USC prepares for athletic program's pivotal year

With Steve Sarkisian's coaching honeymoon over, Trojans finally will have a full recruiting class again

USC's athletic program, under director Pat Haden, reaches a critical juncture in 2015.

Football Coach Steve Sarkisian will begin his second season, the relative honeymoon afforded all first-year coaches ending after the Holiday Bowl.

Men's basketball Coach Andy Enfield will complete his second season in March and begin his third in November. Based on the Trojans' uneven play through the first part of this season, USC still has a long way to go to become an NCAA tournament contender.

Success in women's basketball, tennis, water polo, golf, track and field and swimming will not satisfy a fan base yearning for national championships in football and NCAA tournament appearances in men's basketball.

Here are some questions and answers looking ahead:

Now that NCAA sanctions ended, how is USC's football recruiting class shaping up?

For the first time in four years, USC will not be limited to 15 new players. Sarkisian and his staff can sign a full class of 25 on Feb. 4, otherwise known as national signing day.

The Trojans have commitments or signed financial-aid agreements from 18 players, including quarterbacks Ricky Town of Ventura St. Bonaventure High and Sam Darnold of San Clemente. The class includes four receivers, four offensive linemen and three defensive linemen.

USC had a strong 2014 recruiting class, signing cornerback Adoree' Jackson, receiver JuJu Smith and offensive lineman Damien Mama, all of whom started as freshmen.

Despite a full incoming class, it will take a few years for the Trojans to reach the allowable maximum of 85 scholarship players on the roster.

Will Cody Kessler be a Heisman Trophy contender?

He has three Heisman-related factoids working in his favor:

He plays quarterback for USC, one of the most high-profile positions in college football. He is coming off a season in which he passed for 39 touchdowns, with only five interceptions. Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley will move on to the NFL after this year's bowl games, giving Kessler the West Coast spotlight.

What will USC's defense look like now that Leonard Williams has announced he is available for the NFL draft?

The departure of senior linebacker Hayes Pullard, coupled with Williams' exit and Su'a Cravens' apparent permanent move from safety to linebacker, could leave USC with a gaping hole up the middle of the defense.

Any major improvements to the Coliseum planned for 2015?

Last summer, Haden estimated that it would be three years before USC broke ground on a major reconstruction of the historic stadium.

Once it commences, it will probably be completed over two off-seasons, he said.

Some fans — and media members — are no doubt hoping the recorded-music volume is turned down in 2015.

Can USC make the Galen Center a destination for basketball fans?

Enfield was supposed to bring Dunk City excitement, but the arena remains a ghost town for USC home games.

A winning men's team would help, though even that probably is not enough to fill seats regularly.

The women's team under Cynthia Cooper-Dyke is going for a second consecutive NCAA tournament appearance.

Is the women's basketball team on its way to a deeper NCAA tournament run?

Cooper-Dyke, who was one of the sport's most successful players, knows how to win.

Last season, her first at her alma mater, she guided the Trojans to a 22-13 record and their first Pac-12 Conference tournament title. USC lost to St. John's in its first NCAA tournament game since 2006.

Last season, the Trojans started 5-4. This season they are 8-3.

What about the baseball program?

After UCLA Coach John Savage turned down an offer to move to USC, it looked as if the Trojans were doomed to another losing season.

Dan Hubbs made them competitive, and got them over .500. Now he needs to make the playoffs.

The Trojans have been absent from the postseason since 2005. Their last College World Series appearance came in 2001.

Meantime, former USC coach Mike Gillespie took UC Irvine to the College World Series in 2014.

Can the men's water polo team rebound from its first NCAA championship-game defeat in seven years?

Rival UCLA ended the Trojans' unprecedented string of titles with a 9-8 victory this month.

USC loses Kostas Genidounias, the Trojans' career leading scorer, but USC Coach Jovan Vavic will no doubt have the Trojans back in title contention.

gary.klein@latimes.com

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