With more certainty at the quarterback position than USC has hand since the day of Matt Leinart, seemingly all that stands between the Trojans and glory during the 2017 college football season are 12 straight games without a bye.
Under most circumstances, a 1-3 start to a season with a brand-new head coach and blowout losses to Alabama and Stanford might push a new athletic director to part ways with someone he didn’t hire. Newly minted AD Lynn Swann could have easily parted ways with Clay Helton, especially coming off the heels of a Holiday Bowl loss to Wisconsin and a blowout loss to Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game to wrap up the 2015 campaign.
Those are most circumstances, and USC is anything but typical. Swann stuck with Helton and was rewarded with one of the most thrilling seasons on the gridiron in a long, long time, complete with an historic comeback in the Rose Bowl. As an added bonus, the Trojans found the stud they’ve been lacking at quarterback for nearly a decade in Sam Darnold. Say what you will about Matt Barkley, but Darnold inspires a different kind of quiet and determined confidence.
So now USC is left with the very tenuous position of replicating what most would call a successful season, which is something the program hasn’t been able to do in about a decade. The Trojans will have to this without several of their top playmakers as JuJu Smith-Schuster, Adoree’ Jackson, Darreus Rogers, Justin Davis, Chad Wheeler, Damien Mama, and many others are now focusing on the upcoming NFL Draft. Fortunately, this is what Helton and his staff have been preparing for by stockpiling absurd amounts of talent in their previous recruiting classes. The demands will be great, but the talent the Trojans possess is even greater.
While the storylines entering the 2017 season will be full of confidence and intrigue, these are usually the set ups that end up going mysteriously disastrous and conclude in a bowl game sponsored by some second-rate car company. If USC plans to break the pattern of following up the good with the bad, it’s really as simple as implementing the same practices that helped the Trojans win their last nine games in a row to finish 2016 with a ton of momentum and plenty of buzz. Simple, right? We’ll find out.
5 Storylines to Watch During USC’s Spring Practice
1. What does Sam Darnold have in store for an encore act?
Last year the question was who would take at quarterback following Cody Kessler’s graduation. Initially, the wide assumption was that Max Browne was the man to beat, but many who follow the program closely, including myself, were willing to speculate about the possibility that Darnold could steal the gig. Browne ended up getting the nod thanks to his seniority, but competition still rules the roost and Darnold had wrested the job away following USC’s loss at Utah on Sept 23. That also would be the last game the Trojans would lose.
Darnold is the unquestioned starter, Browne is now a graduate transfer at Pitt, and the Heisman Trophy hype is just starting for USC’s dual-threat quarterback. Already considered among the favorites to win college football’s most prestigious award, Darnold will be expected to have a stellar season and the Trojans must also play extremely well (and look good doing so), if he wants to add to USC’s trophy case.
Setting aside personal accolades for team success is a virtue beaten into Trojan quarterbacks and Darnold is no different. If it guaranteed an undefeated season and shot at the national championship, Darnold would happily trade all of the individual honors and awards, which is another reason why he seems almost destined for success. He never gets too high, never too low. He has the demeanor of a Tom Brady and a drive to back up the comparison, as far-fetched as it may sound.
2. Getting production from young defensive linemen
It’s no secret that Stevie Tu’ikolovatu was the heart of the USC defense in 2016. The graduate transfer from Utah allowed the Trojans to operate out of their preferred defensive base and his production might turn him into a Day 2 pick in the NFL Draft. Now USC has to replace him and there are a bevy of young, talented linemen that will get their chance in the spring.
Incoming freshman Jay Tufele has been tabbed by many outlets as a potential starter for the Trojans this fall. Tufele fits the mold of a traditional defensive tackle and will allow defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast to experiment with odd-man fronts, something he’s excelled at throughout his career. Between Tufele, Malik Dorton, Kenny Bigelow Jr. and early enrollee Marlon Tuipolotu, USC should be in good shape up front.
While it’s unlikely that Tuipolotu enrolled early because Bigelow has had trouble staying healthy, that is something to keep an eye on, as the former is basically down to his last year on campus after struggling with so many injuries. Should Bigelow go down again, Tuipolotu will need to be ready and the head start he’s getting this spring should help.
3. Who replaces JuJu Smith-Schuster?
Aside from losing the added dimension of the Adoree’ Jackson threat, USC is losing its most productive receiver in a long, long time. If Smith-Schuster were a turnip, USC would have squeezed all of the available collegiate juice out of him and a few ounces of the NFL variety. Smith-Schuster gave his soul to USC and is revered for having done so selflessly and without compromise. The next man up isn’t just replacing his leadership, production, and presence; they also are attempting to replace his legend.
Fortunately for USC, this program always seems to have a few aces in the hole when it comes to replacing primary targets. Think about this for a second. Patrick Turner replaced Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith. Damien Williams replaced Turner. Ronald Johnson replaced Williams. Robert Woods replaced Johnson. Marqise Lee replaced Woods, then Nelson Agholor, and then Smith-Schuster, and now there are several candidates primed to step up.
One of the most obvious choices is Michael Pittman Jr., who was already a genetic freak and a pretty much a five-star prospect across the board. The kid has size, speed, strength, and tons of ability. Joseph Lewis IV is a true freshman with a similar build, drive and ability. Then there are the holdovers like Deontay Burnett, Jalen Greene, Tyler Vaughns, Steven Mitchell, Josh Imatobhebhe, Velus Jones, and several others who are all happy to compete for the privilege of catching Sam Darnold dimes – #DarnoldDimes, you saw it here first.
4. Embracing multiple receiving targets
This is not a new theme to anyone who has read my coverage of the team over the past few seasons. This also was one of the main reasons USC turned things around and finished so strong last season. Darnold was able to stretch the field and spread the wealth among his receivers, making the offense far more unpredictable than it previously had been under offensive coordinators with less attention to detail or play design.
Tee Martin deserves a ton of credit for his ability to find ways to get his receivers wide open. He knows with the talent USC has on offense, it should be a matter of how many yards the team picks up on each play, not whether or not the play will work. The team is too talented to be going backward on offense and Martin put a halt to that in a big way in 2016. The aforementioned Burnett, Mitchell, and Smith-Schuster all featured heavily in an offense that still found stats for Imatorbhebhe and Taylor McNamara, plus Jackson in his hybrid role and the new crop of freshman wideouts.
Now with Smith-Schuster and Jackson gone, it will be a matter of who steps up and shows the coaching staff they want to be on the field this fall. With so many mouths to feed, don’t be surprised to see some clear separation start to develop this spring. The guys with the most experience will likely have the advantage early on, but if they can’t get the job done there are plenty of others waiting for their opportunity.
5. Competition, especially at running back
Competition certainly helped mold last year’s team. The fact that Darnold was able to pass Browne and permanently sideline him is a testament to the role competition can play. If a player is unable to produce, the coaching staff knows that it shouldn’t be too hard on a roster with as much talent as USC has to find someone who is willing to do what is asked. Besides Arnold’s emergence at quarterback, the Trojans have seen similar scenarios play at middle linebacker with Cam Smith, and at cornerback with Jackson and Iman Marshall. Is running back next?
Stephen Carr, a longtime Trojan commit, allayed all last-minute fears when he signed with USC on National Signing Day as part of an extremely strong finish to an impressive recruiting class that addressed several key positions of need. Along with Ronald Jones II, Aca’Cedric Ware and Vavae Malepeai, Carr rounds out a backfield with enormous talent. Don’t be surprised if Carr or Malepeai surprise and earn more playing time than expected, as the Trojans’ most effective offenses have always found creative ways to use athletic running backs in the passing game. This should be no different with this group.
Pre-Spring USC Outlook in the Pac-12
For the first time in several seasons, USC looks to be a serious contender in the Pac-12. With some other Trojan teams the lack of depth was one of the things that prevented them from reaching their potential, as a key injury or two would be too much to overcome. While this USC team may be deeper at some positions than others, there’s enough talent assembled that Clay Helton’s bunch should be able to weather the storm should something happen, with a few key exceptions.
The biggest being quarterback Sam Darnold, which is why one of the early focuses for the coaching staff needs to be making sure the offensive line is solid. The loss of Damien Mama, Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler means that the Trojans will have several new faces up front, although Chris Brown did get a fair share of reps last season. But with most teams, figuring out the left and right tackle spots will be paramount to protecting Darnold’s blind side. USC doesn’t lack for talent when it comes to offensive linemen, but it will be up to position coach Neil Callaway to replicate the masterful job he did with his group in 2016.
Guarded concerns about the offensive line aside, there is a different feel to this USC team. These Trojans seem to have the moxie, the drive, and the understanding of the work it takes to be successful and how quickly things can turn on their head over the course of a season. There are several good reasons to buy into this version of USC, but be careful the expectations you place on these Trojans. The lack of any bye means no time to get healthy during the regular season and that will play a huge factor. So buy in, but get the warranty just in case things do go wrong.
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a Marvel Comics guru. Webb has been writing about USC for Athlon Sports for three seasons now. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.