Preview 2017: USC Trojans
Previewing and looking ahead at the USC Trojans season – and what you need to know.
What You Need To Know About The USC Offense
While the Trojans have to replace five starters from an offense that finished 20th in the nation overall with 477 yards and 35 points per game, getting better as the season went on. Fortunately, one of the main men returning could be college football’s main man.
Sam Darnold ended the season on fire, leaving everyone slack-jawed after a brilliant performance to beat Penn State in the Rose Bowl. As long as he’s in one piece and not trying to do too much, everything else should be fine.
The receiving corps has to replace JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers, but gets back Deontay Burnett and five of the top seven targets. If this all works as planned, Darnold makes them all shine, while Ronald Jones and the deep, talented backfield will take the heat off … if they all get time to work.
The line loses three massive starters – including All-Pac-12 tackles Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler. It’s not a major concern with several good-enough options ready to fill in the gaps, but if the offense doesn’t quite work as well as it’s supposed to, the front five will be why.
Biggest Key To The USC Offense
The pass protection has to stay strong. The Trojans gave up a mere 12 sacks on the season – and that’s with Alabama and Washington on the schedule. While there are two good blockers returning gin C Nico Falah and OG Viane Talamaivao, it’s not a given the protection will be as strong without Banner, Wheeler, and Damien Mama.
It seems like a long time ago now, but remember, pass protection was a massive concern going into last year after giving up 38 sacks in 2015 and 32 in 2014. The 2012 line was terrific, giving up just 17 sacks – it followed it up by giving up 34.
Darnold is part of the puzzle that helps the line – he was decisive to get the ball out of his hands in a hurry – but the line really was that good.
What You Need To Know About The USC Defense
The defense didn’t get a whole lot of attention or credit throughout the season, and then got ripped apart by Penn State in the Rose Bowl, but it still finished the season ranked 36th in the nation allowing 27 points or fewer ten times.
Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast likes to bring the heat, but the pass rush wasn’t all that special. It was fine, but it could be better.
Hybrid linebacker Porter Gustin led the team in tackles for loss, combining with Uchenna Nwosu to give the Trojans a pair of killers on the outside around top tackler Cameron Smith in the middle.
The line needs some help, though, especially on the inside. The latest recruiting class might need to provide a push for time, with Marlon Tuipulotu potentially too good to keep out of the interior. On the outside, Rasheem Green needs to turn into more of a pass rushing threat to help the slightly suspect group of ends.
Losing Adoree Jackson isn’t a plus at one corner, but Iman Marshall is another great one who’ll be the No. 1 guy now. The safeties might not be all that splashy, but they’re going to be good – especially considering USC plays a whole lot of nickel.
Biggest Key To The USC Defense
About that pass rush – it has to be better. The 26 sacks the defense came up with last season was by far the fewest since coming up with 27 in 2010. The pressure came from all sides in 2015 – finishing with 37 sacks – but last season it disappeared at odd times.
Considering what Pendergast likes to do with his defenses, the pass rush will be manufactured from several areas. Now the Trojans have to blow past the 30-sack mark again.
USC Will Be Far Better If …
This program can one day go through a season without committing a bajillion penalties. The 2011 USC team came up with 71 penalties. Since then, it’s been flagged 514 times – averaging 103 sins a year over the last five.
So the 99 committed last season wasn’t quite as bad as some recent years, but they’re still too many. The Trojans were tagged with 26 for 254 over a two game stretch in the middle of the season, and was naughty ten times in the Rose Bowl.
Best USC Offensive Player
QB Sam Darnold, Soph. – He went from not starting last season to being the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft – probably. He would’ve been a Cleveland Brown had he been available, but instead, even more is expected from the 6-4, 225-pounder with a live arm, good mobility, and the moxie to hold up under adversity.
It was Max Browne’s offense to run to start the year – now he’s a Pitt Panther – but Darnold got the call in Week Four vs. Utah, and failed to throw a touchdown pass in the loss. That was his last down moment, throwing 31 touchdown passes over the final nine games – all wins – finishing off with an epic 453-yard, five-score day to beat Penn State in the Rose Bowl.
The problem? He’s a little too loose with the ball and got away with plenty of near-miss mistakes, but everything else is there to be someone’s franchise-maker for the next decade-plus. But first, he has to play a year as the best quarterback in college football.
2. RB Ronald Jones, Jr.
3. WR Deontay Burnett, Jr.
4. TE Daniel Imatorbhebhe, Soph.
5. OG Viane Talamaivao, Jr.
Best USC Defensive Player
LB Cameron Smith, Jr. – The 6-2, 245-pounder was great from the start, coming up with 78 tackles with three picks – taking one for a score – as a freshman before hurting his knee, and last year he took his game up another notch with a team-leading 83 tackles with seven tackles for loss.
Tough on the inside, he’s not necessarily a pass rusher, but he’s a rock against the run, has great range, and is terrific in pass coverage. Always around the ball, he came up with 15 tackles against Utah, 13 against Utah State, and ten against Notre Dame – he was seemingly in on everything.
2. LB Porter Gustin, Jr.
3. CB Iman Marshall, Jr.
4. DE Rasheem Green, Jr.
5. LB Uchenna Nwosu, Sr.
Key Player To A Successful Season
OT Chuma Edoga, Soph. – To keep harping on this, someone has to keep Mr. Darnold in one piece. Zach Banner is gone at right tackle, Chad Wheeler is done on the left side, and Damien Mama is finished at guard.
The 6-4, 290-pound Edoga might not be massive like some of the lost talent up front, but he has a little bit of starting experience along with filling in where and when needed in the rotation at both tackle spots. A star recruit, he’ll get one of the first looks at Banner’s open left tackle job. As long as No. 14 isn’t getting crushed, the new left side will be doing just fine.
The USC Season Will Be A Success If …
It wins the Pac-12 title and gets to the College Football Playoff. There are few places that can reasonably demand a CFP-or-Bust season. Get into the big four, or your season is a failure. Even coming off a 10-3 season, USC is coming into the season as one of those teams.
The schedule couldn’t work out better, with no Washington or Oregon from the North, the Texas game in LA, and with seven of the last ten games against teams that didn’t go bowling. Get by Notre Dame on the road, don’t get caught up in away games against Cal, Washington State and Arizona State, beat Utah and UCLA at home, and beat …
Key Game To The USC Season
Sept. 9 vs. Stanford – The Trojans have big South dates – as always – against UCLA, Utah, and at Arizona State, but the toughest game on the slate is against the Cardinal. With the way last year started – including a 27-10 loss to Stanford – a big win at home on the Fox national TV stage would be one of those exorcise-the-demon moments. With Texas to follow, and with four of the next six games on the road after that, losing to Stanford would fire up the panic sirens, just like last year’s loss did.
2016 USC Fun Stats
– Penalties: USC 99 for 873 yards – Opponents 62 for 587
– 1st half scoring: USC 262 – Opponents 121
– Sacks: USC 26 for 186 yards – Opponents 12 for 80 yards