The 2015 USC football team, ranked eighth by the Associated Press (AP) and 10th in the USA Today poll, opens the season Saturday, Sept. 5, against the Sun Belt Conference’s Arkansas State Red Wolves at 8 p.m. PDT in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and in front of a national Pac-12 Network cable television audience. It’s the first meeting between the schools, and the first of back-to-back outings for the Trojans against Sun Belt foes (Idaho, Sept. 12). USC is 8-0 against current Sun Belt opponents (all against Idaho, but before the Vandals joined the conference), while the Red Wolves are playing just their second game against the Pac-12 (at Oregon, 2012, a 57-34 loss). According to online sports handicapping the Trojans are a 28-point favorite Saturday night.
USC Coach Steve Sarkisian (9-4 at USC; 43-33 career collegiate head coaching record) kicks off his second season at the helm of the Trojans – and is probably happy to get to the football portion of the job after recent controversy surrounding his inebriated appearance on stage at the school’s Salute to Troy booster event. Arkansas State headman Blake Anderson (7-6) also begins his second season in Jonesboro – which is news, considering the Red Wolves’ three previous head coaches each lasted one year before moving on to bigger assignments (Hugh Freeze, 2011, now at Mississippi; Gus Malzahn, 2012, now at Auburn; and Bryan Harsin, 2013, now at Boise State). The offensive-minded Anderson came to A-State after serving as offensive coordinator at Southern Mississippi (2010-11) and North Carolina (2012-13).
The Trojans’ 2015 opener is only USC’s fifth at home in the past 13 seasons. Nonetheless, USC has won its past 17 opening games, and is 62-16-7 in season openers on at home. The Trojans return 16 starters in all and are led on offense by senior quarterback Cody Kessler, a Heisman Trophy candidate after a 39 TD, five-interception season in 2014. Sophomore receiver Juju Smith-Schuster and senior center Max Tuerk are other honors candidates. On defense, junior hybrid linebacker Su’a Cravens, senior nose tackle Antwaun Woods, and sophomore cornerback/receiver/kick returner Adoree’ Jackson are expected to lead the way.
The Red Wolves, meanwhile, return nine starters on offense, including all of the key playmakers that helped roll up more than 476 yards and 36.7 points of offense per game in 2014. On defense, just five starters return, but experienced depth is decent in the front six (A-State plays out of a 4-2-5 set). The Red Wolves are undergoing an overhaul in the secondary, however, after losing four of five starters. That might not be all bad, however, as the secondary was part of the reason Arkansas State was consistently victimized by big plays while allowing 30.5 points per game in 2014.
Arkansas State Offense
Anderson and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Walt Bell had to be very happy that Harsin’s 2013 coaching staff left them quarterback Fredi Knighten. He turned out to be an outstanding dual threat in 2014, and now, in his senior year, he’s the unquestioned leader of a veteran group of playmakers. The undersized Knighten threw for 3,277 yards, completing 62.3 percent of his passes, with 24 TDs and just seven interceptions. He also led the team in rushing attempts (182), gaining 969 yards and scoring 11 TDs. As with many running QBs, Knighten was sacked more than the A-State staff would’ve liked – 29 times – and ball security (nine fumbles, seven lost) was an issue that’s been discussed during the offseason, as well.
Knighten has a bevy of options to throw to: the Red Wolves return seven of their top eight receivers/tight ends from 2014, including slot receiver J.D. McKissic. The senior, with 237 career catches, is college football’s active leader in receptions. Incredibly, though, he did not count a single TD grab among 52 catches in 2014. Classmate Tres Houston was A-State’s leading receiver in 2014 (53 catches, 12.9 per catch, four TDs), while folks are very high on sophomore Dijon Paschal, who averaged more than 17 yards on his 37 grabs as a redshirt freshman and tied for the team lead with four scores. Seniors Booker Mays (20 catches, 16.2, four TDs) and Tyler Trosin (13 grabs, 10.4, one TD), sophomore Blake Mack (7 catches, 21.3, one TD), and JC transfer Chris Murray should also see time. Bruising tight end Darion Griswold (18 catches, 12.3, four TDs) is also worth noting.
There’s more returning talent in the A-State backfield. Yes, Knighten is a threat with his legs but another senior, Michael Gordon, had a breakout season in 2014 – scampering for 1,100 yards in just 159 carries (6.9 yards per carry) and scoring 13 TDs on the ground. He also caught 25 passes (7.6 yards per catch/one TD). Sophomore Johnston White is an excellent backup (95 carries, 514 yards, six TDs), while diminutive true freshman Warren Wand (5’5”, 174) could also see time.
Three starters return on the Red Wolves’ offensive line, all juniors: left tackle Jemar Clark, right tackle Colton Jackson, and center Devin Mondie, who shifts over from left guard. Jackson is likely the group’s top player. Redshirt freshman Daniel Keith appears set to start at left guard, while junior Austin Moreton will make his second career start at right guard. Three transfers: center Brandon Berg, guard Jamal Fontenot and tackle Joseph Bacchus could figure into A-State’s plans.
Arkansas State Defense
Across the ball, defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Joe Cauthen is itching to see if his crew can continue to disrupt opposing offenses – A-State had 37 sacks, 86 tackles for loss, and forced 28 turnovers – while improving against the run and avoiding the kind of home run plays that hurt the Wolves time and again. Arkansas State ranked No. 85 in the nation in total defense, allowing 421.2 total yards, but a horrendous No. 105 against the run, allowing 205.2 yards per game.
Up front, A-State’s defensive ends set the tone, as pre-season Sun Belt first-teamers Ja’Von Rolland-Jones and Chris Stone return to wreak havoc. Rolland-Jones, a sophomore, notched eight sacks among 30 total tackles in 2014, while Stone, a senior who plays the “Bandit” end spot, counted 7.5 sacks as part of his 48 stops. Sophomore Caleb Caston could also rotate here. Inside, though, the Red Wolves are counting on a trio of transfers to try to fill those big holes that burdened the 2014 squad. JC transfers Waylon Robertson (NG) and Jake Swalley (DT) are the listed starters for Saturday, while Robert Mondie (brother of center Devin), a transfer from UAB, is also likely to see time. True freshman Donovan Ransom also has turned some heads.
The Red Wolves’ biggest personnel loss comes at linebacker, where graduated MLB Qushaun Lee’s 110 tackles and four interceptions paced the team in 2014. Additionally, junior Xavier Woodson, who was second on the team with 95 tackles a season ago, will sit out the opener after a pair of ejections in 2014. Saturday, that means junior MLB Quanterio Heath (12 stops in seven games last season) and true freshman WLB Tajhea Chambers will start, with sophomore Khari Lane (six tackles in 2014) and senior Austin Copeland (24 tackles, 2 sacks in 2014) rotating in.
A-State’s secondary is undergoing a complete overhaul, with five new starters listed for Saturday. The only returning starter from 2014 – junior Money Hunter (no, really, Money Hunter) – is listed second on the depth chart at free safety and nickel. Senior Charleston Girley has some starting experience, along with some past injury issues, and will start at nickel. At corner, the new starters – sophomore Blaise Taylor and senior Rocky Hayes – both played in 12 games last year. At safety, A-State turns to the transfer route, once again, as juniors Cody Brown (SS) and Bo Sentimore (FS) will start Saturday. Junior Chris Humes, a starter in 2013, could also play at strong safety.
Arkansas State Special Teams
Senior Luke Ferguson handled punting and most placekicking in 2014. He’s back to punt, but after missing seven of 15 field goal attempts, as well as six PATs, it’s no shock that junior transfer Drew White is taking over the placekicking duties. Ferguson did average 41.4 yards on 56 punts in 2014. Cornerback Taylor resumes his role as the main punt returner (8.1 average, one TD in 2014), while McKissic and Gordon will handle kickoff returns.
2015 USC Offense
Perhaps the biggest piece of news the week before the season was Sarkisian’s announcement that he was handing off the play calling duties to offensive coordinator Clay Helton. Many believe that Helton proved his mettle as a solo play caller during the Trojans’ 6-2 run under Ed Orgeron in 2013, and then again when he helmed the team to a Las Vegas Bowl victory after Orgeron resigned following Sarkisian’s hiring. It’s certain that working under Sarkisian last year has made Helton more familiar with what the head coach wants out of the offense, but Helton’s natural aggressiveness could be a shot in the arm for a group that’s full of talent but sputtered at some inopportune moments in 2014.
As physically imposing an 18-year-old sophomore receiver as you’ll ever see, Smith-Schuster is expected to follow in the footsteps of recent Trojan greats Nelson Agholor, Marqise Lee, and Robert Woods. But he’s not alone: junior Darreus Rogers, JC transfers Isaac Whitney and De’Quan Hampton, and – especially – sophomore slot receiver Steven Mitchell Jr. are ready for more of the spotlight. Of course, there’s also Jackson – the do-everything sophomore who almost singlehandedly dismantled Nebraska in December’s Holiday Bowl. The big concern in the passing game is at tight end, where personnel losses due to suspension and grades have left USC uncomfortably thin. Graduate transfer Taylor McNamara, who spent the first part of his career at Oklahoma, sophomore Connor Spears, and true freshman Tyler Petite must step up. In the backfield, junior – and presumed starter – Justin Davis has battled injuries through camp and is unlikely to play Saturday. Senior Tre Madden, who has missed the past season-and-a-half with injuries after early success in 2013, will likely carry the load – for now. But it’s expected that all three highly recruited freshman tailbacks – Dominic Davis, Ronald Jones II, and Aca’Cedric Ware – will see the field Saturday. Perhaps of the most interest to me is which back will able to backfill Buck Allen’s efforts as a pass catcher during the past two years – an underrated part of USC’s recent offensive success. Senior fullbacks Soma Vainuku and Jahleel Pinner are dependable.
It’s not often a team has six returning starters across the offensive line, along with plenty of young depth – but that’s the Trojans’ luxury in 2015. Led by senior Rimington Trophy candidate Tuerk at center, USC’s preferred group features junior Zach Banner at right tackle, sophomore Toa Lobendahn at right guard, Tuerk, sophomore Damien Mama at left guard, and junior Chad Wheeler at left tackle. With Wheeler returning from a knee injury, expect plenty of shuffling in these first two games to take a look at different combinations and give him a chance to ease back into action. Lobendahn is the wildcard – he’s listed as co-starter with Wheeler, and is able to play all five positions Sophomores Viane Talamaivao (guard) and Khaliel Rodgers (center) and freshman Chuma Edoga (tackle) are likely to be given opportunities to impress.
Helton’s biggest quandary on Saturday night might be which part of the Red Wolves’ defense to attack first. Gashed on the ground a season ago – and with green linebackers and transfers manning the middle of the line – A-State looks vulnerable. But the new-look Red Wolves’ secondary must have Kessler and Co. looking to air it out. Expect the Trojans – as always – to seek balance. Every team Sarkisian has served as head coach has had a 1,000-yard rusher. Madden – health willing – may be the most likely to reach that mark in 2015. At the same time, Helton will definitely look to play with some of the newer toys at his disposal in Mitchell and Jackson. Protecting Kessler off the edge will be crucial – those A-State pass rushers are no joke. Given time, Kessler is likely to hit a number of big plays. This Arkansas State defense might turn into something solid later this season, but it would be pretty shocking to see them play effectively on Saturday.
2015 USC Defense/Special Teams
Interestingly, where Helton’s new responsibility includes him moving from booth to sideline, defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox has chosen to move the other direction, overseeing things from upstairs in 2015. And the Arkansas State offense should give him plenty to look at - with an experienced dual-threat quarterback, outstanding skill position talent, and a knack for trickeration. The Trojans – who want to see a lot of different players, combinations, and formations from their own personnel – will have their hands full if they aren’t attentive to detail. Knighten’s running is outstanding, but he can tuck and go a little earlier than A-State might like on designed passes – one drawback that haunts many talented runners/passers as it can lead to turnovers.
In all, Arkansas State’s offense should provide an outstanding first-game test for a USC group that is looking to attack more effectively out of its hybrid 3-4 set that relies heavily on its outside linebackers to serve as playmakers. The Trojans were outstanding in forcing turnovers and in tight situations – third down and in the red zone – in 2014. USC hopes to continue that while getting more consistent pressure on the quarterback and improving on earlier downs. Up front, the Trojans begin by trying to find a group of players to effectively replace All-American Leonard Williams, a first-round pick of the New York Jets. Woods, the nose tackle, will be at the center of this effort, physically and emotionally. The good news is that USC’s depth on the D-line is as good as its been in many years. The rotation should include senior Delvon Simmons and sophomore Kenny Bigelow at defensive tackle, senior Cody Temple behind Woods, and seniors Greg Townsend Jr. and Claude Pelon at defensive end. Pelon will sit out Saturday (and perhaps next Saturday) recovering from minor knee surgery, meaning that recently cleared freshman Rasheem Green should get a shot against A-State.
Replacing not only the experience but also the leadership of departed Hayes Pullard is the biggest concern for a deep and experienced crew of linebackers. The clear leader here is junior strong sider Cravens, who plays a true hybrid outside linebacker/safety role. Some would just prefer to call his role “playmaker,” as he creates as much havoc as any hybrid-type player at USC since Troy Polamalu. Junior Scott Felix is the starter at the rush end/linebacker spot, but junior Jabari Ruffin and true freshman Porter Gustin should get plenty of opportunities. Inside, senior Anthony Sarao is a rock on the weak side, though sophomore Olajuwon Tucker and another true freshman, Osa Masina, will see the field early. With senior Lamar Dawson still struggling with injuries, a third true freshman, Cameron Smith, is likely to start Saturday in the middle, with junior Michael Hutchings as the backup.
Newly found depth is also the rule in the Trojan secondary – amazing what happens when you’re allowed to recruit a full assortment of players, isn’t it? Cornerbacks Jackson and senior Kevon Seymour have their spots on lockdown. Coaches are looking for more consistency from Seymour and Jackson’s looking for more game-changing plays from himself. Sophomore Jonathan Lockett and true freshman Iman Marshall will also see the field quite often after an impressive training camp, especially in nickel formations. Junior Leon McQuay III returns at free safety, while sophomore Chris Hawkins – who started 2014 as a corner – has seized the starting strong safety job. However, again, sophomore John Plattenburg (SS) and freshman Marvell Tell III (FS) should continue to battle for more opportunities.
Senior Kris Albarado is back at punter, junior Alex Wood (and his brand new scholarship) gets the first shot at replacing Andre Heidari as the placekicker, and Jackson is option No. 1 on both punt and kickoff returns, with Smith-Schuster also back on kickoffs.
The Trojan offense should have its way with the Red Wolves. A-State is replacing a lot – and they had problems to begin with. If the Trojans don’t score between 40-50 points on Saturday night, there will be a lot of questions from both the media and fans come Sunday morning.
The intrigue should be when the USC defense is on the field. Sure, Arkansas State is undersized, and – yes – they rolled up most of their numbers against Sun Belt competition. But the Red Wolves will not be awed. This is an experienced offense that played on the road at Tennessee and Miami in 2014, and knows the post-season/big game drill, having appeared in four consecutive GoDaddy.com Bowls – winning two.
The Trojans can’t get too caught up in tweaking looks and personnel here. A-State is capable of scoring – and they will look to wrong-foot USC often. However, with solid, assignment football, the Trojans have a massive size, speed, and talent advantage against the Red Wolves’ offense. If they put it to work, this one should be over well before the apparent 11 p.m. Pacific closing.
USC 49, Arkansas State 17
Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for 15 years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the marketing industry and graduated with a journalism degree from USC in 1994. He’s traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10/12 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/thrants (@THrants)