USC Football Mailbag: 2015 Expectations, Freshmen and More Q&A


In today’s USC football mailbag, we take a look the Trojans’ daunting schedule and what it means for Steve Sarkisian’s team, as well as his job status.

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Then we walk through the Trojans’ roster and depth chart, with looks at freshmen on defense and even a bit of USC’s running back rotation. Buckle up and let’s dig in on Mailbag Monday.

What’s the most difficult game on the schedule? (Andrew G.)

USC faces what some consider to be a top five schedule in the nation, making for plenty of tough games. But the most difficult has to be traveling to Eugene on November 21st to play the Oregon Ducks.

And the reasoning isn’t strictly because Oregon has been a powerhouse that has been in or contending for national title game appearances in each of the last five seasons. The game’s placement on the schedule is what makes it beyond grueling.

The Trojans get the Ducks in a treacherous November that starts with reigning Pac-12 South champ Arizona coming to Coliseum on November 7th, before having to go to sneakily tough Colorado on a short week the following Friday.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

That’s probably the biggest trap game of the year, with Oregon looming and the Buffs playing relatively well at home last year despite being winless in conference.

Then after USC finally plays Oregon on the 21st, they come back home to the Coliseum to play UCLA on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. If they’re lucky enough to win the division, they might have to then play Oregon again the following Friday on another week of short rest.

It’s practically the 2011 season all over again, when the Trojans stunned the Ducks in Eugene after a Friday night game with Colorado, then beat UCLA 50-0.

But beating Oregon again won’t be an easy task. The Trojans have won at Autzen Stadium just once since Reggie Bush left for the NFL, and the Ducks boast a rapidly maturing running game with the likes of Thomas Tyner and Royce Freeman.

USC will have to find a way to slow them down, something that Justin Wilcox’s defense couldn’t do at Washington.

In two meetings with Oregon in 2012 and 2013, the Ducks averaged a downright ridiculous 14.5 yards per carry, totaling 564 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on just 39 carries. Yeah, that’s terrible.

Furthermore, Oregon averaged 7.79 yards per play against Wilcox in 2013, which was a yard and half more per play than Arizona State’s 6.29 that year, the second-worst UW defensive performance. That won’t cut it against his alma mater.

Will Sark be on the hot seat if USC loses vs. UCLA again and only wins 9 games this season? (GRod)

It all depends on how the nine wins happen. Anything but a conference title is going to set the anti-Sark faction ablaze, but are nine-win seasons a fireable offense? Better yet, should they be? Probably not.

For one, nine regular season wins would be an improvement from 2014 and that should be the basic goal for this season.

The must-win-now window reasonably starts in 2016, making this season a ‘just show improvement’ year. Any sort of improvement off what was a solid yet unfulfilled first season should be both sufficient and respectable, with a somewhat major bowl berth likely.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

As for the UCLA qualifier? Losing to the Bruins is only costly to Sarkisian if it prevents the the Trojans from winning other things.

If a genie makes you an offer to lose to UCLA every year but win the Pac-12, you take that every day of the week. That wouldn’t hurt recruiting, nor would it cost USC a shot at a national title.

In two of the last years however, losing to UCLA has cost the Trojans a shot at the Pac-12 Championship Game. So again, it just depends.

At the end of the day, Sarkisian is Pat Haden’s last major coaching hire. To fire him admits that he made a mistake, and would lead to his departure as the Trojans’ AD job as well. So it’s going to take a lot more than a ‘disappointing’ nine-win season to do that.

Is Rasheem Green redshirting? (Atlanta Trojan)

Not if he’s healthy. USC has five defensive linemen who are seniors, and none of them are particularly dominant at their respective positions to be immune to line shuffling.

Because of that, and with Alabama looming in 2016 –the likely first year of the Trojans’ national title window– Sarkisian and Wilcox can’t afford to throw a next-level talent like Rasheem Green or Jacob Daniel into the fire against the Crimson Tide as redshirt freshmen.

The seniors on the roster give time for Kevin Scott, Noah Jefferson and Christian Rector to develop at a steady pace, but Daniel and Green will see time this year if they are fit.

How many of the freshmen linebackers will see significant playing time this season? (Evan Y.)

Probably at least one. It just depends who and at which position. Let’s walk through the possibilities here based on USC’s pre-fall depth chart…

At rush end, Porter Gustin is going to battle with Scott Felix and Jabari Ruffin. Felix was decent last year and Ruffin has never gotten a fair shake due to injuries, but the reality is that as of this moment, neither are unseatable. That makes Gustin a candidate for playing time should he have a big fall camp and a strong start to the season.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Over at the weakside linebacker spot, it appears to be Anthony Sarao’s job until he’s beaten out. He started all 13 games last year and steadily improved as the season went on.

Plus, Michael Hutchings, who was once seen as the heir apparent to Hayes Pullard at middle linebacker, has moved to the WILL, according to the depth chart. He’s listed as a second stringer along with Olajuwon Tucker, making it a rough go for Osa Masina. However, Masina probably the most polished of the four freshmen and could force the Trojans’ hand to move him around.

Lamar Dawson returned at middle linebacker in the spring and was one of the biggest bright spots in USC’s defense. Freshman Cam Smith also had a strong showing, and is the only other scholarship player listed there on the depth chart, giving him chance to be in the rotation.

Lastly, strongside linebacker is an interesting one, with potential All-American Su’a Cravens starting. That makes it a grind for John Houston, who still has to compete with Quinton Powell and Uchenna Nwosu there. If anyone redshirts, Houston might be the odds-on favorite for those reasons alone.

Long story short? Gustin and Smith have the easiest paths on paper but Masina might be the most ready.

UCLA or Notre Dame: Who can USC not afford to lose to this season and why? (Alex M.)

It’s UCLA, solely because they’re in the Pac-12 South. The Trojans can’t afford to drop games to ASU, Arizona or UCLA, as all of whom are practically equals atop of the division.

A loss to any of those is a double whammy and puts USC behind the eight-ball in terms of getting to the Pac-12 Championship Game.

With Notre Dame, a win in South Bend is a résumé booster. Do you think that USC is going to be a national title contender this year? If so, you absolutely need to win there to pad the warchest of wins. If not, a win over the Irish is icing on a cake.

But either way, a win over UCLA is much more important, if you’re ranking games in terms of which could ultimately keep USC from reaching their goals.

Who will be the starting running back this year? (GMAK)

This is entirely going to depend on the health and success of Tre Madden, who enters this season as a fifth-year senior.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Should he be healthy as he was at the start of the 2013 season, it’s likely that the Trojans would split carries in a Thunder & Lightning duo with Madden and Justin Davis.

If Madden’s health erodes as it has in each of the last three seasons, then it’s Davis’ sole job until he’s unseated by a freshman. That would probably be Ronald Jones II, who is the most fit to play immediately.

What is the best specialist account to follow on Twitter? (USC Specialists)

This seems like quite the trick question, especially since @USCSpecialists is a fantastic Twitter follow for snarky and nerdy kicker tweets. But let’s go with Kris Albarado at @albarado19. Punters are people too. Hashtag.

Side note, does YouTube sensation and holder Conner Sullivan count?

Got a question for next week’s mailbag? Tweet Michael at @MichaelCastFS or shoot him an email at

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