The top 10 USC football players you need to know for the 2016 season.
1. WR JuJu Smith-Schuster
It’s official. Smith-Schuster is the next great wide receiver at USC. The First Team All-Pac-12 pick rose from really good as a rookie to elite status in 2015, catching 89 balls for 1,454 yards and 10 touchdowns. Smith has imposing size, 6-2 and 215 pounds, as well as excellent ball skills and fundamentals. His catch-radius, including his long arms and large hands, are gifts to a quarterback. And he’s extremely tough, playing part of last year with a cast on his hand.
2. CB Adoree’ Jackson
Jackson continues to be one of the most exciting and all-around electrifying players in college football. He can do it all for the Trojans, from First Team All-Pac-12 corner to playmaker on offense and special teams. The 5-11, 185-pound Jackson is an elite quick-twitch athlete, with the coverage skills of a future lockdown corner in the NFL. In 2015, he had 35 tackles, a pick and nine passes defended, while scoring twice on punt returns, twice on receptions and once on an interception.
3. OT Zach Banner
One of the more colorful Trojans, Banner is as dominant at the point of attack as he is entertaining. The 6-9, 360-pound behemoth is one of the biggest linemen to ever play the game. Banner simply mauled opposing defenders a year ago to earn a spot on the All-Pac-12 First Team. He’s terrific as both a road grader and a pocket protector, but he’ll need to cut down on penalties and mental errors to take the next step into All-American consideration.
4. LB Cameron Smith
The only thing that slowed Smith’s ascent to stardom last year was a knee injury suffered on Nov. 13. Prior to going down, he was on the verge of becoming the first Trojan true freshman since 1954 to lead the team in tackles. Mature, both physically and intellectually, well beyond his years, the 6-2, 245-pound Smith made a seamless transition from Granite Bay (Calif.) High School to compile 78 tackles and three picks in 10 games. His instincts, toughness and preparation portend an All-American future.
5. RB Ronald Jones II
Now that Jones has authored arguably the best rookie season ever by a Trojan back, he’ll be featured even more in 2016. Despite being buried on the depth chart when 2015 began, Jones wound up leading USC with 987 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on just 153 carries. Against Arizona, he set the school’s single-game rushing record. Jones is the 6-0, 185-pound game-breaking complement to Justin Davis out of the backfield, and one of the Pac-12’s most electrifying young skill position players.
6. OT Chad Wheeler
Wheeler is one of the more inspirational players on the Troy roster. He’s a high-character, hard-working Trojan who bounced back from a 2014 knee injury. The 6-7, 280-pound Wheeler is also a skilled blocker, using his long arms and good balance to earn a spot on the 2015 All-Pac-12 Second Team. Another year removed from his ligament damage, he should be even more effective this fall.
7. RB Justin Davis
Davis is coming off his best season with the program, rushing for 902 yards and seven touchdowns on 169 yards. He was at his best toward the end of the regular season, rushing for at least 130 yards in November meetings with Oregon and UCLA. The 6-1, 195-pound Davis, who also shows soft hands as a receiver, is a smooth slasher in the open field, with the vision and the acceleration to exploit the seams of opposing defenses.
8. CB Iman Marshall
Marshall was instantly effective in his first season out of Long Beach Poly (Calif.) High School, debuting with 67 tackles, three picks and a team-high 12 passes defended. At 6-2 and 200 pounds, he’s essentially a safety playing cornerback, meaning he can jam receivers at the line of scrimmage and outmuscle them for 50/50 balls. Marshall is too talented and physically gifted to not be an All-Pac-12 candidate as early as this season.
9. LB Porter Gustin
Gustin is the former 5-star recruit who prepares as if he arrived in Los Angeles as a walk-on. That work-ethic plus an athletic 6-5, 250-pound build will lead to stardom before too long for the second-year sophomore. Gustin is a naturally gifted pass rusher from outside linebacker, as evidenced by last season’s 25 tackles, 7.5 stops behind the line and team-high 5.5 sacks. He’s about to hit the tarmac in 2016.
10. OG Damien Mama
At 6-4 and 355 pounds, Mama is simply massive on the interior of the USC offensive line. He’s now started 17 games at Troy, including 13 a year ago in a season that ended with honorable mention All-Pac-12 recognition. While Mama can be vulnerable on passing downs, he’s one of the key moving parts of an attack whose identity is rooted in a physical, north-south ground game.