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USC heads into training camp with greater expectations

USC heads into training camp with greater expectations
USC quarterback Cody Kessler warms up before the Trojans' spring game at L.A. Coliseum on April 11. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Steve Sarkisian described USC's 2014 season as "a total success."

The Trojans coach made that controversial comment in December after USC knocked down a Hail Mary pass and hung on to beat Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl, ending Sarkisian's first season with a 9-4 record.

With USC's fan base roiling, Sarkisian later explained that lessons learned from the losses would help the Trojans in the future.

Well, here we are.

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USC begins practice Saturday in preparation for a Sept. 5 opener against Arkansas State and a season in which it faces far greater expectations than it did a year ago. The Trojans are ranked 10th in the national coaches' poll and were picked to win the Pac-12 Conference in a media poll.

USC's offense features record-setting quarterback Cody Kessler, but must replace running back Javorius Allen and receiver Nelson Agholor. The defense lost All-American lineman Leonard Williams and linebacker Hayes Pullard, a four-year starter.

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

Can Kessler win the Heisman Trophy?

Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart are the only Trojans quarterbacks to be voted college football's most outstanding player. Kessler, a fifth-year senior, is positioned to possibly join them if the Trojans contend for the College Football Playoff and if Kessler approaches his 2014 statistical performance.

That won't be easy: Kessler completed 70% of his passes, 39 for touchdowns, with only five interceptions.

The schedule sets up nicely for a late-season Heisman run with a prove-it game at Oregon and finale against UCLA at the Coliseum.

Kessler said he would trade a less impressive statistical line for wins — especially if the Trojans were 12-0.

Who replaces Allen as the primary tailback?

Junior Justin Davis rushed for 595 yards and scored six touchdowns as Allen's backup last season.

Tre Madden, a fifth-year senior, sat out last season because of a foot injury. In 2013, he rushed for more than 100 yards in four of the first five games before he was slowed or sidelined because of hamstring problems.

Freshman Ronald Jones II is regarded as the potential breakaway threat the Trojans have sorely missed. Freshmen Dominic Davis and Aca'Cedric Ware also will get long looks in training camp.

Is JuJu Smith capable of handling the No. 1 receiver role?

Smith is the heir apparent to Agholor, though his skill set is different.

The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Smith can utilize his strength to outmuscle defenders.

Receivers Darreus Rogers, Steven Mitchell and Adoree' Jackson return. Junior college transfers Isaac Whitney and De'Quan Hampton give Kessler large targets: Both are listed as 6-4.

Why isn't anyone worrying about the offensive line?

Every starter, including senior center Max Tuerk, is back and the Trojans also added depth to a unit that is now coached by Bob Connelly.

Sophomore Toa Lobendahn started at guard last season but also played left tackle in place of Chad Wheeler, who has returned after recovering from knee surgery.

Zach Banner is the right tackle. Viane Talamaivao and Damien Mama have started at guard.

Sophomores Khaliel Rodgers and Nico Falah and freshmen Chuma Edoga and Chris Brown are among others competing for backup roles.

What is going on with the tight end position?

Too much, probably, for Sarkisian's liking.

Bryce Dixon did not participate in spring practice and is not in school because of an unspecified student-conduct issue, but Sarkisian said the sophomore was appealing the decision.

And Sarkisian recently said that junior Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick's status was questionable. Cope-Fitzpatrick was academically ineligible in 2014.

Freshman Tyler Petite could begin training camp as the only tight end on scholarship.

Walk-on Connor Spears took most of the reps during spring. Taylor McNamara, a transfer from Oklahoma, could be added to the roster after training camp begins.

Can the defensive line survive the loss of Williams?

The Trojans, lacking star power, hope there is strength in numbers.

Lack of depth is no longer an excuse for a unit that includes seniors Antwaun Woods, Delvon Simmons, Claude Pelon, Cody Temple and Greg Townsend Jr.

Third-year sophomore Kenny Bigelow is recovered from knee surgery and the unit also has freshmen Jacob Daniel, Rasheem Green, Noah Jefferson and Christian Rector.

Which freshmen are most likely to make an impact?

Linebacker Osa Masina and defensive back Iman Marshall are expected to play early in the season. Petite will have an opportunity, but he could suffer if veteran tight ends familiar with USC's system are not practicing.

Jones and Davis augment the tailback corps.

Are the Trojans finally at full strength?

Sarkisian and his staff last February signed USC's first full recruiting class in three years. The Trojans should open camp with about 75 scholarship players — 10 fewer than the maximum.

USC is probably still one recruiting cycle away from pre-NCAA sanctions roster numbers, but depth issues should no longer be an excuse.

Twitter: @latimesklein

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