The FBS college football season is officially underway with North Carolina losing to the wannabe-USC, South Carolina, and Michigan traveling to Rice Eccles Stadium to get beat by Utah.
Thursday night college football is great, but we know all the Trojans fans are much more excited about what is going to happen Saturday night in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum when USC takes on the Red Wolves of Arkansas State. All the preseason chatter will be put to bed and we’ll finally have some Trojan football that counts to discuss.
We have dwindled away the names and come to the final two USC playmakers in our “30 Key Trojans” countdown. This list is not the 30 most talented players or the 30 players that will put up the best stats, but instead the guys that could propel USC to a successful season.
Which players’ success is key for the Trojans’ season to be a success?
2. Su'a Cravens - Junior
Two weeks before the 2014 season, Su’a Cravens was suddenly thrust into a new position. After Jabari Ruffin tore his anterior cruciate ligament, Cravens began getting practice reps at the SAM linebacker position. This wasn’t a backup getting an opportunity at a second position. Cravens was a first-team freshman All-American strong safety, who was an honorable mention selection for the All-Pac-12 team. He was set to continue USC’s illustrious tradition of All-American safeties by building on his 52-tackle, four-interception freshman campaign.
But slowly Cravens began seeing more and more reps down inside the box, morphing from a Troy Polamalu run-assisting safety at first into a full-time wide-side linebacker after the first three games. Despite wanting to help the team in any way he could, Cravens was a bit skeptical of the move. He had no desires to bulk up to 240-250 pounds and become a full-blown neck-pad-wearing linebacker. The coaching staff was able to acquiesce those initial fears, but it took Cravens a big game before seeing exactly the vision the coaches had.
That came against Oregon State in Cravens first game starting as a linebacker. As has been the case throughout his career, it didn’t take long for him to make an impact at the position, jumping into a passing lane a little over midway through the first quarter to intercept a Sean Mannion pass attempt for a tight end in the flats. Cravens snatched the pass and ran it back 31 yards for the game’s first points.
He also got into the backfield multiple times, getting a sack and forced a fumble that was called back by a facemask penalty. The coaches had put him in a position to make an impact. When asked what position he was, he preferred just being called a playmaker.
That is the correct way to describe him. Cravens is a pure playmaker. He just needs to be put in the right position and let loose. The coaching staff think they have that figured out now. Playing the hybrid position of the SAM linebacker position near the line of scrimmage and his earlier strong safety spot, Cravens put together a strong statistical season, collecting 68 tackles, nine deflections and a team-high three interceptions. He led the team with 17 tackles for loss, including five sacks. His 17 tackles for loss were the most by a Trojan linebacker or defensive back in 14 years.
His overall performance placed him on the All-Pac-12 first team and a third-team All-American. Cravens was named USC’s Defensive Perimeter Player of the Year. Those honors were just a precursor for the award watch lists he was named to before this season — namely every one he was eligible for. He is a candidate for the Butkus, Lombardi, Badnarik, Nagurski and Lott Awards.
Cravens is an instinctual defender that always seems to be in the right place. That’s why one of the Trojans' most indispensable defensive playmakers is expected to be given more freedom in Justin Wilcox’s defensive scheme this season.
“I’m a lot more comfortable in the [SAM linebacker] position. I think the coaches trust me,” said Cravens, who hopes to play at 220-225 pounds this season despite fluctuating during the offseason between 198 pounds after an illness and having teeth pulled and 235 pounds following a vacation. “They give me a little more leeway than they would some other players, but we have that relationship where it’s ‘ok, you know your skill set and you know what we expect out of you, so we’re not going to coach you too much, so go out and play your game.’”
While the coaches may give Cravens’ more flexibility, they don’t have to be concerned about him falling into a trap of complacency. He is one of the team’s most fierce competitor. He came to USC to play with and against the best.
Throughout the spring and fall, Cravens has again found himself roaming in the backfield with regularity. More familiarity with the system from his spot as well as Scott Felix/Jabari Ruffin/Porter Gustin at the opposite rush end position should make the outside linebackers even more active this season. It will be interesting to see how Wilcox chooses to deploy the weapon that is Su’a Cravens in what is quite possibly his final season as a Trojan before heading to the NFL.
SOUNDING OFF:"Su'a is a guy who can create turnovers, he can make tackles in the backfield, he can blitz off the edge, he can cover well. I think he's at his best when he's around the ball." -- USC head coach Steve Sarkisian
“I’m just going to do my best to make everyone around me better. I’m not really focused on myself or goals or stats, I just want to win. If that means being a facilitator and making sure everyone else is succeeding instead of my own success then so be it.
I’ll play any position that they need me to play. If they need me to move over for somebody else that can make a big impact then so be it. I just want to win this year.” — Su’a Cravens
“Much attention has gone to Su'a's journey from safety to the hybrid SAM linebacker spot last year. But what matters most to this USC team this year from Su'a is his journey to becoming an outspoken team leader whose desire to compete is contagious. Now USC just has to keep him playing to his strengths, keep him near the ball and let him make plays. It's not a secret. You won't miss it." — Dan Weber, USCfootball.com
Our Keely Eure caught up with Su'a Cravens after a summer workout and at the Pac-12 media days to talk about the progress the Trojans are making and the upcoming season:
|2||Su'a Cravens||168 pts||2 (Three times)||6 (Shotgun Spratling)|
|3||Cody Kessler||166 pts||1 (Dan & Austin)||6 (Gerard Martinez)|
|4||Max Tuerk||155 pts||2 (Gerard Martinez)||9 (Shotgun Spratling)|
|5||JuJu Smith-Schuster||148 pts||4 (Four times)||15 (Shotgun Spratling)|
|6||Toa Lobendahn||132 pts||5 (Shotgun Spratling)||12 (Austin Geller)|
|7||Kevon Seymour||131 pts||5 (Gerard Martinez)||14 (Twice)|
|8||Antwaun Woods||125 pts||7 (Ryan Abraham)||17 (Dan Weber)|
|9||Justin Davis||124 pts||6 (Austin Geller)||16 (Shotgun Spratling)|
|10||Lamar Dawson||121 pts||2 (Shotgun Spratling)||17 (Keely Eure)|
|11||Steven Mitchell Jr.||120 pts||8 (Shotgun Spratling)||13 (Dan & Ryan)|
|12||Claude Pelon||109 pts||9 (Dan Weber)||17 (Austin Geller)|
|13||Tre Madden||98 pts||6 (Dan Weber)||Not listed (Shotgun Spratling)|
|14||Chad Wheeler||92 pts||6 (Keely Eure)||Not listed (Shotgun Spratling)|
|15||Iman Marshall||86 pts||11 (Ryan Abraham)||25 (Shotgun Spratling)|
|16||Delvon Simmons||84 pts||1 (Shotgun Spratling)||28 (Gerard Martinez)|
|17||Jabari Ruffin||79 pts||12 (Dan Weber)||25 (Ryan Abraham)|
|18||Anthony Sarao||77 pts||13 (Keely Eure)||26 (Austin Geller)|
|19||Zach Banner||72 pts||12 (Shotgun Sprating)||Not listed (Austin Geller)|
|20||John Plattenburg||68 pts||15 (Keely Eure)||29 (Austin Geller)|
|21||Damien Mama||49 pts||18 (Gerard Martinez)||27 (DanWeber)|
|22||Connor Spears||44 pts||13 (Austin Geller)||Not listed (Twice)|
|23||Max Browne||43 pts||19 (Twice)||Not listed (Shotgun Spratling)|
|24||Leon McQuay III||40 pts||17 (Ryan Abraham)||Not listed (Twice)|
|25||Osa Masina||39 pts||15 (Gerard Martinez)||Not listed (Keely Eure)|
|26||Darreus Rogers||36 pts||19 (Shotgun Spratling)||Not listed (Dan Weber)|
|27||Matt Boermeester||35 pts||18 (Dan Weber)||Not listed (Twice)|
|28||Chris Hawkins||34 pts||21 (Twice)||Not listed (Twice)|
|29||Viane Talamaivao||23 pts||22 (Keely Eure)||Not listed (Three times)|
|30||Ykili Ross||21 pts||22 (Austin Geller)||Not listed (Twice)|