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the Gekko Files: USC 2014 Preview

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For the first time, the Gekko File previews a Steve Sarkisian-coached team. This ought to be a hoot.

Steve Sarkisian is looking to build back the Trojans as an elite Pac 12 program.
Steve Sarkisian is looking to build back the Trojans as an elite Pac 12 program.
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

The mere presence of the name "Sark" in today's Gekko File preview is enough to generate 50 comments.  Guaranteed.  I'm not sure what the point to even writing this article really is.  All most UW fans will read is:

Last season .... blah blah blah blah blah SARK blah blah blah blah blah SARK.

blah blah blah SARK and WILCOX... blah blah blah blah blah Tosh.... blah blah blah blah SARK.

blah blah blah and TUI , who coached UW to a dominating Bowl victory in his only game as a head coach, blah blah blah blah blah blah blah

Nevertheless, I am true to my fans (all three of you) and I will persevere in the name of blogger integrity (as if that were such a thing).

Last year was the most tumultuous season that you'll ever see a 9-4 football team go through.  A mid-season canning of a former Pete Carroll assistant turned into a resurrection story for a caricature assistant and finally gave way to a much-panned hiring of yet another Carroll assistant from a fellow Pac-12 program that had a combined record of 1-9 against Oregon and Stanford - the measuring stick programs in the PAC - during his tenure.

Whoa, that's a lot of drama to go through, particularly if you are the most successful and recognizable program in the Pacific-whatever conference.

Change is in the air at USC.  Student-body-right is giving way to up-tempo.  The 4-3 is being shelved for Justin Wilcox's hybrid 3-4.  A Husky is the assistant head coach.  Oh, and scholarship sanctions have now expired.  Can the Trojans put it all together in one off-season and make a run at the Pac-12 Championship in 2014?  Let's check the Gekko Files.

2013 Recap - What I Said

The Gekko Files expected big things from USC last season, even with just 70 scholarship players available:

Predicted Div Finish 1st
Actual Div Finish 3rd
Predicted P12 Record 8-1
Actual P12 Record 6-3

Here were some of my verbatims:

As you examine the USC roster and what they bring to the table in 2013, you can quickly come to realize that the Trojans may, in fact, be a sleeping giant that is about to be reawakened. This is a dangerous team...

...The Trojans return, in my opinion, the best Defense in the P12 not named Stanford...The prospects for the offense are a little murkier

I am predicting an 11 to 12 win type of season and a first place finish in the P12 South.

Clearly, I was pretty optimistic about the Trojans but was derailed early in the season by not only the fiasco surrounding Lane Kiffin but, more importantly, by the injuries to critical players like RB Silas Redd and the Pac-12's premier WR in Marqise Lee.  I had noted then (as I will today) that the Trojans were only as good as their health would allow them to be and, despite the losses of their two most important players for chunks of the season, they still managed a 6-3 conference record which only became a third-place finish after losing head-to-head to UCLA.  Not too bad.

As for the season itself, I really don't wish to rehash all of coaching drama other than to point out that Lane Kiffin lost his job five games into the season.  While perfect out of conference, his team got out-muscled by WSU (which repeated that feat @ Arizona a few months later) and then was absolutely demolished by ASU a few weeks after that.  Of course, everybody knows that Ed Orgeron went on a bit of a win-streak in the second half highlighted by a physical victory over #5 Stanford.  But it should be noted that USC's schedule during that stretch was not exactly a murderers row, and the inevitable move by Pat Haden to look somewhere else for a full-time replacement was well-justified.

On the field, the Trojans were pretty much as advertised.  The Defense was #5 in F/+ which means that opposing offenses were much less able to generate big plays vs USC than against other teams that they played and that those same opponents were less efficient in executing their offenses than against other teams.  As I predicted, USC was the Pac-12's best D not named Stanford and they owe much of that success to leaders at each level:  DE Leonard Williams, LB Hayes Pullard and S Dion Bailey.

Offensively, the Trojans were handicapped by crippling injuries and middling offensive line play in front of a QB that was good, but who was clearly on a learning curve.  At 29.7 ppg, the #60 Trojans were just behind teams like BYU, Vanderbilt and UNLV and just ahead of the likes of Illinois, Texas and Utah.  Absolutely average.  But, QB Cody Kessler found his sea legs as the season went on and the injuries allowed some bright new talents like RB Javorius Allen ("Buck") and WR Nelson Agholor break into playmaker roles.  As the Trojans look 2014, their fans start to salivate about the match of that D with Sark's up-tempo offense feature all of those players.

Previewing 2014: The Trojans

Previewing Trojan position groups is kind of like analyzing an all-star game.  Whereas in most previews, I like to start with a particular area of strength or focus of the team, it is not so with USC.  For the Trojans, I simply show my seven year old an X's and O's chart and ask her to point to one of them.  Wherever she points, that's where we will start.

Hold on.

She's looking quizzically at the chart.  Now she is looking at me as if a) I'm an idiot or b) I'm wasting her time.  Ok, she's about to give in.  BINGO!  We are starting with the Defensive Line.

Apparently my daughter has more insight into USC football than I give her credit for as the Defensive Line is a particular strength for the Trojans.  DL Leonard Williams was the only first team All-American from last year's Trojan squad and he opted to return to USC for one more year.  He is a nightmare for opposing coaches because he is a plus player against the run and he is a terror in getting behind the line of scrimmage.  Assuming he stays healthy, he gives the Trojans the perfect complement to a rotation of bigs who can play in A and B gaps, including returning starter Antwuan Woods.  Justin Wilcox's Rush End role looks like it will go to J.R. Tavai if he can hold off a challenge from Scott Starr.  Other key players here are backup big Cody Temple, JC transfer and former UW commit Claude Pelon and Texas Tech transfer Jr Delvon Simmons.  Unfortunately, USC will be without standout RS Frosh Kenny Bigelow who suffered a leg injury during off-season workouts.

The back seven of Wilcox's D is where you might start to worry about depth, in particular linebacker.  The good news is that Peter Sirmon, the USC LB coach, has options to build around anchor man Hayes Pullard.  Michael Hutchings will be returning from injury and will be a key player on the inside.  On the outside, Anthony Sarao seems to be benefiting from the ongoing health issues with Lamar Dawson and appears to have permanently supplanted him on the weakside.  There is a competitive battle between the athletic Jabari Powell (a former DE) and the talented Quinton Powell on the strong side.  There are depth issues here, so these guys need to stay healthy if USC is going to succeed this season.

The defensive secondary is a transitionary group that may be the weak link in the USC defense, assuming the LBs stay healthy.  Josh Shaw is an interesting "big" corner who has played safety in the past.  It looks promising for him to be lining up opposite Kevin Seymour at corner.  Seymour has flashed potential, but is just a "guy" at this point and he could be challenged by uber-recruit Adoree Jackson before the season is out.  Safety, of course, is locked down by Su'a Cravens—just a true sophomore—and the rising Leon McQuay.  It is the emergence of McQuay that allows Shaw to move to CB.  If either of these young safeties have any problems, then the young JuJu Smith is laying in wait.  A lack of bodies is not a problem for Wilcox's secondary, but their experience is a question mark.

Offensively, the Trojans are loaded with playmakers.  Sark's version of the hurry-up—one that minimizes read-option—fits Kessler's skill set to a "T".  The running back situation may be the best in the Pac with Buck Allen reprising a role he claimed midway through last season as a feature back.  He's backed up by Tre Madden—a guy who could start for many P12 teams right now—and Justin Davis—a guy who could start for most P12 teams with a little more seasoning under his belt.  Allen is the key—in limited time last season he averaged six yards a carry and scored 14 times.  His job will be made easier with the presence of All-American candidate Nelson Agholor on the outside.  Agholor has elite athleticism and averaged 10 yards per target last season.  That's outstanding.  Given that he is kind of a make-or-break playmaker, a reliable second target must emerge from among WR George Farmer, WR Darreus Rogers, WR Victor Blackwell or TE Randy Telfer.  There are wildcards here, too.  Both Adoree Jackson and JuJu Smith could end up on offense while young TE Bryce Dixon is a very bright recruit.

The playmaking, of course, won't mean a thing if that USC O-Line cannot block.  Husky fans have many an image of Keith Price getting pile driven into the turf and understand full well how that can kill an offense's prospects.  I don't think Kessler is as reliable as Keith turned out to be in terms of making good decisions and avoiding turnovers, so this is critical.  There is a lot of turnover happening on a line that was not really very good last year.  Some of that may have been on Kessler, but the Trojans are going to need 5-star production from the underachieving Aundrey Walker and the stepping up of young guys like Zach Banner if they are going to emerge.  Max Turek is a reliable piece to anchor on in the middle while Chad Wheeler has 14 career starts at LT.  Don't be surprised if true frosh Lobendahn or Damien Mama get rotation time under former Stanford and San Francisco 49er Offensive Line Coach Tim Drevno.

Three Questions and a Comment: Evan Budrovich, Conquest Chronicles

1. How are USC fans responding to the hire of Steve Sarkisian and the changes he is making on offense?

After dragging themselves into the Coliseum in noteworthy low attendance numbers for the first three home games, the spirit of the fan base was uplifted once Lane Kiffin was fired. The team played inspired football under Ed Oregon and carried that momentum into a dominant Las Vegas Bowl display under Clay Helton, who was one of two main coaches retained on staff. Once the bowl game ended, Pat Haden and staff worked quickly to hire Steve Sarkisian, bringing both good and bad news to the program. It took a little bit of time based on sheer support for Orgeron that needed time to die down, but the recent recruiting efforts—especially on National Signing Day—have given fans optimism about the coaching hire. Sarkisian brings energy, passion and excitement back to a program that, believe it or not, has not won a Pac-10/12 title since 2008 (editor's note:  OMG!!! #We'reBecomingCal). From the very first day of practice, one that featured over 100 plays in a blistering pace, the team has reaped the results of constant competition centered around growth and development. We will see for sure what Sarkisian has cooking for Fresno State but from what we've seen to this point in Spring, the Trojans will move the ball much faster than ever before.

2. Who is the single most overlooked player on the USC roster and what can we expect from him in 2014?

The single most overlooked player on USC's roster is Anthony Sarao, the redshirt junior inside linebacker who started the final seven games last season. After presumed starter Lamar Dawson, who happens to wear that Trojan heralded No. 55, went down to season-ending injury *still not healthy yet BTW* Sarao took over the reigns, alongside captain Hayes Pullard, providing stability, strength against the run and great overall technique to the position. With the arrival of Justin Wilcox and Peter Sirmon from Washington's defense (as you well know) the Trojan linebackers will be stretched out sideline-to-sideline much more than in years past. So I'd expect Sarao to post 60-70 tackles this season but more importantly, he will have his nose all over the football forcing turnovers against the run.

3. Should USC be favored to win the South in 2014?  Why or why not?

Despite the optimism around coach Sarkisian and his offensive principles, it would be a stretch to call USC the favorite to win the Pac-12 South. The Trojans certainly understand that UCLA, led by dual-threat nightmare Brett Hundley, are the prohibitive favorite this year and that doesn't even count the defending champion ASU, who also return their star-studded WR to QB connection in Taylor Kelly to Jaelen Strong. It certainly doesn't help that USC finishes the season with a road-heavy Pac-12 slate, but they do host ASU which could certainly fire up the team after last season's 62-41 thrashing in Tempe. USC may not be the favorite, but if they can beat Stanford in Palo Alto (Week Two) and avoid an early slip up or big injury on the offensive line, they will be 1A and 1B with UCLA.

The ending of the sanctions on USC football means...

...that everyone can finally take a deep breath, reload the holster and prepare for the return of USC Football at the top. It may take a while, and by that we mean about 1-2 years before they are winning Rose Bowls, but the Trojans will be back on Sports Illustrated covers and ESPN College Football montages of champions very, very soon. The Coliseum will have enthusiasm like it was a flashback to the Stanford game last season, and fans can finally stop worrying about playing with only 40-45 scholarship players every week. Its been a long time coming, but finally things are starting to return to normal.

Predicting 2014: The USC Trojans

The big thing that pops out when you look at the handicapped roster of the Trojans is the talent that is spread into every unit of the roster.  Rag on Lane Kiffin all you like, but he left that roster in as good a shape as anybody under those kinds of sanctions could have and now Steve Sarkisian gets to reap those rewards.  Defensively, the Trojans project very well and should be expected to end up as, statistically, the best Pac-12 D when all is said in done in 2014.  There are wildcards given the changes that Justin Wilcox is implementing.  But, Husky fans know full well how good that man is and he's working with beasts like DL Williams, LB Pullard, S Cravens and CB Shaw.  On the flip side, I think it is fair to wonder whether or not that Trojan O-Line is a weak point.  Even if you think it is, keep in mind the beneficial effect that Sark's switch to the up-tempo playbook had in compensating for UW's problems on the line.  Layer in a deceptively efficient Kessler with all of those weapons (and I do mean ALL OF THOSE WEAPONS) and it doesn't take a huge stretch of the imagination to project USC as a top 5 Pac-12 offense in 2014.

"But what about their depth issues?", you may ask.  That is a fair question and one that certainly was a factor in 2013.  The Trojans will face what Football Outsiders rank as the 30th most difficult schedule in the country.  Their out-of-conference features Fresno State, Boston College and Notre Dame—three FBS teams all projected to be slightly down (despite the return of Ev Golson at Notre Dame).  In the Pac, they are on a five-road game year, which could be seen as a negative.  Look closer, though, and you see a lot of lucky breaks.  First, they get Stanford in Week 2 when you would expect them to be very fresh and Stanford to be still pretty green.  Second, they miss Oregon and Washington altogether.  Third, they get Bye weeks during Week 4 and, importantly, Week 11—just in time to host Cal and to visit UCLA.  The rest of their road schedule is @Zona, @Utah and @WSU.  In the end, this is a pretty reasonable schedule (perhaps the easiest in the entire Pac-12) for a team that is worried about managing depth challenges.

I'm going to project USC to win the South division in 2014.  I think that their Defense is going to neutralize just about every offense that they face and I think that by the time USC gets to show down with UCLA, their Offense will be clicking.  The BYE weeks are placed perfectly to allow for their key guys to stay fresh and not having to face Oregon is a HUGE advantage for them in the race for the South.  Of course, they'll drop a few—Notre Dame, ASU, and @Zona are the big watch-outs beyond the obvious Stanford and UCLA match-ups.  In the end, this is a stacked team with a favorable schedule and a big opportunity.