The USC Trojans are coming off a Pac-12 title and a trip to the Cotton Bowl, and will open defense of their conference championship against UNLV Rebels out of the Mountain West. But the Men of Troy will look different on the field with several players off to the NFL, including quarterback Sam Darnold. Instead USC head coach Clay Helton is turning the keys to the offense over to JT Daniels.
Daniels becomes only the second true freshman to start at quarterback for USC since Matt Barkley did so in 2009. Daniels was so highly touted coming out of high school that many people expected him to win the quarterback competition, and he did so rather handily, fending off Matt Fink and Jack Sears in the process. So, what does that all mean for USC? Probably some growing pains. Maybe some close losses. Maybe some spectacular wins. After all, Barkley took USC to the Horseshoe in Columbus and beat the Buckeyes as a true freshman. Daniels possesses the ability to do the same.
Helton has focused his recruitng efforts over the past couple of years to adding bigger and stronger athletes on both sides of the ball, and USC's two-deep is a strong point for the Trojans as they look to defend their Pac-12 title. Guys like Daniels, Amon-Ra St. Brown and Palaie Gaoteote headlined the 2018 class, but 2017 studs like Marlon Tuipulotu, Stephen Carr, Bubba Bolden and Austin Jackson are set to feature as well. For Helton, this year represents everything the Trojans have been working toward on the recruiting trail and the football field.
On the flip side of things, UNLV enters the game having had two winning seasons (2000, ‘13) and one .500 season (‘03) since 1995. This isn’t a program with a history of success on the football field. Tony Sanchez is in his fourth season as head coach and has the Rebels on a steady course, all things considered. He’s added one win to his total in every season, and this could be the year that UNLV gets back to a bowl. Bigger programs may scoff at Sanchez's baby steps, but he is making progress with the Rebels and he has the support of the boosters.
This is one of those games where you expect the Trojans to walk all over the Rebels, and that’s exactly why it could be a decent game. The Trojans have plenty of talent around their young quarterback, and their defense should be more than capable of stopping UNLV quarterback Armani Rogers, but expect UNLV to have their moments in the game. First game jitters aside, Daniels should show everyone why he is the second true freshman to ever start the season at USC.
UNLV at USC
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 1 at 4 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: USC -26
Three Things to Watch
1. The debut of Daniels
It’s hard to imagine the thoughts that must be going through Daniels’ mind right now. This is everything he worked for up until this point, and Helton didn’t just tab him the starter for the first week. He is the starter for the season unless he isn’t up to the task. This means that Helton believes he gives them the best chance against a rather difficult schedule. That’s a lot of pressure for a true freshman, and while the game is getting younger, not everyone is up to the task. How will Daniels fare?
Daniels repeated the eighth grade for athletic purposes. In other words, he entered high school in the best possible position to compete for a varsity position. He was a winner from the time he stepped on the field. He took his team to an undefeated season and a state title, ending up as the Gatorade High School Player of the Year. He is as talented as they come, and the vast majority of people who have seen him play or know him believe that he is ready for this on every level. The game comes to him naturally, and he never tries to force things.
2. Is the run game up to the task?
The Trojans lost a 1,200-yard rusher in Ronald Jones II, who turned pro after another outstanding season as USC’s feature back. While the Trojans will undoubtedly miss Jones, they have the bodies and the talent to replace him. Vavae Malepeai, Aca’Cedric Ware and Stephen Carr will be USC’s trio of backs for 2018. Each one is capable of doing different things, but all three are capable of the spectacular.
Ware has been tabbed the starter, but look for Carr to get a lot of carries too. Carr is a big body, agile but powerful enough to run through defenders. Malepeai has impressive speed and agility. He can turn a simple screen pass into a home run with his ability to find the next level and accelerate. Ware is a grinder, but he’s put on weight this offseason (up to 215 pounds) and improved his speed as well. Ware is hoping to add a couple of facets to his game, as he is the feature back for USC in 2018.
3. Will the defense lead the way for Troy?
It wouldn’t be a USC preview if we didn't talk about the defense. The Men of Troy are at their best when a potent offense is matched with a stingy defense. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has a mix of upperclassmen and explosive freshmen at his disposal in 2018, and the good news just got better for one of their defensive stalwarts. Predator linebacker Porter Gustin was supposed to be sidelined after a minor knee surgery, but he was cleared for contact.
The Trojans interior may be their deepest and most talented grouping. John Houston Jr., Cam Smith and Levi Jones provide a stout anchor in the heart of the Trojan defense. The outside and pass rush is an equally talented group, however. Whether it’s Christian Rector or Gustin at the Predator, the job gets done. Ajene Harris and Iman Marshall provide the veteran leadership at the cornerback position with redshirt freshman Greg Johnson playing the other corner spot.
The names on this defense may not jump out to people like they have in years past, but this USC defense is very capable of being one of the best Los Angeles has seen in some time. If they can stay healthy and bring along the youth, the Trojan defense may be exactly what Daniels needs to grow into his role and leap out onto the national scene. Pendergast and Helton are really high on the defensive talent and truly believe this is a group ready to accomplish great things.
This is the easiest it’s going to get for JT Daniels with Stanford and Texas in the following weeks, both of them on the road. His maturation on the field is going to have to come quickly, or it’s going to be a brutal learning curve. The Rebels are a team that can give Daniels problems, but they aren’t built to overcome the Trojans on the scoreboard.
If Daniels struggles to get it going, the Trojans can always rely on the three-headed monster of Aca’Cedric Ware, Stephen Carr and Vavae Malepeai to soften up the Rebels defense. The Trojans also have the very dangerous Amon-Ra St. Brown on kickoff returns, and many expect him to see a couple snaps with the offense throughout the game. A steady diet of a simple passing game, a vicious rushing attack and a large and very talented defense should allow the Trojans to get out of Week 1 unscathed.
Prediction: USC 34, UNLV 12
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.