2016 USC Spring Football Outlook|
March 7, 2016
Clay Helton already has 10 games to his name as USC’s head football coach. The 2016 season, however, presents a fresh start for Helton as he finally gets to lead the Trojans from the start of a season.
Helton was USC’s interim head coach for the 2013 Las Vegas Bowl victory and again for the Trojans’ final 7 regular-season games of 2015 before the interim tag was dropped prior to last year’s Pac-12 Championship Game and subsequent Holiday Bowl. Last season, he guided Troy to the co-championship of the challenging Pac-12 South Division and was named the Los Angeles Sports Council Coach of the Year.
“I’m very excited about being the head coach at USC for my first full season,” said Helton, who began at Troy in 2010 as the quarterbacks coach before adding the roles of passing game coordinator and then offensive coordinator. “I, along with our coaches and players, understand where the bar is set and we welcome the high expectations. Our goal will never change here at USC. We are about winning championships and all of us will work tirelessly toward that goal.”
In that pursuit, Helton will welcome back in 2016 a group of 15 starters (9 on offense, 6 on defense) from last year’s team that, despite a mid-season coaching change, went 8-6 overall (including winning 5 of its last 6 regular-season games) and had a 6-3 league mark to capture the Pac-12 South (prevailing in all of its in-division contests).
The 2016 Trojans, with 81 players expected on scholarship when fall camp opens, could be USC’s deepest team of the decade, with experience showing at every position group but quarterback, defensive line and the kicking game. Even USC’s younger players have been tested; over the past 2 years, 26 true freshmen have played, including 15 who have started and 6 who have won Freshman All-American first team acclaim.
In all, 84 USC squadmen return from 2015 (including 61 who saw action), with 34 of those on the season-ending 2-deep chart and 35 having started at least once in their career. Joining them will be 7 promising true freshmen who enrolled at USC for the spring semester and will participate in spring practice. Another 13 highly-regarded newcomers will become Trojans in the fall and, along with the 7 mid-year enrollees, comprise a 2016 recruiting class that was ranked in the Top 10 nationally (and best in the Pac-12).
Although much of USC’s fulltime assistant coaching staff is new in 2016, there are some familiar faces. Joining holdovers Tee Martin (now the offensive coordinator in addition to continuing to coach the wide receivers) and Johnny Nansen (now the linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator besides remaining as the assistant head coach) are defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who used a 5-2 alignment to turn the 2013 Trojan defense into one of the nation’s best as its DC before going to coach the San Francisco 49ers’ linebackers last season; special teams coordinator/tight ends coach John Baxter, who made a huge impact at USC from 2010 to 2013 before spending last year at Michigan; defensive line coach Kenechi Udeze, a former USC All-American who was a first round NFL Draft pick and starter; running backs coach/run game coordinator Tommie Robinson, who coached USC’s runners in 2013 before moving to Texas; quarterbacks coach/pass game coordinator Tyson Helton, Clay’s younger brother who coordinated Western Kentucky’s highly-ranked, record-setting offenses the last 2 years while also coaching the Hilltopper signalcallers; offensive line coach Neil Callaway, who played for Bear Bryant at Alabama and has 37 years of coaching experience, most recently at Western Kentucky after being the head coach at Alabama-Birmingham; and secondary coach Ronnie Bradford, a one-time Colorado and NFL defensive back who has coached a dozen years at the NFL and college levels.
USC’s offense, which brings back a pair of 900-yard runners, its top 5 pass catchers and the entire line from a year ago, features 9 returning starters: wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster, a candidate for the Biletnikoff Award and All-American honors in 2016 who is 13th on Troy’s career receptions chart (143) after grabbing 89 passes for 1,454 yards with 10 TDs last year as an All-Pac-12 first teamer and ranking in the national Top 20 in receptions, receiving yards and receiving TDs, and Darreus Rogers (71 career catches, including 28 last year); tailback Justin Davis (902 rushing yards in 2015 and 1,848 in his career); tackles Zach Banner (a 2015 All-Pac-12 first teamer and now an All-American candidate) and Chad Wheeler; guards Damien Mama and Viane Talamaivao; center-guard Khaliel Rodgers; and tight end Taylor McNamara (4 TDs among his 12 receptions in 2015). Other offensive players back with starting experience are center Toa Lobendahn, a 2-year line starter before suffering a season-ending knee injury midway through last year, tailback Ronald Jones II (whose team-best 987 rushing yards in 2015 was a USC freshman record), wide receivers Steven Mitchell Jr. (37 catches in 2015), Isaac Whitney and Ajene Harris, linemen Chuma Edoga, Chris Brown and Nico Falah, tight end Tyler Petite and quarterback Jalen Greene, whose starts came as a wideout.
The 6 returning starters on the Trojan defense include the entire secondary—2016 All-American candidate and Thorpe/Hornung Award nominee cornerback-wide receiver-returner Adoree’ Jackson, a 2015 All-Pac-12 first team selection and Hornung finalist when he had 35 tackles on defense, 27 catches on offense and 941 return yards with 2 scores, 2015 Freshman All-American first team cornerback Iman Marshall (67 tackles, 3 interceptions last year) and safeties Chris Hawkins (70 tackles in 2015) and John Plattenburg—plus inside linebacker Cameron Smith (another 2015 Freshman All-American first teamer who had 78 stops last fall before a late knee injury) and defensive end Scott Felix, whose status for the 2016 season is currently undetermined because of a personal issue. Other defenders back with career starts are safeties Leon McQuay III and Marvell Tell III, inside linebackers Olajuwon Tucker, Michael Hutchings and Uchenna Nwosu, defensive ends Porter Gustin and Jabari Ruffin, cornerback Jonathan Lockett and tackle Noah Jefferson.
USC must find a new placekicker (although kicker Matt Boermeester saw action in the last 4 contests of 2015), punter and holder in 2015. But Jackson, Justin Davis and Smith-Schuster are experienced returners and Zach Smith has been Troy’s snapper the past 3 years.
“I am looking forward to entering the 2016 season as a new coach not only with a roster of talented players with whom I already have a relationship, but with a coaching staff that I believe is exceptional,” said Helton. “We want to run the ball on offense, stop the run defensively, play great special teams and not turn over the ball. However, there is a lot of development that must be done before the 2016 season and it starts with our time in spring practice and fall camp. I have no doubt that this staff will prepare our players well for the upcoming season.
USC’s biggest offensive loss is 3-year starting quarterback Cody Kessler, the most efficient QB in USC history. He established school career records for completion percentage (67.5%) and interception rate (1.51%), and he is in the Trojan all-time Top 4 in TD passes (88), completions (851), passing yards (10,339) and total offense (9,914). A 2-time Unitas Golden Arm Award finalist, he hit 66.8% of his throws last season for 3,536 yards with 29 TDs and just 7 picks. He also owns USC season records for completions (315), completion percentage (69.7%), passing efficiency (167.1), interception rate (1.11%) and TD passes (39), all set in 2014 when he also threw a Trojan record 7 TDs in a game.
Among the other offensive losses are tailback Tre Madden, who had 1,155 yards (452 in 2015) and 32 receptions in an oft-injured career, and fullbacks Jahleel Pinner and special teams player extraordinaire Soma Vainuku, as well as center Max Tuerk (38 career starts at center, guard and tackle), who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the fifth game of 2015 after earning All-Pac-12 first team honors the previous year.
Outside linebacker Su’a Cravens, a 3-year starter and 2-time All-Pac-12 first teamer who made 206 tackles and 9 interceptions as a Trojan, declared for the NFL Draft following a 2015 junior season in which he led USC in tackles (86), tackles for loss (15) and sacks (5.5). Other key defensive losses include all 3 starting defensive linemen—tackles Antwaun Woods (a 3-year starter and an All-Pac-12 first teamer in 2015 when he had 41 tackles, with 7 for losses) and Delvon Simmons (another starter for 3 years collegiately; he had 57 tackles, 10.5 for losses, 4 sacks in 2015) and end Greg Townsend Jr. (44 tackles, 6.5 for losses in 2015)—plus inside linebacker Anthony Sarao, a 3-year starter with 217 career stops, including 59 in 2015. Also gone are cornerback Kevon Seymour (24 starts and 126 tackles in his career), inside linebacker Lamar Dawson (21 career starts with 168 tackles) and end Claude Pelon.
Kris Albarado, USC’s punter the past 3 years (he had a 39.6 career average, with more than a quarter of his 204 punts pinning opponents within the 20-yard line), and placekicker Alex Wood (13 field goals and 74 PATs in his career) both are gone.
USC’s 2016 schedule, one of the most challenging in the nation, features 6 home games in the Coliseum, including the annual battle with intersectional rival Notre Dame, Oregon’s first visit to the Coliseum since 2012 and a Thursday night contest against California. Overall, USC’s 12-game slate features 11 teams that played in 2015 bowls (including 3 in New Year’s Six bowls), 7 that won at least 8 games (including 4 that had 10-plus victories) and 5 that were in the final AP Top 25 poll. Troy’s non-conference opponents in 2016 are Alabama, Notre Dame and Utah State. The Trojans will play nine Pac-12 foes in the 2016 regular season (all but Oregon State and Washington State).
USC opens on Sept. 3 of Labor Day weekend against defending national champion Alabama at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Tex. (the first meeting between the Trojans and Crimson Tide since 1985). The Trojans then have their home opener as they welcome Utah State of the Mountain West Conference on Sept. 10. Next, for the sixth year in a row, USC will play the Pac-12’s first conference game of the year when it travels to defending league champion Stanford on Sept. 17. USC then goes to Utah, which tied for the Pac-12 South crown, for a Friday night encounter on Sept. 23. Troy then returns home for a pair of games, first versus Arizona State on Oct. 1 and then Colorado on Oct. 8, before traveling to Arizona on Oct. 15. After a bye, USC hosts California on Thursday night, Oct. 27 (just the fourth non-Thanksgiving or non-bowl Thursday game that Troy has played in the Coliseum). The Trojans remain at home the following week to host Oregon on Nov. 5, the Ducks’ first appearance in the Coliseum in four years. USC then will play its first game in Husky Stadium since 2009 when it faces Washington on Nov. 12 (Troy’s last game against UW in Seattle was at CenturyLink Field in 2012 while Husky Stadium underwent renovations). Troy stays on the road when it meets crosstown rival UCLA on Nov. 19 in the Rose Bowl. USC then concludes its regular season by hosting traditional foe Notre Dame in a Thanksgiving weekend clash on Nov. 26.
“This is an exciting schedule that not only captures the attention of our players, but should excite our fans and all college football fans,” said Helton. “Our players and coaches are looking forward to the opportunity of competing against the likes of Alabama, Notre Dame and Utah State, as well as our Pac-12 opponents. I always have believed that if you want to be the best, you have to play the best. This schedule certainly allows for that.”
Nine starters return on offense from 2015: wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers, tackles Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler, guards Damien Mama and Viane Talamaivao, center-guard Khaliel Rodgers and tight end Taylor McNamara. Others back with starting experience are center Toa Lobendahn, tailback Ronald Jones II, wide receivers Steven Mitchell Jr., Isaac Whitney and Ajene Harris, linemen Chuma Edoga, Chris Brown and Nico Falah, tight end Tyler Petite and quarterback Jalen Greene.
Although USC must develop a new quarterback for the first time since 2013, the Trojans return 8 of their top 9 ball carriers (75% of Troy’s ground output of 2,355 yards from 2015 is back this season) and 13 players who caught passes last fall, including their leading 5 pass catchers (92% of USC’s 309 receptions are back from a year ago). USC’s offensive output in 2015 (437.9 total yards, including 269.7 passing, and 33.9 points) was nearly equal to what it was in 2014, when Troy’s total and passing yardage was its best in a decade. Last fall, the Trojans ranked ninth nationally in fumbles lost (5, none by a running back), 11th in both passes had intercepted (7) and completion percentage (.667), 16th in fourth down conversions (.654) and 20th in passing efficiency (153.6).
Wide receiver coach Tee Martin has taken over the offensive coordinator duties in 2016, with quarterbacks coach Tyson Helton assisting as the pass game coordinator and running backs coach Tommie Robinson serving as the run game coordinator.
“Our offense will be very consistent to what Trojan fans have seen in the past,” said Helton. “Tee not only is an outstanding play caller, but he has been with us long enough to understand what works well here. We want to keep defenses off balance by being balanced offensively. We believe we have the personnel to run the ball effectively and physically and to be explosive in the passing game. At the end of the day, though, we know that we must be able to run the ball and not turn it over.”
USC’s biggest offensive challenge will be replacing quarterback Cody Kessler. The 3-year starter, who ranks in the school’s all-time Top 4 in touchdown passes (88), completions (851), passing yards (10,339) and total offense (9,914), had the most efficient career in Trojan history as he set school career standards for completion percentage (67.5%) and interception rate (1.51%). The 2-time Unitas Golden Arm Award finalist completed 66.8% of his aerials last season for 3,536 yards with 29 TDs and just 7 picks. That was coming off a 2014 junior campaign in which he established USC season marks for completions (315), completion percentage (69.7%), passing efficiency (167.1), interception rate (1.11%) and TD passes (39). He also once threw 7 TDs in a game, another Trojan record.
Four players will battle to replace him. The most experienced is junior Max Browne (8-of-12, 66.7%, 113 yds in 2015), the 2012 National High School Player of the Year who has seen mop-up action in 9 games over the past 2 seasons.
Then there are high-potential redshirt freshman Sam Darnold, who has shown ability in practices with both his arm and legs, sophomore Jalen Greene (10 rec, 104 yds, 10.4 avg in 2015, plus 3-of-4 passing, 75.0%, 127 yards, 1 TD and 3 tcb, 7 yds, 2.3 avg), who has returned to the quarterback position after an impressive 2015 at wide receiver (he even completed 3 flanker passes) following a 2014 season redshirting as a quarterback, and mobile first-year freshman Matt Fink (Glendora High in Glendora, Calif.), a prep All-American who graduated a semester early from high school and enrolled at USC this spring.
“One of our most important goals this offseason is to identify our quarterback for 2016 after losing the most efficient quarterback in USC history,” said Helton. “I’m looking forward to a very competitive atmosphere between 4 talented players.”
USC is loaded at tailback, missing only Tre Madden from last year’s roster. He ran for 1,155 yards (with 6 100-yard outings) and had 32 receptions in his career (452 and 17 in 2015) while starting 13 times, but was injured throughout much of his Trojan career.
Leading the 2016 tailback corps are senior Justin Davis (169 tcb, 902 yds, 5.3 avg, 7 TD in 2015, plus 18 rec, 189 yds, 10.5 avg and 11 KOR, 211 yds, 19.2 avg), an 8-game starter in 2015 whose 1,858 career yards is 22nd on USC’s all-time list, and exciting sophomore Ronald Jones II (153 tcb, team-best 987 yds, 6.5 avg, 8 TD in 2015, plus 7 rec, 39 yds, 5.6 avg, 1 TD), who broke Charles White’s USC freshman rushing record and joined LenDale White as the only true freshmen to lead the Trojans in rushing in a season. Jones’ 177 rushing yards versus Arizona in 2015 eclipsed LenDale White’s USC freshman game mark.
Sophomores Dominic Davis (14 tcb, 69 yds, 4.9 avg in 2015, plus 7 rec, 102 yds, 14.6 avg and 1 KOR, 2 yds, 2.0 avg and 1 tac), who doubles as a sprinter for USC’s track team, and Aca’Cedric Ware (12 tcb, 36 yds, 3.0 avg, 1 TD in 2015) also flashed in 2015 as true freshmen and will battle to get into the tailback rotation in 2016.
Three walk-on tailbacks add depth: junior James Toland IV (3 tcb, 23 yds, 7.7 avg in 2015, plus 6 tac) and sophomores Stefan Smith (3 tcb, 14 yds, 4.7 in 2015) and Lance Mudd, who sat out 2015 after transferring from Cal Poly.
Joining the tailback mix in the fall as a freshman is Vavae Malepeai (Mililani High in Miliani, Hi.).
“It will be exciting to watch this young, skilled running back corps continue to develop,” said Helton. “They gained invaluable experience in 2015 and we believe that will carry over to this year.”
There are no true fullbacks on Troy’s 2016 roster after the graduation of Jahleel Pinner and Soma Vainuku, both of whom were used mostly as blockers (Vainuku also was a superb special teams player, being recognized as an All-Pac-12 first teamer in such a role in 2013). So USC will use tight ends as hybrid fullbacks, similar to how current NFLer Rhett Ellison was employed during his Trojan days.
“Since I have been at USC, at times we have used tight ends as fullbacks and we have had success doing that,” said Helton. “Our offense actually has been very productive that way, enabling our tight ends to get out in space. Since we are heavy at tight end this year, we’ll go that route.”
USC’s receiving unit remains fully stocked, as the Trojans suffered no significant departures here (except for the move of Jalen Greene back to quarterback). Not counting Greene, Troy returns 7 wideouts who caught passes in 2015 and they totaled 214 receptions with 21 touchdowns between them.
Leading the wideouts is junior JuJu Smith-Schuster (team-best 89 rec, team-best 1,454 yds, 16.3 avg, 10 TD in 2015, plus 4 KOR, 51 yds, 12.8 avg and 1 tac), a candidate for All-American and the Biletnikoff Award in 2016 (last year, he was an All-American second teamer and a Biletnikoff semifinalist). The 2015 All-Pac-12 first team pick, who ranks 13th on Troy’s career receptions chart (143), was in last fall’s national Top 20 in receptions, receiving yards and receiving TDs. He has 8 career 100-yard games, including 6 times in 2015.
Senior Darreus Rogers (28 rec, 289 yds, 10.3 avg, 3 TD in 2015, plus 1 tcb, 1 yd, 1.0 avg), who has 71 career catches, returns after starting opposite Smith-Schuster last year. Junior Steven Mitchell Jr. (37 rec, 335 yds, 9.1 avg, 4 TD in 2015, plus 1 PR, 1 yd, 1.0 avg) also is back. He saw ample playing time last fall, even starting 6 times.
As he has the past 2 years, junior Adoree’ Jackson (27 rec, 414 yds, 15.3 avg, 2 TD in 2015, plus 35 tac, 1 int with 1 TD, 8 dfl, 1 FF and 24 PR, 251 yds, 10.5 avg, 2 TD and 30 KOR, 690 yds, 23.0 avg and 7 tcb, 36 yds, 5.1 avg) will see action at wideout in addition to his cornerback and return duties (16% of his 981 total plays in 2015 came on offense). He is a candidate for All-American honors and both the Thorpe and Hornung Awards in 2016 after earning All-Pac-12 first team notice in 2015 in addition to being a Hornung semifinalist. Last year, he was the only player nationally with at least 400 yards receiving, 600 in kickoff returns, 200 in punt returns and 30 tackles. In his career, he has scored a touchdown via reception, interception, punt return and kickoff return. He could be limited in 2016 spring practice while long jumping and sprinting for the Trojan tracksters (he’s the defending Pac-12 long jump champ).
Also back are seniors De’Quan Hampton (15 rec, 165 yds, 11.0 avg in 2015, plus 1 tac) and Isaac Whitney (8 rec, 112 yds, 14.0 avg, 2 TD in 2015), who were productive in 2015 after both transferred to Troy from junior colleges, even though Whitney played in only the season’s first 5 games before breaking his collarbone. Then there is sophomore Deontay Burnett (10 rec, 161 yds, 16.1 avg in 2015), who contributed in limited opportunities last year.
Soph Ajene Harris, who redshirted last year with a hip injury, returns healthy in 2016 and looks to re-enter the playing mix.
Six first-year freshmen join the 2016 wide receiver corps, including a pair—prep All-Americans Josh Imatorbhebhe (North Gwinnett High in Sugar Hill, Ga.), whose brother, Daniel, is a tight end at USC, and Michael Pittman Jr. (Oaks Christian High in Westlake Village, Calif.), whose father played in the NFL—who graduated a semester early from high school and enrolled at USC this spring. The others are prep All-Americans Trevon Sidney and Tyler Vaughns (both from Bishop Amat High in La Puente, Calif.) and Keyshawn Young (Miami Senior High in Miami, Fla.), who might also be used at cornerback, plus Velus Jones Jr. (Saraland High in Saraland, Ala.). Another freshman enrolling in the fall, prep All-American Jack Jones (Long Beach Poly High in Long Beach, Calif.), will be used like Jackson, as a cornerback and wide receiver.
“This is probably the most explosive group of wide receivers USC has had since I’ve been here,” said Helton. “With our depth, we now have the ability to put 3 or 4 wideouts on the field at the same time, each of whom causes a mismatch for defenders.”
Tight end is another deep and experienced position for USC.
There is senior Taylor McNamara (12 rec, 83 yds, 6.9 avg, 4 TD in 2015, plus 1 KOR, 10 yds, 10.0 avg), who started all last season after transferring from Oklahoma, where he had received his bachelor’s degree. He averaged a TD every 3 catches in 2015.
Soph Tyler Petite (15 rec, 145 yds, 9.7 avg, 1 TD in 2015) also is back after seeing extensive action as a first-year freshman.
Adding to the unit are redshirt freshman Daniel Imatorbhebhe, who sat out last fall after transferring from Florida (he’s the older brother of Trojan wide receiver Josh), senior Cyrus Hobbi, a former USC offensive lineman who retired with an injury after the 2013 season but returned in 2015 to see limited action as a walk-on tight end after dropping 40 pounds (he is appealing for a sixth year of eligibility), and redshirt freshman Caleb Wilson.
Joining the tight end mix in the fall as a freshman is prep All-American Cary Angeline (Dowington East High in Exton, Penn.).
“Tight end was our most improved group last year, as they began as a question mark and really became a stable unit by year’s end,” said Helton. “We expect this will be one of our deeper units in 2016 with the returnees and the new additions. We’ll use them in a variety of roles.”
USC will field one of the premier offensive lines in the nation in 2016, as all the starters—and then some—return. The only loss is center Max Tuerk, a 3-year starter at every line position whose 2015 season ended after 5 games because of a knee injury. He was a 2014 All-Pac-12 first teamer.
Junior Khaliel Rodgers is back after starting the last half of 2015 at center. He also had some starts at left guard in 2014. He had shoulder surgery after the 2015 season, which could limit him in 2016 spring practice.
Versatile junior Toa Lobendahn, another 2014 Freshman All-American who has 20 career starts, returns after being sidelined for the last 7 contests of 2015 with a knee injury. So far as a Trojan, he has started at left guard, left tackle, right guard (including the first 5 games of 2015) and center (for 2 mid-season games in 2015 when Tuerk went down). He could be slowed in 2016 spring practice while recovering from his knee surgery.
Also in the line mix are junior tackle Nico Falah and sophomores Chuma Edoga at tackle and Chris Brown at guard. All of them had starting opportunities in 2015 (Falah actually started at center once).
Angling to get into the playing rotation are sophomore Jordan Austin and redshirt freshmen Roy Hemsley and Clayton Johnston at tackle, senior guard Jordan Simmons and redshirt frosh center Cole Smith, as well as walk-on soph center Richie Wenzel.
Prep All-American tackle Nathan Smith (Murrieta Mesa High in Murrieta, Calif.) graduated from high school a semester early and enrolled at USC this spring as a freshman. Fellow prep All-American tackles Frank Martin II (Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif.) and E.J. Price (Archer High in Lawrenceville, Ga.) will come aboard in the fall as freshmen.
“Without question, the offensive line is the most experienced unit on a very experienced offense,” said Helton. “For the first time since I’ve been at USC, it feels like we are 3-deep at every line position.”
Six defensive starters return from 2015: cornerback-wide receiver-returner Adoree’ Jackson, inside linebacker Cameron Smith, cornerback Iman Marshall, safeties Chris Hawkins and John Plattenburg and defensive end Scott Felix. Other defensive players back with career starts are safeties Leon McQuay III and Marvell Tell III, inside linebackers Olajuwon Tucker, Michael Hutchings and Uchenna Nwosu, defensive ends Porter Gustin and Jabari Ruffin, cornerback Jonathan Lockett and tackle Noah Jefferson.
USC’s defense returns 3 of its top 4 tacklers, as well as its leaders in interceptions, deflections and fumble recoveries. The Trojans were third nationally in defensive TDs (5), 11th in turnover margin (0.8), 18th in fourth down conversion defense (.381) and 21st in sacks (2.6). Troy returned 5 turnovers for touchdowns in 2015. However, last year USC allowed 400.8 total yards (its second most ever, behind only 2014), including 149.3 rushing yards (the second most since 2002), and 25.7 points, the second highest total since 2001.
Clancy Pendergast, who employs an attacking 5-2 defensive system that morphs into a 3-4 and a 4-3, has returned to USC as defensive coordinator this year. He handled that responsibility in 2013 when the Trojans finished in the national Top 20 in total defense, pass efficiency defense, rushing defense and scoring defense. In half of USC’s 14 games in 2013, opponents were held to 300 total yards or less; they also were kept to 14 points or less 7 times.
“After seeing how effective the 5-2 defense was here in 2013 under Clancy, I’m excited to see it in action with the current personnel we have,” said Helton. “It’s an aggressive, attacking system and I believe it’s the perfect fit for us. We want to stop the run and get to the quarterback, and create turnovers.”
The front line of USC’s defense will be challenged in 2016. Nearly all of the starters are gone, leaving mostly young players who will have to step up quickly. In Pendergast’s 5-2 system, there is a trio of interior defensive tackles, while last year’s outside linebackers now move up to the line as defensive ends, with the ability to rush, run stop or drop in coverage.
USC will have to replace all 3 of its starting inside linemen from 2015: nose tackle Antwaun Woods, tackle Delvon Simmons and end Greg Townsend Jr. Woods was a 3-year starter who last year earned All-Pac-12 first team honors while notching 41 tackles (including 7 for losses). Simmons, who also started for 3 seasons (the first at Texas Tech and the last 2 at Troy), recorded 57 tackles in 2015, including 10.5 for losses with 4 sacks. Townsend was solid in his only year as a starter, notching 44 tackles, with 6.5 for losses in 2015.
If that’s not difficult enough to overcome, the Trojans also lost outside linebacker Su’a Cravens, a 3-year starter who declared for the NFL Draft at the conclusion of his 2015 junior campaign. The 2-time All-Pac-12 first teamer had 206 tackles and 9 interceptions as a Trojan. Last fall, he led USC in tackles (86), tackles for loss (15) and sacks (5.5).
The only veteran in USC’s defensive front 5 is senior end Scott Felix (28 tac, 5.5 for loss, 4 sack, 1 FR in 2015), who started at the outside linebacker rush spot in 2015. However, his status for the 2016 season currently is undetermined because of a personal issue.
Several youngsters gained invaluable playing time up front last year and they will compete for starting roles: high-potential sophomore tackles Rasheem Green (19 tac, 1 for loss, 0.5 sack, 1 FR for TD in 2015) and Noah Jefferson (23 tac in 2015), along with junior tackle Kenny Bigelow Jr. (10 tac, 3 for loss, 3 sack, 1 dfl in 2015).
There also are 2 new faces at tackle. First-year freshman Liam Jimmons (Huntington Beach High in Huntington Beach, Calif.) graduated from high school a semester early and enrolled at USC this spring as a freshman, while joining the line unit in the fall as a junior will be Josh Fatu (Long Beach City College in Long Beach, Calif.).
There are a number of talented players vying for action at defensive end: senior Jabari Ruffin (11 tac, 1 FF in 2015, plus 2 KOR, 21 yds, 10.5 avg), sophomores Porter Gustin (25 tac, 7 for loss, team-best 5.5 sack in 2015), Osa Masina (25 tac, 1.5 for loss, 1 FR for TD in 2015) and Don Hill (7 tac, 0.5 for loss in 2015) and redshirt freshmen John Houston Jr. and Christian Rector. Masina was an inside linebacker last year, the others were outside linebackers. Two walk-ons also are available in senior Wyatt Vinci and redshirt freshman Matt Bayle.
Prep All-American and Nigeria native Oluwole Betiku (Serra High in Gardena, Calif.), another player who graduated from high school a semester early and enrolled at USC this spring, and Connor Murphy (Brophy Prep in Phoenix, Ariz.), a fall enrollee whose brother plays in the NFL, are first-year freshmen ends.
“The defensive line, especially in the interior, certainly is the youngest spot on our team, as we lost some quality veterans,” said Helton. “It is imperative that we have great spring and fall camps not only to develop our young players on the line but to get everyone comfortable with the 5-2 system.”
Although USC lost 3-year starting inside linebacker Anthony Sarao, who recorded 217 stops in his career (59 in 2015), as well as 2015 backup Lamar Dawson, who had 21 career starts and notched 168 tackles, the Trojans are in good shape here.
Leading the way is sophomore Cameron Smith (78 tac, 1 for loss, 1 sack, 3 dfl, 1 FR, team-best 3 int with 1 TD in 2015), a 2015 Freshman All-American first team selection and the Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year. He was on pace last fall to become the first true freshman to top the Trojans in tackles in a season since records were first kept in 1954, but then was sidelined by a late-season knee injury (he could be limited in spring practice while recuperating from that and a shoulder sprain).
Senior Michael Hutchings (13 tac in 2015) and junior Olajuwon Tucker (40 tac, 3.5 for loss, 2.5 sack in 2015) have starting experience, as does converted outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu (31 tac, 1.5 for loss, 1 dfl in 2015). Then there is senior Quinton Powell (12 tac, 1 FF in 2015), another one-time outside linebacker who also shines on special teams.
Three walk-ons add depth to the inside linebacker corps: junior Joel Foy (1 tac in 2015) and sophomores Reuben Peters (6 tac in 2015, plus 1 KOR, 3 yds, 3.0 avg) and converted outside linebacker Grant Moore (1 tac in 2015).
Enrolling in the fall as a first-year freshman inside backer will be Jordan Iosefa (St. Louis High in Honolulu, Hi.).
“Inside linebacker is among the deepest and most talented positions on our team,” said Helton. “We had some young players gain invaluable playing experience here last year and that should carry them forward into 2016.”
USC’s entire starting secondary returns in 2016 and there is ample depth.
The secondary’s marquee player is junior cornerback-wide receiver-returner Adoree’ Jackson (27 rec, 414 yds, 15.3 avg, 2 TD in 2015, plus 35 tac, 1 int with 1 TD, 8 dfl, 1 FF and 24 PR, 251 yds, 10.5 avg, 2 TD and 30 KOR, 690 yds, 23.0 avg and 7 tcb, 36 yds, 5.1 avg). The 2-year starter and 3-way performer is among the nation’s most exciting players. In addition to his cornerback duty, the Thorpe and Hornung Award candidate and All-American nominee will see action again as a wideout and returner. He made the 2015 All-Pac-12 first team as a defensive back and was a Hornung semifinalist when he was the only player in college football with at least 400 yards receiving, 600 in kickoff returns, 200 in punt returns and 30 tackles. Also the defending Pac-12 long jump champion, his competing with the USC track team could limit his 2016 spring football participation.
The returning cornerback starter opposite Jackson is physical sophomore Iman Marshall (67 tac, team-best 3 int, team-best 9 dfl in 2015), who was a 2015 Freshman All-American first teamer.
Both of last year’s starting safeties are back: juniors Chris Hawkins (70 tac, 1.5 for loss, 2 FR with 1 TD, 2 int in 2015) at free and John Plattenburg (34 tac, 3.5 for loss, 1 sack, 2 int in 2015) at strong. Hawkins could be limited in 2016 spring drills while recovering from post-season ankle surgery.
Two other safeties with starting experience—senior Leon McQuay III (18 tac, 1.5 for loss, 3 dfl, 1 FR, 1 FF in 2015) and sophomore Marvell Tell III (36 tac, 1 for loss, 4 dfl in 2015), whose future appears bright—also return. Redshirt freshman safety Ykili Ross could be limited in spring ball after having post-season shoulder surgery.
There are 6 walk-ons available: cornerbacks Kevin Carrasco, a junior, and sophomore Jalen Jones, along with safeties Matt Lopes (14 tac, 1.5 for loss in 2015), a junior who has seen significant action (a foot injury slowed him for the last half of 2015), senior Deion Hart and sophs Davonte Nunnery and Jonathan LaBonty.
A quartet of prep All-Americans will fight for action in the defensive backfield as first-year freshmen: safety C.J. Pollard (Serra High in Gardena, Calif.), who graduated a semester early from high school in order to enroll at USC this spring (his father played for the Trojans), along with fall enrollees Jamel Cook (Miami Central High in Miami, Fla.) at safety and cornerbacks Jack Jones (Long Beach Poly High in Long Beach, Calif.) and Keyshawn Young (Miami Senior High in Miami, Fla.). Both Jones and Young also will see action at wide receiver.
“I am very excited about the quality of our returning starters in the secondary,” said Helton. “It is important, however, that we develop some depth and versatility here.”
USC will have a new punter, placekicker (although Matt Boermeester kicked some in the final 4 games of 2015) and holder in 2016. But the Trojans return their snapper (Zach Smith) and their top return men (Adoree’ Jackson, Justin Davis and JuJu Smith-Schuster).
Last season, USC returned 2 punts for a touchdown for the third consecutive year and nailed 13 field goals. But the Trojans also allowed 2 blocked punts and a scoring punt return, had only 11 of their 87 kickoffs go as touchbacks and ranked in the nation’s bottom 25 in kickoff returns, net punting and punt return defense.
John Baxter is back as USC’s special teams coordinator. During his previous 4 years at Troy, the Trojans blocked 24 kicks and punts, had 8 scoring kick/punt returns (including an NCAA record-tying 3 punt runback TDs in a game), scored 2-point conversions 10 times and made first downs on fake punts and kicks. He produced a pair of players who earned All-Pac-12 first team honors as special teams performers (and another as a kick returner), as well as having a Freshman All-American kicker.
“We are extremely fortunate that John came back to coach our special teams,” said Helton. “He is one of the most respected special teams coordinators in the game. His trademark is impactful, creative special teams play.
“John’s ability to teach and develop skills will be especially important for us this year after losing our punter and kicker. It will be very important for us to establish an identity and consistency at both spots and I expect that the battle to do so will be very competitive. And, while our return game brings back some dynamic players, we will continue to seek players who can help us in this area.”
USC must find a punter now that 3-year starter Kris Albarado, who had a career punting average of 39.6 (41.0 in 2015), has departed. Of his 204 career punts, 58 pinned opponents within the 20-yard line.
Untested sophomore Chris Tilbey, a native of Australia who has played Australian Rules Football, and left-footed walk-on Reid Budrovich will vie for the punting job, with soph placekicker Wyatt Schmidt also a possibility.
The Trojans also must unveil a new placekicker, now that Alex Wood has graduated. In 2015 in his year as Troy’s primary kicker, Wood connected on all 13 of his career field goals and 54 of his 74 career PATs. He also kicked off the last half of 2014 and all but the final 4 games of 2015, although he managed just 24 touchbacks on his 113 career kickoffs.
Junior lefty Matt Boermeester (4-of-4 PAT in 2015, plus 3), whose father was a noted kicker at UCLA, has a bit of experience here, as he handled some of Troy’s kicking chores in the final 4 games of 2015. He kicked off in all of those contests and did the placements in a game for an injured Wood.
Sophomore Wyatt Schmidt, who has yet to see action at USC, will also get a look. He is able to punt, too.
Senior Zach Smith returns for his fourth year as USC’s snapper on punts and placements, a duty he has performed flawlessly.
Another snapper on the roster is blind walk-on redshirt freshman Jake Olson, the winner of the 2016 Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champions Award. He was born with retinoblastoma (a cancer of the retina) and had both of his eyes removed as a youth. He snapped in high school for 2 years despite his blindness. Although USC currently prevents contact during any practice drills in which he is involved to make sure he is protected, the hope is he will snap in a game some day.
USC’s main returners from the past 2 years are back and each is a threat: junior cornerback-wide receiver-returner Adoree’ Jackson (24 PR, 251 yds, 10.5 avg, 2 TD in 2015, plus 30 KOR, 690 yds, 23.0 avg), senior tailback Justin Davis (11 KOR, 211 yds, 19.2 avg in 2015) and junior wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (4 KOR, 51 yds, 12.8 avg in 2015), who has 15 career kickoff runbacks. Jackson, who already ranks fourth on USC’s career kickoff return chart with 1,374 yards, has returned 2 punts and 2 kickoffs for scores as a Trojan. Last year, the 3-way player was honored not only as an All-Pac-12 first team defensive back, but also made the second team as a return specialist (in addition to being a Hornung Award finalist).
It’s also possible other Trojans, including some incoming freshmen, will be tried as returners.