This week, the WeAreSC staff is tasked with answering the question: “Who are three USC football players who outperformed your expectations during their Trojan careers, and three players who surprised you by falling short?”
Performed beyond expectations
Polamalu almost came to USC as baseball player. It took a push from his uncle, Kennedy Polamalu, for then-USC head coach Paul Hackett to extend him a football scholarship. Suffice it to say, nobody penciled in “Future All-American, College and Pro Football Hall of Famer” on his bio as an incoming freshman.
In the 2015 recruiting class, it made sense for USC to top up its wide receiver position with a couple of junior college guys in Isaac Whitney and De’Quan Hampton, then sit back and wait for the absolutely loaded class of 2016 wide receivers to bring in a big haul. Except, USC extended a blueshirt scholarship offer to Burnett on signing day. It definitely felt like a situation where he might be quickly passed by the 2016 receivers — USC signed Tyler Vaughns, Michael Pittman, Josh Imatorbhebhe, Trevon Sidney and Velus Jones in the following class. But Burnett became USC’s No. 1 receiving option as a junior in 2018. Thirteen catches for 164 yards and three touchdowns would have been acceptable career numbers for a player who signed under Burnett’s circumstances. Instead, Burnett turned that in during one of the all-time great Rose Bowl performances.
Nwosu was the No. 862 overall prospect and the 16th-best prospect in USC’s 2014 recruiting class. He turned into one of the defensive stars for the Trojans during his career. In 2017, he finished fifth on the team in tackles and second in sacks, with 9.5, and led the team with 13 pass deflections. He also had one of the plays of the season with a fourth-down stop at the goal line against Stanford in the fourth quarter of the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Performed below expectations
Bradford finished his USC career with 267 carries for 1,585 yards and 16 touchdowns. But looking back at his performance in some games, it feels like that should have been a season total for him. He was part of a loaded running back room and dealt with a nagging hip injury at times, but though no fault of his own, it felt like he was never fully unleashed during his time at USC. He posted back-to-back games of double-digit carries just three times at USC, and the only two times he carried the ball more than 20 times in a game, he ran for at least 200 yards in both. Either at running back or even had he been flipped over to linebacker, it felt like we never truly got to see everything Bradford was capable of as a football player.
Farmer was plagued by minor and major injuries during his USC career and Trojan fans never got to see what the five-star prospect could do on a football field. He played wide receiver, some running back and returned kicks, but finished his time at USC with just 380 yards from scrimmage and four total touchdowns.
Tight ends of the last decade
I’m not talking about the fact that some of them have perhaps been underutilized. Going back 10 years, USC has been more than a little snake bit at the tight end position. Blake Ayles, Christian Thomas, Junior Pomee, Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, Bryce Dixon, Cary Angeline and Daniel Imatorbhebhe (and now including formerly-incoming freshman Jack Yary) didn’t finish their careers at USC for a multitude of reasons. At various points, I thought all of them could be big-time stars, and that is an amazing amount of talent on paper that USC wasn’t able to fully utilize. Even Xavier Grimble–who finished his USC career with 69 receptions for 731 yards and 11 touchdowns–brings a major sense of “what if” as he declared early for the NFL and went undrafted.
Performed beyond expectations
WR Bob Chandler – A splendid splinter out of Whittier in 1967, “Bobby” Chandler was a tremendous high school athlete that didn’t look at all like an athlete because of his unimpressive physical presence. At Whittier, Chandler was quarterback, receiver, and a jack of all trades and even excelled in track and field. When he came to USC, Bobby became an excellent wide receiver, who eventually became the Rose Bowl MVP in the 1970 New Year’s victory classic over Michigan. After his USC career, he went on to a fine NFL career. A seventh-round pick in the 1971 NFL Draft, Chandler played nine seasons with the Buffalo Bills and three with the Oakland Raiders, who moved to Los Angeles by Chandler’s final playing season.
FB Stanley Havili – On a team of USC all-stars, Stanley came to USC as a known prospect out of Salt Lake City, Utah. When he came to Troy, he caught the attention of many during practices, as he showcased an elite ability to run, block, and catch a football. His versatility and endurance were a huge contribution to Pete Carroll’s success beginning in 2006, although he did break his leg in his first season. On another team, he would have been near the top of the list in terms of post-season honors. Be that as it may, Havili completed his USC career at the time with the most receptions of any fullback in school history. Stanley was later drafted into the NFL by the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2011 draft.
OL Chad Wheeler – Chad is the poster boy for the term “project,” which makers his story unique. He missed part of his 2011 senior year with a shoulder injury that required surgery at Santa Monica (Calif.) High while playing both offensive tackle and defensive end. Enrolling at USC early, he was considered a true project because he was a work in progress. Chad really
needed to gain weight and strength. He missed most of the 2012 USC season with a knee injury. In 2013, Chad finally cracked the lineup, bigger and stronger with strong determination. In 2014, Wheeler started Troy’s first eight games at left offensive tackle as a sophomore, but he tore ligaments in his right knee at Utah (although he played a full series with the injury) and missed the final five games. In spite of that latest misfortune, Chad won the Bob Chandler Award for athletics, academics, and character. His final season finally transformed him from “project” to All-American and All-Pac-12. Though not drafted after he finished his career at Troy, he was signed by the New York Giants, where he eventually became a starter and there is something to say about that.
Performed below expectations
TB Paul Rice – Never heard of the guy? If you’re old enough and a real recruiting historian of the late 60s and early 70s, you would remember tailback Paul Rice (5-11, 185) from the Lewisville (Tx), a legend out for the Lewisville Fighting Farmers. Coming out of the Lone Star State, he was regarded as one of the nation’s top running backs and was expected to sign with SMU. However, Rice decided to be a Trojan. By the time Rice got to the USC campus, he lasted one scrimmage and left the university after breaking his nose in the first live contact. Nobody was more surprised at Rice’s quick departure than Trojans legendary head coach John McKay, who saw Rice as potentially one of his next great tailbacks. After leaving Troy, Rice transferred to SMU.
WR Whitney Lewis – Has any Trojan received as much hype coming out of high school than WR/RB Whitney Lewis out of local Oxnard (Calif.) St. Bonaventure High? A 5-star player and everybody’s high school All-American, Lewis lasted just three unfulfilled seasons before leaving Troy and transferring to Northern Iowa. It would be a massive understatement to say that Lewis didn’t live up to the USC expectations. Although coming out of “St. Bonnie” wanting to go to Florida State to play his collegiate ball, his parents wanted him to stay local and attend USC. His physical skills were undeniable, but he just couldn’t get it together and was never able to combine the physical and emotional needs to reach his potential.
QB Mitch Mustain – One of the most highly decorated high school quarterbacks ever out of Arkansas, where he played at Springdale High under head coach Gus Malzahn, currently the head coach at Auburn. Mustain was considered one of the top two QB prospect in the 2006 recruiting class. A legend coming out of the Hog State, and after playing Arkansas, where he had a decent freshman season, he eventually decided to transfer to USC, which already had superstar QBs in Mark Sanchez and Matt Barkley. Maybe it was the cardinal and gold competition or just the fact that in high school Mustain played on a fantastic team with an outstanding head coach and was a product of the system, but he never lived up to the hype. Either way, Mustain basically had a career that never approached his glorious high school performances.
Performed beyond expectations
Lofa Tatupu (main photo) — This guy came out of nowhere. A transfer from the University of Maine. A little undersized. I didn’t expect him to do anything at USC. And this guy was an absolute stud. One of the all-time greats at USC, and an absolute terror in that Orange Bowl against OU. He knew the plays before Adrian Peterson did. Great player.
Mike Williams — Three-star recruit that the Florida schools apparently didn’t think could play wide receiver. Turns out he could. Williams was the best WR I’ve seen at USC, and that’s obviously a huge statement. Want an even bigger statement? He might be the most dominant player I’ve ever seen at USC. The guy could physically dominate football games at wideout. Just an amazing football player. Completely unexpected.
Matt Leinart — I know, the guy was a highly rated recruit. But he wasn’t a can’t miss guy. He wasn’t as highly regarded as Carson Palmer, Matt Barkley or Max Browne. He was simply a good prospect. But this good prospect left with arguably the greatest QB resume in the history of college football. That, I believe is the definition of overperforming.
Performed below expectations
There are some obvious calls here like Dillon Baxter and Whitney Lewis. I’m going to go a slightly different direction.
Todd Marinovich — This guy was one of the all-time recruits. Just a legendary high school player. And he was good, not great, as a redshirt freshman. He wasn’t the best QB on the team, Pat O’Hara was. I think Shane Foley may have been better, as well. But, still, a very solid redshirt freshman season after O’Hara ripped up his knew. But that was then followed up by a lousy sophomore season, fighting with Larry Smith, drug problems, an early departure for the NFL, and no pro success. This was not the career anybody expected from Marinovich.
Patrick Turner — Patrick Turner was supposed to be the next Mike Williams. He was the nation’s top recruit and a major recruiting coup for Pete Carroll (at a time when recruiting coups were almost a given). He was big with long arms and good speed for a big guy. A can’t-prospect. But he just wasn’t all that good. He wasn’t terrible. He started. He made some plays. But he didn’t make very many. In four years, he had about the same production that Marqise Lee had in one season. And in that horrible, inexcusable loss to 40-point Stanford, Patrick Turner dropped a ball at the end that could have set the Trojans up for a winning field goal.
Ryan Knight — Knight was the nation’s top running back recruit in the 1984 recruiting class. (Thurman Thomas was in that class.) He entered USC at a time when Tailback U was not that far in the past, and Knight was supposed to be the next in a great line of Trojan backs. He never had more than 732 yards in a season and averaged only 3.8 yards per carry. Granted, he had the bad luck to show up at USC at the wrong time. But it’s also true that Knight was not nearly as explosive or as good as people expected him to be. The Knight family, of course, rebounded quite nicely when Sammy Knight came along a few years later.