to a broken foot. Teddy Baker and offensive lineman Nathan Guertler were others who took reps at tight end.
An extremely young offensive line provided the Trojans with some surprising production up front in their first and only season under Tim Drevno, but they predictably also had their share of struggles -- evidenced by the fact that they gave up 32 sacks, including six in the loss to UCLA, and five in the Boston College defeat.
Leading the way was the man in the middle, first-team All-Pac-12 center Max Tuerk. A physical junior who spent his career at guard and tackle up until last spring, Tuerk had some difficulties in the snapping department, but appeared to get that under control as the season wore on.
At right tackle, 6-foot-9, 350-pound third-year sophomore Zach Banner started all 13 games -- an extremely positive sign considering he was coming off surgery on both of his hips.
Redshirt sophomore left tackle Chad Wheeler was having a solid year before going down with a torn ACL late in the season. In his place was Toa Lobendahn -- the only freshman to start every game this season -- who slid over from left guard. Lobendahn played beyond his years this fall, but he certainly wasn’t the only freshman who contributed in a major way as Viane Talamaivao and Damien Mama also played crucial roles. Talamaivao started the final 11 games at right guard, while Mama saw time at both guard spots as a part-time starter and key backup.
Redshirt freshman Khaliel Rodgers was another player who lined up at left guard, starting three games, and other reserves included fifth-year seniors Nathan Guertler and Giovanni Di Poalo, as well as second-year freshman Nico Falah. The biggest mystery of the season revolved around senior Aundrey Walker, who played sparingly after coming back from a broken ankle.
Freshmen Chris Brown and Jordan Austin (hip surgery) both redshirted, and Jordan Simmons was never quite able to work his way back from the knee injury that he suffered in 2013, although he did see time against Boston College.