USC’s pride of captains will lead the team in their season opener

Current senior outside linebacker Porter Gustin takes a knee to pray alongside his teammates at the endzone before dominating Stanford 42-24 at the Coliseum during the 2017 season. (Daily Trojan file photo)

When USC takes the field against UNLV on Saturday, the team will be led by four senior captains — offensive lineman Toa Lobendahn, safety Marvell Tell III, middle linebacker Cam Smith and outside linebacker Porter Gustin.

For the first time since 2013, a quarterback was not selected as a captain.

All four 2018 captains have experienced highs and lows during their respective careers with the Trojans. They all arrived when the program was in a difficult position, with head coach Steve Sarkisian being fired midway through 2015.

Yet, they head into their final seasons as Rose Bowl and Pac-12 Champions, looking to add to their hardware.

Lobendahn immediately made an impact upon joining USC in Spring 2014. Known for his versatility, Lobendahn started all 13 games as a true freshman while playing left guard and left tackle. Many took notice of his early success, and he was named a first team Freshman All-American by several publications.

However, the next two seasons were trying for the Cerritos, Calif. native. As a sophomore, he was sidelined for seven games with a torn left ACL. In the 2016 season opener against Alabama, misfortune struck Lobendahn once again when he tore his right ACL in the first quarter.

Unaware of his injury at the time, Lobendahn played the rest of the Alabama game. But he would miss the team’s nine-game winning streak and Rose Bowl triumph, receiving a medical redshirt in order to preserve eligibility.

In 2017, Lobendahn returned to the field and reasserted himself as one of the Pac-12’s premier offensive linemen. He started 13 games at left tackle, protecting quarterback Sam Darnold’s blindslide en route to a Pac-12 Championship. The 6-foot-3, 295-pound lineman earned All Pac-12 Second Team honors.

This year, Lobendahn leads the team as a fifth-year senior, projecting to start at center. Over his career, he’s started 34 games at four different positions — left tackle, left guard, center and right guard.

The three defensive captains — Smith, Tell and Gustin — were all members of the 2015 recruiting class, which ranked No. 1 in the nation, according to Rivals.

Smith didn’t waste any time before making his mark in Cardinal and Gold. Against Utah as a true freshman, Smith snagged three interceptions, returning one for a pivotal 54-yard touchdown. In the process, he willed the Trojans to an upset victory over the then-No. 3 ranked Utes. His performance garnered widespread attention, as Smith was named the National and Pac-12 Player of the Week. But Smith tore his ACL just three weeks later in a victory against Colorado that cut his phenomenal freshman season short.

Based on the Utah game alone, Smith’s name would forever be etched in Trojan lore. But Smith is no one-hit wonder. He’s led the squad in tackles each of the past two seasons, even adding another interception against Utah in 2017.

As a junior last season, Smith further solidified himself as the rock of USC’s defense. He set career highs in total tackles (112) and tackles for loss (11.0). He was an All-Pac-12 first team selection. Despite favorable draft grades, Smith elected to return for his senior season.

“I felt like myself as well as the team had a lot more to prove,” Smith said at Pac-12 Media Day in July. “It just felt right, it felt perfect and I’m glad I did it.”

USC’s only returning captain from last season, Smith has been vocal about his passions off the football field. Last summer, he worked at a winery in Northern California. He plans to pursue a career in winemaking once he hangs up his cleats.

Tell has been a steady presence in the Trojans’ secondary since arriving on campus in 2015. His first year was cut short by a broken collarbone, but he still managed 36 tackles as a true freshman.

Since then, the Pasadena native has tallied four career interceptions, 128 total tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss. In 2017, he memorably returned an interception 37 yards for a touchdown against Western Michigan, helping the Trojans seal a victory with three minutes left.

The hard-hitting yet sneaky athletic safety made the All-Pac-12 first team in 2017, alongside Smith.

Gustin rounds out the quartet. The Utah-born outdoorsman is the Trojans’ most fearsome pass rusher, having totaled 14 sacks and 23 tackles for loss in his career. Regarded as a physical specimen by players and coaches alike, Gustin is looking to finish his college career on a high note, having missed most of last season due to a broken toe and torn bicep.

Even in limited action, Gustin recorded three sacks in 2017. Early in fall practice, Gustin had another injury scare, this time suffering a torn meniscus after a collision. He has recently returned to practice, and the team expects he will play in the season opener.

Lobendahn, Smith, Tell and Gustin have combined for 115 starts over their careers. They begin the final chapter of their USC careers this Saturday against UNLV.