As the Trojans take the field under coach Steve Sarkisian Tuesday, plenty of questions shuffle through the paperwork surrounding the direction of a program desperate to win the Pac-12 South and compete for playoff berths.
We all know that USC has revamped its coaching efforts bringing along defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, running backs/special teams coach Johnny Nansen tight ends coach Marques Tuiasosopo, linebackers coach Peter Sirmon and defensive backs coach Keith Heyward along with the familiar faces of Tee Martin and Clay Helton.
Some say the grass is greener on the other side and we will certainly begin to figure that out now that a new staff is in place. Players are reenergized about taking the field with a renewed focus and overwhelming passion for the game. Lets take a quick moment to look over some of the biggest question marks surrounding all three sides of the ball.
The offense will now be run by Steve Sarkisian who has been heralded for his ability to increase tempo and better utilize two-TE formations to distribute the rock. He will have plenty of weapons to work with in the backfield as the Trojans return four top running backs (Buck Allen, Justin Davis, Ty Isaac and Tre Madden) have shown tremendous ability to compete over their careers, and will give USC plenty of firepower to pound the rock or run spread option.
We know that Cody Kessler enters Spring Football as the incumbent starting quarterback, but does that mean his job is safe for the long-term future? Well, that question will certainly get answered as practice unfolds and redshirt freshman Max Browne will have a huge say as to whether it truly becomes a "real" competition.
USC may have lost the valiant efforts of 2012 Biletnikoff Winner Marqise Lee. But the Trojans do have a possible answer in former Gardena Serra High School teammate George Farmer. While Farmer has been stricken with injuries throughout his career (5 receptions, 49 yards) the hopes of a healthier season blossom at this time of the year.
What certainly returns to the fold is competition. That will be highlighted by second wide receiver spot on this team behind the efforts possessed by the junior-to-be standout WR/ST weapon Nelson Agholor. Expect sophomore WR Darreus Rogers (who possesses tremendous camaraderie and timing with Kessler) to emerge as one of the Trojans best deep threats in Spring Football, while the four-star WR Steven Mitchell will also be healthy and ready to burst onto the scene.
The losses of starting offensive lineman Marcus Martin, Kevin Graf and John Martinez have each created major openings in the offensive line, and it will be fascinating to watch how offensive line coach Tim Drevno (San Francisco 49ers) handles the combination of up-and-coming talent with the second and third year players fighting for playing time.
The one thing we know for certain is that Max Tuerk -who Kessler told ESPN will be shifting to center- and Chad Wheeler will return as able starters that will only build upon another year together on the offensive line. They will complement the likes of Spring Enrollee Jordan Austin and redshirt freshman Khaliel Rodgers vying for reps on the first-string offense.
The adage defense wins championships may not have panned out the way USC would have hoped last season. Despite finishing statistically in the Top 25 in 8 categories (highlighted by the top red-zone defense), the Trojans early-season offensive woes and drastically thin depth at major skill positions will certainly change this year.
This season depth has returned. And now it comes by way of the Trojans secondary. This position group is not only loaded with pure bodies (as six or seven players could immediately be vying for starting time) proven contributors like Josh Shaw, Su'a Cravens and Kevon Seymour will have of horses in the stable ready to push their development forward.
Coach Keith Heyward will be delighted with the crop of talent coming up, highlighted by the second year stint that should be filled with drastic growth from five-star safety Leon McQuay III. Add to the fact that those star-studded Southern California freshman Adoree' Jackson, JuJu Smith and Jonathan Lockett are nipping at their heels, and you could argue that this group has the greatest room for growth to develop into the team's strongest position come Fall Camp.
The front seven will be experiencing some major change, as the Trojans lose starters George Uko, Morgan Breslin and Devon Kennard on the line. We mentioned that Jabari Ruffin, J.R. Tavai, Scott Starr and Claude Pelon will be the beneficiaries of said openings, and given coach Justin Wilcox propensity to rush the passer with versatile sets, the Trojans 3-4 look could bring pressure from all over the map.
The final piece of this puzzle comes about after former special teams guru John Baxter was not retained this offseason. The returning combination of Andre Heidari (PK) and Kris Albarado (P) are the top dogs heading into Spring, but given both's struggles in some of the biggest games last season, competition will certainly exist.
Coach Peter Nansen inherits a group that ranked 13th nationally in punt returns (13.3) last year, as well as second in blocked punts (3) and fourth in blocked kicks (6) overall. USC allowed zero punt return yards in 8 of its 14 games in 2013 and held 2 other opponents to 5 yards or less, while scoring two touchdowns on punt returns against Cal.
It all starts with special teams ace Soma Vainuku who was honored a first-team selection. Kick return specialist Nelson Agholor and possibly Adoree' Jackson could give USC a nice one-two threat on returns. And since more times than not special teams all comes down to coaching and formations, Coach Nansen will need to conjure up opportunities for his great players to once again dominate the landscape in an ever-important part of the collegiate game.