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the Gekko Files: USC Trojans 2015 Preview

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The Gekko Files are back for another summertime spin. Next up our Pac 12 preview tour-de-force is a long look at the USC Trojans.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past two seasons, I've begun to think of USC and "UW South", a label that I'm sure most USC fans will take umbrage to.  Still, one can't help but to notice the similarities in playing style that the 2014 Trojans put on the field compared to the 2013 Huskies.  One can't also help but to notice that many of the coaches roaming the sidelines of the Coliseum have a UW pedigree and that, ironically enough, many of the same issues that plagued UW in the past few years popped up in LA last season (inconsistent run defense, shoddy QB protection, behavioral issues amongst key players).  It was like Purple and Gold only in Cardinal and Gold (or, more accurately, a mustard-like yellow).

Still, one can't deny the impact that Steve Sarkisian had on the Trojans in his first season in LA.  A nine-win season achieved with a short-handed roster is no small feat given a typical USC schedule.  Second in the P12 in TDs scored while fourth in TDs surrendered is a pretty good starting point for a young team undergoing a coaching transition.  But USC has some new challenges emerging as they look towards 2015.  Nobody lost as much as USC did to the NFL draft - an NCAA leading four Trojan underclassmen declared.  Depth and experience are issues in key areas - particularly in the Secondary, at Tight End and in the receiving corps.  The schedule is getting harder, as if that were possible.

How will all of this play out for a talented but still flawed USC Trojans team heading into 2015?  Let's check the Gekko Files.

2014 Recap - What I Said

Predicted Div Finish 1st
Actual Div Finish T2nd
Predicted P12 Record 7-2
Actual P12 Record 6-3

Here were some of my verbatims:

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....

Defensively, the Trojans project very well and should be expected to end up as, statistically, the best Pac-12 D...

Layer in a deceptively efficient Kessler with 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...

USC had the kind of season that I think many UW fans imagined that they would have under Sarkisian.  The weapons - in particular young weapons like DB Adoree Jackson and WR JuJu Smith certainly emerged while proven commodities like WR Nelson Agholor, DL Leonard Williams and QB Cody Kessler all took big steps forward in their overall productivity.  But those big steps and breakouts were not enough to overcome the depth issues that Steve Sarkisian inherited.  Nor were they enough to help the Trojans compensate for extended periods of boneheadedness and inconsistency.

Still, Seven-win Sark was able to pull out nine wins including big time victories over Stanford and Notre Dame and a dominating bowl performance against Nebraska.  While they didn't achieve the goals that I had laid out for them in 2014, the Trojans certainly took huge leaps forward and have positioned themselves as one of the team to beat in the P12 South.

Previewing 2015: The USC Trojans

The Offense

Offensive Coordinator Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers to Watch
Clay Helton QB Play
Offensive Line
TE Depth
Inexperienced RB
QB Cody Kessler
WR JuJu Smith
OL Zach Banner
TE Tyler Petite
RB Ronald Jones II

Cody kessler

Senior QB Cody Kessler is the brains behind Sark's explosive offense.

It would be really easy to start off this preview with a few glowing words about the explosion of Cody Kessler and his productivity once he was paired with Sark and his up-tempo pro-style offense.  As we noted a year ago, the uber-efficient Kessler is a Keith Price clone, only with better arm strength.  The match of his skills with USC's complementary pieces and Sark's playbook is a natural and one that is sure to keep Kessler in the Heisman discussion for the 2015 season.

But the real story for the Trojans in 2015 is their offensive line.  Husky fans are going to cringe at the notion of a Sark offensive line being a strength, but I'm here to tell you that USC may in fact boast the best offensive line in the Pac 12 this season.  If you just look at the advanced metrics from a year ago, you wouldn't think that this statement could hold much water.  But if you look closely, a new picture emerges.

The Trojans concluded last season starting three true freshman on the offensive line.  While those guys took some lumps, they still managed to end the season with two huge wins over P5 powers in both Notre Dame and Nebraska.  Two of those true frosh - OG Damien Mama and LT Toa Lobendahn - emerged as true breakout stars.  They both return to a unit that is getting healthy and will boast the returns of several upperclassmen.  Most notably, T Chad Wheeler - himself an All P12 candidate, T/G Zach Banner and pre-season All-American candidate C Max Turek are all back and all in a position to compete for All-Pac 12 honors in 2015.  If any of those guys get dinged, experienced and talented depth with guys like Nico Falah, Viane Talamiavo and Jordan Simmons all wait in the wings.  This is easily the most impressive offensive line (on paper) in the Pac 12.

The depth and talent of that O-Line is going to need to pave the way for the rest of the skill positions as USC is clearly going through a transition.  The running game will try to compensate for the loss of Buck Allen with Justin Davis and incoming freshman Ronald Jones II.  The passing game will boast a breakout candidate in WR JuJu Smith as well as Steve Mitchell - a high-talent but oft-injured player who could really explode this season.  However, the role of Adoree Jackson as well as the dearth of TE depth - USC is down to just three scholarship players after the dismissal of young star Bryce Dixon - are all big questions for Sark and co going into 2015.

The Defense

Defensive Coordinator Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers to Watch
Justin Wilcox Secondary Play
Zone Coverage
DL Experience
Pass Rush
DB Adoree Jackson
LB Su'a Cravens
DL Claude Pelon
CB Iman Marshall
LB Porter Gustin

Cravens

Junior LB Su'a Cravens is a legit Pac 12 DPOY candidate even with a position change.

Husky fans are familiar with the plea "Where's the Beef?" ... a common refrain from the Sark days in Montlake.  USC fans are wondering the same thing as they head into a 2015 season minus all-everything interior lineman Leonard Williams.  DC Justin Wilcox will compensate for the loss by loading up on big, old guys in fifth year seniors Antuwan Woods, Claude Pelon and Delvon Simmons.  Depth will come from the talented but under-achieving Greg Townsend Jr and the oft-injured sophomore Kenny Bigelow.  Looking across that lineup and the rest of the depth chart, you see a lot of girth, but can't help but to question where the pass rush will come from.

Most likely, Wilcox will have to rely on something that he has traditionally been loathe to do:  create pressure by gambling with the blitz.  To give himself some flexibility, he is dropping Pac 12 DPOY candidate junior Su'a Cravens down from Safety into that Shaq-role as a weakside outside LB.  The rest of the corps will be made up with upperclassmen Lamar Dawson, Anthony Sarao and Scott Felix.  Should any of these guys falter, there is a ton of young depth coming in with RS frosh Don Hill and a trio of 5-star true frosh in John Houston, Porter Gustin and Osa Masina.  Depth isn't a problem for the Trojans.  It's simply a matter of defining roles and traversing learning curves.

The Secondary will be going through a bit of a transition thanks to the move of Cravens to LB.  Leon McQuay will try to reclaim the starting role that he lost to sophomore John Plattenburg a season ago.  Plattenburg, for his part, looks solidly planted as an emerging star for Wilcox.  Adoree Jackson, perhaps the best pure athlete in the Pac 12, looks like he's about to start a multi-year run as an All-Pac 12 CB.  Beyond that, depth questions abound both at Safety and CB.  USC will have to rely on a lot of young players to pick up key roles.  One such player will be the top CB recruit in the nation from last year in Iman Marshall.

Putting it all together, it looks like USC might be a little vulnerable on the defensive side given all of the youth that they need to break in and the tweaks in scheme that may need to be implemented in order to compensate for the pass rush.  Layer in the fact that Oregon is back on USC's schedule in 2015 and I would expect a return to the middle of the Pac for USC's D.

Three Questions and a Comment: Nick Demosey, Conquest Chronicles

1. In 2012, USC came into the preseason as a highly favored team only to self-destruct under Lane Kiffin. USC again finds itself as a preseason darling in 2015. What is different?

USC fired Lane Kiffin. Ok, but seriously, team leaders like Cody Kessler who were on the 2012 squad took the painful lessons of that collapse to heart. Conquest Chronicles writer Trajuan Briggs summed it up best in this article.

"Being Preseason No.1 got to us. Some of the guys, instead of being a team, started to become individuals, doing their own thing", Kessler states when asked about the 2012 season. He realizes the mistakes they made as a group and doesn’t want this 2015 Trojan team to go down the same road. Kessler and the Trojans see all the hype they’re given and the praises, but the Trojans remain humble waiting to take the field. "The biggest thing we’ve emphasized is finishing games", Kessler stated."

2. Cody Kessler looked dominating against lower-level competition but really struggled against some of the better teams on the schedule. Why should non-USC fans believe that Kessler is a real Heisman candidate in 2015?

Kessler had 4 touchdowns to 3 interceptions last season when playing against ranked opponents. Those numbers are certainly not very inspiring but he was still statistically the second best quarterback in the PAC 12 behind only the Heisman Trophy winner.

It is important to remember though that Coach Sarkisian implemented a new offensive scheme that Kessler performed well in his first season. This will be Kessler’s second year in the system so there should be some improvement both in Kessler’s mastery of the system and his overall level of performance.

Perhaps more importantly, however, is the offensive line. Last year the Trojans started several freshmen on the offensive line, as well as Max Tuerek switching to a position (center) he had never played before last season. There was very little experience and cohesion for the offensive line. This naturally leads to a drop in offensive production particularly against top teams with good defenses. If the line can get in sync then Kessler and the offense may really take off.

3. Sarkisian and crew have been absolutely crushing it on the recruiting trail since arriving at USC. Which one or two incoming frosh do you expect will emerge as Pac 12 stars in 2015?

Cornerback Imam "Biggie" Marshall and Running Back Ronald Jones II are two very exciting freshmen that could have a huge impact this season. With Buck Allen leaving for the draft, a top running back recruit like Jones has the opportunity to make things happen in the backfield.

Biggie Marshall was one of the most highly touted players of any position in the country receiving offers from dozens of schools. Some have already compared him to Patrick Peterson, and could make an instant impact this season.

The single greatest concern that USC fans have about the 2015 Trojans is ...

Coaching. Coach Sark has yet to win more than 9 games in a season. The Trojans certainly have the talent and the preseason hype, but serious questions and doubts remain for "7-win Sark" and his ability to compete for the Pac 12 championship and beyond. Player conditioning, play calling, and finishing games are among the biggest concerns the USC faithful have regarding Coach Sarkisian and his staff. In addition to these doubts, a brutal schedule, and lingering depth issues courtesy of our pals at the NCAA and you may just have a recipe for a team that fails to live up to their preseason hype.

Predicting 2015: The Trojans

I don't like the Trojans quite as much in 2015 as I did a season ago.  I say that knowing full well that this is a deeper team thanks to being another year removed from the sanctions that they endured under Lane Kiffin's time at the helm.  In my mind, the incremental gain in some depth doesn't fully compensate for the loss in star talents like Williams, Allen, WR Nelson Agholor, WR/KR George Farmer, CB Josh Shaw and LB Hayes Pullard.

Nevertheless, I also don't see the Pac 12 South having quite the same kind of success as what they had a season ago when five of six teams finished with winning Pac 12 records.  That factor, plus the defining strengths that USC have at QB and with that strong, deep offensive line give me confidence that USC ought to win the Pac 12 South in 2015.

It won't be easy.  The transitions that are occurring on defense are real and defining who, exactly, Cody Kessler is going to throw the ball to is a task yet to be completed.  I also can't help but to cringe when I think about that USC schedule.  The good news is that USC gets five P12 home games:  Stanford, UW, Arizona, Utah and UCLA.  The bad news is that Oregon is back on the schedule, the rivalry game against the next-best team in the South is in Tempe and BYE week comes early in the season, just before the UW game.  The Trojans also have to endure a four game season-ending stretch where they play Arizona, Oregon and UCLA - two of which are on the road.

Still, Vegas likes USC's odds of winning not only the South, but the whole Pac 12.  They also have them installed among the favorites to win the national title in 2015.  I'm not sure I can even concur with this team winning the Pac 12 championship, but I do like them as the Pac 12 South champ by a nose over ASU.