The bad news for Steve Sarkisian and the rest of the USC coaching staff is that they’re going to have to figure out how to replace three highly productive underclassmen: DE Leonard Williams, WR Nelson Agholor and RB Buck Allen, as all three made the decision to leave school early for the 2015 NFL draft.
The good news for Sarkisian is that the Trojans are welcoming back plenty of potential difference-makers on both sides of the ball. In fact, you could easily make the argument that the 2015 squad will be one of the most talented overall teams in all of college football.
QB Cody Kessler is the big star and the unquestionable face of the program. Kessler is a top Heisman contender, an All-American candidate and he’s well on his way to becoming an early pick in the 2016 NFL draft.
Kessler isn’t going to enter the upcoming season with the same level of fanfare that Matt Barkley had surrounding him in 2012. However, the Trojans’ talented signal-caller should end up developing into an even better all around pro prospect than his predecessor.
The early loss of Williams, Agholor and Allen is a tough blow, but USC has enough talent to still recover and thrive.
Here’s a look at the team’s top 10 overall players for the 2015 season.
1 – QB Cody Kessler
The fact that many former recent USC quarterbacks have failed to materialize as successful pro players may be a concern to some NFL scouts when it comes to evaluating the Trojans’ current star signal-caller Cody Kessler. Still, if Kessler can replicate his junior performance again this season, he should find himself in the first-round mix for the 2015 NFL draft, regardless of the negative stigma attached to USC quarterbacks.
The 6’1’’, 210-pound senior was one of the most productive passers in college football in 2015. Kessler’s 39 passing touchdowns were the fourth most in the nation; his 167 passer rating was also fourth best in the country; his 69 percent completion percentage ranked sixth in the nation; and his 3,826 passing yards ranked 11th.
With Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley both gone, Kessler will be touted as the top quarterback in the Pac-12.
He’ll be the face of a Trojan team that will be one of the top contenders for the conference championship. Luckily, the veteran third-year starter has the type of mental makeup and personality to handle the pressure and shine in the spotlight.
2 – LB Su’a Cravens
Su’a Cravens’ position switch from safety to outside linebacker was a move that Cravens didn’t embrace initially. But the former Freshman All-American ultimately ended up thriving in the role.
Cravens was a first-team All-Pac-12 performer in 2014, totaling 68 tackles, three interceptions, five sacks and nine pass breakups.
The former 5-star recruit has lived up to the lofty expectations he had bestowed upon him when he first arrived on campus after an illustrious career at Vista Murrieta High School (CA). It’s only taken two seasons for Cravens to emerge as one of the elite defenders in college football.
The highly athletic and instinctive 6’1’’, 225-pound junior will enter his third season with the Trojans as an All-American candidate, a projected first-round draft pick and one of the top contenders for many of college football’s most prestigious defensive awards.
3 – OC Max Tuerk
OT Toa Lobendahn may be the hot newcomer on the offensive line, but the Trojans also have some savvy veterans up front as well. Max Tuerk is the most experienced, the most versatile and the most valuable of them all.
Tuerk has handled a variety of roles at numerous different positions throughout his collegiate career, starting off as a tackle, before moving to guard and then finally to center.
The 6’6’’, 285-pound senior had his most impressive and most reliable performance of his career in 2014. It was a campaign that earned the seasoned three-year starter first-team All-Pac-12 honors.
After making the wise decision to bypass the 2015 NFL draft and return to school, Tuerk will now enter the 2015 season as one of the top contenders to win the Rimington Trophy as well as one of the top-rated offensive line prospects in the 2016 NFL draft class.
4- WR/CB Adoree’ Jackson
USC had a host of freshmen make a splash in 2014, but none was more impressive than multi-faceted playmaker Adoree’ Jackson.
After arriving on campus last offseason as the Trojans’ latest highly rated blue-chip export from nearby Junipero Serra High School, the former 5-star recruit quickly made his presence felt in a variety of ways.
Jackson made an impact as a cornerback (49 tackles, nine pass breakups), as well as a kick returner (29.7 yards per return, two touchdowns). He even showed that he could be a dangerous threat on offense at wide receiver, as he hauled in 10 catches, three of which were touchdowns.
It won’t be easy for the 2014 Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year to top his dazzling debut campaign. But the versatile 5’11’’, 185-pound corner/returner/receiver should be ready for the challenge, and he should be ready to become a true national star in 2015.
5 – WR JuJu Smith
After losing Marqise Lee early to the 2014 NFL draft, the Trojans needed a new receiver to step up and fill the role of go-to No. 1 option in the passing game . Nelson Agholor was happy to fill that void in 2014. Agholor emerged as one of the most productive pass-catchers in the country, totaling 104 receptions for 1,313 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Agholor, who declared early for the 2015 NFL draft and was selected 20th overall by the Eagles, will obviously be missed, especially by QB Cody Kessler. But USC is a program that has always been able to find a new standout wide receiver on an almost yearly basis.
JuJu Smith looks like a viable candidate to follow in the footsteps of players such as Agholor, Lee, Robert Woods, Damian Williams, Dwayne Jarrett and Mike Williams and become the team’s next great pass-catcher.
Last season, Smith earned Kessler’s trust as just a freshman, when he totaled 54 catches for 724 yards and five touchdowns.
The 6’2’’, 215-pound sophomore has the type of talent to become USC’s next star wide out. In 2015, he’ll have the chance to prove that he’s got what it takes to be the No. 1 go-to guy in the passing game.
6- RB Justin Davis
The Pac-12 is welcoming back many of its most highly productive rushers from the 2014 season such as UCLA’s Paul Perkins, Oregon’s Royce Freeman, Utah’s Devontae Booker, Arizona State’s D.J. Foster and Arizona’s Nick Wilson.
One player who won’t be back, however, is Javorius “Buck” Allen, who ranked third in the league with 1,489 rushing yards last year.
Replacing that type of production certainly isn’t going to be easy for USC. But luckily, the Trojans have a more-than-capable featured back of the future: Justin Davis, waiting in the wings.
As a sophomore in 2014, Davis carried the ball 129 times for 595 yards, caught 13 passes for 92 yards and scored six touchdowns. The 6’1’’, 195-pound former 4-star recruit displayed an explosive burst when he had the ball in his hands, as he totaled 15 rushes of 10 yards or more.
Davis won’t receive the same type of publicity as his more proven RB peers in the Pac-12, but once the season starts, he should prove that his name belongs on the same level as the conference’s elite rushers.
7 – OT/OG Toa Lobendahn
When you’re a freshman and you’re an offensive lineman—the least glamorous position in football—it can be pretty difficult to generate much attention for yourself. However, Toa Lobendahn managed to overcome those two drawbacks, as he put himself on the Pac-12 map with an outstanding debut campaign in 2014.
The 6’3’’, 290-pound California native proved he can handle playing both inside and outside, starting eight games at guard and five at tackle. His steady and consistent performance in the trenches earned him numerous freshman All-American honors as well as the respect of the many opposing defensive lineman he manhandled.
Lobendahn will be one of the key cogs of a USC offensive line that is shaping up to be one of the best front-fives in college football in 2015. Whether he ends up starting at guard or tackle, the sophomore should develop into a truly dominate blocker in his second year as a starter.
8 – LB Lamar Dawson
After sitting out the entire 2014 season while recovering from a knee injury, Lamar Dawson must be feeling antsy to get back into action and resume his role as the rock in the middle of the USC defense.
Dawson has all the traits you look for in a standout middle linebacker. He’s tough, instinctive, agile and he knows how to find the football. His 137 total career tackles are clear evidence of that.
The 6’1’’, 230-pound senior has the type of determined mindset that a player needs when returning from a serious injury.
If he’s fully healthy, Dawson should be one of the most effective and productive inside linebackers in all of college football in 2015.
9 – OT Zach Banner
D.J. Humphries—the No. 1-rated offensive tackle prospect in the 2012 recruiting class—fulfilled his high school hype when he became a first-round pick in the 2015 NFL draft. It will be interesting to see how high up draft boards Zach Banner—the No. 2-rated offensive tackle in the 2012 recruiting class—can climb.
Banner has all the physical tools that NFL scouts look for in a young offensive tackle prospect. The 6’9’’, 350-pound former basketball player is an incredible athlete for a player of his stature. He has the quickness, footwork and agility to mirror any edge-rusher he faces in pass-protection, and he possesses the size and strength to push around smaller defenders in the run game.
It’s not often a tackle possesses the type of natural physical ability and seemingly limitless potential that Banner does. Now, it’s up to the talented junior to make the most of it and develop into the coveted pro prospect he’s capable of being.
10 – DT Antwaun Woods
Antwaun Woods is a strong and stout 6’1’’, 320-pound run-stuffer who has been a steady anchor in run-support for the USC defensive line throughout his collegiate career. Unfortunately, since he’s been overshadowed by fellow lineman Leonard Williams, Woods hasn’t yet received the recognition his play warrants.
With Williams gone, that should change in 2015.
The senior nose tackle has been recovering from a pectoral injury since December, but barring any unforeseen setbacks, he should be at full health by the start of the season
The senior has 20 starts under his belt. He’ll enter 2015 as the experienced veteran leader of a defensive line that could end up being one of the Pac-12’s best, even without Williams in the fold.
- LB Anthony Sarao
- OT Chad Wheeler
- WR Darreus Rogers
- TE Bryce Dixon
- OG Viane Talamaivao