2015: 8-6 Overall (6-3 Pac-12 South)
2017 NFL Draft Prospects: OT Zach Banner, RB Justin Davis, CB Adoree’ Jackson, OG Damian Mama, WR JuJu Smith-Schuster
It’s been seven years since Pete Carroll won his seventh Pac-10 title as head coach of Trojans. Since then, the school has been through four coaching changes, a ton of drama, all the while harvesting blue chip talent has still been rolling in annually. And yet, a sense of identity found during the Carroll Era still seems lost in the ether.
USC removed the interim tag from Clay Helton after he helped pick up the pieces from the firing of Steve Sarkisian and secured the Trojans the Pac-12 South division. As a reward, the school passed over some more glamorous candidates on the coaching market and committed to Helton long-term as the school’s head coach. He’ll be forced to replace long-time starter Cody Kessler at the quarterback position in 2016. While Kessler may not have been Rodney Peete or Carson Palmer but he did rack up over 10,000 passing yards and 88 touchdowns over the course of three seasons as a starter.
With the program now stabilized now both at head coach and athletic director roles one wonders if USC can just get back to the success of previous eras with some of the best football talent in the country.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR FROM THE TROJANS ON OFFENSE
2015 S&P+ Offense: 15th in FBS
2016 Returning Starters Offense: 8
Percentage of Offensive Yards Returning: 59.5% (84th in FBS)
Career Starts Offensive Line: 131 (2nd in FBS)
While the Trojans will be naming a new starter at quarterback, the offensive identity that was initiated by Helton in the second half of last season remains in-tact as the Trojans will look to emphasis a heavy dose of the run game behind one of the best offensive lines in football, while at the same time utilizing the explosive play potential of junior wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Tee Martin has taken on the role of the team’s play-caller, and he’d be foolish to stray from dominating games at the line of scrimmage until his quarterback situation churns out a new starter among the likes of junior Max Browne or redshirt freshman Sam Darnold. Helton stated early in camp that he’d like to name his starter by Saturday, two weeks out from the season opener against Alabama. While Browne would have been the odds on starter after spring ball, Darnold has improved his stock since fall camp began, so this one will be close and is anyone’s guess at the moment as to who starts the game against the Tide.
Justin Davis and Ronald Jones II will give ASU a run for their money as the best running back duo in the Pac-12 and should take some of the initial pressure off of the quarterback position. The two-headed monster combined on the ground for 1,889 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns. Jones II recorded double-digit carries in six of the final seven games down the stretch for the Trojans including a break-out 177 yard performance against the Arizona defense in early November. He’s become one of the biggest home run threats in the conference and compliments the bell cow ability of Davis very well who has evolved into an every down back himself.
The two stars at running back will have the pleasure of following the likes of all-world right tackle Zach Banner who leads a group returning all five starters from last year and seven players overall that started at least two games in 2015, and one of the most experienced offensive lines in the country. Helton has stated he wants USC to get back to being physical on offense, and this year he looks to have a position group with the potential to dictate the pace of games offensively. According to College Football Focus, the 6-foot-9 350 pound Banner, already fantastic as a run blocker, led all returning tackles in pass-blocking efficiency last season after allowing just nine total pressures (including just one sack) on his 406 pass-blocking snaps. Wide receiver Darreus Rogers helps extend plays downfield as one of the best blockers in the country at the wide receiver position.
While JuJu Smith-Schuster will continue to torture Pac-12 secondaries in 2016, Helton put an emphasis this spring on spreading the wealth more in the passing game to even out the touches. This comes off a 2015 campaign that witnessed the super sophomore catch more than twice as many passes than his counterpart Steven Mitchell. Fast forward to 2016 and the Trojans are still looking to develop a true number two option to compliment that of Smith-Schuster among the likes of Rogers, Tyler Vaughns and Michael Pittman. The breathtaking screen plays to Adoree’ Jackson might be happening less and less this season as the Trojans look to concentrate his abilities more at cornerback and on special teams, but if production is a concern at receiver, you shouldn’t be surprised to see Helton go back to the well here.
So until a secondary option presents itself at receiver, or until the Trojans develop a true pass catching tight end threat, ASU and other opponents would be smart to roll their coverage towards the future NFL draft pick and best receiver in the Pac-12 who finished 2015 with 89 catches and 10 touchdowns, and 1,454 receiving yards.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR FROM THE TROJANS ON DEFENSE
2015 S&P+ Defense: 42nd in FBS
2015 Havoc Rate: 76th in FBS
2016 Returning Starters Defense: 7
Percentage of Total Tackles Returning: 59.1% (83rd in FBS)
Not only did the Trojans dodge a bullet with the hire of the steady-handed Helton, they were able to bring back a veteran Pac-12 coordinator on the defensive side of the ball in Clancy Pendergast. He’s installed his 5-2 front that is proven against the spread offense and will maximize the pass rushing talent of what looks to be a good group of second-level defenders. As recently as 2013 with the Trojans, Pendergast’s defense, low on depth but big on playmakers, finished tops in the league and in the top-15 in the FBS. So it’s safe to say confidence has been restored to a defense that took a step backwards in 2015.
Jackson was one of those who saw his growth (at least defensively) stunted last season at corner. The thought is that by him concentrating more in practice with the defense he’ll be able to get back to the player many believe could be the first defensive back taken off the board at next April’s NFL Draft. He’ll pair with sophomore Iman Marshall, who more than held his own as a true freshman last year, to form one of the better corner pairings in the country. That is, if Marshall can cut down on the normal mentalities you see from a young players thrust into a starting role. They’ll need it, because these two players should be tested early and often to begin the season as Pendergast will be breaking in a very green defensive line.
With the Trojans losing three of their four starters at linebacker, how soon middle linebacker Cam Smith recovers from injury to re-join this group could also help determine the success and cohesiveness of this side of the ball heading into the Alabama contest. It’s going to be nearly impossible to replace the production and flexibility provided by NFL draftee Su’a Cravens, but youngster Porter Gustin could become the next great Trojans rush end starting this fall and team with Smith to help ground the front seven.
USC's D-line returns the fewest snaps in CFB. Transfer DT Stevie Tu’ikolovatu was a much-needed addition (Pac 12's #2 interior DL in 2015)
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) August 15, 2016
Whether or not this team sees improved success from 2015 to 2016 could come down to the production it gets from a very young defensive line that lost each of its starters and a position coach. In steps former All-American Kenechi Udeze, a first-time position coach, to direct a group that has tons of high school accolades and potential, but matches the same risk the Trojans face at the quarterback position offensively.
This team is once again oozing with ability and looking to start the next great run in Trojan football history. But it will need to show it can beat big teams again after going 1-5 against ranked opponents in 2015.
Facing Alabama to start the season will show whether or not this team has the proper mental toughness at the quarterback position, and whether or not its budding superstars in Jackson and Smith-Schuster can carry the team against the best competition in FBS play. Much like ASU, the team finished games poorly, and lost a few it should have won ultimately. Which is why Helton’s dedication to becoming more physical and its emphasis on the run is critical to grinding out wins in a conference where easy wins are tough to come by.
ASU travels to the Coliseum to start the month of October with its rebuilt secondary having just been tested by the likes of high flying Texas Tech and Cal. Whether or not its veteran front seven can withstand the Trojans ground game will help to dictate how much pressure is levied on whomever wins the starting quarterback job.
For more statistical information on USC, check out Gary Doran’s Advanced Stats Report.
**Havoc Rating was devised by Bill Connelly – “The percentage of plays in which a defense either recorded a tackle for loss, forced a fumble, or defensed a pass (intercepted or broken up). If QB hurries were a reliable stat (at the college level, there is far too much inconsistency in how they are recorded), they would be included here, too.”
**S&P designed by Football Outsiders – “Takes into account efficiency (Success Rates), explosiveness (IsoPPP), and factors related to field position and finishing drives. It is now presented in two forms: the first is a percentile, and the second is an adjusted scoring margin specific for this specific season’s scoring curve.”