Earlier this week, we listed the 15 questions we have for this USC football team this fall. Lots of questions -- and questions within those questions that could determine if the sports handicappers are correct in picking the Trojans for such a high finish. We'll abbreviate them a bit here before answering them -- counting down from No. 15 to No. 1.
No. 15: How many freshmen can and will step up?
It's hard to imagine that Iman Marshall, Ykili Ross, Osa Masina, Porter Gustin, Cameron Smith and John Houston don't get on the field on the two-deep defense and special teams. Not sure exactly how that happens numbers wise but that's how we see it. On offense, Tyler Petite, Chuma Edoga, Dominic Davis, Ronald Jones, Aca'cedric Ware and Deontay Burnett will be there. The surprise we're maybe most sure of is Burnett. But they all can play.
No. 14: Can junior college wide receivers Isaac Whitney and Dequan Hampton step up right away?
Simple answer: Yes. They've worked hard to make that long journey from JC to USC. They always had the physicality. The work ethic cinches it.
No. 13: Can the live-legged Matt Boermeester step up right away and replace Andre Heidari?.
He can. No question the leg is there. Will he? Only Matt can answer that. Having kickoff specialist Alex Wood in the mix helps big-time.
No. 12: Can this all-veteran, big, strong, deep, experienced O-line group dominate the Pac-12?
They have a heck of a shot. The competitive depth and Max Tuerk's leadership make this within reach for Bob Connelly's guys. Not a single reason to say they won't.
No. 11: How good can Juju Smith be?
His leadership and practice habits make him the No. 1 go-to guy here. We can't wait to see how he looks if he gets down to 205 pounds [from 215] the way he says he wants to, reacting to all the speed around him on both sides of the ball on this USC team.
No. 10: How does the wide receiver group's chemistry come together, especially with the possibility of Adoree on offense for as many as 18-20 plays a game?
The good news here is how they're going to use Adoree -- and Deontay and Dominic and RJII -- out of the backfield so they may not take as much away from the wide receiver group but just add to it.
No. 9: Is Connor Spears as good as he looks?
The 6-foot-6, 255-pound walkon tight end transfer from Columbia is pretty good. If there's a better walkon in the nation, we haven't seen him. Unbelievably lucky break at a position of need although if any one of Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, Oklahoma transfer Taylor McNamara or Chris Wilson's son Caleb come through, this could be a position of strength despite the apparent loss of Bryce Dixon as hard as that may be to believe.
No. 8: Will Claude Pelon be the man to step up and play to the potential of the player who was the nation's top JuCo D-lineman two years ago?
He could. But predicting D-line guys unless they're Leonard Williams is like predicting kickers. Might be someone else in the five-senior group as they realize what that could mean for this team and for themselves. One caveat: They have to be allowed and encouraged to make the kinds of plays that marked so many of the great USC teams in the past decade. It could happen. The athletes are there.
No. 7:What about the linebackers?
Start with Su'a Cravens. Then count heads and years of starting experience. And finally, look at the heights and weights -- and the raw talent. Peter Sirmon has a lot to work with here. But you can't have them standing around. These guys were made to fly around and make plays. You've got to let them.
No. 6: Is there a way for the secondary to get up to shutdown speed, young and talented as it may be, with a senior, a junior, a trio -- at least -- of sophomores and a pair of freshmen?
They have a chance. Kevon Seymour with Leon McQuay now at corner -- a smart move -- in addition to AJ is more than just a good start? Add in Biggie there with Jonathan Lockett and combine them with safeties John Plattenburg, Chris Hawkins, Ykili and Matt Lopes and maybe Marvell Tell and you have, once again, the combination of competitive depth and talent that can work. But the coaching component matters here maybe more than anywhere else looking at all that young talent.
No. 5: Can Cody Kessler be a Heisman-eligible type quarterback?
He can be if . . . and this is why the ultimate team guy coach Pete Carroll produced three Heisman winners in four years . . . if the Trojans team and coaches cooperate. If they do, he will be. It's as simple as that. The whole "he doesn't get it done against top opponents" mantra was far more a function of gameplan issues and playcalling than Cody's play. Turn him loose, turn them loose and see what happens.
No. 4: Can USC block the run?
Another really good question only the Trojans can answer. They should be able to. Steve Sarkisian's history says they should. And yet, much of what Buck Allen did last year on the way to 1,489 rushing yards was on Buck, as too often were defenders grabbing him by the ankles in the backfield. That has to stop. USC wins two more games -- maybe three -- if it can run the ball last fall. They couldn't at all at Boston College and needed just a first down at the end to preserve the Utah and Arizona State wins and couldn't get either of those. We think they'll be able to but we wish we were a bit more confident here.
No. 3: Can this team attack? On offense and defense? For 60 minutes a game? Will it?
Good question. Don't have that answer. Tried to come up with that one once for Lane and realized I never could get it right. Too much wishful thinking on our part.No. 2: Can this team get it together in defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox's second season at the helm?
They -- and he -- had better. Considering everything, they came pretty close last fall and that was mostly without Josh Shaw and mostly when they seemed like they were just trying to hang in there in the defensive staff's first year. We think they've learned those tough lessons that made last year's losses -- in words Pete made famous -- "teachable moments." From the BC and UCLA gameplanning, to just one or two series against Utah and Arizona State to the barely-hold-ons against Arizona and Nebraska, we all know what happened. Avoid those with a much deeper rotation and a whole new aggressive attitude and this defense should not be embarrassed.
No.1: Is Sark ready to make it happen -- to put it all together the way Howard Jones, John McKay and Pete Carroll were able to?
Well, it took Pete until his seventh season as a head coach at the age of 50 to win his first national title. McKay made it by the age of 39 in his third year. Jones was 43, had coached a dozen years as head man at Syracuse, Yale, Ohio State, Iowa and Duke and won a national title at Yale before his multiple-championship run started at USC in 1928. So Sark, at 41, has time -- July and August at least -- to get it going here this year in his seventh season as a head coach. Nick Saban was 52 and in his ninth season as a head man while Urban Meyer was 42 and in his fourth year as a head coach when they won their first national titles at LSU and Florida. So it's not wrong to say it's time for Sark to step up and show what he can do. When you're the guy at USC recruiting players who "can win national championships" as Sark makes clear to prospects, and as he's made happen as a recruiter, you have to be the guy who can coach 'em up to a title or at least keep the program moving in that direction. There are lots of ways to get that done. You have to be yourself. And yourself has to be good enough to get it done with a still-young team that might be -- we say "might" -- be good enough to do just that.
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