For some Trojans, it's decision time — stay or go pro

For some Trojans, it's decision time — stay or go pro
USC quarterback Cody Kessler, presented with the Holiday Bowl's award for offensive player of the game, has announced he'll return for his senior season. (Donald Miralle / Getty Images)

Now that the season is over, it's decision time for USC's draft-eligible juniors.

Coach Steve Sarkisian said Sunday that he was scheduled to meet Monday with players eligible to make themselves available for the 2015 NFL draft.


Defensive lineman Leonard Williams, tailback Javorius Allen and receiver Nelson Agholor have until Jan. 15 to determine whether they will turn pro or return for their final seasons of eligibility.

Williams, a projected top-five pick, said after Saturday night's Holiday Bowl victory over Nebraska that he was "50-50." But he is expected to inform Sarkisian he will turn pro.

Allen, 23, seriously considered declaring for the draft after last season.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," he said Saturday. "I've got to go home and talk to my mom and grandma."

Sarkisian won't have to meet with quarterback Cody Kessler, who said Saturday that he would return for his senior season. Kessler tied Matt Barkley's USC season record of 39 touchdown passes.

"It's awesome having a senior quarterback," Sarkisian said during a teleconference with reporters. "It's about as good as it gets."

Kessler's return gives USC a major piece moving into Sarkisian's second season.

The Trojans finished 9-4, the third-best record for a first-year USC coach. (Howard Jones went 11-2 in 1925, John Robinson 11-1 in 1976).

After Saturday's victory, which once again featured a poor fourth-quarter performance, Sarkisian described the season as "a total success."

On Sunday, he stuck by his comment, qualifying that while he would like to win every game, the Trojans gained from losses against Boston College, Arizona State, Utah and UCLA.

"We took away some really cool lessons that are going to make us a better football program moving forward," he said.

Many fans have pined for the return of former coach Ed Orgeron to the staff. Sarkisian did not indicate that there would be a major shake-up among assistants.

"There's a lot of coaches around the country that would love to coach at USC," he said. "I have a firm belief in our coaching staff. I think these guys did a really good job this year, we're only going to get better heading into Year 2 within our systems, and I'm hopeful that we have all of them back next year."

Sarkisian, though, plans to address the fourth-quarter problems that plagued the Trojans throughout the season. USC nearly blew an 18-point lead against Nebraska. They held on to win when Agholor batted away a Hail Mary pass.

USC failed to score in the fourth quarter in six games, including their last two.

"We have to be better offensively in our ability to score points, and we have to be better defensively in getting those critical stops in the most critical moments," he said. "That will be a huge focus for us throughout this entire off-season."

Sarkisian also hopes to improve man-to-man pass coverage at "critical moments."

"That's when we need to be at our most aggressive," he said. "And right now that's when we become probably our most passive."

Sarkisian expects the offensive line, which featured three first-year freshmen playing large roles, to mature into something "uniquely special" and the program as a whole to improve.

In February, USC will welcome a full recruiting class for the first time in four years. That should help with depth next season. The number of scholarship players on the roster will be in the mid-70s as USC builds back to the maximum 85.

Second chance

Senior linebacker Hayes Pullard was the target of criticism after the Trojans lost to Arizona State on a last-second Hail Mary.

So the senior was ready when Nebraska attempted one on the final play of the Holiday Bowl.

"They put me back out there to capitalize," he said. "I wasn't going to sit back and be fragile."

USC coaches also put Agholor and receiver JuJu Smith on the field.

Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said he was thinking, "Execute the play. The guys that were supposed to box out — box out — and the guys who are supposed to jump — jump."

Twitter: @latimesklein

Correspondent Lindsey Thiry contributed to this report.