Fall position group preview: Special teams

2 big replacements needed but mostly this is a returning cast of characters.

It's like the Bermuda Triangle of USC position rankings. Where the Trojans linebackers have been ranked No. 1 in the nation and the quarterbacks No. 2 and the rest of the position groups mostly somewhere in the Top 10 or at worst, 20, Phil Steele took a look at USC's special teams and ranked them . . . No. 48.

And Phil ranked just 48 teams. Not exactly an endorsement for a team that returns its punter (Kris Albarado), the newly scholarshiped pair of snapper (Zach Smith) and holder (Conner Sullivan), kickoff man (Alex Wood) and both kickoff returners (Adoree Jackson and Juju Smith).

Only punt returner Nelson Agholor and field goal kicker Andre Heidari are missing. And there's no question we won't quickly forget what that pair of USC career record-setters accomplished in their USC years.

Nor is it the case that USC was awful last year on special teams with the specialists returning. After all, any time Adoree has the ball in his hands, he's a threat. USC returned two kickoffs and two punts for TDs.

USC also had decent stats for both punt returns (9.7 yards avergae) and kickoff returns (22.1 yards). And as the media guide points out, they missed just two field goals, improved the punt yardage and blocked a couple of field goals.

But that's the upside. There is also a major downside. USC had a pair of kicks blocked, allowed a scoring kickoff return and the Trojans finished in the bottom five nationally in punt return defense, allowing 16.3 yards a return. They were also in the bottom 25 in net punting averaging just 35.0 yards a punt and the bottom 30 in kickoff return defense, permitting 22.5 yards per kick.

The influx of talented, athletic newcomers eager to get on the field should dramatically help the coverage issues for special teams coach Johnny Nansen's charges. No more double or triple duty for players like MLB Hayes Pullard pulled in recent years.

And if the senior Albarado, in his third year as punter, improves as much as he did a year ago when he bumped up his average more than four yards to 41.4 on 60 punts, USC fans will be thrilled. Last year he kicked 11 more punts of plus-50 yards than the year before so the potential is there. Redshirt freshman walkon Reid Budrovich will back up Albarado.

The feature spot, placekicker, will be up for grabs between blueshirt Matt Boermeester, a big-legged soccer lefty from San Diego with 55-yard range who redshirted last season, and Wood, whose leg strength on kickoffs clearly improved last season with 14 of his 48 kickoffs going for touchbacks and another 11 that left opponents inside their own 20.

Wood also brings a career perfect 20 for 20 mark on extra points in 2012 and 2014. But replacing Heidari, who finshed his four years by going 49 of 66 on field goals with four from more than 50 yards out and three of the longest nine in USC history after kicking a Pac-12 record 187 extra points in a Pac-12 record 193 attempts, will not be easy. Redshirt freshman walk-on Wyatt Schmidt gives USC a third kicker.

The snapper-holder pair of Smith/Sullivan have been perfect with the multi-sport Sullivan switching from right- to lefthanded kickers with no problem. Walkon linebacker Nick Schlossberg will back up Smith. QB Cody Kessler will back up Sullivan.

For now, kickoff return doesn't change with Adoree and JuJu set to go again with tailback Justin Davis backing them. With his 684 yards on 23 returns, Adoree is already 14th on USC's career list. His two kickoff return TDs (100 yards against Utah, 98 against Nebraska) were second nationally and his 29.7 average fifth. JuJu returned 11 for 132 yards (12.0 average).

With Agholor gone to the Eagles as a No. 1 pick, gone also are his USC-record four career punt returns including two last year when he was third in the nation. Right now, Adoree is listed on top of the punt return depth chart with backup from Steven Mitchell, Darreus Rogers and Chris Hawkins. But can USC add a second set of return duties to the already loaded three-way sophomore star?

SARK SAYS: “We really value special teams play and spend a lot of time on it. It showed last year in our return game, where we always want to be explosive and aggressive. But we need to develop consistency in our coverage units. And the competition to find a new kicker will be one of the key battles to watch on the team this year.”

Ninth and final installment in a series of fall position previews for the 2015 Trojans.

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

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