Taking some time at 'the Beach'

It's no secret when you look at 'Muscle Beach," Trojans have a lot to look forward to in 2015. And we'll take a bit of a break this weekend from Holiday Bowl prep work to do just that.

Steve Sarkisian calls it "Muscle Beach."

We call it "Rehab Island."

But with the return of a dozen Trojans this week to that special corner of Howard Jones/Brian Kennedy Field, it's more than just a place to finish up 2014 for them.

It's a look ahead to 2015. A good look.

And a look we can maybe take this weekend now that Sark has said his Trojans are ready to play the Holiday Bowl right now and next week will be a time for fine-tuning.

So here we go. Looking ahead just a bit here.

Sark obviously has done some of that himself. He's clearly been looking over to "the Beach" during practice a time or two.

"That's a good-looking group," Sark said with a big smile on his face as he ticked off the names of Kenny Bigelow, Chad Wheeler, Tre Madden and Jabari Ruffin for starters. Which they all might well be -- and should be -- when 2015 rolls around.

Add Jordan Simmons, Christian Tober, Jordan Austin, Chris Willson and Uchenna Nwosu among others to the brigade of giant-tire-sledgehammer-hitting and medicine-ball-tossing-from-prone-and- sitting-positions rehabbers and you have a nice start to the 2015 recruiting class coming in.

"It's going to be exciting to get them back," Sark said. "We're moving in the right direction from a roster standpoint."

Here's where the roster is moving in the right direction. Assuming that right now, the only certain underclassman we have to assume will absolutely leave for the NFL is Leonard Williams, there will be 49 Trojans on the Holiday Bowl two-deep including specialists, potentially returning for next season. That's amazing.

On just offense and defense, and from 2014 alone, there will be a total of 226 game starts from 27 different potential returnees next year. That's an amazing number.

But then add in a three-year starter back at left tackle in the senior Wheeler and you solidify a young, talented offensive line with the experience and the depth and the competition that speeds up its development by leaps and bounds.

And we can't emphasize the competition part of this. It's something Sark has done well, letting the competition play out with players earning playing time by the way they practice and play and not where, how or by whom they were recruited. It was one of the secrets of Pete Carroll's great run here.

And then as a bonus, if he wants to use the physical talents he's been gifted with, is Simmons. Is there a fire in there for him to get on the field? No one save Jordan knows. But the time is now. His return could put this O-line in a special place.

Now if the USC coaches can figure out how to scheme and teach this group to run block consistently -- we can't help thinking about that De La Salle bunch from Saturday night -- and what kind of dynasty a line that can run block will do for you. Look what it did for Pete.

And as much as Sark talks about Pete advising him "to be yourself," here's one place a "run-first" coach like Sark with a "run-first" team like USC should almost always be -- following in Pete's footsteps.

If USC can run block consistently next year and the year after, the year that starts with the Alabama game, this program will be in very good shape. It always has been for a half-century when it does that.

So that's the first piece. Then there's the second. Hayes Pullard will be gone after four seasons as the soul of this program. But another player who's already gotten himself on the field for practice, Lamar Dawson, is waiting in the wings to step in giving USC another four-year guy in the middle of the defense. This is a big deal. Lamar's return really matters. He has a way to go with his knee but the work is starting.

And of course, no one needs replacing more than Big Leonard. Which is why Kenny Bigelow's bounce back may be more important a single spot than any. He seemed to be heading in the right direction this summer before his ACL injury and surgery.

But there's a long road back. Some of it is maturity that comes with experience. Some of it is just learning how to be a player who makes plays with that terrific body he's been given. The rest of it is Kenny, who seems to be handling his rehab well from everything we can see.

Then there's Tre. And it's hard to imagine getting this far before mentioning a player whose start in 2012 had people invoking the Marcus Allen record book before his injury and Buck Allen's succession to that spot. And now with Buck's return certainly up in the air, Tre may become the most important person on his way back.

And back now from a completely diagnosed bone chip in his ankle aggravated possibly by the turf toe that sidelined him first. Maybe with this behind him, USC fans will get to see a 225-pound senior Madden powering his way behind a massive, and much more experienced line. Sounds like a good way to go. And a great option for a "run-first" team that could be it not just say it.

Although you could make a case that getting a big, athletic edge rusher like Ruffin back could make more of a difference than any other position. He's what USC didn't have this year here. Getting a more mature 240-pound Jabari at that spot, especially if Quinton Powell gets himself up to 220 pounds, could make for a defense that looks a little more solid on the edge with J.R. Tavai moving on.

Tight end might be the final spot where there could be the kind of return that fills in a much-needed spot with the departure of Randall Telfer. But there's nothing but uncertainty about where the academics of Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick and the baseball talents and potential sixth-year hardship waiver of Chris Willson take us this spring. So we'll let that play out.

But as Sark made clear when asked, it's fun to contemplate if just for the moment as USC gets ready to play a bowl game.


Trojans will take off Sunday and Monday, return to practice Tuesday morning before busing to San Diego that afternoon . . . nothing but good reviews for Saturday's practice in shorts, shells and helmets that was mostly a review of the Nebraska gameplan installed the previous three days . . . Sark said he was "impressed with the confidence and execution" and that "made our tempo the best of the year" . . . of the overall 10 days of postseason work, Sark said "I feel great . . . if we were going to play this weekend, we'd be ready" . . . "and now we have a chance to fine-tune it next week" . . . the loss of nose tackle Antwaun Woods will affect USC mainly in terms of depth, Sark said, and will require they keep a close eye on rotation and number of plays for the D-line guys . . . Having faced and beaten Nebraska in the 2010 Holiday Bowl actually works both ways, Sark said of his time at Washington . . . there's a basic underlying approach for both USC and NU that carries over and yet both are significantly changed since then . . . on signing JuCo wide receiver Isaac Whitney, Sark said he brings a big man's frame (6-foot-4, 200 pounds) with small man skills to the position in a way USC does not have there and also has the maturity of an upperclassman to add to the roster and is a good fit that way . . . and finally, looking back at the one thing USC didn't get done this season and must improve on, Sark said, is the ability "to finish the game, to finish the game better . . . he said that "was easy to see watching us play" and that this Nebraska game is a great place to start because "it's going to be a four-quarter game."

For a wrapup of Saturday morning's practice, check out SATURDAY HOLIDAY BOWL PRACTICE 10 GHOST NOTES.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.

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