USC Football: Steve Sarkisian's Biggest Concerns Post-Spring Practice
USC's spring camp is in the rearview mirror, but head coach Steve Sarkisian's work is not even close to being over. There are about four months until the Trojans convene again for fall camp, when the team will crank up the intensity in preparation for the season.
There's still a lot to do in Troy, with Sark having a handful of items to check off his list to ensure that his first fall goes swimmingly.
Here's a look at the most pressing concerns for the head coach going into the summer and how he can handle them.
The Injury Woes
Sarkisan had less than 60 guys to work with during his first spring at USC, and fortunately, no major injuries were suffered during the past month's practices. The head coach was able to somewhat install his new offense, but it has yet to really come together due to the absence of experienced veterans.
The same goes for the defense, particularly the secondary. Eighteen returning Trojans missed spring camp, and for guys like cornerback Josh Shaw and linebacker Lamar Dawson, their absence allowed for the younger athletes to get quality reps.
So what does that mean for the fall?
It means that position battles will remain open through the early weeks of camp, which is a good thing for USC. For the first time in three years, there's a decent amount of depth to ensure that various combinations of skill position players can be used at different times in games. It also means that when the backups do go in, they will have more experience and show less of a decline in productivity on the field.
But because so many guys missed time in the spring, we can expect the early weeks of camp might have a bit of a learning curve, so the veterans can finally get their feet wet in the new scheme.
Ideally, Sark returns a full roster of healthy veterans. Should things work out differently, he can still look forward to a talent-studded signing class that is joining the ranks as well.
Cody Kessler's Leadership
Now that he's the undisputed starting quarterback for 2014, Cody Kessler has to take control of the Trojans. Through the offseason, it will be up to him, with the help of Sark and offensive coordinator Clay Helton, to lead the Trojans through workouts and keep the team on the right track.
Being the unquestioned leader comes with new responsibilities, and Kessler has to seize them over the next four months. The Trojans' offensive identity will be largely defined by how he leads it, and we can expect that Sark will spend a lot of time with Kessler in the fall, coaching him up to his full potential.
Based on how he performed last season, there is no doubt that Kessler can rise to the occasion and help get the Trojans started on the right foot in August.
The Offensive Line Shuffle
Perhaps the most important unit of USC's new scheme, the offensive line still needs a lot of work. Even after a whole month of practice, the jury is still out on this unit, as injured players like Aundrey Walker and Jordan Simmons weren't available to get into the mix.
We know that Max Tuerk will likely start at center and that early enrollee Toa Lobendahn has impressed as the first-team left guard. Additionally, Chad Wheeler has fared well at left tackle, and Khaliel Rodgers has looked great at right guard.
But with stud offensive linemen Damien Mama, Viane Talamaivao and Chris Brown coming in, as well as the aforementioned Walker, Banner and a few other injured linemen returning, this unit will still play musical chairs in the fall.
In recent years, the O-line's hot-and-cold effort has limited USC's ability to perform at a high level on that side of the ball. That's not going to fly with this uptempo scheme, which hinges on having a stout front line.
When fall camp starts, this will be the first position group that Sark and offensive line coach Tim Drevno will want to sort out, because as the O-line goes, so goes the offense's productivity.
Development of Young Talent
Aside from fielding as many healthy veterans as possible, Sark is tasked with developing a roster full of raw and unproven talent.
Under Lane Kiffin, we didn't see a stellar job of this, though the amount of available talent made it easy to overlook their relatively slow growth. Sark proved at Washington that he could turn 2- and 3-star recruits into studs, and he will be expected to do the same thing with better talent at USC.
The defensive line, the secondary and the wide receiver spot not occupied by Nelson Agholor will be three key position groups that Sark and his assistants will need to coach up, especially as the athletes continue adjusting to their responsibilities in the new scheme.
Developing the young talent will ensure that USC always has decent backups in place on the field and that the learning curve will only apply to incoming athletes going forward.
The Energy Level Around USC
This time last year, the apprehension in the air around USC was so thick that you could cut it with a knife. Things went from OK to bad, from bad to awful and then from awful to good all in the course of the 2013 season. It was emotionally draining not only for the athletes and the coaching staff but also for the Trojans faithful.
Things have been largely different in Sark's short time at USC.
Since his hiring, he has landed a top recruiting class and has gotten the fans and media alike excited about the possibilities that the new-look offensive provides. In the spring game, we were supposed to finally get a peek at it. Instead, we got a pretty vanilla offense that didn't showcase anything particularly exciting.
The energy level has been high in Troy for the past few months, and it's important Sark maintains that through the offseason and into the fall. He still has a lot to prove about what he can produce on the field, and maintaining the excitement level is a good first start in keeping the fans tapped into what he is selling.