Pac-12: USC Trojans

Video: USC safety Su'a Cravens

April, 16, 2014
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Kevin Gemmell talks with USC safety Su'a Cravens about the coaching transition and his improvement heading into the 2014 season.

Video: DC Wilcox on USC's spring

April, 16, 2014
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Kevin Gemmell talks with Trojans defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox about how the players have responded to the new coaching staff and their expectations moving forward.

ESPN 300: Top Pac-12 targets 

April, 16, 2014
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This recruiting cycle represents a huge year for talent in California, which means the Pac-12 should be able to put together some very healthy recruiting classes. In looking at the top five targets for the conference in the 2015 ESPN 300, it's no surprise that three come from Southern California. But if the Pac-12 wants to have a better overall finish in the recruiting rankings next year -- USC at No. 14 overall was the highest finish in 2014 -- the conference will need to reel in several out-of-area standouts, which is why the first two names on the list are here.


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It wasn’t a dramatic decision accompanied by great fanfare, but it was still notable that USC coach Steve Sarkisian named Cody Kessler the Trojans' starting quarterback after Tuesday’s practice.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesCody Kessler, who threw for 2,968 yards and 20 TDs last season, will once again be running the USC offense after being named the starter on Tuesday.
Sarkisian had said last week that he was getting close to a decision and would likely make the announcement before the end of spring practice. There had been hints throughout the spring that Kessler would be keeping the job he held for the 2013 season, including when Sarkisian said that Kessler was improving at a faster pace than the top challenger, redshirt freshman Max Browne.

Considering that Kessler was the incumbent starter, if he was improving at a more rapid rate than Browne it was a fairly clear sign that Kessler was in the lead position to be named the starter. Still, until the actual word came down from Sarkisian there was always going to be a slight bit of uncertainty.

It wasn’t a huge surprise that Sarkisian made the announcement at this time. Even though the Trojans coach was clear to say that the players will still compete throughout the summer and into fall camp, Sarkisian has long stated a preference to have his starting quarterback in place by the end of spring, in large part to help that player transition into the leadership role in summer workouts.

For Kessler, being named the starter now is a contrast to what happened last year when Lane Kiffin didn’t name a starter until the third game of the season. Both Kessler and Max Wittek later admitted that was difficult for both quarterbacks.

One of the variables in the competition this spring was that the quarterbacks were learning a new up-tempo system that Sarkisian was installing, one that could run up to 120 plays each day in practice. Both players had worked out of the shotgun in similar systems in high school so there was some familiarity, but Sarkisian wanted to see them on the field with no preconceived expectations.

Kessler, who was told of the decision early Tuesday by offensive coordinator Clay Helton, went out and had one of his best practices of the spring later in the day. Sarkisian mentioned several reasons he chose Kessler, ranging from decision-making to his presence in the locker room to his strong arm.

It was the natural choice to make as Kessler is simply more advanced than Browne is at this point, although it's clear that Browne has a bright future. For now, though, Browne will have to continue to wait his turn as Kessler will hold on to his job as the starting quarterback of the Trojans.
ESPN's Todd McShay released his Mock Draft 4.0 Insider on Friday, but unlike the first three, this one included projections for the second round to go along with the first.

If things were to play out how McShay envisions, the Pac-12 would account for just three first-round picks. The surprise there is not the amount, but who is not included -- UCLA OLB/DE Anthony Barr.

After projecting Barr at No. 7 in his first mock draft in December, McShay had him at No. 11 in versions 2.0 and 3.0. This time? All the way to the second round at No. 36 to the Oakland Raiders.

It's long been assumed the UCLA pass rusher was the obvious candidate to be the first Pac-12 player taken, but the torch -- at least in this instance -- has been passed to Oregon State receiver Brandin Cooks at No. 18 to the Jets. McShay's previous forecast had USC receiver Marqise Lee in that spot, but now he has Lee joining former Oregon coach Chip Kelly in Philadelphia at No. 22.

McShay notes:
Lee did some serious damage to Chip Kelly's Oregon teams in 2011 and 2012, with a combined 20 catches for 344 yards and three touchdowns.

UCLA offensive guard Xavier Su'a-Filo is tagged for former USC coach Pete Carroll and the Super Bowl champion Seahawks at No. 32.

Seven players from the Pac-12 were projected to go in the second round, and a notable running back from the conference is on the board after the first two rounds.
I remember the stupid things, the mood rings, the bracelets and the beads, the nickels and dimes, yours and mine. Did you cash in all your dreams?
And I said "What about Breakfast at Tiffany's?" … Well, that's the one thing we've got.

Pac-12's lunch links

April, 9, 2014
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If I owned the Twins, I wouldn't even show up here. I'd just hire a bunch of scientists to do my homework. I mean, if you're rich you don't have to be smart. That's the whole beauty of this country.

The ball is tipped and there you are. You're running for your life. You're a shooting star.
LOS ANGELES -- It has to go down as one of the top highlights of the spring so far at USC. During a late 11-on-11 period last Saturday, redshirt freshman quarterback Max Browne stepped back and launched a ball to Nelson Agholor on a post pattern. With the pass just a tad bit off target, the star wideout was able to adjust his position in time to make a beautiful grab on a 70-plus yard scoring play.

It wasn’t exactly perfect, but after all, the end result is what counts most, isn’t it?

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler, Clay Helton
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesClay Helton has been impressed by how well his quarterbacks have adapted to USC's new offense.
Not according to USC offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Clay Helton. Playing a vital role in the installation of Trojans head coach Steve Sarkisian’s up-tempo, no-huddle offensive attack this spring, he’s an admitted stickler when it comes to doing things right.

“These quarterbacks will tell you, I’m a perfectionist,” Helton said. “It was an unbelievable catch by Nelson, but where is that ball supposed to be? It’s supposed to be led away from him to lead him away from the corner. So, we point those things out, we correct it, and we’re always trying to make our players better mechanically, fundamentally and assignment-wise.”

It’s that attention to detail that played an integral part in Sarkisian’s decision to retain Helton from the Trojans’ previous staff, but it certainly wasn’t the only reason.

When Helton took over as interim coach following Ed Orgeron’s emotional departure in early December, Sarkisian was, in his words, “blown away,” by the manner in which the 41-year-old Texas native took command of the team and guided it to a victory in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl.

“For Clay to stand up in front of that team and take the reins -- I was so impressed by that alone,” Sarkisian said. “And his command in team meetings, and his command on the practice field, I just thought to myself, ‘How can I not have this guy on our staff?’”

For Helton, the decision to remain at USC was made just as easily.

“I absolutely love being a part of the USC Trojans staff, working with Coach Sarkisian,” Helton said. “You know, to be a part of this with a guy that is so brilliant, offensively minded, to be a part of this system again and to help in any role that I can is very satisfying and very rewarding.”

And with Helton in the fold, the Trojans have made what appears to have been a fairly seamless transition to the new offense this spring, all while going at a lightning-quick pace. In fact, Sarkisian noted on Saturday that the team has already run over 1,000 plays through nine practices -- over 2,000 if you include walk-throughs.

And while the new system differs dramatically from the prior one in a number of areas, most notably in terms of its tempo, verbiage and the fact that the quarterback now lines up exclusively out of the shotgun, Helton noted the similarities that have helped ease the changeover.

In particular, the emphasis on establishing a physical rushing attack that was present under former head coach Lane Kiffin, and virtually every other USC head coach before him, still exists. That, coupled with Sarkisian’s desire to make plays downfield has resulted in some solid production so far.

“When Coach Sark was at Washington, they were the 15th-best rush team in the country, but then what you see what I really enjoy is the explosion plays down the field,” Helton said. “He really forces the ball down the field. And I think the two go hand in hand, and I think when you add pace to that, and you’re a very explosive offense, and the quarterback makes good decisions, and we make our plays to 15 (Agholor) or to 84 (Darreus Rogers), those type of explosive guys, you’re going to be successful.”

And speaking of those quarterbacks, the position group that Helton has coached since his arrival at USC in February of 2010, all three members of an open competition that includes returning starter Cody Kessler, Browne, and early-entrant freshman Jalen Greene, have looked at home directing the new offense.

Helton was quick to praise each of them on Saturday, especially the two veterans who have been taking the vast majority of the snaps with the first unit.

“I feel like they’re progressing extremely quickly,” Helton said. “I like where they’re going, but we’re nowhere near being a finished product. The things that we’re working on are speeding up our decision-making, we’re working on being a little bit more anticipatory, getting the ball out quicker [and] not allowing for sacks. I like what they’ve done thus far in nine practices -- their completion ratios are right at 70 percent, both of them, and they’re protecting the football.”

And while 70 percent isn’t quite perfect, in this instance, it is close enough, providing more than enough reason for optimism for Helton. And that goes for the offense as a whole, which Helton is just as eager to see in the fall as everyone else.

“I think this system right now fits our personnel perfectly with what we’re doing,” Helton said. “I can’t wait to see it live and in person.”
Happy Friday!
I saw the sign and it opened up my mind.
On Monday, we took a look at how the Pac-12's offensive players stack up as NFL prospects in the eyes of ESPN analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay. Tuesday, it's the defense's turn.

Defensive line

  • DE Scott Crichton, Oregon State: No. 4 (Kiper), No. 5 (McShay)
  • DT Will Sutton, Arizona State: No. 8 (Kiper), No. 10 (McShay)

If you've been following along since the end of the season, Sutton's spot isn't all too surprising. He didn't have a good showing at the combine and has taken heat about his physical condition, dating to before last season. Even with the concerns, it's hard to imagine he won't eventually find his way in the NFL. After all, he's only the second player in conference history to be a two-time Defensive Player of the Year. Washington's Steve Emtman (1990-91) was the other. That's not by accident.

Coincidentally, the SEC's Defensive Player of the Year, Michael Sam, isn't ranked in the top 10 by either. See the list here. Insider

Other Pac-12 defensive linemen who figure to be in the mix in the draft are Cassius Marsh (UCLA), Taylor Hart (Oregon), Deandre Coleman (Cal), George Uko (USC), Tenny Palepoi (Utah), Morgan Breslin (USC), Ben Gardner (Stanford) and Josh Mauro (Stanford).

Linebacker

  • [+] EnlargeAnthony Barr
    Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsFormer UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr could be the first Pac-12 player to be drafted this year.
    OLB Anthony Barr, UCLA: No. 2 (both)
  • OLB Trent Murphy, Stanford: No. 6 (Kiper), No. 9 (McShay)
  • ILB Shayne Skov, Stanford: No. 3 (both)
  • ILB Jordan Zumwalt, UCLA: No. 8 (Kiper)

Barr is widely considered the Pac-12's best hope at landing in the first 10 picks, but if McShay was drafting, that wouldn't be the case. On drafting Barr, McShay wrote:
[Barr] of UCLA is a speed-rusher who stalls out when attempting to convert speed to power, and there is too much finesse to his game for me to pay a top-15 price for him. He looks like he's on skates when he attempts to set the edge.

That's not exactly a ringing endorsement for the same player Stanford coach David Shaw compared to Jevon Kearse. Shaw called Barr called the best (defensive) player the conference has had in the "last few years."

Murphy is in a similar boat to Sutton in that his college production isn't necessarily being viewed as a lock to translate to the NFL. He still figures to be a good fit for a 3-4 team and should be expected to contribute right away.

Outside of the four listed, it wasn't a very deep year for linebackers in the conference. Utah's Trevor Reilly, who can play both OLB and DE, Arizona State OLB Carl Bradford and USC's Devon Kennard headline the rest of the NFL hopefuls.

Defensive back

McGill should send a thank you card in Pete Carroll's direction. It's largely because of Seattle's use of big-bodied corners en route to a Super Bowl victory that the league appears to be trending in that direction. At 6-foot-4, McGill's size -- in addition to his solid showing at the combine -- is a rare asset among the group of corners.

Bucannon looks like he'll be the first defensive back off the board, but will he be a first-round pick? That's unlikely, but it would be a surprise if he lasts into the third round.

Another storyline to watch is where the three defensive backs who left early -- safety Ed Reynolds (Stanford), cornerback Terrance Mitchell (Oregon) and cornerback Kameron Jackson (Cal) -- wind up.

See the lists for linebackers and defensive backs here.Insider
Last week, Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay updated their top-10 lists at each position for the upcoming NFL draft.

Here's a look at how the Pac-12 offensive players stack up:

Quarterback

Marcus Mariota might have been taken No. 1 overall if he decided to leave Oregon, but without him the Pac-12 doesn't have any top-10 representation. Washington's Keith Price, who was not invited to the NFL combine, has a big day on Wednesday when the Huskies hold their pro day. Barring a team taking a flyer on him in the draft, Price is probably going to have to take the undrafted route to forge a NFL career.

Running back/fullback

The surprise here is how little both analysts think of Carey, who was the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year and ranked No. 3 in the nation in rushing yards. Sure, his 40-yard dash time at the NFL combine (4.70) didn't do him any favors, but this feels like a situation where the film isn't speaking as loudly as it does for others.

The love for Thomas was a bit surprising as well, but it's also tough to compare him to the rest of the group because he doesn't project as a true running back in the NFL. His versatility undoubtedly scored him points, but it also should be noted that 10 other running backs clocked faster 40 times at the combine -- including Stanford's Tyler Gaffney. See the whole list here Insider.

Receiver/tight end

Cooks and Lee, a pair of Biletnikoff Award winners, will both expect to hear their name called in the first round. After that, it will be interesting to see how the rest of the pass-catchers fall into place.

[+] EnlargeBrandin Cooks
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhOregon State wideout Brandin Cooks could be a first-round pick.
Notably absent is Colorado WR Paul Richardson, who ran a 4.40 40 at the combine and caught 83 passes for 1,343 yards and 10 touchdowns for the Buffaloes. He still figures to have a shot to go in the second-round to third-round range.

McShay lists Lyerla as the pass-catcher with the biggest risk:
Lyerla has some significant behavioral and emotional issues (leaving the Oregon program at midseason in 2013 and being arrested for cocaine possession weeks later) that just aren't worth dealing with, even for the potential reward his talent promises, were he to straighten things out.

See the whole list here Insider.

Offensive line

If they were quarterbacks, Yankey and Su'a-Filo would be forever linked. Widely regarded as two of the best offensive guards in the country, it will be interesting to see who goes off the board first. Su'a-Filo was the players' choice as the best offensive lineman in the conference in 2013, but Yankey was given the honor in 2012.

Martin is one of eight players Kiper and McShay agree is the best player at his position. See the whole list here Insider.
That was a crazy game of poker.

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