When all is said and done come April 28th, USC will be noted as producing one of the finest NFL draft classes of 2008. There is no doubt that we all love to see our fellow Trojans move on to greener pastures to represent the cardinal and gold. However, the prosperity of our talented seniors comes at a high price. As always, the departure of this unique group leaves behind many voids on the gridiron that must be filled. The program now faces the challenge of replacing the incredible talent on its way out with the rising stars developing within.
Kennedy Pola coined the saying, "The depth chart is always etched in sand, never in stone!" With that said, it is now open season for all of the vying hopefuls looking to cement themselves in Pete Carroll's game plan. Here is my assessment of the offensive position groups.
QB: This year the QB spot is like the lady in red; all eyes will be fixated on this position and will follow its every move. The battle to lead the cattle is already underway as the premier candidates have been earning their stripes during "voluntary" senior practices.
At the forefront of the pack are Mark Sanchez and Mitch Mustain, with the highly mobile Aaron Corp on their heels. If the Trojans were to play tomorrow, Sanchez gets the nod. He not only possesses the greatest abundance of prototypical physical attributes, but he also has the most experience running USC's offense. Furthermore, he has the strongest rapport with the majority of the receivers he will be working with (Damian Williams the exception), which should bode well for his passing efficiency. The energy and personality style he brings to the offense is a special additional weapon in his arsenal. Nevertheless, the biggest hurdle he will have to clear is making the correct decisions and being smart with his pass selection.
Mustain has not had as much time in SC's system, but he has demonstrated an impressive aptitude to learn on his feet. He effectively picked apart the starting defense while serving as the black shirt QB last year, and he too has the arm to make spectacular plays out of dismal situations. The one upside Mitch holds over Mark is his scrambling ability and overall speed, a combination that allows him to buy more time on bootlegs and roll out passes and capitalize on broken down coverages.
Some will not consider him a contender, but Corp is a dynamic QB that knows how to make plays. Don't count him out just yet in the Spring of '03 you might remember a QB title bout between Matt Cassel and Brandon Hance, and if you recall, it was the number three Matt Leinart that emerged from the shadows to claim the crown. But the way I, as well as the coaching staff sees it, it will be a wide open competition for the signal callers, with the majority of first team reps going to Sanchez and Mustain.
RB: Once again, the Trojans are blessed with a plethora of premier tailback talent. The experience of Stafon Johnson, C.J. Gable, Joe McKnight, Allen Bradford, and fullback Stanley Havili is a proven plus for this unit. Each of them has been to war in pressure situations, and none of them are strangers to the end zone. Mix in the massiveness of Broderick Green and the gifted Marc Tyler, and this group has the potential to be one of the deepest and versatile in the nation.
Expect McKnight to handle most of the multi-dimensional duties out of the backfield, including tosses, swings, and a bulk of the receiving duties when teams bring man-to-man coverage. Recently, Johnson has displayed the most consistency and command of responsibilities in game play to give him an edge, but you cannot dismiss the success of a healthy C.J. Gable. You can also be sure to see a heavy dose of the big bruisers administered to wear down opposing defenses. Big picture: This group has the talent and personnel to execute all necessary functions within Sark's offensive scheme, and they should downright dominate while doing it.
WR: Newsflash Damian Williams is a freak. He encompasses all of the intangibles necessary to be a standout receiver in this offense. Great spatial awareness, technique, vision, speed and soft hands make him a break out candidate. Vidal Hazelton has made great strides in his game as well, and has demonstrated an ability to run after the catch that surprised many of us last year. A newer, faster, and stronger version of Vidal shall emerge this fall. Patrick Turner will continue to be the overriding voice of the WR unit, and if he understands how to use his physical frame to impose his will on would-be tacklers, he will be a force to be reckoned with. The player capable of making the biggest impact this year is Ronald Johnson, whose blazing speed and electric open-field elusiveness can enable him to be SC's big play receiver. I am excited to see the lightning quick Travon Patterson back in action, and watch utility man Garrett Green throw some killer crack-back blocks and snag an occasional ball. This group is constantly growing and gaining maturity, talent, and confidence. Watch out!
OL: This position group undoubtedly took the hardest hit this offseason. The line not only lost both bookends in All-American Sam Baker and Drew Radovich, but the early exodus of Chilo Rachal left yet another vacancy upfront that the Pat Ruel must arduously deal with. On the bright side, Jeff Byers is a seasoned veteran, and as long as he remains healthy, he will do a fine job of setting the tone for the younger players to follow. He hustles downfield better than anyone I have seen, and although he might look like a caveman, I promise you that he has the cognitive capacity to facilitate line calls and guide the prodigious young center, Kristofer O'Dowd.
This unit, more than any other, will benefit from the contributions of the incoming freshman class. Tackle Matt Kalil, and prospective guard Khaled Holmes add a substantial amount of competition to the group, and each can potentially earn rights as a true-freshman starter. Zack Heberer, Charles Brown, Thomas Herring, and the rock solid Michael Reardon to be readily equipped to duke it out and secure a spot during this intense overhaul of the offensive line. One guy I really like so far this offseason is Butch Lewis, who packed on noticeable muscle and has feet fast enough to keep up with quicker pass rushers. My breakout pick goes to Nick Howell, who is now approaching 290 pounds and has the build to become a dominant tackle. Expect these two to make a big splash this spring.
TE: Mackey Award winner Fred Davis will now play on Sundays, but the Trojans still have some talented options behind him. Anthony McCoy has size, speed and hands and has looked exceptional during off-season workouts. Highly touted Rhett Ellison redshirted his freshman year, showing some great pass catching ability performing for the scout team. Veteran Jimmy Miller returns from an injury to add depth to this group. Wildcard: Incoming freshman Blake Ayles realistically should have been a five-star recruit and could make a splash when he arrives on campus.
I'm happy to be back next year covering the fellas of SC football on ESPN and the USC Football Radio Network. To my friends in the Trojan family, FIGHT ON!