2017 Record: 11-3 (8-1) – Lost 2017 Cotton Bowl
2018 Coaches Poll Top 25 Rank: No. 15
The post-Sam Darnold era holds many a question for the USC Trojans. Let's run 'em through.
First things first: for this team to be successful, they will need to be lead by the defense. LB Cameron Smith is a bonafide stud in the middle, but CB Iman Marshall has never really lived up to a five-star rating, and opposite him, troubled CB Jack Jones has been dismissed from the program -- who will fill that gap?
On the line, both EDGE Porter Gustin and DL Christian Rector return from injury. Neither excites must as pro prospects, but they need to return to pre-injury form to generate the pressure necessary to keep the high-flying offenses of the Pac-12 South under control.
Secondly, QB J.T. Daniels has the biggest of shoes to fill as a true freshman starter under Clay Helton. After Darnold shocked the world as a redshirt freshman, Daniels -- who graduated early in part because he saw the opportunity to start this season -- will have high expectations from the Trojan fanbase.
Can Clay Helton and offensive coordinator Tee Martin run an offense that will buoy up a young starter? WRs Tyler Vaughns and Michael Pittman, as well as TE Tyler Petite, provide a solid group of pass-catchers -- and sophomore RB Stephen Carr will be huge as a consistent ground threat. But the Trojans eeked away to a 4-1 record in close games last season, not to mention the late fourth quarter pull-aways against Western Michigan and Arizona. Does Daniels have the same magic to save USC late?
USC runs a tough schedule as always, with back-to-back road games against Stanford and Texas in Weeks 2 and 3. Daniels won't have much experience going up against tough defensive opponents, and USC could find themselves in a hole early. They also have to deal with Arizona and Utah -- two main threats in the Pac-12 South -- both on the road, and have Notre Dame visiting to end off the season.
To me, this is a prove-it season for Helton and Martin. The duo hasn't impressed me much over their young tenure, but if they can keep things actionable for their young quarterback, USC does have the most talent across the board in the Pac-12 South. Competing again for the Pac-12 title should be the goal -- though I must say, I'm fading them down the stretch.
Top 5 Draft-Eligible Prospects
1. Linebacker Cameron Smith
A highly instinctual player who like the ideal athletic profile for today's NFL, Smith hearkens back to an older mold of linebacker. He's listed at 250 pounds, which I find difficult to believe -- but he is a bigger body, and I wonder if slimming down could increase his quickness. He'll need it to make it in the NFL.
2. Cornerback Iman Marshall
I was really high on Marshall coming into the 2017 season, but he disappointed me by regressing from his sophomore play. Marshall is a boom-or-bust man coverage corner who busted a lot last season -- his grabbiness downfield is a big issue. Hopefully as a senior, he's more poised when he feels like he's in trouble.
3. Wide receiver Tyler Vaughns
A bit of a conundrum at this juncture, I'm really excited to watch how Vaughns has grown. My biggest gripe with his tape was his headiness to create separation -- and with a freshman quarterback, he needs to prove he can create space and present a good target against man and zone coverage alike. Many attempts last year were trust balls from a QB more comfortable with him.
4. Offensive tackle Chuma Edoga
Chuma represents a big time project technique-wise, but he has the athleticism that's gonna make NFL teams drool on the edge. He will have to add more mass, so that may bite into his quickness at first, but that fleet-footedness allow shim to win in space an impressive amount. I'd love to see some technical improvement from him in 2018.
5. EDGE Porter Gustin
I'm not huge on Gustin's tape -- he struggles to throw rush moves and doesn't seem to have redeeming athletic ability. But he can bend well, which is always foundationally helpful for pass-rushers. He needs to return with full health and show that he has enough technical understanding to win as rusher without elite traits.
Others to Watch: iOL Chris Brown, iOL Toa Lobendahn, DL Christian Rector, S Marvell Tell, TE Tyler Petite, WR Michael Pittman