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2008 USC Preview - Offense
USC RB Stafon Johnson
USC RB Stafon Johnson
CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted May 16, 2008


CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - USC Trojan Offense

USC Trojans

Preview 2008
- Offense

- 2008 CFN USC Preview | 2008 USC Offense
- 2008 USC Defense | 2008 USC Depth Chart
- 2007 USC Preview | 2006 CFN USC Preview 

What you need to know: Mark or Mitch? The battle between Mark Sanchez and Mitch Mustain to replace John David Booty at quarterback isn’t exactly over, even though Sanchez got the nod in April. Although he’s the logical heir apparent and the most experienced hurler, Mustain has done nothing but impress the staff since transferring from Arkansas. Whoever gets the ball will have gobs of speed and explosiveness surrounding him. After getting a taste of action as a freshman, RB Joe McKnight is on the tarmac and preparing for national lift-off. The receivers are a year older, with the size, athleticism, and addition of former Hog Damian Williams to dominate opposing secondaries. The line loses four starters, putting the onus on sophomores Kristofer O’Dowd, Butch Lewis, and Zack Heberer to perform like vets.          

Returning Leaders
Passing: Mark Sanchez
69-114, 695 yds, 7 TD, 5 INT
Rushing: Stafon Johnson
98 carries, 673 yds, 5 TD
Receiving: Vidal Hazelton
50 catches, 540 yds, 4 TD

Star of the offense: Sophomore RB Joe McKnight
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior LT Charles Brown or sophomore Butch Lewis
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore C Kristofer O’Dowd
Best pro prospect: McKnight
Top three all-star candidates: 1) McKnight  2) Junior QB Mark Sanchez  3) Senior LG Jeff Byers
Strength of the offense: Speed, depth at the skill positions
Weakness of the offense: The offensive live, tight end

Quarterbacks

Projected Starter: When Pete Carroll named junior Mark Sanchez the starting quarterback midway through April, it temporarily halted one of the most intriguing storylines of spring. While he’s going to get pushed again in August, it became clear his experience and grasp of the system were overriding advantages in a competitive contest. The nation’s top prep quarterback of 2004, Sanchez hasn’t had many opportunities to shine as John David Booty’s apprentice, and is mostly known for issues off the field that were eventually cleared up. Forced into the lineup for a brief period, the got three starts and went 69-of-114 for 695 yards, seven touchdowns, and five interceptions. At 6-3 and 225 pounds, he has the rifle needed to make all the throws, impeccable fundamentals, and an intensity that radiates throughout the offense. He’s a little more mobile than the last few Trojan hurlers, but he won’t threaten defenses with his legs.      

Projected Top Reserves: Sophomore Mitch Mustain has put up a valiant fight and would start for all but a few teams, but he’s still likely to begin the season No. 2 on the depth chart. After transferring from Arkansas, he sat out 2007 and wowed the coaching staff as a scout team hero.  One of the most coveted players of 2006, the 6-3, 205-pounder has a 61-2 record dating back to junior high school, including an 8-0 mark as a true freshman in Fayetteville. He’s a complete quarterback with a terrific arm and a natural feel for the game that can’t be taught, and he’ll get his chance to show what he can do at some point.

The odd man out, redshirt freshman Aaron Corp was another high school All-American who decided to come to USC even though he knew all the talent already stockpiled. The 6-3 and 185 pounder is the most mobile of the quarterback options, bringing a dimension to the offense that hasn’t existed since Rodney Peete was playing for Troy two decades ago. With Sanchez and Booty ahead of him and elite prospect Matt Barkley headed to USC in 2009, might Corp consider transferring? It could become a storyline.       

Watch Out For… Sanchez to be the next great quarterback at USC. While he always had the physical tools for success, it’s clear the competition from Mustain has made him a better overall player. Sanchez was sharp throughout the offseason, playing with a sense of urgency and assuming the role of one of the team leaders.
Strength: Two quarterbacks who can play for anyone. Now that he’s the man, Sanchez is about to blossom into the next great Trojan quarterback.  If he doesn’t reach that potential, the offense can turn to Mustain, who’ll be one of the premier No. 2 guys in America.
Weakness: Proven track record.  While it’s assumed Sanchez will flourish as the starter, it was also assumed that John David Booty would be special. Sanchez has limited experience over the last three years, and there’s a big difference between coming off the bench for a few games and being the Trojan starter from day one.
Outlook: After playing to mixed reviews last fall, Sanchez acted throughout the offseason as if he has something to prove. It’s been enough for him to hold off the contenders, but that doesn’t mean Mustain is going away. While the two will continue making each other better, it’s up to Carroll to keep the peace in a backfield with at least two all-league-caliber quarterbacks.
Rating: 8

Running Backs

Projected Starters: Although there were more “ORs” on the post-spring depth chart than the Trojan crew team, sophomore Joe McKnight is certain to be an expanded role this fall. While not technically listed as the starter, the 6-0, 180-pounder is the playmaker in USC’s deep stable of backs, a versatile athlete who’s already drawing comparisons to a young Reggie Bush. As a true freshman, he ran 94 times for 540 yards and three touchdowns, adding 23 catches for 203 yards and another score.  At his best in the Rose Bowl rout of Illinois, he floats on grass like an air hockey puck, making it impossible for defenders to corral him in the open field. The one big knock is his schoolwork. He dropped too many classes and was ineligible for spring ball, and now he has to make sure the academic side of things is settled.   

Sophomore Stanley Havili isn’t your run-of-the-mill fullback who does little more than open holes for someone else. Oh, the 6-1, 225-pounder can block, but he can also carry the load if needed and become a reliable outlet for the quarterback. In his first season of action, Havili had 21 carries for 134 yards and two scores to go along with 34 receptions for 248 yards and five touchdowns.    

Projected Top Reserves: Junior Stafon Johnson was the Trojans’ second-leading rusher, running for 673 yards and five touchdowns on just 98 carries. If not for the crowd in the backfield, he might be on Heisman short lists as a prototypical feature back with elusive speed and acceleration wrapped in a compact 6-0, 210-pound frame.

Sophomore C.J. Gable is back in the mix after redshirting and missing most of the year with a strained abdomen. While not as mercurial as McKnight and Johnson, he’s an efficient runner at 6-1 and 195 pounds, hitting the hole in a snap and using his vision and sharp cuts to pick up extra yards. The starter last September he’ll be in the mix for the job all summer.       

The biggest story out of the backfield this spring was the play of junior Allen Bradford, who traveled from afterthought to a contender to start in a matter of 15 practices. Big enough to play fullback at 6-0 and 225 pounds, he drew rave reviews for his athleticism, versatility, and knack for making big plays. Faster and leaner than at any point in his career, he has earned a place in the running game rotation.  

Watch Out For… more McKnight. The Trojans are going to try and invent ways to get the ball in their budding star’s hands, including lining him up in the slot as a receiver. He’s not the kind of back who’ll get 25-30 carries a game, but then again, he won’t have to be. USC’s primary objective will be to get him the ball in space, where his speed and change-of-direction are most lethal.
Strength: Tailback depth. Even after Emmanuel Moody transferred to Florida, there isn’t a school in the nation that features four backs as talented as the ones in this backfield. The Trojans are basically injury-proof, meaning even if one or two players went on the shelf, the running game would survive.
Weakness: There’s no established feature back. All the depth is great, but is it possible to have too much of a good thing? With so many backs commanding touches, the Trojans won’t have that one back that can get into a groove and rush for 1,000 yards. Most runners are at their best when they get enough touches to develop a rhythm rather than spending half the game on the sidelines.
Outlook: As is the case with many USC positions, Pete Carroll will be forced to do a juggling act to be sure that all of his gifted runners are well fed throughout the season.  It’s going to be a challenge.  While McKnight is the star-in-waiting, Johnson might actually finish the year with the most carries.
Rating: 9

Receivers

Projected Starters: Unlike last season, when the receiving corps was under renovation, this year’s group welcomes back everyone. Replacing TE Fred Davis, however, will be a season-long challenge. Senior Patrick Turner and junior Vidal Hazelton will be back at split end and flanker, respectively. At 6-5 and 220 pounds, Turner has imposing size, but he’s a step slow and still too inconsistent for the staff’s liking. While it wasn’t the breakout year many predicted, he did set career-highs with 48 catches for 569 yards and three touchdowns and showed glimpses of big-time potential. A possible tight end at the next level, Turner needs a strong finish to get paid next year.

As a first-year starter, Hazelton laid the foundation for the second half of his career making 50 grabs for 540 yards and four touchdowns. A step faster than Turner and with 6-3 and 210 pound size, he can make people miss in the open field and pull down the improbable grab with outstanding ball skills. While he still has plenty of room to grow, it’s clear he has all of the physical tools to develop into one of the Pac-10’s top receivers.

The battle to supplant Davis at tight end will focus on junior Anthony McCoy and redshirt freshman Rhett Ellison, a second-generation Trojan. After catching a couple of passes and lettering a year ago, McCoy has his best opportunity yet to approach the potential that made him a high school All-American in 2005. At 6-5 and 255 pounds, he has a great frame and the natural pass catching skills of a wide receiver. Now he has a chance to blossom in an offense that likes to make full use of the tight end.

Ellison was one of spring’s pleasant surprises, playing well against much older players and showing an ability to make catches downfield. He’s 6-5 and 235 pounds with soft hands and bright future, even if he spends the season as McCoy’s caddy.       

Projected Top Reserves: Mitch Mustain isn’t the only USC import from Fayetteville. Sophomore Damian Williams also left Arkansas for a chance to play in the Pac-10 and has the skills and talent to blow up in the passing attack. He ripped it up in practice over the last year combining sub-4.5 speed with great hands and a 6-1, 190-pound frame. Already a polished all-around receiver, who’ll make the tough grabs in traffic, he’ll eventually be the star of the group.

At 6-4 and 225 pounds, sophomore David Ausberry has the size of Turner and the speed of Williams, a scary combination once he sharpens the non-measurables, such as route running and holding on to the ball. He started five games as a freshman with modest results, catching 26 passes for 240 yards and a pair of touchdowns.          

Sophomore Ronald Johnson is the fastest of the Trojan receivers, a 4.4 blazer and dynamic all-around athlete who’ll serve as one of the team’s deep threats. Most similar to Williams in size and speed, he’s 6-1 and 190 pounds, and will get the needed elevation to make plays over defensive backs. As a rookie, Johnson did most of his work as a kick returner, catching seven passes for 110 yards and a score.

Watch Out For… Williams to put up starter-like numbers, even if he isn’t one of them. Although he’s a little behind in experience, he’ll make up the gap in a hurry. Williams is the real deal; a mature receiver who’s going to flourish on a bigger stage.
Strength: Measurables. The Trojan receivers are a collection of elite athletes capable of exposing defensive backs with their size and speed. They basically go three-deep with players who are over 6-0 and 200 pounds and run in the 4.5 range.
Weakness: Consistency. Elite athletes? Sort of. Elite receivers?  Not quite. Collectively, this group needs to take another step in its maturation by running tighter routes, cutting down on dropped passes, and generally becoming more reliable targets for Sanchez and the quarterbacks.
Outlook
: Last year was the staging ground for a Trojan receiving corps that’s set to explode in 2008.  The addition of Williams and the extra year of experience for everyone else will give a big lift to a group that was uncharacteristically silent a season ago.
Rating
: 8

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: With four starters gone from last year, the Trojan offensive line will be in a state of transition. While there are plenty of former high school All-Americans to choose from, the two-deep is going to be littered with first-time starters and unproven underclassmen. The veteran and inspirational leader will be 6-4, 285-pound senior LG Jeff Byers, who returned last year from a two-year stay on the injured reserve to start 12 games.  A heady player and ferocious blocker, he shook off the rust quickly last year, setting the stage for a run at all-league honors. Byers had hernia surgery before spring, so durability is still going to be a concern.

The battle to decide the starter at right guard pits sophomore Zack Heberer versus junior Thomas Herring. Heberer played in 12 games last year, starting two and earning Pac-10 All-Freshman honors. He’s 6-5 and 300 pounds, combining excellent strength at the point of attack with a whistle-to-whistle motor that shows no signs of quitting.

While the 6-6, 300-pound Herring has been on campus a year longer than Heberer, he doesn’t have an edge in experience, playing in just eight games, while still seeking his first start. He’s been a big disappointment since being a hot-shot recruit in 2004, needing to emerge this season to avoid being tagged a bust.

Along with Byers, sophomore C Kristofer O’Dowd is the only other player who’s locked down a starting job. In three starts and seven appearances as a rookie, he showed hints of future greatness, holding up well despite being forced into the lineup. At 6-5 and 300 pounds, he has great footwork and the maturity to already be the quarterback of the line in his second season.  By next year, O’Dowd will replace Cal’s Alex Mack as the premier center in the Pac-10.

Although the competition is far from over, coming out of spring, juniors Charles Brown and Alex Parsons were penciled in at left and right tackle, respectively. A converted tight end who’s grown to 6-6 and 290 pounds, Brown is one of the line’s most agile athletes. He’s been brought along slowly since changing positions, but it’s now time for him to take the training wheels off and turn lock down the starting job.

Parsons’ calling card has been his versatility, having begun at defensive tackle and showing an ability to play guard and center along with tackle.  While only 6-4 and 285 pounds, he gets off his blocks quickly and to the second level about as fast as any Trojan lineman. He would benefit from a few more pounds of muscle, but has the feet and athleticism to be a terrific pass protector.  

Projected Top Reserves: Whoever finishes No. 2 in the race between Heberer and Herring will be the first guard off the bench, especially since the backups on the left side, Matt Meyer and Martin Coleman, have yet to play a snap.

Tailing Brown at left tackle is sophomore Butch Lewis, a breakthrough performer a year ago.  The 6-5, 280-pounder earned a letter in 2007, playing in 10 games and starting three in the middle of the year. Another top athlete with a high ceiling, he has the long arms and great footwork to be an outstanding pass protector in this league. 

Parsons’ competition at right tackle is coming from junior Nick Howell, a career backup who’s played every position on the offensive line for the Trojans. More finesse than ferocity at 6-5 and 275 pounds, he’s well-suited to play tackle, a position that’ll show off his wide array of athletic ability.

Watch Out For… the intense competition from spring to spill over into the summer and probably the fall as well. After Byers and O’Dowd, nothing is set in stone at right guard or either tackle spot. Line coach Pat Ruel wants to get his five best linemen on the field at the same, but even he isn’t sure who that’ll be when the Trojans visit Virginia on Aug. 30.
Strength: Athleticism. Ever since Pete Carroll arrived, USC has a made a habit out of recruiting long, lean athletes who just happen to play on the interior. This year’s team is no different.  Across the line and down the depth chart, there isn’t a soft body on this unit, which goes a long way to explaining why it does such an air-tight job in pass protection.
Weakness: Durability. Has anyone not suffered a serious injury on this offensive line? Beginning with Byers, this group has spent an inordinate amount of time licking its wounds and rehabbing some sprain, fracture, or tear. Considering the lack of depth facing the team, it’s a disturbing trend that needs to be broken.
Outlook: After losing Sam Baker, Chilo Rachal, and Matt Spanos to the NFL, the Trojans are about to endure an inevitable regression in the trenches. It’s USC, so there’s no shortage of decorated players, but getting them to gel into a cohesive unit before the Sept. 13 visit from Ohio State will be a tall order.
Rating: 7.5