The past two seasons for USC football — the first two full campaigns under head coach Clay Helton — produced a Rose Bowl championship, Pac-12 title, and back-to-back double-digit-win finishes. The foundation for greater success is laid, but 2018 will test the Trojans on their aim to return to national title contention.
Spring practices at USC arrive with plenty of new faces vying for important roles up and down the roster, on both sides of the ball. Meanwhile, some familiar talent rejoins the lineup to anchor the defending Pac-12 champs in their pursuit of back-to-back titles.
Matt Fink, QB
Sam Darnold's departure for the NFL kicks off an intriguing quarterback competition. Incoming freshman JT Daniels boasts five-star credentials, and his decision to reclassify as a Class of 2018 prospect means a three-man race come summer. Until his arrival, however, two Trojans — Fink and Jack Sears — will have the first crack at making an impression.
Fink is the only one of the two with game experience, having played in mop-up situations in 2017. His explosiveness as a ball carrier stood out in limited opportunities, highlighted by a 51-yard touchdown run against Oregon State. Fink attempted just nine passes in 2017, however, so his throwing touch will be the phase of his game to watch during spring practices.
Porter Gustin, DE
Injuries plagued Gustin's (above, right) junior season, which opened with All-American expectations. Despite maladies to both his foot and shoulder, Gustin showed indicators of that All-American ability when healthy. His decision to hold off the NFL for one more year gives Gustin time to put more of his difference-making blitzing on film, while also serving to anchor the defensive front for the 2018 Trojans.
Gustin could be USC's best player in the coming campaign, and the spring sets the tone.
John Houston Jr., LB
One of the breakthrough performers in USC's 2017, integral to the Trojans winning the Pac-12 title, Houston made considerable strides toward fulfilling his lofty potential.
Houston played his way into a prominent spot on the defensive rotation in the season's second half. He embarks on his senior season on a trajectory that could emulate that of former linebacker corps partner, Uchenna Nwosu, who developed into the MVP of USC's defense in his last campaign.
Vavae Malepeai, RB
News of top returning rusher, Stephen Carr, missing spring practices because of a back injury translates to more opportunities for other running backs to shine. Both Aca'Cedric Ware and Malepeai chipped in as reserves and change-of-pace backs behind Ronald Jones II and Carr last season, and each should see first-string carries in spring workouts.
The youngster Malepeai's development is especially intriguing. He averaged 5.33 yards per carry in his freshman season and looked to have a high ceiling. He can be a valuable power-back option in 2018.
Michael Pittman Jr., WR
Pittman emerged as a dangerous weapon in the USC offense down the stretch in 2017. With Deontay Burnett headed to the NFL, Pittman's positive momentum to close out the past campaign could propel him into being the top pass catcher for the Trojans in 2018. He might even be a contender to rise as the Pac-12's top receiver this fall.
Pittman is a big-bodied target in the mold of past USC greats like Mike Williams and Dwayne Jarrett. Combined with the speedy Tyler Vaughns, the Trojans have a dangerous one-two punch in the passing game.