LOS ANGELES (AP) — Since the first time Cody Kessler pulled on a Southern California jersey, the quarterback has known all about the impossible expectations that come with it.
Kessler and his fellow Trojans don’t run from it. They’re here because they welcome it.
In its first season free of NCAA sanctions, USC is picked to win the Pac-12 title and expected to contend for a national championship. The Trojans have their usual wealth of elite talent, but they’ve also got a roster that’s closer to the size of their competitors’ after three seasons of scholarship restrictions.
“I’m not going to lie, it does feel good to be finally sanction-free,” said Kessler, who stuck around for his third season as USC’s starting quarterback. “It has been a long time. I don’t know if it’s necessarily extra motivation, but I think it’s an extra push. We’re over that. We got through that together. Now it’s done.”
Yet the Trojans understand how much work they must do to live up to those expectations that are automatically heaped on their glamorous program. Coach Steve Sarkisian doesn’t exactly tell his players to ignore the hype, but they also realize they’re on the brink of being a team that lives up to those standards.
The Trojans were a solid 9-4 in Sarkisian’s debut season, but it only made the losses more painful. USC lost two games on the final snap and blew a 17-point lead in another.
“Nothing has changed,” said Su’a Cravens, the linebacker poised for a breakout season. “It’s nice to be recognized, but at the same time, it’s just a projection at the beginning of the season. It doesn’t really mean anything. We need to go in every week with the mindset of taking it game-by-game and make sure that we don’t look ahead. As you saw last year, when you look ahead, you lose games you’re supposed to win.”
Some things to watch at USC this season:
DEPTH CHARGE: The cumulative effect of the NCAA’s harsh sanctions sometimes left the Trojans with about 50 scholarship players last season. They’ve got more than 75 in practice this month in camp after signing a full recruiting class. USC’s depth could be the single biggest factor in a resurgence after the exhausted Trojans occasionally wilted late in games last season.
THREE-WAY ADOREE: Sarkisian intends to use speedster Adoree Jackson on both sides of the ball again this year, giving USC fans even more chances to see one of the college game’s most remarkable athletes. Jackson also will return kickoffs and punts, making him the Trojans’ first three-way player in two decades. The Olympic long jump hopeful played sparingly on offense last season, catching only 10 passes — yet still turning three of them into touchdowns.
CROWDED BACKFIELD: As usual, Tailback U. has plenty of elite talents eager to carry the ball. Javorius Allen’s early departure for the NFL left a tailback crop featuring Tre Madden, Justin Davis and a wealth of freshmen — including Ronald Jones II, the nation’s top prospect at the position. Madden says he is back to full strength after missing last season with a foot injury. Davis missed a few early practices with a hamstring injury, but should provide his game-changing pace.
CATCH IT: Nelson Agholor joined Allen in jumping to the NFL early, leaving the Trojans without last season’s top receiver and three of their top four overall. As usual, USC has plenty of new options. JuJu Smith-Schuster appears ready to step into the No. 1 role after catching 54 passes for 724 yards last season, and Darreus Rogers returns alongside him. Jackson will catch more passes, and Steven Mitchell Jr. appears to be primed for a breakout after two injury-troubled seasons.
HEIRS APPARENT: Defensive lineman Greg Townsend Jr. and right tackle Zach Banner have another chance to live up to the enormous expectations created by their famous fathers. Townsend, a fifth-year senior, has been injured or ill for much of his tenure at USC, while Banner — the son of NFL veteran Lincoln Kennedy — returns as a redshirt junior after winning a starting job last year.
(© Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)