Notre Dame Football 2014 Off-Season Preview: USC Trojans

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Sanctions and Lane Kiffin are now gone.

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA TROJANS

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2013 Record: 10-4

F/+ Rank: 11

Wins: Hawaii, Boston College, Utah State, Arizona, Utah, Oregon State, California, Stanford, Colorado, Fresno State

Losses: Washington State, Arizona State, Notre Dame, UCLA

~~~

Season Recap

USC opened up 2013 with an easy road win at Hawaii but the offense collapsed for just 193 total yards in a week two loss at home versus Washingon State. An easy victory over Boston College steadied the ship prior to Utah State going toe to toe with the Trojans and USC needing a 4th quarter field goal to escape. A road trip to Tempe would be memorable. The offense came alive but the defense couldn't stop Arizona State (612 yards) and a 62-41 loss was the result. Lane Kiffin was subsequently fired and defensive line coach Ed Orgeron took over the team. They won another shootout against Arizona but the offense disappeared in the second half against the Irish. A 5-game win streak raised spirits (especially an upset win over Stanford) but UCLA beat USC soundly to finish the regular season. The Trojans defeated Fresno State fairly easily in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Series: 45-35-5 Notre Dame

The greatest intersectional rivalry in the game has often gone through long swings of dominance for each program and especially for many Notre Dame coaches. Frank Leahy went 8-1-1 against USC. Ara Parseghian just 3-6-2. Lou Holtz went 9-1-1. The Trojans won 8 straight in the series from 2002 to 2009. Now, Brian Kelly is 3-1 versus USC. Which way is the series turning for the future?

Coach Resume: Steve Sarkisian (1st Year)

Sarkisian seemed destined to coach at USC and the time has finally come for the 40-year old Californian. He coached for one year at El Camino Community College and was the Trojans quarterbacks coach from 2001-03. After an one-year stint as the QB coach with the Oakland Raiders he came right back to USC from 2005 to 2008 where he regained his QB coach role and later added the offensive coordinator title. Prior to the 2009 season Sarkisian was hired by Washington and tasked with taking over from Tyrone Willingham who went just 11-37 in four years and was coming off a 0-12 season. Sarkisian improved the Huskies but the program never took off under his tutelage going 34-29 overall and 24-21 in league play. Following the 2013 regular season he left Washington before their bowl game to take the USC job.

Linemen Situation: Decent

A handful of offensive linemen have left Los Angeles. Right tackle Kevin Graf (13 starts), right guard John Martinez (5 starts), and center Abe Markowitz (1 start) have all exhausted their eligibility. In addition, center Marcus Martin (13 starts, 70th overall pick by the 49ers) left for the NFL and center Cyrus Hobbi had to medically retire.

The left side of the line looks very solid with redshirt sophomore Chad Wheeler (14 starts) at the tackle spot and junior Max Tuerk (14 starts) at left guard. Senior Aundrey Walker also returns with 10 starts at right guard but the line looks like it will be pretty fluid heading into fall camp. Tuerk may move to center which could pave the way for freshman Toa Lobendahn at left guard. Redshirt freshman Khalil Rodgers is also in the running to play at right guard, while redshirt sophomore Zach Banner is looking to lock down the right tackle spot.

A few players are gone from a front that utilized a lot of 5-2 and will continue to do the same under new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. One player moving on is Morgan Breslin who couldn't stay healthy in 2013. Nonetheless, he leaves behind 23.5 TFL and 17.5 sacks in just 19 career games. A pair of players also jumped to the NFL in George Uko (36 tackles, 7 TFL, 5 sacks) and Devon Kennard (60 tackles, 13 TFL, 9 sacks).

Several contributors return as does pretty decent overall depth. Junior end Leonard Williams (13 starts, 73 tackles, 12.5 TFL, 5 sacks) was named to various All-American teams in 2013. Redshirt junior Antwuan Woods (6 starts, 19 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 sack) and senior end J.R. Tavai (8 starts, 56 tackles, 8 TFL, 3.5 sacks) also return with significant starting experience.  Incoming JUCO defensive end Claude Pelon will also fight for a starting spot while 5-star redshirt freshman Kenny Bigelow looks to be a factor in 2014.

Returning Quarterback: Yes

Cody Kessler and Max Wittek were both highly touted recruits who came to L.A. in the same recruiting class. They both sat out as freshmen and it was Wittek who won the starting job late in the 2012 season after Matt Barkley went down with injury. However, Wittek tossed 5 interceptions over the final two games of that year and lost an off-season battle with Kessler leading up to the 2013 season. Wittek has since transferred and Kessler is coming off a pretty solid redshirt sophomore campaign in which he threw for 2,967 yards on 65.2% accuracy with 20 touchdowns and 7 interceptions.

Biggest Problem for 2014: Offensive Line

A solid case could be made for the pass catchers. Yes, the talented Nelson Agholor returns after leading the team in yards and touchdowns but there are some questions as both Marqise Lee and tight end Xavier Grimble left for the NFL. Darreus Rogers had a nice true freshman season (22 receptions, 257  yards) and offers promise. Beyond that, redshirt junior Victor Blackwell has a meager 5 career receptions, both redshirt junior George Farmer and redshirt freshman Steven Mitchell are coming off knee injuries, while a pair of true freshman add depth.

However, the Trojans need to find some consistency and remain healthy up front on the line. To be fair there are 9 players who were 4-stars as recruits and are now battling for starting spots but the bulk of that group is really young. Case in point, a true freshman may be starting at guard this season.

Biggest Strength for 2014: Running Back

Rising sophomore Ty Isaac transferred to Michigan during the off-season but USC still has one of the best tailback trio's in the country on the roster. Redshirt junior Javoroius "Buck" Allen burst onto the scene last year finishing with 774 yards, 5.78 per rush, and 14 touchdowns. Converted linebacker and redshirt junior Tre Madden was finally able to stay healthy for most of the season and ran for 703 yards, 5.09 per rush, and 3 touchdowns. Perhaps best of all is rising sophomore Justin Davis who turned heads after enrolling early and exploded for 361 yards, 6.81 per rush, and 6 touchdowns in 7 games before suffering a season ending injury.

Offensive Scheme: Pro-style, Multiple

Sarkisian has been pretty adamant about tweaking things on offense but claims things won't change all that much. However, the Trojans do appear to be incorporating up-tempo into their offense and using it often this fall. Otherwise, the staff is pretty handcuffed by the relatively immobile Cody Kessler and decades of recruiting built on pro-style power running.

Special Teams: 4/4

Nelson Agholor is their primary punt returner and produced 343 yards (including 100 memorable yards against Notre Dame) and 2 touchdowns last year in that role. He also shared the kick return duties with Marqise Lee. USC is welcoming back punter Kris Albarado and will return placekicker Andre Heidari for a fourth season as starter.

Famous Alum: Dexter Holland

The singer, song-writer, and guitarist for the band Offspring graduated from USC with a B.S. in Biology and M.S. in Molecular Biology. He was progressing on his Ph.D. when Offspring became wildly famous in the mid-1990's.

Random Stat: 34.95%

That is USC's third down conversion rate from last season. Only Colorado and California had a worse mark in the Pac-12. If the Trojan offense is to improve it'll have to do better than 98th nationally in moving the chains on third down.

Summary

The sanctions are officially over for the USC football program. We're left to wonder what the impact these shackles had on the Trojans. Only Texas (.865) had a better winning percentage than USC (.855) from 2002 to 2009 and the Trojans won outright or were co-champions of their league in every year from '02 until 2008. Clearly, the 35-17 (.673) record since 2010 and zero conference titles is a sizable step back but it was hardly the doom and gloom many observers believed would befall the program.

Can USC quickly recover into a top 10 program or will the scholarship restrictions still nag for a couple more years? Surprisingly, the Trojans finished in 37th, 12th, 27th, and 11th place over the last four years in F/+ while their record since 2010 does place them tied for 21st nationally. However, going 1-3 against Notre Dame and losing 2 straight to cross-town rival UCLA does bring its own pain.

At the end of the day I see a fairly healthy program heading into Steve Sarkisian's first season in Los Angeles. There are 9 players returning on defense who started 6 or more games plus a couple of players like Leonard Williams and Su'a Cravens who have 1st-team All-American potential that can be realized in 2014. Add in some new talent like Kenny Bigelow, Claude Pelon, Adoree Jackson, Chris Hawkins, JuJu Smith--a few who should make an impact this fall--and the Trojans defense could be lethal.

Offensively, I like what I see but the offensive line is going to need to stay healthy or else be forced to dip into that young reserve of players who are highly touted but probably aren't ready to dominate. For sure there is a lot riding on Cody Kessler's shoulders now. USC should be able to move the ball pretty well with their running backs yet it remains to be seen if Kessler is going to take the next step and evolve into a difference maker on the field. If he does this team can be in the discussion for a playoff spot. If not, 8 or 9 wins looks like a more reasonable prognostication.

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