Five key positions to watch in 2015

There has been a lot of talk about the number of experienced players coming back for the Trojans next season, but what about the holes that need to be filled?

With the departures of seniors such as Hayes Pullard and J.R. Tavai, not to mention the early moves to the NFL for underclassmen such as Leonard Williams and Nelson Agholor, there are several key positions that will need to see someone emerge in order for the 2015 Trojans to compete for a conference title, or potentially more.

Here’s our look at five critical spots to watch for next year:

1. Inside Linebacker

2014 starter: Hayes Pullard

Projected 2015 starter: Michael Hutchings or Lamar Dawson

Pullard is going to be such a tough player to replace not only because of his production but because of his leadership in the defensive huddle. USC fans got a glimpse of what the future could look like in the first half of the Boston College game when Pullard was suspended, and the results were not good. Hutchings long has been considered the heir apparent, and he will get his shot after serving a two-year apprentice behind Pullard. But don’t rule out Dawson as he returns from a knee injury. He brings a lot of bulk, along with the veteran presence of a fifth-year senior. Olajuwon Tucker could get a look in spring, and a wild card in the mix during fall camp could be a true freshman such as Osa Masina or Porter Gustin if either player ends up at USC.

2. Defensive End

2014 starter: Leonard Williams

Projected 2015 starter: Delvon Simmons

OK, this is more about replacing the player, Williams, than it is the position, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less of a priority. Williams caused so much havoc and demanded so much attention that it impacted the way opposing offenses planned against him. Simmons was a capable veteran presence at multiple spots on the line in 2014 after transferring in from Texas Tech, and he figures to get the first shot at the role, but he’s not the only option the Trojans have. Claude Pelon settled in at the defensive tackle spot during the 2014 season and he figures to stay there, although the coaches could always look at moving him around. Greg Townsend has a lot of talent that briefly showed at the end of the year once he got healthy. Kenny Bigelow could get a look once he returns from his knee injury, though he has primarily been at nose tackle in his USC career.

3. No. 1 Wide Receiver

2014 starter: Nelson Agholor

Projected 2015 starter: JuJu Smith

The Trojans have been blessed over the past three seasons with a trio of receivers leading the way in Robert Woods, Marqise Lee and Agholor. Now it is time to make another transition, and the “honorary” position of No. 1 receiver appears to be in good hands with Smith, the gifted true freshman who flashed so much potential during his initial year in cardinal and gold. When watching the way Smith was able to perform it’s easy to forget that he just turned 18 during the final weeks of the season, which means there is still a lot of growing left to do on and off the field for a player who already has impressed those around the program with his attitude and work ethic.

4. Tailback

2014 starter: Buck Allen

Projected 2015 starter: Justin Davis or Tre Madden

There is nothing official on Allen leaving for the NFL but the prevailing rumor winds blowing around Heritage Hall certainly indicate that he will be gone. Allen showed plenty by rushing for nearly 1,500 yards in 2014 and returning the USC tailback spot to such a productive level. Davis is a talent, no doubt, and he should be completely healthy next fall after dealing with the lingering effects of ankle surgery during this past year. The one to watch, however, could be Madden, who has teased USC coaches and fans with his potential as a tailback ever since he moved over from linebacker after his freshman year. Turf toe cost him the 2014 season but, like Davis, he should be completely healed and ready for a big workload by the time the season rolls around.

5. Rush End

2014 starter: J.R. Tavai

Projected 2015 starter: Scott Felix or Jabari Ruffin

This is probably the least most obvious position on this list but it shouldn’t be a surprise considering the number of ways that Tavai impacted a game. Felix got his share of playing time and will look to build upon that with more consistency while facing a potential challenge from a converted linebacker. Ruffin was in a position battle at SLB in fall camp before suffering a season-ending injury that opened the door for Su'a Cravens to move into that role. With Cravens seemingly entrenched, Ruffin could end up moving to provide another athletic option to rush the passer.