With so many players leaving the Trojans after the conclusion of this season, the team will have to find a way to make up for its losses. The beauty of college football is that the teams are constantly changing, leaving room for young players to prove their worth. These are the players who are likely to replace the eight departing starters from the Cotton Bowl.
The most intriguing question is who will take over for Sam Darnold under center. The obvious choice is redshirt freshman Matt Fink, the only other quarterback to see the field in the regular season.
Fink came on in relief of Darnold at the end of USC’s 38-10 home victory over Oregon State in October and flashed signs of his ability. The 6-foot-3, 190-pound signal-caller showed he could be a dual-threat with a 51 yard touchdown run. As far as throwing the ball, Fink completed six passes for 43 yards on the season.
If Fink disappoints heading into 2018, however, the Trojans have other options. Fink beat out freshman Jack Sears for the right to back up Darnold this season, and the two are likely to be in competition for the second year running. Sears, a four-star recruit, was the more decorated high school player (he played at the same school as Darnold), while Fink holds the strength of experience.
But even Sears’ lofty expectation are incomparable to those of incoming five-star freshman J.T. Daniels.
Daniels, the number one pro-style quarterback in the class of 2019, decided to reclassify and enroll at USC with the class of 2018. Daniels, just 17 years old, is incredibly talented but will have to overtake his longer-tenured teammates in order to see playing time next season. Redshirt sophomore Thomas Fitts and redshirt freshman Holden Thomas fill out the competition as dark horse contenders.
The most seamless transition may come at the running back position. Even though the Trojans have to replace the fifth all-time rushing leader, Ronald Jones II, the team has a ready-made candidate in five-star freshman running back Stephen Carr. Carr impressed in his first two games in cardinal and gold, rushing for 69 yards and two touchdowns on seven carries against Western Michigan 119 yards against Stanford to begin the season. He finished his first season with 363 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
Although injuries hampered him for much of the year, Carr is expected to take on a major workload in 2018. Junior Aca’Cedric Ware and redshirt freshman Vavae Malepeai should also see playing time, along with incoming four-star freshman Markese Stepp.
Although wide receiver Deontay Burnett was integral in 2017 as the Trojans’ number one receiver, there is a myriad of options to fill his void. Redshirt freshman Tyler Vaughns and sophomore Michael Pittman Jr. stepped up their games toward the end of the season, particularly when Burnett was held in check against Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
In addition, Redshirt junior Jalen Greene should be back along with redshirt freshman Velus Jones Jr. and Josh Imatorbhebhe. Freshman Joseph Lewis IV and incoming recruit Amon-Ra St. Brown bring excitement to the receiver position as five-star talents. St. Brown played high school ball with Daniels.
Redshirt sophomore Cole Smith was backup to redshirt senior center Nico Falah, and would appear to have the inside track to the starting job next year. Smith will have to beat out redshirt junior Richie Wenzel, freshman Brett Neilon and incoming four-star freshman Justin Dedich, assuming head coach Clay Helton doesn’t move his other linemen around.
The loss of outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu stings, but it’s one of the positions the Trojans have plenty of talent at. Sophomore Jordan Iosefa played the position well on the other side from Nwosu after taking over for injured junior Porter Gustin, who is likely to take Nwosu’s spot.
If injuries rear their ugly head, Helton could turn to sophomores Oluwole Betiku Jr. and Connor Murphy.
With junior Rasheem Green declaring for the NFL Draft, USC faces a hole on the defensive line.
Redshirt junior Malik Dorton and redshirt sophomore Christian Rector had their moments in 2017 and should find their way into the starting lineup. Redshirt freshman Liam Jimmons is another possibility.
Finally, the Trojans will have to continue without the presence of senior safety Chris Hawkins. This position is a bit shaky as the Trojans are young at safety; Hawkins’ backups were freshman Bubba Bolden and redshirt freshman C.J. Pollard. Both contributed on special teams in 2017.
There has been speculation that junior cornerback Iman Marshall will move over to safety to pair with junior Marvell Tell III. In that case, redshirt junior Ajene Harris and sophomore Jack Jones would form the starting cornerbacks, with junior Isaiah Langley as the nickel corner. Redshirt sophomore Ykili Ross also has playing experience at both the safety and cornerback positions. He recorded two interceptions in a utility role last year, including one against Cal which he returned for a 49-yard touchdown.