With overhauled offense, USC football begins new era

Not so petite · At 250 pounds, senior Tyler Petite was the Trojans’ go-to tight end last season. He is on the watch list for the Mackey Award. (Emily Smith | Daily Trojan)

The start of the fall semester means the return of the best time of the year — college football season.

After losing standout stars like Sam Darnold and Ronald Jones to the NFL, USC head coach Clay Helton will be challenged to wrangle a young offense into a team that can contest for another Pac-12 championship.

The team enters the season with a major, pressing question — who will run the offense? The Trojans lack a wealth of experience, despite the allure of the talented true freshman quarterback JT Daniels.

One of the top quarterback recruits in the country, Daniels won Gatorade Player of the Year after tossing 12,014 yards and 152 touchdowns for Mater Dei High School. After reclassifying in order to come to USC a year early, the young star is already making a name for himself at practice.

“Always in my mind for the quarterback, it’s about decision-making, timing and accuracy and, most important, moving the ball and being productive about putting it in the red zone,” Helton said after Daniels’ first practice. “For an 18-year-old kid to come out here [and] do what he did today was very impressive. It’s like he’s already been in a camp before, to be honest with you. I was highly impressed.”

Five-tool player · Senior offensive lineman Toa Lobendahn takes the field. Known for his versatility, Lobendahn has logged 18 starts at left tackle, eight at left guard, five at right guard and three at center. (Emily Smith | Daily Trojan)

But will his lack of experience keep Daniels from the starting lineup?

The Trojans aren’t exactly deep in experience in the quarterback position; redshirt sophomore Matt Fink serves as the veteran of the unit with nine passes under his belt, playing behind Sam Darnold. And with big shoes to fill in the running back position, as redshirt sophomore Stephen Carr looks to step up in the place of running back Ronald Jones, the offense will lean heavily on whoever Helton chooses as the starting QB.

Weeks ago, the defense seemed to be the strongest link of this USC team, led by the terrifying tandem of senior linebackers Cam Smith and Porter Gustin. But Gustin suffered a meniscus tear at practice on Tuesday, and his road to recovery post-surgery remains uncertain.

Last season, he injured his big toe and tore his right bicep in the team’s second game against Stanford. He attempted to return in the following game against Texas, but was forced to leave the game after wrapping up two sacks and never saw the field again.

“It’s probably the most frustrating part,” Gustin said of his injuries at Pac-12 media day in July. “All of a sudden you break a small bone like that, that you don’t even realize how much you need it playing football. It’s that much tougher, but you sit out and you learn from it. Really all you can do is pray it doesn’t happen again.”

The team remains hopeful to get the 6-foot-5, 260-pound “predator” back into rotation by kickoff of the season opener against UNLV. It will be most important, however, to see Gustin return by Week 2 in the Trojans’ toughest matchup — the Weekender trip to face Stanford.

The Cardinal are the biggest obstacle standing in between Helton and a second-straight Pac-12 championship appearance. The obvious challenge in any game against Stanford is Bryce Love, the senior All-Conference running back who made a game out of torching holes in every Pac-12 defense last year.

Last year’s matchup against Stanford was the most complete game for the Trojans, as they tallied 623 offensive yards while holding Stanford to 342 yards on the way to a 42-24 victory. As Love looks to open his Heisman bid, the USC defense must be locked in and prepared to repeat that performance.

Another major milestone for Helton’s squad is the Week 3 matchup on the road at Texas. Forget the Longhorns’ mediocre 7-6 finish to the 2017 season. Last year’s 2006 Rose Bowl rematch resulted in a double overtime thriller, and the sequel is guaranteed to continue to add to the myth of this budding rivalry.

Closing the season with back-to-back matchups against UCLA and Notre Dame will cap off the difficult season for the Trojans. While USC will travel across town to face the Bruins, the Notre Dame game will be at the Coliseum. Facing Chip Kelly’s new squad and the top-25-ranked Fighting Irish will be a proving ground for the Trojans to round out the season.

While the season might seem uncertain now, the last time the team entered the season with uncertainty at quarterback, they emerged with Darnold and a Rose Bowl victory in hand. And as this new squad develops, the only proof will come on the field with the first snap of the season in September.