USC Sports

Trojans are quick to respond to changes under Steve Sarkisian

Cody Kessler
USC quarterback Cody Kessler will help orchestrate the fast-paced, no-huddle offense that new Coach Steve Sarkisian has implemented.
(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

The tumult of last season is a memory.

New USC Coach Steve Sarkisian indoctrinated Trojans players into his fast-paced, no-huddle offense during spring practice, leaving them little time and energy to reflect on the upheaval that occurred during Lane Kiffin’s final season.

On Monday, the Trojans start training camp in preparation for their Aug. 30 opener against Fresno State.

USC, ranked 15th in the national preseason coaches poll, is coming off a 10-4 season that featured Kiffin’s firing, a love-fest with interim coach Ed Orgeron and the hiring of Sarkisian — which caused Orgeron to bolt and left offensive coordinator Clay Helton to engineer a Las Vegas Bowl victory over Fresno State.


The tension and uncertainty that surrounded Kiffin’s status last August has been replaced by optimism as the Trojans emerge from four years of NCAA sanctions and probation that ended in June.

Quarterback Cody Kessler is one of several key returning starters on offense.

Javorius Allen leads a tailback corps that also features Tre Madden and Justin Davis. Nelson Agholor is the top receiver and offensive lineman Max Tuerk will start at center after spending the last two seasons at tackle and guard.

Senior linebacker Hayes Pullard leads a defense that includes lineman Leonard Williams — a top NFL prospect — senior cornerback Josh Shaw and sophomore safety Su’a Cravens.


USC can sign a full 25-player recruiting class in February. But in the aftermath of the sanctions, the Trojans probably will not return to full roster strength for a few years.

USC is expected to open training camp with 67 healthy scholarship players, Sarkisian said, 18 fewer than the maximum number of scholarship players carried by most major programs.

Here are some key questions facing the Trojans going into training camp:

Will USC players adapt to the faster pace?

The Trojans ran about 120 plays each day during spring practice, Sarkisian said, and players appeared comfortable with the pace by about midway through the 15 workouts.

Play calls are much shorter and less complicated than under Kiffin.

The biggest benefactors of the hurry-up approach might be Trojans defensive players. The linemen appeared better conditioned from having to defend the high-speed offense, which should help against opponents playing at a similar pace.

What about the passing game, post Marqise Lee?


Agholor is expected to be Kessler’s main target. The junior caught 56 passes last season, six for touchdowns.

Sophomore Darreus Rogers appears poised to emerge as the other starting receiver.

Junior George Farmer and redshirt freshman Steven Mitchell sat out last season while recovering from knee injuries, but they are sound and ready to challenge for large roles.

Which freshmen are expected to make an impact?

All eyes will be on Adoree’ Jackson, the former Gardena Serra High two-way standout who will probably get looks at receiver and cornerback.

JuJu Smith also will probably get a two-way tryout.

Offensive lineman Toa Lobendahn impressed coaches during spring practice as an early enrollee and appears on track to play, possibly start. Damien Mama, Chris Brown and Viane Talamaivao are also highly regarded, but offensive linemen typically benefit from redshirting their first season.

Who will start on the offensive line?


Chad Wheeler is the left tackle for the second consecutive season and Tuerk is the center.

The other three spots appear up for grabs with junior Aundrey Walker and third-year sophomore Jordan Simmons wild cards coming off leg injuries.

Zach Banner, a 6-foot-9 third-year sophomore, is moving better after hip surgeries and could start at right tackle.

Will the tight end resurface as a main part of the offense?

Sarkisian was USC’s offensive coordinator in 2007 when former Trojan Fred Davis caught 62 passes and won the John Mackey Award as college football’s top tight end.

Last season under Sarkisian, Washington’s Austin Seferian-Jenkins won the Mackey Award.

So it figures that senior Randall Telfer, junior Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick and freshman Bryce Dixon should get plenty of opportunities.

Can new coordinator Justin Wilcox get the defense to play as well or better than Clancy Pendergast?

USC was, statistically the Pac-12’s top defense last season. But the Trojans did not play Oregon and Washington — the conference’s top offenses — and gave up 62 points against Arizona State in a loss that triggered Kiffin’s firing.

Wilcox has replaced Pendergast’s 52 defense with a 3-4 scheme.

The Trojans had only three full-time defensive coaches last season. This season they have four: Wilcox, Chris Wilson (defensive line), Peter Sirmon (linebackers) and Keith Heyward (secondary).

Will Leonard Williams be at full strength by the opener?

Williams, projected as a possible first-round NFL draft pick, is not fully recovered from off-season shoulder surgery.

At Pac-12 media days, Williams said he hoped to be at 100% by the time the Trojans played Fresno State. With the focus the 6-5 Williams is expected to attract from opponents, it could be difficult to shield the shoulder from abuse.

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