With the 2013 season in the books, here’s a look at 10 USC players who have flown under the radar, but who, either through strong performances in their limited opportunities during games, or in practice, have shown that they just might be ready to take on a larger role in 2014.
LB Quinton Powell (6-foot-2, 220 pounds, So.)
An aggressive and heady football player, Powell began turning heads after making the transition from outside linebacker to inside linebacker in fall camp. Compiling 20 tackles in his freshman season, he showed glimpses of his unique abilities in games as a reserve and on special teams. Still, he was caught in a logjam at weakside linebacker, so he remained hidden to an extent. With potential changes coming in regard to the scheme and philosophy of the defense, however, the timing could be right for him to burst onto the scene this spring.
OLB/DE Scott Starr (6-2, 220, RS So.)
The departure of Devon Kennard -- USC’s leader in sacks (9) in 2013 -- creates a void for the Trojans on defense, so there’s little doubt that new USC coach Steve Sarkisian and Co. will be holding an open audition to find a capable replacement. It’s a competition that Starr could win. His career has been stymied by injuries so far, but he made a huge impression late in the season during practice as a fast and physical performer who always seemed to be around the ball. As long as he stays healthy, this could be his chance to make a move up the depth chart.
OLB/DE Jabari Ruffin (6-3, 225, RS So.)
Like Starr, Ruffin will be one of the primary players to watch in the battle for Kennard’s old spot. A terrific athlete who actually started against Hawaii in Game 1 of 2013 but whose playing time ultimately tapered off as the campaign wore on, his ability to add some needed weight and strength this offseason will likely play a role in what kind of spring he has.
LB Michael Hutchings (6-2, 215, So.)
An intelligent football player who helped lead powerhouse Concord (Calif.) De La Salle to three consecutive state titles, Hutchings has developed steadily at USC while learning the tricks of the trade from starting middle linebacker Hayes Pullard. More than that, Hutchings has also transformed himself physically over the course of the last six months.
CB Chris Hawkins (5-11, 185, RS Fr.)
With the Trojans plagued by inconsistent play at cornerback for much of 2013, Hawkins will undoubtedly get a long look at the position, particularly if Josh Shaw either declares for the NFL draft or makes a move back to his more natural safety spot. Having redshirted this past season, Hawkins went up against the likes of Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor on a daily basis, and although raw, his athleticism and playmaking ability was apparent.
OL Khaliel Rodgers (6-3, 310, RS Fr.)
Capable of playing guard or center, Rodgers is a relentless blocker with a nasty demeanor on the field who gained notice for his play against the Trojans’ vaunted defensive front in practice. And with the departure of starting center Marcus Martin, there’s little doubt that USC needs help on the interior on offense.
QB Max Browne (6-5, 215, RS Fr.)
With Sarkisian declaring the starting quarterback job up for grabs shortly after his hiring, Browne has a lot to play for this spring. And while Cody Kessler’s solid season -- not to mention a fantastic Las Vegas Bowl outing -- certainly gives him the undisputed inside track, it will be interesting to see what Browne can do now that he has been on campus for almost a year. After all, he wasn’t the 2012 Gatorade National Football Player of the Year for nothing.
DL Delvon Simmons (6-6, 300, RS Jr.)
Simmons, who transferred to USC from Texas Tech last offseason, stood out at times during practice not just because of his size, but also because of his play. Already possessing a wealth of experience after starting 13 games for the Red Raiders in 2012, he competed extremely well against the Trojans’ starting offensive line group, and he could emerge as a factor in the defensive line rotation in 2014.
DL Kenny Bigelow (6-3, 300, RS Fr.)
A hulking defensive lineman who arrived at USC last winter with sky-high expectations surrounding him, Bigelow wound up having a more difficult time adjusting to the college game than most anticipated. Having worked hard to improve where he is in terms of his physical shape, however, there’s reason to believe that he just might now have the stamina to match his skills.
OL Nico Falah (6-6, 285, RS Fr.)
Falah is a technician with a tireless work ethic, but like many freshmen offensive linemen, he simply isn’t quite where he needs to be when it comes to his size and strength. Possessing all of the other necessary intangibles to succeed, if he adds that necessary bulk to his frame in the coming months, he could push for time.