With the 2013 season in the books, Daily Trojan columnists Will Laws, Euno Lee, Nick Burton, Jacob Freedman, Jake Davidson and Luke Holthouse weigh in on USC’s performance thus far.
Q: What grade would you give USC’s season?
Freedman: B. USC was headed for an ugly GPA, but Ed Orgeron got the team back on track. This year was never expected to be one ending in a BCS Title or Rose Bowl berth, and USC ended up being in contention until the next-to-last week of their campaign. Wins over Stanford and Oregon State were surprising, but the stench of Kiffin’s five games couldn’t give the Trojans a stellar mark.
Holthouse: C-. A 69.2 winning percentage would warrant a D+ in most classrooms, but I’ll round up for effort. A W in the Trojan’s bowl game would bump my grade up to a C. I really thought this team had a chance at the Pac-12 South, but the team got embarrassed by both ASU and UCLA. The Stanford win was awesome, but otherwise, this feels like a failed season.
Davidson: B+. This season played out like the kid who flunks his first midterm and then rallies from there, exceeding all expectations but at the end of the day it was too little, too late. It was an exciting and unique season which showcased the tremendous power of the USC brand, but it wasn’t successful in the conventional sense.
Q: What grade would you give the Sarkisian hire?
Lee: A. USC did their best with the available options. Sarkisian is a quarterbacks guy, and he’ll have a five-star recruit with outstanding field vision to develop in Max Browne. It’s the least sexy hire, but Sarkisian already displays far more maturity and perspective than Kiffin.
Burton: B. I’ll admit, I was hell-bent on Boise State coach Chris Petersen, who I am a big fan of. But after him, I think Sark is probably the next best option. All the talk of how Kiffin was as, if not more, successful at USC than Sarkisian was at Washington completely ignores the fact that USC is USC and Washington is Washington and that’s sort of what’s supposed to happen. He is a strong Xs and Os coach — like Kiffin — but he can also connect with his players — unlike Kiffin.
Laws: B+. The Trojan faithful were hungry for a big-name hire — but USC has never been in that business. John McKay, John Robinson and Pete Carroll all had zero head coaching experience at the college level when they were hired, and Carroll was the only one to have been head coach at any level in uninspiring stints with the Patriots and Jets. Sarkisian has shown the ability to turn around a program, holds deep recruiting roots on the West Coast and is infinitely more personable than Lane Kiffin. I like his chances to get USC another Rose Bowl banner within the next three years.
Q: Of the candidates who were widely reported to be in contention for the head coaching job, who would you have hired?
Freedman: Of the candidates we know interviewed (Sarkisian, Orgeron, Petersen and former USC linebacker Jack Del Rio), Haden made the right choice. I, however, would have hired Kevin Sumlin, assuming his interview would have been as impressive as his coaching resume. Sumlin has revolutionized offense while at Texas A&M, and his unconventional system would have flourished with the type of talent he would have recruited at USC. The complaints of defensive issues would have been solved by USC being able to afford a (or keep their) top-notch coordinator.
Laws: I was all in on Petersen. He’s a consistent winner (.885 winning percentage) and an innovative playcaller who would’ve kept Pac-12 counterparts on their toes. Alas, all reports indicate that Petersen wasn’t quite ready for the intense scrutiny that comes with coaching in Los Angeles. So it was probably for the best that he stays in Idaho.
Lee: My gut and emotion says we should have kept Orgeron and install a big-time offensive coordinator/playcaller underneath him to help Kessler/Browne develop. In all seriousness, I would have equally loved making a splash with Jon Gruden, just to see what happens. But Sarkisian was the safest choice and the best strategic decision. Pat Haden’s hire makes a lot more sense in hindsight, even if many of the Trojan faithful (including myself) are disappointed to see Coach O go.
Q: Who was the team’s MVP?
Holthouse: Redshirt sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler. Without a doubt, the biggest question mark coming into the season was the quarterback situation, but he was perfectly reliable all year once he took over the starting job. His completion percentage was good, his turnovers were low and he should come back much better next year.
Lee: It’s not a sexy answer, but sophomore defensive lineman Leonard Williams — and it’s not even close. Leonard “The Lion” Williams is the anchor of USC’s terrifying front seven, and he has demanded constant attention and devoured opposing offensive line attention on every snap. Offensive linemen can’t contain him, running backs don’t want to face him. His performance against Stanford’s vaunted run offense was undeniable, and every other running back that’s faced USC this season is either studying harder to consider other career options or filling out Burger King applications.
Burton: I am so very torn here. Redshirt junior defensive back Josh Shaw was arguably the most irreplaceable player on the team, switching positions to aid a bleeding secondary. Leonard Williams played much of the season with a possibly torn labrum and racked up 13.5 tackles for loss and six sacks. But I have to go with redshirt junior linebacker Hayes Pullard. He led the team in tackles and was the quarterback of what was generally a very stout defense. In his three years here he’s been either first or second in tackles on the team. And no, I did not consider an offense player. Not even Buck Allen.
Q: Which players do you think will leave early for the NFL Draft?
Davidson: Dion Bailey. Marqise Lee. George Uko. Hayes Pullard. Xavier Grimble … possibly more. The combination of a rocky season, the departure of Coach O and Nickell Robey’s success as an undrafted early entree might sway more players than normal.
Laws: It’s probably best for Lee to cut his losses and accept the late first-round projection he’ll likely receive. And at the risk of reading too much into a small thing, Bailey introduced himself as a senior in his video introduction at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum before the UCLA game despite his redshirt junior status. Even though his role was reduced this year, he still led the team with five interceptions. I think he’s gone, too. But Shaw and Pullard have both tried to warm their teammates up to the idea of playing under Sarkisian, so it figures that they’ll stay one more year. Grimble, Randall Telfer and junior center Marcus Martin would all be wise to spend another season at USC to rebuild their value after each had injuries affect their 2013 campaigns.
Burton: These players have been through way more than anyone bargains for when you pick a school like USC. I think the better question is who will stay? I don’t think I would, it’s all just been too much. Marqise Lee is gone. I think Pullard and Dion Bailey are too. Pullard is NFL-ready and Bailey saw his role diminished this year. George Uko is likewise NFL-ready, and the loss of Orgeron hurt the defensive line more than any other position group. I imagine he’s gone as well. To me the big three questions are tight ends Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble and defensive back Josh Shaw. Telfer and Grimble were both hampered by injuries this season and would do well to stay another year. Shaw is hard to project because of his position switching. He might also want to stay on one more year for stability.