LOS ANGELES--Every January, one or two USC football players with eligibility remaining opt to make themselves available for the NFL draft. It was not a major concern. The Trojans simply replaced those players with other future pros and moved on without worry.
Not in 2014.
New Coach Steve Sarkisian must deal with the departure of five key players and a final season of NCAA penalties that limit USC to 75 scholarship players and prevent the Trojans from replacing ones who leave early for the NFL.
"That was probably the biggest piece of the sanctions that's the hardest piece to swallow," Sarkisian said Tuesday. "That's probably the most challenging piece to it."
Since the end of the season, receiver Marqise Lee, offensive lineman Marcus Martin, tight end Xavier Grimble, safety Dion Bailey and defensive lineman George Uko have announced they will forgo their final seasons of eligibility and turn pro.
While USC is in tumult, crosstown rival UCLA, which has defeated the Trojans the last two seasons, remains stable.
Offensive lineman Xavier Su'a-Filo is the only player who has announced he will turn pro. And star quarterback Brett Hundley, who was draft-eligible, is returning for his junior season.
Sarkisian has announced the enrollment of four players who graduated early from high school, putting the Trojans at 58 scholarship players, according to uscfootball.com. USC can sign 14 players in February. If it does, the Trojans will have 72 scholarship players, 13 fewer than the allowable NCAA maximum enjoyed by opponents.
The roster includes 11 seniors, 24 juniors, 13 sophomores and 10 freshmen.
Linebacker Hayes Pullard, defensive back Josh Shaw, offensive lineman Aundrey Walker and tailback Javorius Allen were other Trojans players who considered turning pro. Pullard announced Monday that he would return. On Tuesday, Allen told the Los Angeles Times he would be back and USC announced Shaw's return.
The deadline for declaring for the draft is Wednesday, then players have 72 hours to change their minds. On Sunday, the NFL will release a list of players who have been granted special eligibility for the draft.
Gil Brandt, a former Dallas Cowboys executive who is considered something of an NFL draft guru, said Lee clearly was a first-round pick and wise to declare for the draft. But he advocates that most players stay in school to complete their eligibility and improve their draft stock.
"For every one that succeeds or does well," he said of players that come out early, "there's a group of them that don't do as well."
Brandt acknowledged that former USC quarterback Matt Barkley's fall from projected first-round pick after his junior season to a fourth-round selection in last year's draft works against his argument to stay in school.
Last year, a record 73 players declared for the draft, including USC receiver Robert Woods and cornerback Nickell Robey. Woods, a second-round pick by the Buffalo Bills, was among 52 players chosen. Robey was among the 21 not selected.
However, Robey signed with the Bills as a free agent and became a major contributor.
"Nickell Robey is an exception," Brandt said in November. "If there were 10 Nickell Robeys, nine wouldn't make it."
Several USC players said they considered Robey's experience when making their decisions. "It shows me where you're drafted doesn't matter," Bailey said in December.
Lee was a 2012 All-American and the Biletnikoff Award winner that season as the nation's top receiver. His departure was a foregone conclusion.
Junior-to-be Nelson Agholor, who caught 56 passes, including six for touchdowns, is expected to step into the No. 1 receiver spot. Darreus Rogers caught 22 passes as a freshman and is poised for a breakout season. Victor Blackwell also returns, and the Trojans anticipate that junior George Farmer and freshman Steven Mitchell will return at full strength from knee surgeries that sidelined them last season.
Martin's exit could have the greatest impact on a team thin in experienced linemen, especially centers. Cyrus Hobbi, whose lone start came against Stanford in 2012, has had back problems. Max Tuerk, a starter the last two seasons at tackle and guard, worked at center last spring. The Trojans might rely on Toa Lobendahn, a highly regarded prospect who played at Lakewood and La Habra high schools and was among the players who enrolled this week.
Grimble passed up a chance to play in an offense that helped Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins win the Mackey Award as college football's top tight end.
Grimble's departure leaves the Trojans with two scholarship tight ends. Senior Randall Telfer struggled through knee and ankle injuries last season and caught only six passes. Junior Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick has mainly been deployed as a blocker. Walk-on Chris Wilson also contributed, and the Trojans received an oral commitment from Bryce Dixon, a 6-foot-4, 230-pound tight end from Ventura St. Bonaventure High.
Bailey's departure should be eased by experience at safety. Su'a Cravens started as a freshman, Leon McQuay III received significant playing time and Shaw also has started games at the spot.
Uko's position could be filled by Delvon Simmons, a 6-6, 300-pound transfer from Texas Tech who redshirted last season. Kenny Bigelow, a 6-3, 300-pound redshirt freshman, also is ready to play.
Offensive lineman Jordan Austin, defensive lineman/linebacker Don Hill and quarterback Jalen Greene joined Lobendahn as early enrollees who will participate in spring practice. Defensive lineman Claude Pelon, a junior college transfer, is not yet in school, but Sarkisian said he could be by the end of the week.
Sarkisian reiterated that depth issues will not be used as an excuse as the Trojans prepare for and play the 2014 season.
"We've got a plenty-talented enough roster to go out and compete for a championship," he said. "That's what I said on day one and I really am not wavering off that."
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