With the college football season preview magazines starting to be released this summer, here is our “magazine-style” look at the Trojans for the upcoming year:
Head coach: Clay Helton (2nd year)
2016 result: 10-3 (Rose Bowl champions, #3 end-of-season ranking)
Returning starters: 14 (6 offense, 7 defense, 1 punter)
Top returners: QB Sam Darnold, TB Ronald Jones, WR Deontay Burnett, TE Daniel Imatorbhebhe, OL Viane Talamaivao, DL Rasheem Green, LB Cameron Smith, LB Uchenna Nwosu, LB Porter Gustin, CB Iman Marshall, S Chris Hawkins
Key losses: CB Adoree’ Jackson, WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, OL Zach Banner, OL Chad Wheeler, DT Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, LB Michael Hutchings, TB Justin Davis, WR Darreus Rogers, PK Matt Boermeester
New names to watch: WR Michael Pittman, DL Marlon Tuipulotu
The expectations are high for the Trojans heading into the season coming off a 9-game win streak to finish off last year, which included a dramatic victory over Penn State in the Rose Bowl. A big part of that optimism comes from the presence of Darnold, who has impressed the college football world with his physical abilities and coolness under pressure. And while Darnold deserves the attention he gets, this USC team is not a one-man show by any means as there is talent all across the roster, including a returning 1,000-yard rusher in Jones and a two-time leading tackler in Smith.
Strengths of the team
* Darnold: As good as Sam was last season, it will be interesting to see what kind of tinkering Helton and staff will be able to do with a full off-season to work with him as the starter. Will he be given more autonomy at the line of scrimmage? Will he be used more as a runner? How quickly will he mesh with the young wide receiver group, or adjust to a less experienced line? These are all questions worth asking but in the end it’s Sam, a player so good that Vegas has him as the pre-season Heisman favorite ahead of the guy who won it last year.
* Experience on defense: In addition to Smith in the middle of the linebacker group, USC returns some important pieces to the defensive puzzle such as OLB’s Nwosu and Gustin, DT Green, CB Marshall and a pair of veteran safeties in Hawkins and Marvell Tell. That should allow defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast to take advantage of that familiarity in the second year of his system.
* Young talent: After battling reduced class sizes, the last two recruiting classes (and the third arriving in the fall) have been back to full 25-man size and their impact can be seen in the players who have already seen some success (Jones, Marshall), but also in the players who are about to get their opportunity to shine. Guys like Pittman and Tyler Vaughns at receiver, Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr at tailback, Tuipulotu and Jay Tufele on the d-line, Jackie Jones and Jamel Cook in the secondary, Oluwole Betiku coming off the edge. These are all names who should play bigger roles this fall.
* Foundation under Helton: The Trojan program in recent years has seen plenty of drama and upheaval but that seems to be a thing of the past with Helton, who has the team mindset in a good place and headed in the right direction. His genuine nature and ability to relate to the players has resonated with the team, and the fact that there has been some on-field success along the way has surely helped with that positive state.
* Offensive line: USC needs to replace three starters on the line, and there is uncertainty right now because three projected starters were forced to sit out either all or parts of spring ball due to injury. The encouraging news is that all 3 (Toa Lobendahn – knee, Talamaivao – elbow, Nico Falah – back) are expected to return for fall camp and the start of the season, and they should be joined by Chuma Edoga at left tackle, who has plenty of starting experience in his SC career. But even if all that falls into place there is still a need for a fifth starter, and that has yet to be determined.
* How to replace Stevie T: At this time last year there was some serious hand-wringing in the land of Troy about the dire situation in the middle of the defensive line. Enter Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, a reserve player from Utah who came in as a grad transfer and plugged the hole beautifully. It’s hard to imagine the situation working out better either for USC or for Stevie, who ended up as the Rose Bowl defensive MVP. Now the Trojans find themselves needing to fill the spot again, only now there are some pretty legitimate options such as Josh Fatu, Tuipulotu or even the pending return of Kenny Bigelow from knee surgery.
* Who fills the void from JuJu and Darreus: There was a lot of production lost from the USC offense with the departure from the wide receiver spot of Smith-Schuster and Rogers. Helton even said during spring that the offense will go as far as the young receivers take it. Look for Burnett to see his role increase primarily from the slot, with Pittman and Vaughns looking this spring like they are ready to step into the starting roles.
* What happens at placekicker: The Trojans are expected to be without Matt Boermeester, who made the game-winning kick in the Rose Bowl as time expired, but who has been off the roster since spring due to a student conduct issue. Michael Brown has taken over, and there could be a challenge in the fall from incoming Chase McGrath.
9/9 vs Stanford: A huge early season test against a physical opponent.
9/29 vs Washington State: The first trip out-of-state on a Friday night to Pullman, with Mike Leach and a veteran QB in Luke Falk.
10/21 vs Notre Dame: Any trip to South Bend is a key point in the season.
11/18 vs UCLA: There could be a lot on the line up and above the normal city bragging rights. Darnold and Josh Rosen will be a high-profile quarterback match-up.
The 2017 season will be a success if?
The Trojans win the Pac-12 title. That is always the first goal of the program, and it was one that Lynn Swann quickly reminded the players and coaches of last winter, even as the glow of the bowl win was still present. USC has not won the conference title since 2008 and it happens this year it will be without the benefit of a bye week during the regular season. And if the Trojans do win the conference it’s easy to imagine a trip to the CFB playoffs would be next on the list, but that is likely only to happen if the first goal is met.