Fall camp opens on Saturday for the Trojans and here are key things to watch with each position group.
There isn't much that Cody Kessler will need to show in camp to prove that he is one of the leading quarterbacks in the country. The real test for Kessler will come in the fall with the need to put up big performances in the biggest games against opponents like Stanford, ASU, Notre Dame, Oregon and UCLA. Steve Sarkisian made it clear at Pac-12 media days of the need for Kessler to shine in those high-profile match-ups. In camp, however, it will be notable to see how many reps Max Browne gets as the primary back-up. There are many USC fans who are hoping to see Browne in extended action this fall whenever the Trojans get a sizable lead late in games (Arkansas State and Idaho come to mind).
The health of projected co-starters is the primary issue as there is little doubt that Tre Madden and Justin Davis have what it takes to be an effective duo carrying the ball. Madden, in particular, will be eased back into action in camp after missing all of last year with a foot/toe injury. For Sarkisian to implement the physical run game he says he wants, both of these veteran backs will need to be available for the season while balancing the need for them to get contact in camp. It will also be interesting to see how the freshmen trio of backs is worked into the rotation to see who is ready for immediate playing time.
Is Steven Mitchell ready to become that dynamic player that everyone has been waiting to see, and that he showed flashes of last season? It sure would be a huge lift for the offense if he is ready to go. It's pretty much a given that JuJu Smith will take over the lead role vacated by Nelson Agholor and the presence of Mitchell would provide a terrific complement for Kessler to spread the ball around. Also pay attention to the junior college transfers in Isaac Whitney and De'Quan Hampton as Whitney appeared to be a favorite target for Kessler in summer workouts.
First of all, watch to see who shows up. Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick is scheduled to be the starter but he was absent from July throwing session drills. Former offensive lineman Cyrus Hobbi could be an option as a walk-on but those plans won't be firm until he actually attends practice. Taylor McNamara is also expected as a transfer student but he hasn't been spotted yet at any workouts. That leaves walk-on Connor Spears and freshman Tyler Petite as the most known commodities at this point. Once the available bodies are known we will start to see how Sarkisian plans to utilize the position this year.
Sit back and enjoy watching the deepest and most talented line the Trojans have put on the field in years. Assuming Chad Wheeler comes back in time for camp, and Sarkisian said during media days he expects that to happen, there will be six top returning starters for five available spots, which is fine since the Trojans will gladly accept the opportunity to do some rotating. Toa Lobendahn is someone who could see time at tackle, guard and center. And considering this camp is expected to feature a lot of contact it will give the linemen a chance to develop the physical mentality that Sarkisian wants with this offense.
Is Antwaun Woods ready to be the anchor of the line after missing all of spring and summer team drills with a torn pec injury? Are Greg Townsend and Kenny Bigelow ready to provide quality depth along the interior? And is Jabari Ruffin ready to challenge Scott Felix at the rush end position? These injury issues are as important as anything along a D-line that is expected to feature a lot of rotating, and it will need every available body it can get. Of course, if any of the true freshmen can show they are ready for immediate playing time it would be a nice bonus, watch for Porter Gustin at the rush end spot.
Su'a Cravens should be an active guy in camp while lining up in a variety of different ways to take advantage of his unique skills in finding the football. It's remarkable to think of how productive Cravens was last season despite not moving full-time to linebacker until after fall camp, think of how much more of an impact he can have this year now that he is comfortable at the position. Cravens also gives USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox the kind of versatile weapon he will build this defense around, and USC fans can only hope that translates to a more attacking style of play. Another key to watch for will be Lamar Dawson at middle linebacker to see if he is ready to take over that critical spot for Hayes Pullard.
This could be the most interesting defensive group to focus on because the veteran experience in the secondary will be counted on to prevent the issues which were raised in several games last year. At corner, look for the duo of Kevon Seymour and Adoree' Jackson to show signs of being the best pair of starting corners USC has put on the field in a long time, and the addition of freshman Iman “Biggie” Marshall should only add to that strength. At free safety, there should be a terrific position battle between Chris Hawkins and Leon McQuay.
There might not be a more important position battle than the one that will be waged at placekicker between Matt Boermeester and Alex Wood. The competition really was too close to call in spring and could continue all the way to the season opener.