The Trojans have work to do on offense. There has been a sharp decline in production since Matt Leinart and Co. left - from 43 points per game in 2003-2005 to 31 points per game the past two seasons. One of the biggest reasons for the two touchdown per game dropoff has been the inability to complete the deep passes that made USC unstoppable in the Leinart/Carson Palmer era. John David Booty managed the underneath routes, but he missed on 90% of his deep throws - and “poor receiver play” wasn’t the reason. Mark Sanchez has a stronger arm than Booty did so it’s possible the offense will open back up again in 2008.
If Sanchez turns out to be an upgrade over Booty, the USC receiving corps should easily shake their undeserved rap as an “under-performing” unit the last two years. Arkansas transfer Damian Williams in particular has the speed to become a big time playmaker. He might not have been as heralded as fellow Arkansas transfer Mitch Mustain, but Williams will definitely have a bigger impact at USC. Patrick Turner and Vidal Hazelton will also benefit from a improved quarterback play.
Gone is tight end and leading receiver Fred Davis (62 receptions for 881 yards, 8 tds). A replacement will need to be found to keep the offense diverse. The offensive line is probably the biggest trouble spot on the whole team heading into the season. Only one starter returns to what will be a very inexperienced unit. Supposedly Pete Carroll has been able to recruit a player or two to Southern Cal, so perhaps talent won’t be an issue.
Speaking of talent, this is one of the deepest groups of running backs in the nation. Joe McKnight steps into the spotlight this year as the feature back. He comes with a lot of hype, but there hasn’t been much production to back it up – yet. Stafon Johnson, C.J. Gable, and Allen Bradford provide excellent depth and a variety of running styles. Sophomore Stanley Havili has already proven to be one of the best fullbacks in the land. He’s a ferocious blocker who still managed to compile 34 receptions and score 7 touchdowns in ’07, proving there is still room for a fullback in the 21st century.
This is a unit Carroll can count on whether the offense comes around or not. The Trojans return 7 starters to a defense that was one of the best in the nation a year ago (16 points, 273 yards allowed per game – both rank second nationally).
Rey Maualuga continues the recent tradition of fantastic middle linebacker play at USC. In fact, Maualuga might end up being the best of the bunch. He’s a high-motor guy who seems to always be around the ball, and one of the favorites to win the inaugural Arrington Trophy. Brian Cushing missed time due to injury last season, but he has shown flashes of brilliance and will dramatically improve his production - if he can stay healthy.
The secondary loses only one player off the two-deep from ’07. Free safety Taylor Mays has garnered plenty of attention since being a hot-shot recruit three years ago, but I haven’t seen enough out of him yet to tab him as an All America candidate. Overall the secondary works very well together – SC finished 6th nationally in pass efficiency defense a year ago - and with just about everybody returning there’s no reason for this not to be one of the better defensive backfields around.
Up front is where there is some concern. Departed stars Lawrence Jackson and Sedrick Ellis were the type of players that most programs would love to have once in a decade. But this is USC. Is there any doubt that sophomore defensive end Everson Griffen isn’t going to be great? Well he is. Fili Moala will step up at tackle and it will be like Jackson and Ellis never left.
KEEP AN EYE ON
Quarterback play. If Sanchez can prove to be an upgrade over Booty, the SC offense might become feared once again.
Defensive end Everson Griffen. Griffen picked up 5.5 sacks last year as a true freshman and is being counted on to replace the pass rushing presence of Lawrence Jackson. Don’t be surprised if Griffen surpasses Jackson in terms of being a menace to opposing quarterbacks.