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College Football Preview 2018: 19. USC Trojans

19. USC Trojans

There will be an adjustment period for the young offense, but the defense figures to keep them as the favorite in the Pac-12 South

Cameron Smith
Offense: Head coach Clay Helton and offensive coordinator Tee Martin have had a busy off-seasonsearching for replacements at QB, back and wide out. For the first time since the 1980's, USC loses their leading passer, leading rusher and leading receiver in one single sweep. Steady QB Sam Darnold's absence will be felt the most, and leaves the Trojans with their biggest question mark entering 2018.

Sophomore Matt Fink is the only quarterback that has thrown a pass on the FBS level currently on USC's roster, as he has appeared in mop-up time. Despite this, many around the program feel true freshman and early enrollee J.T. Daniels will take over the starting job. Daniels comes in from Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, California, a factory for producing top-end football talent. He is widely viewed as a five-star prospect and won Gatorade Player of the Year. If he can't lock it down, perhaps redshirt frosh Jack Sears has a chance after spending last season learning Martin's system.

Whoever wins the QB job will have to deal with the absence of Deontay Burnett on the outside, but the Trojans still have a good assortment of weapons. Sophomore Tyler Vaughns had 57 catches for 809 yards last year, and is as reliable and sure-handed as they come. Junior Michael Pittman Jr. was beat up for a big chunk of 2017, but also offers significant upside. Add in the addition of five-star newcomer Amon-Ra St. Brown, and this group could end up being very, very good. 

The ground game will also be in transition mode after Ronald Jones II left for the NFL a year early. Sophomore Stephen Carr will likely see the bulk of the action after managing 363 yards last season, but senior Aca'Cedrick Ware and Vavae Malepeai are also going to be featured. None are really All-Conference talents just yet, but it is still a capable committee that will take some pressure off the passing attack.

Darnold had to deal with a very inexperienced O-Line in his final season in LA, but luckily for the young quarterbacks, four starters are back. Senior center Toa Lobendahn is an All-Pac-12 player that brings valuable experience and leadership to the table, while fellow veteran Chuma Edoga is a stalwart at right tackle. Those two alone should have a chip on their shoulder after allowing an incredibly high 30 sacks in '17.

Expect some growing pains with this offense as it matures, and the transition will not be easy. Daniels will head on the road to Stanford and Texas in two of his first three starts. There will be a ton of pressure on the young freshman, but a strong supporting cast should ensure USC is still fairly strong on the offensive side of the ball.

Defense: For a long time in Southern California, offense has often overshadowed defense, but don't expect that to be the case once more in 2018. With the offense retooling, the Trojans' defense could end up being their strength, with seven starters returning to a solid group a season ago.

Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast will have to rebuild a D-Line that loses sack leader Rasheem Green (ten sacks), but the cupboard is far from bare. Junior end Christian Rector had 7.5 sacks last season, and looked even better this spring. He should have no issues sliding into a every-down starter after being a rotational piece in '17. Sophomore Brandon Pili is expected to lock down a starting role at nose tackle, and is a breakout candidate.

The real strength of the front seven should in the linebacker corps, where Helton and Pendergast got quite a treat when outside linebacker Porter Gustin and middle 'backer Cameron Smith both decided to come back for their senior seasons. Gustin began his career at defensive end and has proven to be an elite edge rusher, but is still recovering from a toe injury that cut last season short. Gustin looked 100 percent in the spring and could end up being an All-Conference defender. Meanwhile, Smith has been a huge contributor for USC since his true freshman campaign, and led the team in tackles last year with 112. His incredible instincts and overall feel for the game will be on full display in his final year on campus. Juniors John Houston and Jordan Iosefa are also returning, giving USC a ton of experience and playmaking in the heart of the defense.

The Trojans are hoping to take a step forward in pass defense, where they ranked 82nd in the country in 2017. Pendergast has nearly every important piece back, namely senior cornerback Iman Marshall. Marshall is a former high-profile recruit who has been rock-solid during his time at USC, but is still working on establishing consistency. Pairing him with junior Jack Jones at corner should ensure the Trojans will take some steps forward on the back-end. Seniors Ajene Harris and Marvell Tell are two other important returnees. Harris is likely to start at nickelback, while Tell is likely to lock down the starting gig at free safety. Tell is vastly underrated; the veteran had 85 tackles and three interceptions last year and is very dangerous in blitz packages. The Trojans are also hopeful one of their young newcomers could step up in the secondary, possibly corner Olaijah Griffin, who comes from Long Beach.

USC's defense was mediocre really across the board in 2017, but outside of Green and outside linebacker Uchwnna Nwosu, every big name returns, and the depth throughout the unit improves. Getting Gustin healthy, one of the conference's premier pass rushers, will also likely help the group take a major step forward. It could be one of the best defenses 'SC has had in a long, long time.

Special Teams: USC has two former walk-ons starting at plackicker and punter, but Chase McGrath (kicker) and Reid Budrovich (punter) proved to be very good in '17. McGrath was 12-17 last season, but has the potential to take a major leap this season. The return game will be searching for new candidates to step up, with plenty of names vying for opportunities.

Some people (including me, who had USC playing for a National Championship) expected more from the Trojans last year but it wasn't like they were a massive disappointment, as they ended up winning the Pac-12 and going 11-3. This year's edition has the chance to be better, but the youth offensively is going to be pretty apparent. 'SC doesn't need Daniels to come in and be a superstar but if he can play smart and limit turnovers, the defense should be good enough to keep the Trojans humming. The schedule is tough early, but the last two months really cools down, with the toughest matchups being Utah on the road and Notre Dame at home. Considering that, along with the fact the Pac-12 South is down this year, USC appears to be the prohibitive favorite in the division. However, they still seem to be a few years away from really fulfilling their vast potential on both sides of the ball.

Team Projections
Record: 9-3 (7-2 Pac-12)
Offensive MVP: WR Tyler Vaughns
Defensive MVP: LB Cameron Smith
Breakout Player of the Year: RB Stephen Carr

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