Provided the 2020 college football season happens as originally scheduled, the USC Trojans looked poised to battle for the Pac-12 title. There is returning talent at key positions, as well as young players looking to take the next step and a revamped staff of assistant coaches that knows they are expected to produce results quickly.
There are potential impact players and absolutely important players, but this list runs down the top 10 intriguing Trojans–players and coaches whose contributions we might not know the extent of at this point and we’ll be watching closely this fall. You won’t find quarterback Kedon Slovis of safety Talanoa Hufanga on this list, as both have proven more than enough (despite injury concerns) that they’ve erased all intrigue as to how they might perform or how important they are on their respective sides of the ball.
You will find a couple of new additions to the coaching staff, linemen on both sides, a trio of linebackers and two potential offensive weapons.
Special teams coach Sean Snyder
Sean Snyder comes to USC with a tremendous reputation as a special teams coach and helped orchestrate some dynamic special teams units during his time at Kansas State. USC produced some huge special teams plays during John Baxter’s tenure with the Trojans, between blocked kicks and touchdown returns, but there were just too many deficiencies the past two years–especially with USC’s performance on kickoff coverage last season. Whether that was scheme or execution, Snyder will have an opportunity to right the ship, and he’ll have an array of weapons at his disposal.
Kickers Chase McGrath and Michael Brown are back, and newcomer Parker Lewis might have the strongest leg of the group. Punter Ben Griffiths has a year of college football under his belt. It’ll be interesting to see how Snyder deploys the punting game, as Griffiths had an up-and-down redshirt freshman season–again, potentially a question of scheme vs. execution.
Snyder also has a ton of potential special teamers in USC’s stocked linebacker, defensive back and wide receiver reserves. He should be able to find plenty of help in the coverage units.
Kick returner is the only real question, as Velus Jones served as a reliable option back there for the past several seasons. But finding a kick returner should be as easy as pointing somewhere in the skill position group, as running backs Stephen Carr and Kenan Christon, wide receivers Amon-Ra St. Brown and Gary Bryant, or even cornerback Olaijah Griffin could be a few of the potential options back there.
It’ll be interesting to see how Snyder coaches the group during practice and the games, and whether he can get consistent production out of a special teams unit that should be comprised of some of the top athletes in the conference.
LB Palaie Gaoteote
Todd Orlando’s defense has the ability to make stars out of inside linebackers who can shoot into the backfield and create sacks in the passing game and tackles for loss in the running game. Can Palaie Gaoteote be that linebacker? He’s missed games due to injury both years he’s been on campus. While he came in as one of the top high school linebackers in the country, he’s been good for the Trojans, but not great when compared with the top linebackers in college football.
Gaoteote has 96 tackles, including two sacks and 7.5 tackles tackles for loss in his career. Those are numbers he should have the ability to duplicate in just one season this fall. But how will he adjust to Orlando’s scheme? How will he be utilized? And is he ready to take that next step to become a great USC linebacker?
The Trojans haven’t had a linebacker selected in the first round of the NFL Draft since Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews in 2009, and that group wasn’t the strength USC needed it to be during the 2019 season. If there is going to be an uptick in production there, Gaoteote might need to lead the way.
DT Brandon Pili
It was surprising when Pili was the 2017 freshman defensive lineman who made the biggest impact–over Marlon Tuipulotu and Jay Tufele. But since then, Tuipulotu and Tufele have taken over as the bigger contributors inside, while some inconsistencies have held Pili back a bit. He has 44 tackles, including 2.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss in his career, but he has a chance to be a big part of this defense in 2020.
At 6-foot-4 and 325 pounds, Pili is the biggest defensive lineman on the roster and that should make him an asset as a nose tackle when the Trojans are in a three-down front on occasion. We saw what kind of impact a physically-dominant defensive tackle can make, with Stevie Tu’ikolovatu in the 2016 season.
Can the USC defensive staff light a fire under Pili to get him playing at that level? The expectation is the Tufele and Tuipulotu will lead the way on the defensive line, but how Pili performs could go a long way in determining how successful the line is this season. He has the ability to make that position a real strength for the Trojans, and the ability to dominate in the interior of the line can make any defense much stronger.
TE Daniel Imatorbhebhe
Imatorbhebhe’s talent is undeniable, but there are still so many intriguing questions related to him. He’s missed two years due to injury, though he looked fresh and healthy during the one non-padded practice of spring ball. But ultimately, he has just 25 receptions for 394 yards and four touchdowns in 22 games played at USC.
Five of those catches came in the upset win at Washington in 2016, but he’s never recorded more than two catches in any other game. That being said, he’s shown enough to believe he’s a true threat in the passing and running games and someone who immediately makes the USC tight end group better.
Now, the other intriguing thing with Imatorbhebhe is just how much time the tight ends will see this season, and how much time Imatorbhebhe specifically will see. It’s a loaded group, with fellow seniors Josh Falo and Erik Krommenhoek every bit as capable of starting. Redshirt freshmen Jude Wolfe and Ethan Rae are likely ready to see the field this fall as well. And it was telling that recently, tight ends coach John David Baker pushed out a tight ends highlight video that prominently featured Drake London. Whether that was for the video–London’s season was far more video-friendly than the 15-catch season authored by USC’s tight end group–or if the coaches truly consider London to be working as a flex tight end, the fact is that London’s production massively ate into what the tight ends were able to contribute in 2019.
Can Imatorbhebhe’s resurgence shift some of the focus back to that group? Will he be asked to carry the load for the tight ends? And would his presence on the field help get the USC ground game going, if defenses are forced to respect the run and pass if he’s out there?
LB Abdul-Malik McClain
Linebacker Abdul-Malik McClain played in just five games last season, but he had two sacks–a shoulder injury he suffered while recording a sack against Arizona sidelined him for the rest of the season. USC just couldn’t get much out of the outside linebacker group last season, and now the Trojans will shift to a different defensive scheme. But the same issue for the outside linebackers exists: Defensive end Drake Jackson is just too good to take off the field.
And if Jackson is basically filling two roles, as defensive end and outside linebacker, where does that leave McClain and the rest of the true outside linebackers? Of course it’s not as simple as just leaving Jackson out there for every snap all season, and McClain has the talent to force his way into the lineup if healthy. USC has done a good job of getting to the quarterback in recent years, but Orlando’s schemes haven’t always piled up sacks.
McClain’s injury stats will be something to keep an eye on, as he had offseason shoulder surgery. But this is someone who had 18 sacks as a high school senior and clearly knows how to get to the quarterback. After redshirting his first year and missing most of last season due to injury, McClain might be an afterthought for USC opponents heading into the 2020 season, but he has the ability to demand some playing time of his own as a redshirt sophomore. At 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, he’s right there with Jackson in terms of size, and it would be a huge benefit to the USC defense if it could find a productive 1-2 punch from outside pass rushers this year.
DL Caleb Tremblay
USC finished No. 72 overall in rush defense last season. Oregon won the Pac-12 while finishing No. 13. That number has to come way down for the Trojans in 2020 and Tremblay could play a big part in that.
The 6-foot-5, 270-pound redshirt senior is a big defensive end and would seem to have the ability to move between a three and four-down set fairly easily. He also seems to have the ability to set the edge against the run, something USC could not do consistently, if ever, last season.
Defensive line coach Vic So’oto was clearly struck by Tremblay early on, as the new coach mentioned him multiple times in his introductory press conference, when discussing important pieces of the defensive line and players who have stepped up since his arrival.
Tremblay had 16 tackles and two sacks last season and those are numbers that could increase dramatically if he can step in effectively for departed senior defensive lineman Christian Rector.
Tremblay flashed many times during the open practices last year. Is he someone who just needs some extended playing time to really establish himself? Can he perform well enough in practice for So’oto to give him that shot this season? It wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see Tremblay use this offseason to help push himself into a clear member of that top defensive line group, but whether or not he can prove it on the field with the responsibility a starting spot brings remains to be seen.
OG Liam Jimmons
USC has to find a way to consistently run the football and protect the quarterback. That didn’t happen last season, as the Trojans finished No. 118 overall in rushing yards per game and had two quarterbacks injured after taking big hits from players coming up the middle.
Jimmons performed well in his first year on the offense line, as he played in nine games while all or part of six due to injury. What makes him so intriguing is how quickly he’s gone from a position-switch experiment to someone who could serve as an anchor along the offensive line this fall. He’s definitely one of the guys who missed out the most on not having a spring ball period, as he would have gotten an invaluable number of reps as he continues to gain experience at the position.
There are likely at least five players legitimately battling for two spots on the right side of the offensive line, with Jimmons in there alongside Jalen McKenzie, Andrew Vorhees, Jason Rodriguez and Liam Douglass, so a number of those guys could have been in this spot. But Jimmons was the first guy up at right guard in USC’s spring practice (McKenzie, last year’s starter there, was absent due to having a class schedule conflict).
Jimmons has the ability to give the Trojans a big, physical presence at right guard, but is he ready physically and mentally to grab that starting spot?
LB Solomon Tuliaupupu
Injuries have turned Solomon Tuliaupupu into an afterthought for the USC defense over the past two seasons as he’s undergone multiple surgeries for a foot injury. But his talent is undeniable, and the fact that he was on the field doing any kind of work, even in a limited capacity, this past spring was exciting.
It’s not a stretch to say that the 6-foot-3, 240-pound redshirt sophomore could become USC’s best linebacker the moment he steps back onto the field fully healthy. He participated in a very small number of practices during spring of 2019 and was extremely impressive, making play after play.
Will Tuliaupupu be healthy enough to contribute this fall? Will he be able to push established veteran inside linebackers Jordan Iosefa and Palaie Gaoteote? The sky is the limit for this linebacker, if (IF), he’s fully healthy.
WR Bru McCoy
Plenty has been written about the strange tale of USC wide receiver Bru McCoy, who signed with the Trojans out of high school, enrolled early and then transferred to Texas, only to transfer back to USC during the summer. McCoy then missed the 2019 season while reportedly battling an illness.
He returned to the field in a limited capacity late in the season, and then was out there full-go for USC’s spring ball practice.
The truth is that USC’s wide receivers group doesn’t need McCoy to still be considered as one of the great groups in the country. The other truth is that a healthy and motivated McCoy will eventually be one of the best receivers in the conference, and potentially the country.
McCoy can do everything a coach can ask of a wide receiver and he’ll be one of the guys looking to fill that 101-catch, 1,275-yard, 11-touchdown vacancy created by the departure of Michael Pittman. If he’s ready to go health-wise, he could establish himself quickly as one of the go-to players in this USC offense.
Defensive Coordinator Todd Orlando
Can USC defensive coordinator Todd Orlando create more first-year magic at his latest stop. At every one of his previous jobs, when met with a veteran roster upon taking over the defense, Orlando has gotten terrific production immediately. That’s the case at USC, where multiple-year starters dot the lineup at every level.
He’s talked about wanting to split time in three and four-man defensive fronts, but it’ll be interesting to see if or how he adjusts to USC’s performance in each set. Orlando is a linebacker coach by trade, so can he get the most out of a group there that is very talented but hasn’t produced a dominant player over the past couple of years.
And will his physical mindset carry over to games and throughout the season. Defensive and offensive players have talked about how Orlando has been one of the new coaches to help lead a culture change in the weight room and on the field. How does that affect the product during the season?
Can Orlando quickly adjust to Pac-12 offenses, and what happens if things aren’t sharp against Alabama in the opener? Can adjustments be made in game or between games? USC’s defense has been average at best in the Pac-12 in several categories over the past few years, but the talent on hand right now should be able to help create a strong group. The Trojans will have to pack that defense in a big way for road trips to Stanford, Oregon and Utah this year.
There might not be anything that dictates the course of USC’s season more than the performance of the Trojan defense, and that makes Orlando the most intriguing Trojan for the 2020 season.