As the USC football team transitions into the offseason, the team’s best players are met with the decision to declare for the NFL Draft or prolong their careers in cardinal and gold.
Any team with USC’s ability to attract top-tier recruits will lose a significant amount of talent after each season, and this year is no different. The offensive side of the ball will look especially new as head coach Clay Helton looks ahead to the 2018 season.
Players Who Are Leaving
Sam Darnold, USC’s star quarterback, is the biggest name out of USC’s departures. The redshirt sophomore has been at the top of draft boards since he led the Trojans to nine straight wins and a Rose Bowl victory in 2016.
Darnold completed 63.1 percent of his passes for 4,143 yards, 26 touchdowns and 13 interceptions this season. Despite issues with ball security, Darnold’s arm strength, pocket awareness and ability to throw on the run have been enough to solidify his position as a definite top-five pick. He and UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen are the two most likely candidates to be picked first overall by the Cleveland Browns.
Running back Ronald Jones II was the team’s most consistent playmaker this season, tallying 1,550 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2017. The junior, who leaves as USC’s fifth all-time leading rusher, is projected to be drafted in the second or third round. However, his explosiveness and physicality could potentially convince a team to take him on the first day.
The most recent draft declaration came from junior wide receiver Deontay Burnett on Monday. The six-foot, 170-pound wideout was Darnold’s favorite target for much of the season, catching 86 passes for 1,114 yards and nine scores. Despite lacking elite size, speed or strength, Burnett’s route-running and toughness made him integral to the Trojans’ offense, and should be enough to earn him a selection in the fourth or fifth round.
USC will lose perhaps its best defensive player in senior outside linebacker and team captain Uchenna Nwosu.
Besides his 75 tackles and 9.5 sacks this season, fans will remember Nwosu for his fourth down goal line tackle of Stanford running back Bryce Love III in the fourth quarter of the Pac-12 Championship Game, a key stop in the Trojans’ 31-28 victory.
Nwosu is generally regarded as a mid-round prospect; he’s adept as an edge rusher and has the uncanny ability to knock down passes at the line, but he must work on his pass coverage to succeed at the next level.
The team will lose its second leading tackler in redshirt senior safety Chris Hawkins. At 5’11” and 190 pounds, Hawkins, even more than Burnett, lacks the measurables of NFL players in his position. Although he was a fantastic college safety, there’s no guarantee he will be drafted.
Nwosu’s fellow captain and linebacker Cameron Smith announced Wednesday that he would be returning for his senior year. The junior led the team with 112 total tackles and took over defensive alignment and calls this year. Smith is a smart and instinctual player who makes quick reads and flies to the ball. His experience and leadership will be crucial to a team seeking continuity in the face of so many question marks on offense.
Left tackle Toa Lobendahn also stated Wednesday that he will return for his last season in cardinal and gold. The redshirt junior enjoyed his first healthy season as a Trojan in 2017 after the previous two were cut short by knee injuries.
Junior right tackle Chuma Edoga also confirmed his return in December.
Outside linebacker Porter Gustin announced last week that he would be returning for his senior year. Gustin, who received some draft hype before the season, played only four games this season due to a torn bicep and broken toe.
The last high-level prospect who could declare for the draft is defensive end Rasheem Green. Green’s ten sacks were good for the second most in the Pac-12 as the junior used his burst to get to the quarterback.
Green may decide to return for his senior season to increase his strength, which should remain a concern when translating to the NFL. However, his quickness and hand technique could qualify him for rounds 3 through 5.
There are a few other prospects who could enter the draft, but would likely be late round picks and should heavily consider staying at USC for at least another year.
Junior cornerback Iman Marshall entered the season on the watch list for the Jim Thorpe Award for best defensive back, but an inconsistent and injury-plagued season derailed his high expectations.
Junior safety Marvell Tell III and redshirt sophomore linebacker John Houston Jr. were productive defenders, but could also use an extra year to hone their craft.