The hype is here: JT Daniels to make debut as USC’s starting quarterback

Senior inside linebacker Cam Smith recorded 112 tackles last season. He has 273 tackles in his USC career. (Emily Smith | Daily Trojan)

No. 15 USC will open up the 2018 football season at home against UNLV Rebels this Saturday. The Rebels come off a 5-7 year under head coach Tony Sanchez, while USC comes off a 11-3 Pac-12 Championship season that ended in a loss to Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl. Here’s a breakdown of how the Trojans match up with the Rebels in all three phases of the game.

Trojan Offense vs. Rebel Defense

UNLV’s defensive unit was a major weakness last year. It ranked an abysmal 113th in the nation in total defense, conceding 458.7 yards per contest. The Rebels’ run defense was particularly suspect, giving up 239.3 yards per game on the ground, placing them at 122nd in the nation.

That isn’t to say their defense is devoid of talent; senior safety Dalton Baker was impressive last season, racking up a team high 99 tackles, while junior linebacker Gabe McCoy had 80 tackles and forced two fumbles. The Rebels fired their previous defensive coordinator after last season, hiring Tim Skipper during the offseason. It remains to be seen how much the unit changes from last year under Skipper’s direction. The Trojans should have a great opportunity to establish their running game against the Rebels’ lackluster run defense, giving running backs senior Aca’Cedric Ware, sophomore Stephen Carr and redshirt sophomore Vavae Malepeai a chance to get in a good rhythm to start the season.

In addition, establishing the run will take pressure off freshman quarterback JT Daniels and give him a chance to get going in his first start. If he can have a good game Saturday, it could help establish his confidence for the season.

Trojan Defense vs. Rebel Offense

The Rebels’ offense features the team’s most dangerous facet: a dynamic rushing attack. Dual threat sophomore quarterback Armani Rogers and senior running back Lexington Thomas combined for over 2,000 rushing yards last season, while the talented sophomore speedster Charles Williams (who earned the starting spot last year before getting injured) will make his return. The UNLV ground game, which was ranked 16 in the nation last season, could provide the Trojan front seven — who allowed 158.4 rush yards per game last year — with a serious test in their first game.

However, the Rebels’ passing offense was anemic last year, averaging 186.9 yards a game with 54 percent completion percentage. Their leading current junior receiver, Brandon Presley, accumulated only 552 yards last season. The Trojan secondary, led by veteran standouts cornerbacks senior Iman Marshall, redshirt senior Ajene Harris and senior safety Marvell Tell III should show out against the Rebels, leaving UNLV little room to get a foothold in the game.

Special Teams

UNLV had a rather lackluster return game last season, with its best kick returner averaging about 22 yards per return and its primary punt returner averaging about 5.8 yards per runback. By contrast, the Trojans will have redshirt sophomore Velus Jones reprise his duties as the primary kickoff returner, a role in which he averaged 24.5 yards per attempt, and freshman Amon-Ra St. Brown will handle punt returns. St. Brown returned punts in high school, where he averaged 19.8 yards per return and scored two touchdowns. Both teams feature solid kickers, with sophomore Chase McGrath returning to USC after converting 70.6 percent of his field goal attempts and UNLV bringing back senior Evan Pantel, who has never missed a field goal under 39 yards and has connected on 83 percent of his total attempts.

The Verdict

The UNLV run game should prove a tough test for the Trojan defense — the beginning of the game could be rather slow, as Daniels gets going and the Rebels try to pound the ball on the ground. However, the Trojan rushing attack should start gashing the UNLV defense and give Daniels the opportunity to start slinging it, breaking the game open. UNLV’s passing attack likely won’t have the firepower to engage in a shootout, especially against a seasoned USC secondary.