By Johnny Curren
With spring practice at USC set to start up on Tuesday, here’s a look at five of the top position battles to keep an eye on.
With the departure of a three-year starter in Cody Kessler, Clay Helton has declared the Trojans’ starting quarterback job completely up for grabs, and it’s safe to say that no position group will be more closely watched throughout the slate of spring practices.
Of course, there is a definite front-runner heading into the competition, and that’s redshirt-junior Max Browne. Having waited patiently in the background, the former Gatorade All-American has consistently impressed on the practice field, particularly when it comes to his deep ball and finding receivers downfield. More than that, he’s also added quite a bit of bulk to his 6-foot-5 frame since his initial arrival, and he’s also made strides in terms of his leadership.
Redshirt-freshman Sam Darnold looks to be Browne’s primary competition. Possessing a strong arm, a calm demeanor on the field and the ability to take off and pick up yardage with his legs, he has the tools to make things interesting.
Also factoring into the equation will be redshirt-sophomore Jalen Greene. A fantastic all-around athlete, he spent the entire 2015 season at wide receiver, but will now spend some time at his natural quarterback position again as well. The last member of the competition will be early-entrant freshman Matt Fink. Another dual-threat passer, he’s still fairly raw at this point, so he’s likely a year or two away from being a serious part of the discussion here.
Interior Defensive Line
The Trojans lost five seniors along the interior defensive line from last year’s team, and USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast will need to find new starters at both defensive end positions, as well as nose tackle in his signature 5-2 scheme.
It’s a safe bet that sophomore Rasheem Green, who shined at times in 2015, will get the nod at one of the defensive end positions, but there will likely be an open battle at the other two spots. Players like Noah Jefferson, Kenny Bigelow and Jacob Daniel are all capable of lining up at either nose tackle or defensive end. Of that trio, Jefferson showed the most promise in 2015, seeing action in every game, and even starting the bowl-game finale. Bigelow, meanwhile, has struggled to live up to expectations up to this point in his career, but with a golden opportunity in front of him, perhaps he’s ready to take a giant leap forward.
Other interior guys who could be in the mix include Malik Dorton, Liam Jimmons, Christian Rector and Kevin Scott.
No position group exemplifies the attacking mentality of Pendergast’s defense more than the Predator and ‘sam’ outside linebacker positions, and with the departure of Su’a Cravens, and the uncertain status of Scott Felix, there figures to be a spirited competition at each spot.
Sophomore Porter Gustin, who started two games at rush end in 2015 while tying for the team lead in sacks (5.5), certainly looks like a natural fit in the new scheme, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him come out on top at one of the spots – potentially the Predator position. Redshirt-senior Jabari Ruffin enjoyed his best year as a Trojan in Pendergast’s defense in 2013, so this could be the year that he starts to live up to expectations. Early-entrant freshman Oluwole Betiku certainly has the physical tools to make an immediate impact. Don Hill came on strong toward the end of last season, so he’ll be in the discussion as well. Osa Masina, who lined up at ‘will’ linebacker this past season, will also likely get a look on the outside, and there’s reason to believe that he could wind up being a nice fit there. John Houston Jr., who was forced to deal with a back injury this past season, Uchenna Nwosu, and Quinton Powell could also compete here.
With the loss of seniors Anthony Sarao and Lamar Dawson, and with regular starting ‘mike’ linebacker Cameron Smith sidelined through the spring while recovering from knee surgery, there figures to be an open audition at both inside linebacker spots.
Olajuwon Tucker probably has the inside track on one of the starting jobs. He started three games at the ‘mike’ position this past season while compiling a total of 40 tackles. Hutchings is the senior veteran of the group now, and while he’s shown promise at times, he’s struggled with his consistency throughout his career. Masina could still wind up competing at the same ‘will’ position he played at this past season as well. It will also be interesting to see if some players who previously lined up on outside might fit better on the inside in the new 5-2 scheme. Nwosu, Powell and Houston immediately come to mind. Nwosu, in particular, has proven to be a playmaker wherever he lines up, and he did see brief action on the inside last year already.
The Trojans have a pair of extremely talented tailbacks in senior Justin Davis and sophomore Ronald Jones II – both of whom rushed for over 900 yards this past season.
Davis, who started the final eight games of 2015, is the sturdy veteran of the group with 1,858 yards and 17 touchdowns under his belt in his career. Jones, meanwhile, wowed onlookers as a freshman with his big-play ability, and there’s reason to believe he could be ready to explode in 2016. In all likelihood, the two will combine to become USC’s one-two punch this coming season, and it should be fun to watch them push each other throughout the spring.
Also getting plenty of carries will be talented sophomores Dominic Davis and Aca’Cedric Ware. Davis is a speedy ‘back with fantastic pass catching skills. Ware has shown plenty of promise in practice as a tough, north-south rusher, so it will be interesting to see if he can make a move this spring.