WeAreSC staffers give three storylines that stood out from the 2015 USC spring ball practices.
1. Comfort level in year two under Sark: There was a notable difference in the comfort level between players and coaches this spring, which is to be expected in the second year of a program being installed by a new coaching staff. The increased familiarity with each other and with the playbook allowed for a crisper level of performance not only with the more established players such as Cody Kessler and Su'a Cravens but it also gave opportunities to put players in position to succeed, such as Lamar Dawson, Olajuwon Tucker, Chris Hawkins and Nico Falah.
2. There really are some talented players: The roster numbers may not quite be back to full strength just yet coming off the sanctions, but it’s pretty clear the Trojans aren’t hurting for talented bodies. Guys such as Kessler, Cravens and Max Tuerk looked every bit like All-American candidates this spring while young guns Adoree’ Jackson and JuJu Smith have star power written all over them, especially when judging by the line of kids waiting to meet them after practices. And that’s not even mentioning Steven Mitchell, who showed the explosiveness of a big-time playmaker, or Kevon Seymour, whom Cravens called his choice for MVP of spring.
3. Some key questions simply won’t be answered until fall: There were three position groups that left spring with a lot of unknowns that won’t be finalized until fall camp. At running back, Justin Davis was the only scholarship tailback although fullback Soma Vainuku got a lot of reps as well. Will Tre Madden be healthy enough to play a major role? What about the trio of freshmen? At tight end, will Bryce Dixon be back on the team or will it be true freshman Tyler Petite or transfer Taylor McNamara who will be needed right away? And on the defensive line, possibly the biggest of all the concerns, there is the injury status of starter Antwaun Woods, reserves Greg Townsend and Kenny Bigelow, as well as the academic issues of Claude Pelon.
1. Miles ahead of where they were last year: Entering Year 2 under Steve Sarkisian, the Trojans were a much crisper, confident and just plain happier-looking bunch this spring than they were a year ago, when they were still acclimating themselves to a new playbook and coaching staff. Appearing to be completely at ease in Sarkisian’s system now, and with players such as Kessler, JuJu Smith and Cravens leading the way, this is a team that appears to be focused on the task at hand and ready to get after it in 2015.
2. The depth of the offensive line: With perhaps the most depth that we’ve seen here since the Pete Carroll days, the offensive line emerged as a real strength this spring. The Trojans are two-deep – and in some cases three-deep – at every spot along the line, and with those young standouts such as Toa Lobendahn, Damien Mama and Viane Talamaivao now having some experience under their belt, this is a really cohesive-looking group. Throw in the fact the players appear to haven taken to new offensive line coach Bob Connelly and his style of coaching, and there’s reason to believe this unit could be ready to perform at a high level in 2015.
3. Questions on the defensive line: In contrast to the offensive line, the defensive line is a position group marked by uncertainty. With key pieces of the puzzle such as Woods, Bigelow and Greg Townsend Jr. missing the entire spring due to injury, it was hard to get a real read on just what kind of group the Trojans have here. Delvon Simmons, Cody Temple and Pelon ran with the No. 1 group for a majority of the spring, and while they certainly flashed at times, the Trojans undoubtedly need more consistency, as well as more production, here. The return of those injured players should help, and a talented group of incoming freshmen also figure to be relied upon heavily.
1. The impressive display of wide receivers and the depth of explosive talent at that position: In sophomores Smith, Mitchell, and Jackson, the Trojans will possess three of the most feared receivers in all of college football. Even big JC transfer Isaac Whitney started to really flash near the end of spring ball and could be part of a deep rotation that will also include athletic sophomore Ajene Harris and physical junior Darreus Rogers. In starting senior Heisman Trophy candidate Kessler and talented sophomore backup Max Browne, Sarkisian has two very talented quarterbacks who can deliver the goods.
2. The lack of domination by the defensive front: Sure, there were some improvements in the spring by returnees such as senior Simmons, but the jury is still out regarding this unit. Due to injuries, answers couldn’t be provided during the spring. As expected, there was no replacement for departed All-America tackle Leonard “Big Cat” Williams, but if the Trojans are to be a championship club, somebody is going to have step up and in a big way.
3. Due to numbers and injuries, the Trojans continued inability to scrimmage 11-on-11: The question lingers with what kind of physical and mentally adept team will Sarkisian field next fall in his second season as head coach? It will be interesting to see if the cautious approach in the spring continues well into fall camp. Sark says when he finally has the roster numbers next spring, he hopes to have a true spring game, which would answer a lot of the type of unanswered questions that surfaced this spring. Of course, with the Trojans opening up the 2015 season with Arkansas State and Idaho in the Coliseum - two games most media and fans see as merely exhibition games before Stanford comes to town in Week 3 - maybe it’s just all part of Sark’s master plan.