USC is one of college football's most intriguing teams to watch in 2016. New coach Clay Helton takes over on a full-time basis, and his first year at the helm features one of the nation’s toughest schedules. The Trojans open against defending national champion Alabama, play at Stanford, Utah, Washington and UCLA and match up against Notre Dame, Oregon and Arizona State at home. As if that wasn’t enough for Helton, USC has to break in a new quarterback and is thin on proven options on the defensive line. The Trojans aren’t hurting for talent. However, big question marks remain in Helton’s first year.
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Previewing USC’s Offense
Max Browne’s introduction to the pressures of big-time college football will come soon enough. USC’s junior quarterback is expected to make his first start in the season opener against defending National Champion Alabama in Dallas. Browne, taking over for three-year starter Cody Kessler, finally gets his chance four years after being named the National High School Player of the Year. Much of the success or failure of the offense will rest on his strong right arm. Fortunately for Browne and coach Clay Helton, starting his first full-time season on the job, the rest of the offense is experienced and deep. Senior Justin Davis (902 yards, 5.3 average) and sophomore Ronald Jones (987 yards, 6.5 average) form one of the country’s top tailback combinations.
JuJu Smith-Schuster (89 receptions for 1,454 yards and 10 TDs) is an All-America candidate at wide receiver, and the entire offensive line returns intact, led by All-Pac-12 tackle Zach Banner. Helton has stressed the need for the Trojans to return to a more physical style of play, reiterating how he longs to lock up games in the fourth quarter with a bruising running attack. But he also wants to utilize the outstanding athleticism of kids such as Smith-Schuster and Adoree’ Jackson, the star cornerback who is a big play waiting to happen as a part-time wide receiver.
Previewing USC’s Defense
Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast returns to USC, where he was last seen molding a terrific defense in 2013. Replicating that feat this year might be difficult, especially with a defensive line that is alarmingly raw. There are no returning starters up front, and Kenny Bigelow, the nose tackle who was penciled in as the new leader of the group, went down for the season with a knee injury in spring practice. Not that the Trojans are lacking in large bodies with considerable potential. Promising linemen Noah Jefferson and Rasheem Green were in the rotation a year ago. And Porter Gustin, the top defensive end/outside linebacker in Pendergast’s 5-2 alignment, is quick and aggressive.
Cameron Smith, the Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year, is expected to come back strong after a late-season knee injury at one inside linebacker spot, with sophomore Osa Masina the likely starter at the other inside position, although he was pushed hard by Michael Hutchings and Quinton Powell in the spring.
The secondary should be a strength, with Jackson and sophomore Iman Marshall forming a premier pair at cornerback. The depth at safety was accentuated in the spring when returning starters Chris Hawkins and John Plattenburg were battling to keep their jobs among a bevy of talented candidates that include Marvell Tell III and Leon McQuay III.
Previewing USC’s Specialists
The head coach and quarterback won’t be the only new things at the start of this season. Both kickers will be newcomers as well. Lefty Matt Boermeester takes over as the full-time placekicker, while sophomore Chris Tilbey, whose only experience has been with Australian Rules Football, is the likely new punter. At least senior Zach Smith returns for his fourth year as an excellent snapper. Jackson is a one-man kick returning unit.
There wouldn’t be so much concern about a new quarterback and an inexperienced defensive line if it weren’t for a schedule that ranks among the toughest in the country. Helton, refreshingly humble compared to his recent predecessors, can’t stop gushing about how fortunate he is to have this job. The talent he has, especially at running back, up front on offense and in the defensive secondary, is good enough to contend for a Pac-12 title. But if he can’t go 9–3 or at least 8–4 with this group, he might not feel so lucky anymore.