For USC fans, a Fall Preview that starts on offense is exactly the right place to begin. Nine starters return -- and in effect, make that everyone but quarterback Cody Kessler who started at the end of the 2015 season is back. In all, 18 Trojans with starting experience are back on a much deeper, much more experienced offense that will need every bit of that experience in its opener in Texas against defending national champion Alabama.
But they return with a tweaked offense that looks to have much of the quick-hitting opportunism of the Top 25 Western Kentucky attack brought here with passing game coordinator Tyson Helton and veteran O-line coach Neil Callaway.
And they've had a full spring and summer to get it in place thanks to a change in emphasis in the player-run practices to full-team 11-on-11 work that has gotten the Trojans completely through the new playbook.
Optimism abounds, at least as much as a team breaking in a new quarterback can muster. There is reason for the Trojans to feel that way as we examine the offense, position by position, with pre-camp comments from Clay Helton.
Helton on the offense: “Our offense will be very consistent to what Trojan fans have seen in the past. Tee [Martin] is not only is an outstanding play caller, but he has been with us long enough to understand what works well here. We want to keep defenses off balance by being balanced offensively. We believe we have the personnel to run the ball effectively and physically and to be explosive in the passing game. At the end of the day, though, we know that we must be able to run the ball and not turn it over.”
As hard as it is to imagine that a team having to replace a quarterback in Kessler who is now in the top four in virtually every career passing category and is the most efficient quarterback in USC history, that's how USC feels. Even though 6-foot-5, 225-pound redshirt junior Max Browne has seen just mop-up duty in nine games in his career and was a mere eight of 12 passing for 113 yards in 2015 and 6-4, 225-pound redshirt freshman Sam Darnold has yet to play, their spring and summer work has the USC program enthused that the transition behind center will be seamless.
The only reason this is a two-way battle, Helton says, is because of Darnold's far-better-than-expected development as a dual threat with a quick, strong arm and the ability to pull the ball down and run it against the experience and steady leadership of Browne, the nation's top pro-style QB prospect four years ago coming out of Sammamish, Washington. He's exactly who USC thought he was, Helton says, after an outstanding spring. But Darnold isn't. He's just in a place USC didn't expect him to be.
The pair will battle it out the first two weeks of fall before a decision is made with two weeks to go to the Alabama game. Backing them up will be freshman Matt FInk, a pleasant surprise with his arm, and on occasion Jalen Greene, back officially at wide receiver but a Wildcat and flanker-pass-option threat.
Helton on the QB's: “One of our most important goals is to identify our quarterback for 2016 after losing the most efficient quarterback in USC history. All of our quarterbacks performed very well in the spring, so we will go into fall camp before naming a starter. I’m looking forward to a very competitive atmosphere.”
Max Browne, RJr
Sam Darnold, RFr.
Matt Fink, Fr.
Thomas Fitts, RFr.
Not a lot of change here, just a year more experience as USC returns eight of the top nine ball carriers and 75 percent of the 2,355 rushing yards, headed by the duo of senior Justin Davis, whose teammates can't stop talking about his leadership, and Ronald Jones, who's bigger and faster than he was when he debuted as the most productive freshman running back in USC history, breaking Charles White's mark with a team-leading 987 yards (a 6.5-yard average) as the only freshman other than LenDale White to lead USC in rushing. He also scored eight touchdowns. Davis, meanwhile, gained 902 yards (a 5.3 average) to put him at No. 22 on the USC career rushing list with 1,858 yards..
Last year, the duo had the oft-injured now-departed Tre Madden to complement them. This time around it will be the sophomore duo of speedster Dominic Davis, a more mature pass-catching/run threat and 200-pound power runner Aca-Cedric Ware. Talented walkon James Toland is joined by Cal Poly transfer Lance Mudd along with freshman Vavae Malepeai and linebacker-turned-fullback Reuben Peters flesh out the backfield possibilities here.
Helton on the RB's: “It will be exciting to watch this young, skilled running back corps continue to develop. They gained invaluable experience in 2015 and we believe that will carry over to this year . . . Since I have been at USC, at times we have used tight ends as fullbacks and we have had success doing that. Our offense actually has been very productive that way, enabling our tight ends to get out in space. Since we are heavy at tight end this year, we’ll mainly go that route.”
RUNNING BACKS ROSTER
Dominic Davis, So., TB
JUSTIN DAVIS, Sr., TB
Ronald Jones II, So., TB
Vavae Malepeai, In. Fr., TB
Lance Mudd, So., TB
Reuben Peters, So., FB-ILB
James Toland IV, Jr., TB
Aca’Cedric Ware, So., TB
The numbers agree here. USC has a lot of players who can play this position. The new more diverse, quicker-hitting scheme promises to get the ball to more of them than last year's focus on All-American JuJu Smith-Schuster, whose team-high 89 catches for 1,454 yards (a 16.3 average) and 10 TD make him an All-American and Biletnikoff Award candidate. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Smith-Schuster will get plenty of looks, especially if the USC run game and tight end threat can force defenses to not multiple-cover the junior out of Long Beach Poly who is No. 13 on the USC career receiving list with 143 receptions.
Battling to be the next in line are two veterans -- senior starter Darreus Rogers and redshirt junior sometimes starter Steven Mitchell. Rogers has made improvements in his speed and route-running after catching 28 passes for 289 yards and three TD last fall while Mitchell grabbed 37 passes for 335 yards and four TD. Both will get the chance to step in where they left off. But it doesn't end there.
Junior college transfers, now seniors, De'Quan Hampton (15 receptions) and Isaac Whitney (eight catches) seem very much more comfortable in the system with both contending for the most improved label while athletic, acrobatic sophomore Deontay Burnett (10 receptions) has shown bursts of remarkable ability. in his year here.
And as much as he says he's concentrating on defense this season, you can't ignore triple-threat junior Adoree’ Jackson (27 rec, 414 yds, 15.3 avg, two TD in 2015) who will get his chances to get the ball in space. How much that will be for the Hornung and Thorpe Awards candidate has yet to be detemined.
Then you may, or may not, have to factor in at least a couple of the half-dozen talented newcomers who have arrived in the spring and summer. But any of them who do make it to the field will have to step up and show what they can do with all the experienced players ahead of them. But keep your eyes on the physically imposing Josh Imatorbhebhe (North Gwinnett High in Sugar Hill, Ga.), brother of tight end transfer Daniel and another physical athlete, 6-4 Michael Pittman Jr. (Oaks Christian High in Westlake Village, Calif.), son of an NFL player and like Josh, a spring arrival.
Summer arrivals who have impressed with their acrobatic catches are the Bishop Amat duo of Trevon Sidney and Tyler Vaughns (both from Bishop Amat High in La Puente, Calif.), along with the athletic Keyshawn Young (Miami Senior High in Miami, Fla.), who will mostly be used at cornerback and the speedy Velus Jones Jr. (Saraland High in Saraland, Ala.). Then there's incoming athlete Jack Jones, out of Long Beach Poly, another freshman summer arrival who may follow in Adoree's cornerback/wide receiver footsteps.
Not all of these freshmen will avoid a redshirt. Maybe most of them won't. But some will. Should be fun to figure out which.
Helton on WR's: “This is probably the most explosive group of wide receivers USC has had since I’ve been here. With our depth, we now have the ability to put three or four wideouts on the field at the same time, each of whom causes a mismatch for defenders.”
WIDE RECEIVERS ROSTER
Jackson Boyer, RJr.
Deontay Burnett, So.
De’Quan Hampton, Sr.
Ajene Harris, So.
Josh Imatorbhebhe, Fr.
Adoree’ Jackson, Jr., CB-WR-RET
Jack Jones, In. Fr., CB-WR
Velus Jones Jr., In. Fr.
Steven Mitchell Jr., Jr.
Michael Pittman Jr., Fr.
DARREUS ROGERS, Sr.
Jake Russell, RFr.
Trevon Sidney, In. Fr.
JUJU SMITH-SCHUSTER, Jr.
Milo Stewart, Jr.
Tyler Vaughns, In. Fr.
Isaac Whitney, Sr.
Keyshawn Young, In. Fr., WR-CB
We're going out on a limb here. Not only will the tight ends go from the most under-utilized position to the most, in the process it will be the most improved for the second season as well. USC in effect has three starters who will be on the field in all sorts of combinations doing all sorts of things -- from hand-down-in-the-dirt blockers to deep seam streak route receivers to flex stand-up receivers to H-backs in motion to -- and away from -- the point of attack.
Last year's starter Taylor McNamara (6-5, 240, 12 catches, four TD), part-time starter Tyler Petite (6-6, 240, 15 catches, one TD) and Florida transfer Daniel Imatorbhebhe (6-4, 242) will be, in other words, busy. They seem up to the scheme-changing nature of their roles. McNamara, the Oklahoma transfer in his second season as a grad student, has become much more of an all-around threat. For the sure-handed sophomore Petite, the focus has been on blocking. For Daniel, almost 20 pounds heavier, the focus has been on getting bigger and getting to know the system.
They're joined by a 6-7, 230-pound Pennsylvanian, Cary Angeline, with the sure hands of the basketball player he was at Downingtown High School.
Helton on the TE's: “Tight end was our most improved group last year, as they began as a question mark and really became a stable unit by year’s end. We expect this will be one of our deeper units in 2016 with the returnees and the new additions. We’ll use them in a variety of roles.”
TIGHT ENDS ROSTER
Cary Angeline, In. Fr.
Alec Hursh, So.
Daniel Imatorbhebhe, RFr.
TAYLOR McNAMARA, Sr.
Tyler Petite, So.
With 131 career starts, USC's offensive line is the second-most-experienced in the nation. With the departure of Max Tuerk to the NFL after a season cut short by a knee injury, the Trojans return every starter from a year ago and then some. So much so that one starter, guard-center Khaliel Rodgers has switched over to defense.
And still, there are two onetime starting juniors battling it out at center -- 6-3, 295-pound Toa Lobendahn and 6-5, 288-pound Nico Falah, with four potential starters going at it at guard -- 6-3, 320-pound Viane Talamaivao (19 career starts), a much improved Chris Brown, (6-5, 300), Damien Mama (6-4, 330, 17 career starts) and senior Jordan Simmons, (6-4, 335) finally healthy for the first time in his career.
Tackle is just about as competitive with 6-9, 348-pound ll-American candidate Zach Banner holding things down at right tackle and the much more physical left tackle, 6-7, 317-pound Chad Wheeler -- both seniors with a big chunk of those starting numbers between them over the last two years -- bookending this group. Behind them are sophomores Chuma Edoga, a potential starter, along with Roy Hemsley and Clayton Johnston with Jordan Austin at guard and Cole Smith at center and finally with 6-6, 325-pound freshman tackle E.J. Price out of Georgia getting a chance to show what he can do early on.
Two more freshman tackles here are spring enrollee Nathan Smith (Murrieta Mesa High) and Frank Martin II (Mater Dei High).
Helton on the O-line: “Without question, the offensive line is the most experienced unit on a very experienced offense. For the first time since I’ve been at USC, it feels like we are 3-deep at every line position.”
OFFENSIVE LINE ROSTER
Jordan Austin, So., OT
ZACH BANNER, Sr., OT
Chris Brown, So., OG
Chuma Edoga, OT, So.
Nico Falah, OT, Jr.
Roy Hemsley, OT, RFr.
Clayton Johnston, RFr., OT
TOA LOBENDAHN, Jr., C
DAMIEN MAMA, Jr., OG
Frank Martin II, In. Fr., OT
E.J. Price, In. Fr., OT
Jordan Simmons, OG, Sr.
Cole Smith, C, RFr.
Nathan Smith, OT, Fr.
VIANE TALAMAIVAO, Jr., OG
Richie Wenzel, C, So.
CHAD WHEELER, Sr., OT
ED. NOTE: This is the first in a series of 2016 Fall Camp previews this week: Next, the Defense.
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