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July 31, 2008
THE SCHEME: USC is one of the few teams in the Pac-10 that runs a pro-style offense out of the I-formation or a single-back set. The tight end and fullback are major parts of the Trojans' offense.
STAR POWER: Joe McKnight wasn't USC's first- or second-leading rusher last season (he was third). McKnight was the team's sixth-leading receiver, and he was only a part-time punt returner. Yet most observers will say he's USC's offensive superstar. He only scratched the surface of his potential as a true freshman in '07. Expect USC to unleash his game-breaking talent as a runner and receiver this season.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Quarterback Mitch Mustain has the higher profile of USC's two sophomore transfers from Arkansas, but wide receiver Damian Williams could have a better chance of making an early impact. Williams caught 19 passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns as a true freshman with the Razorbacks. USC is looking for receiving threats, and this former Rivals100 prospect is as good a pick as any to come through.
IT'S HIS TIME: It seems like ages ago when Mark Sanchez was the top quarterback recruit in the country. Since 2005, Sanchez has bided his time behind Matt Leinart and John David Booty. Now his long wait is over. After having three seasons in the system, Sanchez was named the starter ahead of Mustain. Sanchez started three games last season when Booty was hurt, defeating Arizona and Notre Dame before losing to Oregon.
STRONGEST AREA: Even with the departure of leading rusher Chauncey Washington, USC should have one of the deepest tailback groups in the country. Stafon Johnson is back after rushing for 673 yards and five touchdowns. McKnight is a playmaker in the Reggie Bush mold, but he didn't truly emerge until he had 206 total yards in the Rose Bowl rout of Illinois. C.J. Gable also returns after missing all but three games last season after hernia surgery. Also in the mix will be junior Allen Bradford and redshirt freshmen Broderick Green and Marc Tyler. Each of the six was a big-time recruit.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: USC did not have a game-breaking wide receiver last season and doesn't have a clear-cut answer at the position this season. Tight end Fred Davis led USC with 881 receiving yards, but the Trojans had only one other receiver in the top 20 in the Pac-10. Starters Patrick Turner and Vidal Hazelton are back, but neither was dominant. Expectations are high for the position: Each wide receiver on the two-deep depth chart was a four- or five-star recruit, and that doesn't include Ronald Johnson - the No. 1 receiver in the 2007 class.
OVERVIEW: As usual, USC is loaded with offensive talent. This group hasn't realized that potential yet, though. USC is looking for McKnight to become a home run-hitter, Sanchez to become the caretaker of the offense and the wide receivers to emerge now that Davis is gone. Even without four starters, including first-round pick Sam Baker, the line looks to be in good shape with senior guard Jeff Byers returning and touted sophomore Kristofer O'Dowd taking over at center.
THE SCHEME: USC runs a base 4-3 but might mix in a modified 3-4 with Clay Matthews getting on the field as an extra outside linebacker.
STAR POWER: Even on a defense full of All-America and all-conference candidates, senior linebacker Rey Maualuga stands out. After recording three sacks, an interception and a forced fumble in the Rose Bowl, he spurned the NFL Draft to start for a fourth season at USC. He is a devastating hitter and one of the top linebackers in the country. At times, though, he can get caught trying to make the big play rather than the smart play.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Redshirt freshman linebacker Chris Galippo is not going to steal the starting job from Maualuga, but he's as good a candidate as any young player to force his way into a veteran lineup. He has had back surgery twice in the past nine months but is expected to return in early October. A five-star prospect out of high school, Galippo is too talented to keep off the field when he returns to health.
IT'S HIS TIME: Not long after defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis was drafted seventh overall, fellow tackle Fili Moala was projected as one of the top picks for the 2009 draft. Moala played in Ellis' shadow for the past three seasons but is primed for a big year. He will be starting alongside either Averell Spicer or Christian Tupou, both of whom played sparingly last season.
STRONGEST AREA: The loss of first-round pick Keith Rivers would be a major blow for most teams, but not USC. Maualuga and Brian Cushing decided to stay in school. Cushing was limited to 25 tackles after battling injuries all season. He's healthy and back at strongside linebacker. Senior Kaluka Maiava is a veteran backup who is expected to slide right into Rivers' weakside spot.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Losing two first-round picks on the line is a major change, but USC has budding star Everson Griffen moving in at one end spot. The nose guard position vacated by Ellis is a different story. Spicer, a junior, was the heir apparent at the position but missed spring practice with a bruised knee. Tupou, a sophomore, has only four games under his belt.
OVERVIEW: Despite losing three first-round picks off the defense, USC should field one of the country's best units. The Trojans ranked in the top six in the nation last season in total defense, scoring defense, rush defense, pass-efficiency defense and sacks. There's no glaring weakness at any position group. Moala and Griffen will lead the line. Maualuga and Cushing are All-America possibilities. Taylor Mays and Kevin Ellison form one of the best safety tandems in the nation, and cornerback Cary Harris is a three-year starter.
K David Buehler was 16 of 19 on field-goal attempts last season. Thirteen of his field goals were 39 yards or less. A bigger concern is punter Greg Woidneck, who averaged 37.9 yards per punt and had three blocked. With all its great athletes, USC should be solid in the return game. Johnson could become an excellent kick returner. McKnight was only a part-time punt returner last year, a trend that could continue this season. The punt-coverage unit was good last season. For the most part, so was the kick-coverage unit, though USC did give up a kick return for a touchdown.
Pete Carroll has built college football's first dynasty of the 21st century. Since 2002 - his second season - the Trojans are 70-8 with two national titles (one shared), six Pac-10 titles and a string of six consecutive top-four finishes. Expect more of the same from Carroll this season. The staff remains intact from last season, but it's not certain it will stay that way for a third consecutive year. Linebackers coach Ken Norton, 42, could make a case for a coordinator's job after coaching Maualuga, Cushing, Rivers, Lofa Tatupu and Matt Grootegoed in his four seasons on the staff. Steve Sarkisian will be an interesting assistant to watch. He coached Leinart as quarterbacks coach in 2005 before he was elevated to offensive coordinator, replacing Oakland Raiders coach Lane Kiffin. Sarkisian has a stable of potential playmakers on his offense, with the key word being "potential."
USC is the only team in the nation playing each of its games against a "Big Six" opponent. After opening at Virginia, Ohio State visits L.A. for one of the top games of the season. The Trojans, though, haven't lost a non-conference home game since Carroll's first season, a 10-6 loss to Kansas State in 2001. The toughest conference games are at home, too: Oregon, Arizona State and California. USC returns to Corvallis, Ore., this season, where Oregon State stunned the Trojans with a 33-31 upset in 2006. USC is one of just a handful of elite teams playing just six home games this season.
By their standards, the Trojans stumbled in conference play in the past two seasons, going 14-4 during that span. Still, USC will be in line for a seventh consecutive league title behind a dominating defense. The development of the offense could mean the difference between winning the Pac-10 and playing for a national title. Sanchez and the rest of the offense will have to jell before Sept. 13, when USC plays Ohio State in a potential national title elimination game. The Trojans are off the week before and after they play the Buckeyes. The bottom line: Don't expect USC's run of top-four finishes to end in 2008.
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.