Though USC’s special teams players might not get much regular attention on the football field, they can often be the deciding factor in big games.
The 2014 Trojan special teams corps will look to build upon a season that saw flashes of brilliance as well as some frustration.
Senior placekicker Andre Heidari exemplified this trend last year. The Bakersfield, California native went 15-22 on the season, good for 68.2 percent. He struggled especially from long range, only making three of eight attempts between 40 and 49 yards.
Against Washington State on Sept. 7 of last year, Heidari missed one field goal and had another blocked, leading to a 10-7 loss that began the Trojans’ tumultuous season.
Heidari also missed two field goals against Notre Dame on Oct. 19, prompting interim head coach Ed Orgeron to declare an open competition for the starting kicker job.
But Heidari played the hero later in the season when he nailed a 47-yarder with 19 seconds to go against No. 5 Stanford to upset the Cardinal, 20-17 on Nov. 16. Heidari must be more consistent in close games for the Trojans to have the success they seek this year.
Backing Heidari up are redshirt sophomore Alex Wood, freshman Wyatt Schmidt and sophomore Matt Boermeester.
Redshirt junior punter Kris Albarado averaged 37.1 yards per punt last season, with just four touchbacks in 79 punts. He earned Pac-12 honorable mention honors thanks to his tendency to pin opponents within their own 20-yard line.
Heidari is listed as Albarado’s backup at the punter position, followed by freshman Reid Budrovich, redshirt freshman Jack Basalari and redshirt junior Joey Krassenstein.
This group of punters is multitalented, as Budrovich will also play baseball at USC and Krassenstein got his start playing on the club rugby team.
On the other side of the ball, junior wideout Nelson Agholor will serve as the Trojans’ first-string punt returner for the second consecutive year. Last year, the Tampa, Florida native averaged 19.1 yards per punt return and scored two touchdowns, including a 93-yard scamper in USC’s lopsided 62-28 win over California. He also averaged 17.1 yards per kick return.
The kickoff returner position is more open for the Trojans this year.
Agholor and former standout wide receiver Marqise Lee split responsibilities at the kickoff returner position last year, and then-sophomore cornerback Kevon Seymour took some reps there as well.
This year, head coach Steve Sarkisian appears poised to use a group of younger players to return kickoffs.
Freshman wideout/cornerback Adoree’ Jackson (Serra Gardena) and freshman wide receiver/safety JuJu Smith (Long Beach Poly) and are slated to take the majority of kick returns.
Jackson played wide receiver, running back, defensive back and return specialist in high school and returned a punt and a kick for touchdowns in the 2013 CIF Western Division Final.
Smith was sidelined for part of his 2013 season with injuries but has demonstrated impressive abilities as a returner in the past as well.
Smith might bloom under the watch of first-year special teams coordinator Johnny Nansen, who happens to be his cousin. Nansen served under Sarkisian at Washington for the last five years and will also coach the running backs (some of whom are also listed as kickoff returners).
One such player is sophomore running back Justin Davis. Davis burst onto the scene last year, racking up 361 yards and six touchdowns before suffering a season-ending ankle injury that required surgery.
From Davis to Heidari, USC’s entire special teams unit must strive for consistency in order to come out on top of close matchups.