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College Football Preview 2017-2018: 2. USC Trojans

2. USC Trojans

With Darnold at the helm, they have to be the Pac-12 favorites

  • Location: Los Angeles, CA.
  • Conference: Pac-12 (South)
  • Schedule
  • Roster
  • Coach: Clay Helton (second year)
  • Last Years Record: 10-3 (7-2 Pac-12)
  • Bowl Result: Victory in Rose Bowl


To describe USC's start to 2016 as frustrating or bad may not do it justice. The Trojans looked absolutely lost, opening the year with a 52-6 drubbing at the hands of Alabama and lost to conference foes Stanford and Utah to start the year 1-3. First-year head coach Clay Helton, who was already considered on the hot seat, decided to make a switch at QB, opting for redshirt freshman Sam Darnold over veteran Max Browne. That simple switch ignited the Trojans, who would go on to win their final nine games, win the Rose Bowl, and defeat eventual Pac-12 Champ Washington. After that impressive nine-game stretch can Darnold and USC do it for an entire season? With the talent dotting this roster, there is no reason why they can't, and make a run at their first National Championship appearance since the Matt Leinart/Reggie Bush days.

Sam Darnold
Offense: Darnold didn't arrive with the fanfare of Max Browne or Arkansas transfer Ricky Town (who came to Southern Cal, saw Darnold, and promptly transferred) but after just one season, hopes to etch his name as one of the greatest quarterbacks in 'SC history. That may seem like a bit of hyperbole, but Darnold is that good. He tossed for 3,086 yards and 31 touchdowns a year ago, while completing nearly 68% of his passes. What makes the young quarterback so impressive is his poise and confidence; despite staring down some impressive defenses in his first year he always stayed calm and collected. That will obviously be key for a Trojans team that has National Title aspirations. If Darnold can put together another huge year and come up big on National TV against opponents like Texas and Notre Dame, he has a very good shot at winning the Heisman. Darnold isn't the only Trojan who should have a big year, however. At running back, USC brings back dynamic junior Ronald Jones II, who will finally have the featured back role all to himself. Jones had 1,082 yards and 12 touchdowns while splitting carries with the departed Justin Davis, and is incredibly quick and blessed with excellent burst. With Darnold spreading defenses out with his huge arm, Jones should be able to take advantage of some huge holes to run through. At receiver, the Trojans will have to replace their top two receivers from a year ago in JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers. Smith-Schuster's final season in Southern Cal was considered somewhat of a disappointment but the wide out still managed 914 yards and 10 touchdowns, while Rogers proved to be a very reliable option as well (56 receptions, 696 yards). Junior Deontay Burnett should have no problem sliding into a bigger role in the offense. Burnett showed plenty of potential throughout 2016 but really started playing well near the end, especially when he hauled in three touchdowns in the Rose Bowl. He doesn't quite have Smith-Schuster's size but he's a good route runner and is great at finding ways to create space. Also back is senior Steven Mitchell, junior Jalen Greene and sophomore Michael Pittman. Mitchell is a long-time veteran still really waiting for his breakout year, while Greene showed flashes of brilliance a year ago, managing 116 yards on eight catches. Pittman has fans and coaches really excited because of his size (6'4") and terrific leaping ability. Unfortunately, Pittman went down with a high ankle sprain about a week ago, and it's expected he'll miss some time. Even if he does, his physical tools are impressive, and he could evolve into the Trojans' premier red zone threat. At tight end, sophomore Daniel Imatorbhebhe is returning following a solid 2016. The young pass-catcher had four touchdown receptions a year ago, while also displaying decent playmaking ability down the field, averaging 14.7 yards per catch. The offensive line could be a real question mark for USC this season, as the Trojans lose a number of long-time veterans, including tackles Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler, along with guard Damien Mama. Those losses almost certainly mean USC will undergo some growing pains along the unit, but there is no dearth of talent. Senior center Nico Falah is an important returnee in the heart of the group, while senior right guard Viane Talamaivo will also bring valuable experience. The tackle spots are no doubt the concerns, particularly in a conference with a number of terrific edge pass rushers. At left tackle, junior Chuma Edoga (appeared in two games last season) is the favorite to start, but will be pushed by newcomer Austin Jackson, a four-star find from Arizona. At right tackle, USC hopes someone can emerge from a group including junior Toa Lobendahn, sophomore Clayton Johnson or redshirt frosh Nathan Smith.

Iman Marshall
Defense: As the offense started heating up and playing very well after Darnold took over, the defense played much the same, putting together one of the toughest and stingiest groups in the Pac-12 over the last few weeks of the season. Now, defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast will have his guys in his system for another year, and should be more creative with how he gets after opponents. Up front, USC possesses one of the conference's best defensive lines, spearheaded by end Porter Gustin and junior tackle Rasheem Green. Gustin was considered by many (including me) as a possible breakout candidate for the Trojans last season and he didn't disappoint, racking up 5.5 sacks and 68 tackles. He'll have to play a huge role last season as USC struggled to get pressure on the QB last year, with just 8.5 sacks to their name. Green is an impressive talent who has drawn comparisons for former Trojan star and current NFL standout Leonard Williams with his incredibly high motor and ability to move up and down the D-Line. He'll likely be joined by fellow tackle Kenny Bigelow, who missed most of 2016 with a torn ACL but is a very solid pass rusher when healthy. The linebacker corps is going to be led by junior Cameron Smith. Smith was the first USC linebacker to start as a true freshman since 1978, and has not disappointed. The veteran led the Trojans in tackles a year ago (83) and has been All-Conference each of the past two seasons. He doesn't get a whole lot of national attention, but Smith is one of the better linebackers in the country and a key cog for this defense. Sophomore Jordan Iosefa is expected to replace the departed Michael Hutchins, who was third on the team in tackles. Iosefa is very young, but did appear in all 13 games a year ago for 'SC and impressed throughout the spring. The pairing of him and fellow sophomore John Houston should give the Trojans some real playmakers off the edge. At nickelback, USC brings back the ultra-versatile Ajene Harris, who emerged as a very important defender late in the year. Harris originally came to Southern Cal as a receiver but after redshirting in 2015 made the switch to the defensive side of the ball. He started the final four games of '16 and played very well, with 30 tackles and two interceptions. In the secondary, USC must reload after losing Jim Thorpe Award winner (given to the nation's best defensive back) Adoree' Jackson. Jackson was a highlight-reel waiting to happen, and his five interceptions a season ago really helped this defense. The good news is that USC does have junior corner Iman Marshall back, and the defensive back seems on the cusp of real stardom. A former five-star recruit, Marshall took some time to adjust to the Pac-12 before having a really impressive sophomore season, with 51 tackles and three interceptions. He doesn't have Jackson's speed or closing ability, but he's a more natural corner and should have zero issue sliding into the No. 1 CB role. Sophomore Jack Jones and newcomer Greg Johnson are expected to vie for the starting job at the opposite corner spot. Both safety spots should be in good hands, as senior Chris Hawkins is back at strong safety, while junior Marvell Tell returns at the free safety slot. Both have plenty of experience, particularly Hawkins, who has 146 tackles over the course of his three years at 'SC.

Special Teams: After hitting the game-winning field goal in the Rose Bowl, kicker Matt Boermeester was hoping for a huge senior season. However, Boermeester was suspended in February for a "student code of conduct" matter before being kicked off the team in July. His departure leaves USC perilously thin at kicker, as redshirt freshman Michael Brown will battle newcomer Chase McGrath for the job. Senior punter Chris Tilby will help the ST unit, but losing Jackson, who had four total touchdowns in the return game, stings.

For years since the Reggie Bush sanctions hit we have been waiting for the inevitable return of USC to national prominence. The team has teased us with big wins or supreme talent, but hasn't been able to quite get over the edge and return to the glory days of the early 2000s. Last year's team set the stage, going 10-3 and winning the Rose Bowl. Now, this year's edition looks like it is ready to lead the Trojans "back", and competing for National Championships again. Sam Darnold has a good chance of entering the season as a Heisman frontrunner, Jones is a superb running back and defensively, USC is very strong. The only concerns are on the O-Line and the schedule, which features a number of tough non-conference games, including Western Michigan, Texas and on the road against Notre Dame. Even so, this is the most balanced, most talented and most disciplined USC team we've seen in years. With Darnold leading the way, anything is possible, perhaps even the school's first National Title since 2004.

Player to Watch
Joseph Lewis, WR
With USC leading their top two receivers from last season, and having to deal with the injury to likely starter Michael Pittman, the Trojans will likely have to turn to some young receivers, at least early on. Joseph Lewis is a five-star pickup that USC managed to keep away from Nebraska and Oregon, and a guy considered to the gem of this year's recruiting class. If the youngster can come in and contribute early, this USC offense should be very, very scary.

Five-Year Trend
2012: 7-6 (5-4 Pac-12)*
2013: 10-4 (6-3 Pac-12)*
2014: 9-4 (6-3 Pac-12)*
2015: 8-6 (6-3 Pac-12)*
2016: 10-3 (7-2 Pac-12)*

*= Bowl appearance

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