After seven long months, numerous position battles and some notable off-field incidents, the USC football team is right where it was at the end of the 2013 season — preparing to take on the Fresno State Bulldogs.
Though much has changed for the No. 15 Trojans since their 45-20 beatdown of Fresno State in last December’s Las Vegas Bowl, a strong core of key players remains. Redshirt junior quarterback Cody Kessler used last year’s bowl as a coming-out party, throwing for 345 yards and four touchdowns, both career bests. Redshirt junior tailback Javorius “Buck” Allen and junior wide receiver Nelson Agholor both bring explosive talent and a wealth of experience to the table.
On the other side of the ball, junior defensive end Leonard Williams is a preseason All-American, while senior linebacker Hayes Pullard turned down the NFL draft to return for his final season.
Where the Trojans lost the most talent — namely on the offensive line and in the secondary — they have added a number of talented freshmen. Toa Lobendahn and Damien Mama will start at the offensive guard spots, while Adoree’ Jackson and John “JuJu” Smith should see time in the defensive backfield.
Of course, the most important change USC made this offseason will be patrolling the sideline on Saturday afternoon. New head coach Steve Sarkisian, who has had to deal with the suspension of senior defensive back Josh Shaw and the departure of senior tailback Anthony Brown in his first game week, is confident that his team has remained focused.
“I think [the guys] are in a really great frame of mind,” Sarkisian said. “I credit that to the leadership on this team. We really try to keep things separated; when we’re focused on football its about football. We never get externally motivated, one way or the other.”
Sarkisian brings more than a new coaching staff to the Trojans. The former BYU quarterback has spent the spring and fall installing an up-tempo, hybrid spread offense. Allen is confident the team is ready for the debut of this new look.
“The biggest difference is just the tempo to be honest,” Allen told USC Athletics’ radio program, Trojans Live. “Last year in the bowl game we had a few plays where we lined up in the pistol so we could get used to it. Coach Sark and his staff come with a wonderful game plan, and I’m gonna try to execute it my best.”
Sarkisian’s counterpart, Fresno State head coach Tim DeRuyter, will bring a team to the Coliseum that looks much different from the one that fell apart against the Trojans in December.
The Bulldogs’ most obvious loss comes at the quarterback position, where the coaching staff has yet to name a replacement for ex-standout Derek Carr. Carr was a two-time Mountain West Conference Offensive Player of the Year who led the nation in both passing yards and touchdowns last season. His presumed replacement, Brian Burrell, struggled in spring camp and has never started a college game. Burrell’s competition, Duke transfer Brandon Connette, still lags far behind in his knowledge of the Bulldogs’ playbook. DeRuyter will make a game-time decision as to who will start, but both Burrell and Connette should see playing time.
Sarkisian is aware of the challenge that a two-quarterback system presents.
“They’re both good athletes, they’re both good runners and can throw it,” Sarkisian said. “I’m sure we’ll have a couple wrinkles for each guy.”
Not making the pair of signal-callers’ lives any easier are the losses Fresno State suffered at wide receiver. Davante Adams, who connected with Carr for 23 touchdowns last season, is gone, as is Carr’s second-favorite target, Isaiah Burse.
The 2014 Bulldogs’ best weapon at wideout is actually a fairly unknown player, at least to USC fans. Josh Harper was the third in a trio of 1,000-yard receivers for Fresno State last year, finishing the campaign with 1,011 yards and 13 touchdowns. Harper will be seeking redemption, however, after missing both the conference championship game and the Las Vegas Bowl with a groin injury.
The Fresno State passing attack will be greeted by a talented, if somewhat inexperienced, USC secondary. Sophomore Su’a Cravens will line up at strong safety for the second straight year. At cornerback, where the suspension of Shaw will be felt the hardest, Sarkisian will hope to see improvement out of senior Kevon Seymour and a number of young players.
“[Losing Shaw] makes us younger in the secondary, quite honestly,” Sarkisian said. “I think we’re still very talented back there, but we will have to rely on guys like Seymour, McQuay and Cravens as the Adoree’ Jacksons and the Chris Hawkins of the world get accustomed to playing.”
Despite the major loss of current Jacksonville Jaguar Marqise Lee, USC’s aerial performance should not look too different on Saturday from what fans saw last December. With weapons at receiver that include Agholor, redshirt junior George Farmer and suprising freshman Ajene Harris, not too mention the versatile Allen, Kessler is excited about the unit’s potential.
“The new offense is awesome,” Kessler said. “Coach Sark did a really good job of explaining it to me and breaking it down for me. I will be able to run a little bit more, and use my feet to make some plays.”
Though DeRuyter’s pass-heavy offense leaves little room for running backs to thrive, returning starter Marteze Waller has been effective in limited opportunities. The 5-foot-11, 210-pound bruiser averaged 5.2 yards per carry last season while scoring seven times. Unfortunately for Waller, one of his worst games last season came against an intimidating USC front seven that returns a number of key players.
Headlining the group is Williams, who struggled with injury in 2013 but still managed 74 total tackles, including 13.5 for loss, and six sacks. The Daytona Beach, Florida native is an a 6-foot-5, 300-pound athletic specimen, who many consider the top prospect in the 2015 NFL Draft. For now, however, Williams is focused on the season.
“I see the hype a lot but to be honest I really don’t pay attention to that,” Williams said. “I’m so ready … We’ve got new coaches, a new team, we’re just looking past all the old, bad stuff in the past, and we’re just ready to have a good season this year.”
Though all signs point to 2014 being a rebuilding year for Fresno State, it would be unwise for Sarkisian and USC to overlook the Bulldogs ahead of the Trojans’ week two showdown with No. 11 Stanford. DeRuyter is 17-4 in two seasons at Fresno, already with two Mountain West titles under his belt. The quarterback guru may lack a field general now, but Carr made impressive strides in only two seasons under DeRuyter.
Still, history favors the Trojans in Saturday’s contest. The team has won their past 16 season openers, and has won their past two matchups with the Bulldogs — including a memorable 42-41 2005 victory that has since been vacated by the NCAA. Trojan fans can also take heart in Sarkisian’s words after what he repeatedly called a solid week of practice, despite the distractions.
“We’re all chomping at the bit, ready to get out there.”