USC Football 2017 Spring Outlook|
March 6, 2017
2017 USC Spring Football Media Guide
There have been 11 national championships, 34 bowl victories, 166 All-Americans, 6 Heisman Trophy winners, 43 College Football Hall of Famers, 22 Academic All-Americans, 485 NFL players and 15 Pro Football Hall of Famers.
The 2017 Trojans—the school’s 125th football team—want to add to that legacy. They certainly are well equipped to do so.
After all, 81 squadmen return from the Rose Bowl champion 2016 team (51 of them saw action), including 14 starters (6 on offense, 7 on defense, 1 specialist). Among them are some of the top players at their positions in the country, including at quarterback, running back, linebacker and cornerback. They’ll be joined by a consensus national Top 5 recruiting class of 23 newcomers, including 5 who already enrolled at USC and will participate in spring drills.
USC enters 2017 riding a 9-game winning streak (its longest since 2008-09) that was capped with the instant-classic last-second 52-49 Rose Bowl victory over Penn State. That gave USC a 10-3 finish (7-2 in the Pac-12 South Division for second place) and a No. 3 final national ranking (its highest since 2008 and the highest ever of any 3-loss team). Troy did all this while playing a schedule ranked among the 10 most difficult in the nation.
USC’s 2016 turnaround from a 1-3 start (the losses were to AP Top 25 teams away from home) can be attributed partly to Clay Helton, who stayed the course in his first full season as the Trojan head coach (he had served as interim head coach in 2 previous seasons). His steady and consistent hand guided USC to wins over traditional rivals UCLA and Notre Dame and in the Rose Bowl, just the 13th season that trifecta has happened in Trojan history. USC was perfect at home (6-0) for the first time since 2008 and undefeated in the greater Los Angeles area (8-0). The Trojans beat both teams (Washington and Colorado) that played in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
With the way USC closed out the 2016 season, expect the Trojans to enter 2017 highly ranked.
“We understand the expectations at USC are high, especially after the successful season we had last year,” said Helton, who in 2016 was a finalist for the Bryant Coach of the Year Award and won the Football Writers First Year Co-Coach of the Year Award. “We welcome those expectations.
“Just like every year, we will enter the 2017 season with the expectation of winning the Pac-12 championship. We have a group of players and coaches here that can do that. This is the 125th USC football team and we expect great things this season.”
The 2017 Trojan offense, which last season piled up at least 400 total yards in each of its last 10 games and scored at least 40 points 7 times, will be led by quarterback Sam Darnold, now a leading Heisman Trophy candidate after a spectacular 2016 campaign in which he won the Archie Griffin Award, made Freshman All-American and was the Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year as he hit 67.2% of his passes for 3,086 yards and 31 touchdowns, including a 453-yard, 5-TD outing that earned him Rose Bowl Offensive MVP honors. The other returning offensive starters are tailback Ronald Jones II, who ran for 1,082 yards and 12 TDs last season (he is over 2,000 career rushing yards), wide receiver Deontay Burnett, who had 56 receptions last fall (13 in the Rose Bowl with 3 scores, including the game-tying TD in the final minutes), linemen Viane Talamaivao at guard (he has started the past 3 years) and Nico Falah at center and tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe (4 TDs among his 17 catches in 2016). Others back with starting experience are wide receivers Steven Mitchell Jr. and Jalen Greene, center-guard Toa Lobendahn, tackle Chuma Edoga, guard-tackle Chris Brown and tight end Tyler Petite.
USC’s feature players on a defense that last fall held 7 opponents to season lows in points include inside linebacker Cameron Smith, a 2016 Sophomore All-American who already has notched 161 career tackles (with a team-high 83 last year), cornerback Iman Marshall (6 career interceptions), outside linebackers Porter Gustin (68 tackles in 2016, including a team-high 13 for losses) and Uchenna Nwosu, lineman Rasheem Green (a team-best 6 sacks in 2016) and safety Marvell Tell III. Safety Chris Hawkins and cornerbacks Ajene Harris and Jonathan Lockett also return after being part-time starters in 2016. Others returning with starts to their name are outside linebacker Olajuwon Tucker and tackles Malik Dorton and Josh Fatu.
However, the Trojans do have a number of holes to fill. Gone from last season’s offense are wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster (USC’s No. 4 career pass catcher with 213 receptions for 3,092 yards and 25 TDs, including 70 grabs with 10 scores in 2016) and Darreus Rogers (127 career catches with 11 TDs, including 56 catches in 2016), plus both starting tackles (All-Americans and All-Pac-12 selectees Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler), tailback Justin Davis (2,465 career rushing yards with 19 TDs), 2-year starting tight end Taylor McNamara and 2-year starting guard Damien Mama, who like Smith-Schuster declared for the NFL Draft after his junior season.
Missing from last year’s defense are cornerback-wide receiver-returner Adoree’ Jackson, the 2016 Thorpe Award and Jet Award winner, unanimous All-American first teamer and Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year who had 6 career interceptions, 15 touchdowns scored via kick return, punt return, interception and reception and set the USC career records for kick returns and yardage (he declared for the NFL Draft after his junior year), along with inside linebacker Michael Hutchings (118 career tackles, with 66 last fall), tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, the Rose Bowl Defensive MVP, and safety Leon McQuay III, who had 5 career picks, including one with 27 seconds to play in the Rose Bowl to set up Troy’s game-winning field goal.
The return of placekicker Matt Boermeester, whose 18 field goals last year—including a 46-yarder at the gun to win the Rose Bowl—were 1 shy of the school record, is uncertain because of a student code of conduct issue. Also gone from last season is 4-year starting long snapper Zach Smith.
Helton’s assistant coaching staff stayed nearly intact from 2016, with the only newcomer being running backs coach Deland McCullough, who joins USC after 6 seasons at Indiana, where the Hoosiers set 19 school rushing records and sent 3 runners to the NFL.
USC’s 2017 schedule features 7 home games in the Coliseum, beginning with three straight to open the season. Overall, USC’s 12-game slate features 5 teams that played in bowls last season and won at least 8 games. The Trojans will play 9 league foes in the 2017 regular season (all but Oregon and Washington). However, for the first time since the 1995 season, the Trojans will not have a regular-season bye week, only getting a week off on the final weekend of November should they advance to the Pac-12 Championship Game on Dec. 1 or 2.
Troy will open its 2017 slate with a 3-game homestand, as Western Michigan of the Mid-American Conference on Sept. 2 and the Big 12’s Texas on Sept. 16 sandwich league foe Stanford’s Sept. 9 appearance. The Broncos won 13 games in 2016 and played in the Cotton Bowl, while the Longhorns will be making their first L.A. visit versus Troy since 1967, and both teams will be guided by a new head coach (Tom Herman with Texas and Tim Lester with Western Michigan). The Cardinal clash marks the seventh year in a row that USC will play the Pac-12’s first conference game of the year. After Texas, the Trojans take to the road for a pair of Pac-12 encounters, at California on Sept. 23 (led by former USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox) and then visiting Washington State for a Friday night game on Sept. 29. USC returns to the Coliseum for 2 league contests, hosting Oregon State on Oct. 7 (like WSU, the Beavers are back on the schedule after a 2-year hiatus) and Utah on Oct. 14. USC then goes back on the road for its traditional intersectional battle with Notre Dame on Oct. 21 before finishing with a stretch of 4 Pac-12 games, first playing at Arizona State on Oct. 28. Arizona comes to the Coliseum on Nov. 4, then USC goes to defending Pac-12 South Division champion Colorado on Nov. 11 before hosting crosstown rival UCLA on Nov. 18.
Six starters return on offense from 2016: quarterback Sam Darnold, tailback Ronald Jones II, wide receiver Deontay Burnett, guard Viane Talamaivao, center Nico Falah and tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe. Other offensive players back with starting experience are wide receivers Steven Mitchell Jr. and Jalen Greene, center-guard Toa Lobendahn, tackle Chuma Edoga, guard-tackle Chris Brown and tight end Tyler Petite.
USC returns its top rusher (in fact, 5 of its top 6 runners) and its top passer from 2016, and 9 of the 17 players who caught passes last fall are back. In 2016, Troy improved upon its offensive numbers from the previous season, averaging 200.7 yards on the ground (+32.5) and 276.4 yards through the air (+6.7) for 477.1 yards of total offense (+39.2) and 34.4 points (+0.5). The rushing and total offense figures were USC’s best since 2005. The Trojans had at least 400 total yards in each of their final 10 games of 2016 and tallied 40-plus points 7 times. In its 10 victories last year (when it scored at least 35 points 8 times), USC’s average victory margin was 19.8 points and the Trojans held the halftime lead in each contest. Last year, USC ranked sixth nationally in sacks allowed (0.9), seventh in tackles for loss allowed (4.4), ninth in completion percentage (.657), 11th in third down conversions (.478), 15th in first downs (322), 20th in total offense and 25th in both passing efficiency (149.6) and pass offense.
USC’s offense, coordinated by wide receivers coach Tee Martin with quarterbacks coach Tyson Helton assisting as the pass game coordinator and new running backs coach Deland McCullough as the run game coordinator, features multiple formations, often with extra wideouts and no fullback.
“I loved how our offense progressed last year and that’s a credit to Tee and our offensive coaches and players,” said Helton. “I look forward to more of the same in 2017. We strive to be balanced on offense and take advantage of what the defense gives us. We have some very talented skill position players who can get yards on the ground or through the air, but we will have to develop our big men in a hurry this year if we want to win a conference championship.”
In sophomore Sam Darnold (246-of-366, 67.2%, 3,086 yds, 31 TD, 9 int in 2016, plus 62 tcb, 250 yds, 4.0 avg, 2 TD), USC has one of the nation’s elite quarterbacks. Despite his youth, he will enter 2017 as a leading contender for the Heisman Trophy. Known for his poise, accuracy and mobility, Darnold sparked the Trojans last year as just a redshirt freshman when he became the starter in the fourth game and led Troy to a 9-1 record. He won the Archie Griffin Award, was a finalist for the Manning Award, made Freshman All-American first team and was the Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year. He was second nationally in ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating (behind Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield) and led all freshman signalcallers in passing efficiency (161.1), completion percentage and TD passes. His 31 TD aerials was a USC freshman season record. He threw multiple scoring passes in 9 consecutive games, the most by a Trojan since Matt Leinart’s 15 in 2003-04. Darnold threw 5 TDs in a game 3 times, including in his 453-yard passing performance in the Rose Bowl, when he set game records for TDs and total offense (473 yards) to earn Rose Bowl Offensive MVP honors, and back-to-back against Arizona and California (a USC first). He was the first USC freshman to throw for 300 yards in consecutive games (Arizona State and Colorado) since Todd Marinovich in 1989. Darnold’s 250 rushing yards were the most in a season by a USC quarterback since 1991.
Backing Darnold are 4 untested underclassmen: redshirt freshman Matt Fink, first-year freshman Jack Sears (San Clemente High in San Clemente, Calif.), a prep All-American who graduated a semester early from Darnold’s alma mater (he threw for 2,602 yards and 37 TDs last fall on the state champs) and will participate in 2017 spring practice, and walk-ons Thomas Fitts, a sophomore, and redshirt freshman Holden Thomas.
“After a very successful freshman season, I’m looking forward to seeing how Sam progresses,” said Helton. “No doubt, he is a special talent, performing well beyond his years. We need him to continue to develop and perform. We also need to develop the young quarterbacks behind him. That’s very important.”
Despite losing tailback Justin Davis, who ran for 2,465 yards and 19 touchdowns in his career along with catching 46 passes (he had 607 rushing yards in 2016), the 2017 Trojan backfield is deep. It features one of the game’s most exciting and productive runners in junior Ronald Jones II (177 tcb, 1,082 yds, 6.1 avg, 12 TD in 2016, plus 11 rec, 76 yds, 6.9 avg, 1 TD). Jones already has run for 2,069 yards with 20 TDs in his USC career (an impressive 6.3 yards per carry), including eclipsing the 1,000-yard barrier last fall when he gained a team-leading 1,082 yards with 12 scores. His 223-yard rushing output versus California last year (averaging 12.4 yards per attempt) was the most by a Trojan since 2010 and the second most ever by a USC sophomore. He ran for a TD in each of the last 7 games of 2016.
Two other experienced junior tailbacks also return in 2017: Aca’Cedric Ware (78 tcb, 397 yds, 5.1 avg, 2 TD in 2016, plus 4 rec, 29 yds, 7.3 avg and 1 tac), who rushed for 397 yards last season (he had back-to-back 100-yard games versus Arizona and California), and speedy Dominic Davis (23 tcb, 132 yds, 5.7 avg in 2016, plus 4 rec, 19 yds, 4.8 avg), who picked up 132 rushing yards in 2016. Davis’ 85-yard run at Arizona was the longest by a Trojan since 1996. Like Jones, Davis has sprinted for the USC track team.
Also in the tailback mix are senior James Toland IV (13 tcb, 69 yds, 5.3 avg in 2016, plus 3 tac) and promising redshirt freshman Vavae Malepeai, who was sidelined most of last year with a broken shoulder blade, along with walk-on redshirt freshman Chris Edmondson.
Joining the tailback corps in the fall as a freshman will be prep All-American Stephen Carr (Summit High in Fontana, Calif.), a 210-pounder who had 2,123 rushing yards and another 466 receiving yards in 2016.
USC rarely employed a traditional fullback last year. The only one on the 2017 roster is junior Reuben Peters (1 tac in 2016), who like Toland came to USC as a walk-on but earned a scholarship last fall (he plays often on special teams).
“We have a very potent and deep backfield, with some veteran, gifted runners in Ronald, Aca’Cedric and Dominic,” said Helton. “Each can be a difference maker in a game. We also have some very talented youngsters who I’m anxious to watch perform.”
USC lost a lot of wideout firepower from 2016, including its top 2 receivers: JuJu Smith-Schuster declared for the NFL after his junior campaign and Darreus Rogers’ eligibility expired. Smith-Schuster ended as Troy’s No. 4 career pass catcher with 213 receptions for 3,092 yards and 25 TDs, including a team-best 70 grabs with 10 scores last season. He caught a pass in all 40 games in which he played as a Trojan and he had 12 100-yard performances. Rogers added 127 career catches with 11 TDs, including 56 catches for 696 yards in 2016.
Junior Deontay Burnett (56 rec, 622 yds, 11.1 avg, 7 TD in 2016, plus 3 tcb, 31 yds, 10.3 avg and 4 PR, 26 yds, 6.5 avg and 2 tac) had an eye-opening sophomore campaign last fall when he tied Rogers for the team’s second-most receptions (56). Burnett’s showing in the Rose Bowl was magical as he caught 13 passes for 164 yards and 3 scores, including the game-tying TD in the final minutes.
Three other experienced wide receivers return in 2017: senior Steven Mitchell Jr. (24 rec, 226 yds, 9.4 avg, 1 TD in 2016, plus 2 tcb, -3 yds, -1.5 avg and 5 KOR, 91 yds, 18.2 avg and 1 PR, 1 yd, 1.0 avg), junior Jalen Greene (8 rec, 116 yds, 14.5 avg in 2016, plus 4 tcb, 12 yds, 3.0 avg and 0-1 passing) and sophomore Michael Pittman Jr. (6 rec, 82 yds, 13.7 avg in 2016, plus 7 tac, 1 BLK P, 1 FF and 2 PR, 63 yds, 31.5 avg and 4 KOR, 31 yds, 7.8 avg). Mitchell, who has 68 career grabs and 7 TDs with 11 starts, caught 24 passes last year before a mid-season knee injury sidelined him (he could be limited in 2017 spring practice while recuperating). Greene, a one-time quarterback, has developed into an effective and often-employed wideout (with 18 career catches and 3 starts). Pittman had 6 catches as a rookie last fall and also made his mark on special teams with 7 tackles and a blocked punt.
Four redshirt freshmen will battle to get into the wide receiver playing rotation: Josh Imatorbhebhe, Velus Jones Jr., Trevon Sidney (he had post-season surgery on his hips, which could limit him in 2017 spring drills) and Tyler Vaughns. There also is a trio of walk-ons in seniors Jackson Boyer and Milo Stewart and sophomore Jake Russell, but none have caught a pass.
Bolstering the wide receiver group as freshmen this fall are prep All-American Joseph Lewis IV (Hawkins High in Los Angeles, Calif.), who had 142 career receptions as a prepster, along with Randal Grimes (Desert Pines High in Las Vegas, Nev.), who like Greene has quarterback skills in his background.
“This is a group that will need to develop in a hurry because we lost some very productive wideouts from last season,” said Helton. “We saw what kind of player Deontay is as he emerged throughout last season. Steven has proven to be very effective when he is healthy. This is a relatively young unit but has some exciting talent. They will be thrown into the fire quickly.”
USC’s tight end room will be without the dependable Taylor McNamara, who graduated along with his 24 Trojan career catches (with 5 TDs) in 15 starts.
But there is a wealth of talented tight ends in 2017. Sophomore Daniel Imatorbhebhe (17 rec, 250 yds, 14.7 avg, 4 TD in 2016), the older brother of USC wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe, showed his ability to be an impact pass catcher, especially down the field, as he had 4 scores among his 17 grabs last season while starting 5 times. The same can be said of junior Tyler Petite (10 rec, 156 yds, 15.6 avg, 2 TD in 2016), who has 25 career receptions.
Also available are developing redshirt freshman Cary Angeline and junior walk-ons Alec Hursh and Austin Applebee. Applebee joined the Trojans this spring after transferring from Arizona Western Junior College (the NJCAA national runner-up) following a 2-year stint at NCAA Division II McKendree.
Coming aboard in the fall as freshmen will be prep All-American Josh Falo (Inderkum High in Sacramento, Calif.), who caught 8 TDs in his senior year, along with Erik Krommenhoek (Monte Vista High in Danville, Calif.), who also had 8 scoring catches last year. Falo has 2 brothers who have played collegiately.
“This is one of our deepest and strongest positions,” said Helton. “Daniel and Tyler really emerged last year into effective blockers and pass catchers. And there are some promising young players pushing behind them.”
USC’s offensive line, a strong point in 2016 (Troy averaged 200 rushing yards and allowed less than 1 sack per contest), will need to retool in 2017 with the loss of 3 key starters. Gone are both tackles, Zach Banner (a 3-year starter on the right side) and Chad Wheeler (a 4-year starter on the left side), and 2-year starting left guard Damien Mama. Banner (a 2016 Senior CLASS Award finalist) and Wheeler both made All-American first team and All-Pac-12 first team last year, while Mama declared for the NFL following his junior season.
The wild card on Troy’s offensive line in 2017 is versatile junior Toa Lobendahn, a starter in every game in which he has appeared. He has 21 career starts at 4 positions (8 at left guard, 5 at left tackle, 5 at right guard, 3 at center). He could be tried at a variety of spots this year. Lobendahn started the 2016 opener at center but suffered a season-ending knee injury in that game (it was the second consecutive year that his season was cut short by a knee injury), so his participation in 2017 spring drills could be limited.
Looking to break into the playing rotation are junior guard-tackle Jordan Austin and sophomores Roy Hemsley at guard-tackle, Clayton Johnston at tackle and Cole Smith at center. All have seen limited playing time to date. Then there is a pair of redshirt freshmen in guard Frank Martin II and tackle Nathan Smith, but Smith suffered a late-season knee injury in 2016 and could be sidelined in 2017, plus junior walk-on center Richie Wenzel.
Prep All-American guard-tackle Andrew Vorhees (Kingsburg High in Kingsburg, Calif.) graduated from high school a semester early and enrolled at USC this spring as a freshman, able to participate in 2017 spring drills. Tackle Austin Jackson (North Canyon High in Phoenix, Ariz.) and guard-tackle Alijah Vera-Tucker (Bishop O’Dowd High in Oakland, Calif.) and center Brett Neilon (Santa Margarita High in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.), all prep All-Americans, will come aboard in the fall as freshmen. Jackson’s grandfather played on USC’s 1974 national championship squad and then in the NFL, while Neilon’s aunts were USC golfers.
“With the personnel losses we had here, there will be a very competitive atmosphere for playing time within this unit,” said Helton. “As we did last year, we will train players to perform at several positions. Viane and Nico will be the senior leaders of the line. There are a number of other players with experience under their belts, like Toa, Chuma and Chris, and there are also some young and new players from whom we expect big things. Whoever emerges will have some huge shoes to fill.”
Seven defensive starters return from 2016: inside linebacker Cameron Smith, cornerback Iman Marshall, outside linebackers Porter Gustin and Uchenna Nwosu, lineman Rasheem Green and safety Marvell Tell III, along with a trio of players who shared starts in safety Chris Hawkins and cornerbacks Ajene Harris and Jonathan Lockett. Other defensive players back with career starts are outside linebacker Olajuwon Tucker and tackles Malik Dorton and Josh Fatu.
USC returns its top 2 tacklers from 2016, plus its leaders in tackles for loss, sacks and forced fumbles. Like on the offensive side of the ball, Troy saw improvement last fall in its defensive numbers from 2015, surrendering 367.2 total yards (-33.6), including 139.6 rushing (-9.7) and 227.5 (-24.0) passing, and 24.2 points (-1.5). Seven times in 2016, USC held the opponent to a season low in points. The Trojans allowed just 50 points in the first quarter last fall (and only 71 in the second quarter).
Clancy Pendergast, who returned last year for his second stint as Troy’s defensive coordinator, employs an attacking 5-2 system that morphs into a 3-4 and a 4-3. USC played most of 2016 with 5 defensive backs.
“We were very pleased that Clancy was able to get our defense to perform last year like it did when he was here previously,” said Helton. “We expect even more success defensively in 2017 as our players enter the second year in his system. He develops tough defenses that put constant pressure on the opponent, a style that our players enjoy playing.”
The rock of USC’s 2016 interior defensive line—tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, who had transferred from Utah last season—is gone. He had 53 tackles last season while clogging up the middle of the Trojan defensive front. He was the Rose Bowl Defensive Player of the Game after notching 8 tackles.
However, Tu’ikolovatu’s inside linemate in the starting lineup does return in 2017, junior Rasheem Green (55 tac, 6.5 for loss, 6 sack, 4 dfl, 2 FF, 2 BLK FG in 2016). Green had 55 tackles last year, including a team-high 6 sacks.
Looking to replicate Tu’ikolovatu’s immovable force will be challenging. The possible replacements include senior Josh Fatu (21 tac, 1.5 for loss, 1 sack in 2016), who made 21 tackles while playing often last fall (he even started once) after coming to USC from a junior college, and juniors Malik Dorton (9 tac, 1.5 for loss, 1 sack, 1 dfl in 2016), who started once last year and notched 9 tackles, and Jacob Daniel (6 tac in 2016). Senior Kenny Bigelow Jr., who missed the 2016 season while sidelined with the second knee injury of his Trojan career, is hoping to come back healthy and make an impact. Then there is walk-on redshirt freshman Connor Rossow, who sat out 2016 with a shoulder injury. Two touted freshmen will get a look here, too: prep All-American Marlon Tuipulotu (Central High in Independence, Ore.), who enrolled at USC this spring after graduating early from high school (where he had 269 career tackles, with 64 for a loss and 31 sacks), and Brandon Pili (Westview High in Portland, Ore.), who previously prepped in Alaska and will come aboard this fall.
Working to get into the rotation behind Green will be sophomore Christian Rector (5 tac, 1 dfl in 2016) and redshirt freshman Liam Jimmons. Joining the fray here in the fall as freshmen will be prep All-American Jay Tufele (Bingham High in South Jordan, Utah), along with Jacob Lichtenstein (Cypress Bay High in Weston, Fla.).
“Like with our offensive line, the defensive front will have to overcome the loss of key personnel and therefore there will be great competition for playing time,” said Helton. “Rasheem took a big leap forward last season and he will be our veteran leader up front. I expect our other older players to step up here, along with some talented newcomers.”
Both of USC’s 2016 starting outside linebackers, who play standing up at the line, return this year and both are good ones: frenetic junior Porter Gustin (68 tac, 13 for loss, 5.5 sack, 4 dfl in 2016), who led Troy in tackles for loss (13) last season and was second in tackles (68), and senior Uchenna Nwosu (53 tac, 7.5 for loss, 3 sack, 5 dfl, 1 FF in 2016), who had 7.5 tackles for losses among his 53 total stops last fall.
Their high-potential backups from last season also are back in 2017 in senior Olajuwon Tucker (9 tac in 2016), who started 3 times in 2015 at an inside spot, and sophomores Connor Murphy (6 tac, 1 FR in 2016) and Oluwole Betiku Jr. Walk-on soph Matt Bayle also is available.
Enrolling in the fall as freshmen will be prep All-American Hunter Echols (Cathedral High in Los Angeles, Calif.), who had 54 tackles for a loss and 26 sacks in his prep career, along with Juliano Falaniko (Leone High in Pago Pago, American Samoa), the first Trojan footballer from an American Samoa high school since the mid-2000s. Falaniko might also work at inside linebacker.
“This is one of our strongest, most productive units with Uchenna and Porter back,” said Helton. “They are disruptive players to any offense. We also look forward to the continued development of our younger outside linebackers.”
Michael Hutchings, who was the heart of USC’s defense last year while starting at middle linebacker and posting 66 tackles (third on the team), has graduated.
But always-around-the-ball junior Cameron Smith (83 tac, 7 for loss, 1 sack, 4 dfl, 1 FR, 1 FF in 2016, plus 1 KOR, 7 yds, 7.0 avg) returns as a starter and is among the nation’s best. Known for his intense, punishing style, he earned Sophomore All-American first team status in 2016, a year after being a Freshman All-American. He led the Trojans in tackles last year with 83 and now has 161 stops in his career with 22 starts.
Looking to move into a starting role are sophomores John Houston Jr. (16 tac in 2016) and Jordan Iosefa (9 tac in 2016). There also are 3 walk-ons available in seniors Joel Foy and Christian Herrera and junior Grant Moore.
Tayler Katoa (Layton High in Layton, Utah) graduated a semester early from high school and began at USC this spring as a freshman, while prep All-American Levi Jones (Westlake High in Austin, Tex.) arrives in the fall as a frosh. Katoa played quarterback in high school in addition to defense, while Jones recorded 238 prep tackles (his father, brother and uncle all starred in the NFL). Jones might also be tried at outside linebacker.
“We are very fortunate to return a veteran like Cameron,” said Helton. “He is as good as they get. But we need to fill a void at the other inside spot. We have a number of promising young players who will compete to do that.”
USC lost a pair of big-play starters from its 2016 secondary, cornerback Adoree’ Jackson (who also was a dangerous returner and saw action on offense as a wide receiver) and safety Leon McQuay III. Last year, Jackson won the Thorpe Award and Jet Award (he also was a finalist for the Hornung Award and Lott IMPACT Trophy), earned consensus All-American first team notice and was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year when he had 55 tackles and led USC in interceptions (5), deflections (11) and fumble recoveries (2). Jackson started at corner for 3 seasons, getting 139 tackles, 29 deflections and 6 interceptions in his career while also scoring 8 touchdowns as a punt and kick returner and 6 TDs as a wideout. He was an All-American long jumper, too, twice winning the Pac-12 title (he was fifth in the past 2 NCAA Meets). He left USC after his junior year and declared for the NFL. McQuay, who had 24 career starts and 5 interceptions, made 50 stops and 2 picks last year while starting at strong safety or nickelback. He will long be remembered for his interception in the Rose Bowl with 27 seconds to play to set up USC’s game-winning field goal.
But the Trojans have plenty of returning talent in the 2017 secondary. Most prominent is physical junior cornerback Iman Marshall (51 tac, 3 for loss, 8 dfl, 3 int in 2016), a starter the past 2 years while logging 6 interceptions and 118 tackles. He had 51 stops and 3 thefts in 2016 and could be among the nation’s best corners this year.
Rangy junior Marvell Tell III (43 tac, 2 for loss, 2 dfl, 1 int in 2016) returns as the starting free safety. He made 43 tackles last fall.
A likely contender for the starting strong safety job is veteran senior Chris Hawkins (44 tac, 4 for losses, 1 sack, 2 dfl, 2 FF in 2016), who alternated with McQuay there last season and got 44 stops and 4 starts. He has 22 career starts with 146 tackles and 3 interceptions.
USC often employed a fifth defensive back in 2016 and both players who earned starts in that nickelback role last year are on the 2017 team: junior cornerback Ajene Harris (30 tac, 3.5 for loss, 1 sack, 4 dfl, 1 FR, 2 FF, 2 int with 1 TD in 2016, plus 1 tcb, 14 yds, 14.0 avg) and senior corner Jonathan Lockett (17 tac, 0.5 for a loss, 3 dfl, 1 int in 2016). Harris, a one-time wide receiver, had 4 starts at nickelback in 2016 when he made 30 tackles and returned an interception for a score. Lockett had 17 tackles with 5 starts in 2016, but could be limited in 2017 spring practice while recovering from late-season hip surgery.
Sophomore cornerback Jack Jones (13 tac, 1 dfl, 1 FR in 2016, plus 3 KOR, 31 yds, 10.3 avg) also saw significant playing time off the bench as a rookie last fall and looks to add to that this season.
Several other Trojan defensive backs who have seen action return and will battle for playing time: senior safeties John Plattenburg (3 tac in 2016), who has 14 career starts but missed the first half of 2016 because of a concussion, and Matt Lopes (5 tac in 2016), a one-time walk-on who received a scholarship last year, junior cornerback Isaiah Langley (8 tac in 2016), sophomore safety Ykili Ross (2 tac, 1 dfl in 2016) and soph cornerback Keyshawn “Pie” Young, who might also see some time at wide receiver. Then there are redshirt freshman safeties Jamel Cook and C.J. Pollard.
Also available are 4 walk-ons: senior cornerback Yoofi Quansah, junior cornerback Jalen Jones, junior safety Davonte Nunnery and redshirt freshman safety Richard Hagestad. Quansah and Jones have seen brief action in just 1 game in their careers.
Four freshmen will fight for action when they arrive in the fall: prep All-Americans Bubba Bolden (Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas, Nev.) and Isaiah Pola-Mao (Mountain Pointe High in Phoenix, Ariz.) at safety, prep All-American Greg Johnson (Hawkins High in Los Angeles, Calif.), who likely will begin as a cornerback but is multi-talented enough to also play on offense and as a returner on special teams, and cornerback Je’Quari Godfrey (Bishop O’Dowd High in Oakland, Calif.). Bolden had 11 interceptions while playing on 3 consecutive USA Today national championship prep teams. Pola-Mao, who had 21 thefts as a high schooler, is the nephew of USC and NFL safety legend Troy Polamalu. Johnson had 10 picks in his high school career along with more than 6,000 yards on offense and special teams. Godfrey had 7 prep interceptions.
“We’re lucky to have Iman, Chris and Marvell back and anchoring our secondary, along with Ajene and Jonathan” said Helton. “But it will be challenging to replace the dynamic playmaking ability that Adoree’ had. The competition will be intense to do that and I’m anxious to see how it plays out among our returnees and our signees.”
USC returns its punter (Chris Tilbey) and holder (Wyatt Schmidt) from 2016. But the Trojans will have new faces in 2017 at snapper and both the primary punt returner and kickoff returner, and likely at placekicker.
In 2016 under special teams coordinator John Baxter (who returned to Troy last fall), USC ranked fourth among all schools in FootballOutsiders.com’s Special Teams Efficiency rating. In NCAA stats, the Trojans were sixth nationally in punt returns (15.3) and 23rd in kickoff returns (23.2), blocked kicks (3) and blocked punts (1). Troy returned 2 punts (for the fourth consecutive year) and 2 kickoffs for touchdowns last fall, and blocked 2 field goals and a punt. USC’s 18 field goals last year were 1 shy of the school season record. USC kicked 43 touchbacks in 2016 after having only 11 the previous season. Opponents returned just 8 of USC’s 50 punts last year (for just 50 yards).
“I’m very proud of the way our special teams performed in 2016 and that’s a credit to John Baxter,” said Helton. “We are very fortunate to have him back with us. We saw how important special teams play was in the Rose Bowl. It will continue to be an emphasis for us in 2017.”
Junior Chris Tilbey (38.3 P avg in 2016) of Australia returns for his second season as USC’s punter. His 38.3 punting average last season was adequate, but he excelled in his ability to limit runbacks. Opponents returned only 8 of his 50 punts for just 50 yards (USC was allowing just 4.6 yards per runback until Penn State had an 18-yarder in the Rose Bowl). Eighteen of Tilbey’s punts last fall pinned opponents within their 20-yard line, while 20 were fair caught.
USC could be without placekicker Matt Boermeester, whose 46-yard field goal with no time remaining dramatically won the Rose Bowl last year, because of a student code of conduct issue. Known for his accuracy and strong leg, his 18 field goals last year were 1 shy of the school season record. Eight of his field goals were 40-plus yards. His 3 field goals against Penn State tied a Rose Bowl record and his game winner was just the fourth time ever that USC won a game on a field goal with no time left. He was 53-of-54 on PATs. He also had 43 touchbacks on his 86 kickoffs last fall after the Trojans had only 11 touchbacks in 2015.
That leaves redshirt freshman Michael Brown as the only kicker on Troy’s 2017 roster, so he will be asked to step up in Boermeester’s place.
After 4 years of flawless long snapping by Zach Smith, USC will break in a new snapper. The likely candidate is first-year freshman Damon Johnson, who enrolled at USC in the spring of 2017 after spending the fall of 2016 not playing football at Citrus Junior College in Glendora (Calif.) following a prep career at Glendora (Calif.) High.
Another snapper on the roster is blind walk-on sophomore Jake Olson. He was born with retinoblastoma (a cancer of the retina) and had both of his eyes removed as a youth. He snapped in high school for 2 years despite his blindness. Although USC currently prevents contact during any practice drills in which Olson is involved to make sure he is protected, the hope is he will snap in a game one day.
Junior Wyatt Schmidt returns as the holder on placement kicks. He also is able to long snap, punt and placekick.
Soph quarterback Sam Darnold held a few times in 2016 and is available, although it is possible others will be tried for the backup holder role.
USC will be hard-pressed to find a returner as dynamic as Adoree’ Jackson, who declared for the NFL after his junior season. In his career, Jackson returned 4 punts and 4 kickoffs for touchdowns (including a school record-tying pair of 100-yard kick runbacks). He set the USC career records for kickoff return yardage (2,141 yards) and returns (79) and his 27.1 career kick return average is second best in Trojan history. He also averaged 12.6 yards on his 46 career punt returns. Last year, he averaged 29.5 yards (sixth nationally) on 26 kickoff returns with 2 TDs and 15.8 yards (third nationally) on 20 punt returns with another 2 scores. Against Notre Dame last fall, he became the first Trojan since records were available in 1953 to have scoring punt and kick runbacks in a game. He won the 2016 Jet Award as the nation’s top punt returner and many of his All-American accolades were as a returner.
Several current Trojans have been involved in the return game in the past, including junior wide receiver Deontay Burnett (4 PR, 26 yds, 6.5 avg in 2016), senior wide receiver Steven Mitchell Jr. (5 KOR, 91 yds, 18.2 avg in 2016, plus 1 PR, 1 yd, 1.0 avg), sophomore wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. (4 KOR, 31 yds, 7.8 avg in 2016, plus 2 PR, 63 yds, 31.5 avg) and soph cornerback Jack Jones (3 KOR, 31 yds, 10.3 avg in 2016). They or some of the younger Trojans could be worked here.