Veterans on defense and young talent on offense shape the defending Pac-12 champions
Clay Helton's first two, full seasons as USC head coach produced a Rose Bowl Game title and a conference championship — both firsts since the 2008 season — and 21 combined wins, the most since the 2007-08 campaigns.
The new era in USC football is off to a strong start, but the Trojans must sustain and build upon that success to approach the levels reached last decade. A major test in the long-term durability of this current incarnation of USC football comes in the 2018 season.
USC replaces Sam Darnold, arguably the program's best quarterback since College Football Hall of Famer Matt Leinart; running back Ronald Jones II, who surpassed Trojans legends like Reggie Bush and Mike Garrett in career rushing yards; and do-everything linebacker Uchenna Nwosu. But amid change comes opportunity for new Trojans to make their names — and in that opportunity should be optimism for USC's 2018.
1. Defensive front seven
Despite losing a pair of stars from last season's defense — Nwosu and defensive lineman Rasheem Green — the 2018 front seven looks to be loaded. USC scored two major victories with linebacker Cameron Smith — the program's leading tackler each of the past two seasons — and defensive end Porter Gustin each deciding not to pursue the NFL draft.
Gustin missed much of the 2017 campaign due to a foot injury, but still managed three tackles for a loss. At 100 percent, he has legitimate All-America potential. Smith has already performed at such a level, functioning as the defense's coach-on-the-field and top run-pursuer.
Other Trojans who emerged unexpectedly at different times in 2017 should continue their progression into '18. Christian Rector can be a difference-maker at end, while linebacker John Houston Jr. blew up in the second half of the campaign. He recorded eight tackles in the Cotton Bowl matchup with Ohio State, playing arguably his best game against what was statistically the top offense USC faced all season.
2. A variety of pass-catchers
The old mantra of "next man up" can be best summarized by the string of wide receivers recently at USC. The program went from Robert Woods to Marqise Lee to Nelson Agholor to JuJu Smith-Schuster to Deontay Burnett all in succession. With Burnett bound for the NFL, the next receiver is up. Whether that's Tyler Vaughns, the breakout freshman star of the 2017 campaign, or late-season revelation Michael Pittman Jr., the 2018 USC roster is rife with potential stars at the position.
In addition to a talented rotation of wide receivers, the tight end spot should see more production in the season to come. Daniel Imatorbhebhe was a favorite target in 2016, but missed most of '2017 due to injury. His return gives USC options, with Tyler Petite also returning, and Josh Falo showing plenty of potential in his freshman campaign.
3. A more seasoned offensive line
A bevy of injuries sustained along the front five hindered USC at points in 2017. However, veterans such as Viane Talamaivao and Chuma Edoga missing time due to injury presented opportunities for youngsters like Andrew Voorhees and Austin Jackson.
The playing time that underclassmen linemen like Voorhees and Jackson, as well as Clayton Johnston received a season ago should translate to a more in sync unit protecting USC's next quarterback. Running back Stephen Carr (above, right) also should benefit, as he prepares to take the reins from Ronald Jones II.