It can be said of just about every position group on the USC roster, and it is especially true of the Trojan linebackers: The talent is there, but will the production follow?
With longtime starter and team captain Cameron Smith off to the NFL, we saw several big changes to the middle linebacker spot, as both John Houston and Jordan Iosefa were moved inside.
There will be plenty of debate as to whether the 220-pound Houston will be able to handle the rigors of the middle, but USC coaches were quick to shake off those concerns, as defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said during the spring that there are very few teams that still rely on a power game up the middle, and that having Houston there allows Palaie Gaoteote to slide to weakside linebacker, a more natural fit for him.
While Houston began the spring as the starter, he split time with Iosefa, who performed well in the middle after starting all 12 games at outside linebacker last season. The two seniors in the middle will likely go a long way toward determining just how well the USC defense performs overall, as a relatively young defense will rely heavily on their leadership.
Houston enters the season with 167 tackles over 37 career games, including 23 starts. Iosefa has started 16 of the 36 games in which he’s played, picking up 78 tackles and three sacks.
Gaoteote looks like a sure starter at weakside linebacker, but he’ll get plenty of help from Kana’i Mauga, who, like Iosefa, moved into the middle from the outside, where he appeared in all 12 games as a true freshman last season.
The expectation this fall is certainly for Gaoteote to push for all-conference recognition, as he looks to take a step forward from a promising true freshman season. In 2018, he started five times and had 38 tackles, including 4.5 for loss. He is an extremely physical presence at linebacker, and has the potential to be the Trojans’ most impactful defensive playmaker this season.
Mauga’s move to the middle was an interesting one. He came on strong last spring as an early enrollee, but he never quite had the same impact during the season, finishing with 14 tackles in 12 games. His move inside gives the Trojans a solid quartet in the middle. The depth there got even stronger this spring, as Juliano Falaniko also spent plenty of time in the middle, and early enrollee Ralen Goforth was impressive for a true freshman, and has the look of a potential team leader down the line. Goforth was consistently the last player off the field, as he went by himself to work bag drills following virtually every spring practice. The inside could see another infusion of talent his fall, with the potential addition of Maninoa Tufono, ESPN’s No. 3 inside linebacker in the 2019 recruiting class.
And not to be forgotten is Solomon Tuliaupupu, who was impressive during a short stint on the field this spring, before ultimately shutting things down due to not wanting to risk further injury. If he is fully ready to go this fall, it could be difficult to keep him off the field in some capacity.
With Iosefa and Mauga moved to the middle, the responsibility of manning the outside linebacker falls to three young players, as Hunter Echols, Eli’jah Winston and Malik McClain will battle for playing time. Coming out of spring, it feels as though progress was made, but it doesn’t yet feel like this is a position of strength, as it was during Uchenna Nwosu’s senior season. The strong side linebackers will be asked to drop into coverage, but it’s how well they can rush the passer from the outside that could go a long way toward helping this USC defense. We saw flashes from all three, particularly Echols, and getting production from this position will not only validate the coaching moves to slide so many guys inside, but it will give the USC defensive coaches some serious flexibility with this linebacker group.
Looking forward, the Trojans don’t yet hold a commitment from a linebacker prospect in the 2020 class, but there are names on the board, and a big one in particular. Inside linebacker Justin Flowe (Upland, Calif./Upland) might be the top target for USC regardless of position, and at this point it would be a mild surprise if he signed elsewhere. Brennon Scott (Dallas/Bishop Dunne) recently included USC among his top five schools, and Caleb McCullough (Oxnard, Calif./Pacific) picked up an offer from the Trojans yesterday. Jackson LaDuke (Sparks, Nev./Spanish Springs) and Damian Sellers (Scottsdale, Ariz./Saguaro) also hold offers from the Trojans. Despite losing Houston and Iosefa following the season, it would be surprising if USC loaded up on linebackers in this class, after taking so many in the previous few.