Trojan alumni find their place in NFL

Former USC quarterback Sam Darnold rushes for the first down against Arizona State in 2017. (Tucker Judkins/Daily Trojan)

The NFL regular season has come to a close and overall Trojan performances are mixed. The rookie class featured many solid prospects who displayed great potential despite rocky starts to their NFL careers. But all in all, they represented USC well with breakout performances over the course of the 2018 season.

Sam Darnold,

New York Jets

It was a growing year for the Jets as Darnold got acquainted with NFL play in his rookie year. The Jets had a season focused on rebuilding and were less concerned about winning and more about developing Darnold and the talent around him. Darnold had one of the league’s worst receiving corps, highlighted by the low profile Robby Anderson and Chris Herndon. So far, the rest of the Jets have not given Darnold much help.

Darnold pulled out some heroics early in the season in close losses to the Green Bay Packers and Houston Texans, throwing for around 350 and 250 yards and three and two touchdowns respectively. He also led the Jets to solid wins against the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos. While Darnold’s first season was otherwise statistically uninspiring, he showed immense passing talent and athletic ability. Unless the Jets can put more talent around him, the team may risk wasting Darnold’s quarterback talent. The Jets’ addition of Adam Gase to the coaching staff could spark a change and elevate Darnold’s play with Gase’s quarterback-focused background.

Adoree’ Jackson,

Tennessee Titans

Jackson was a bright spot on a middling Titans team that just missed the playoffs. A well-rounded athlete, Jackson knocked down 10 and intercepted two passes and recovered two fumbles. He returned 16 punts for 148 yards in 2018, finishing off the year as one of Pro Football Focus top 25 NFL cornerbacks. He still has a great deal of untapped athletic potential and is looking to elevate the Titans to a playoff berth.

Juju Smith-Schuster,

Pittsburgh Steelers

Smith-Schuster was a prime breakout candidate in the beginning of the season and delivered on the hype, becoming recognized as the Steelers’ 2018 MVP. One of the NFL’s top receivers, Smith-Schuster’s off-the-field charisma was matched with 111 catches for over 1,400 yards. Smith-Schuster frequently made highlight-reel plays like his 97-yard touchdown against the Broncos and was a feature on a talented Steelers team that narrowly missed the playoffs. With the drama surrounding the Steelers’ other star receiver, Antonio Brown, and his cloudy future in Pittsburgh, Smith-Schuster could be in line for even more targets next year.

Robert Woods,

Los Angeles Rams

In his second year in Sean McVay’s high-power offense, Woods found great success as a complement to the Rams’ other elite offensive weapons. A second-round pick in 2013 to the Buffalo Bills, Woods signed with the Rams in 2016, putting up the same  mediocre numbers he had his whole career. But with another year to gel with quarterback Jared Goff, Woods erupted for just under 1,400 total yards and established himself as a staple in the Rams offense. Still in the playoffs, Woods will travel to the Superdome and face a tough Saints team. Pro Football Focus’ No. 7 receiver amounted 74 total yards in his last game in the Superdome earlier this year and is hoping to get to his first Super Bowl.

Antwaun Woods,

Dallas Cowboys

Unlike some of the other names on this list, Woods was not a high-profile draft pick and was an undrafted signee to the Titans in 2016. Woods ate his way to his nickname, the “Human Log”; when the Cowboys signed him this year, he weighed in at 6-foot-1 and 318 pounds. But after shedding weight, he went from the roster bubble to being a solid starter who contributed to a defensive turnaround that led the Cowboys to the playoffs this season.

Matt Barkley,

Buffalo Bills

When the Bills’ top 10 pick Josh Allen injured his elbow, and the Bills’ other quarterback Nathan Peterman was underperforming, they signed Matt Barkley to the roster. A Trojan legend drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles, Barkley quietly floated around the league as a backup, not receiving any playing time once he left the Eagles. Signed by the Bills in Week 10, Barkley was thrust into the starting job and made the most of his opportunity. Barkley led the 2-7 Bills to a 41-10 victory against the Jets, a divisional rival, despite having no time to learn the playbook because he was just signed that week. He threw for 232 yards and two touchdowns. While that performance did not help Barkley win the starting job, he made Trojan fans proud.

Uchenna Nwosu,

Los Angeles Chargers

One of the best athletes on a rising Chargers team, Nwosu flashed a lot of talent that he hopes to translate to execution. A second round pick, the rookie only started three games and racked up 4.5 sacks including the playoffs. Even though the Chargers suffered a devastating elimination from the playoffs, Nwosu was key in their win against the Baltimore Ravens in the wild-card round with a game-clinching strip sack of Lamar Jackson. He showed potential throughout the year and will be a key player in the Chargers’ well-rounded roster as they look to win a Super Bowl in the future.

Ronald Jones,

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

He was drafted in the second round. Because of that, expectations were high for the rookie Jones in an empty backfield where he would compete for the starting job with the pedestrian Peyton Barber. Jones’ season started slowly, and he was a healthy scratch for the first few games. When finally given a chance on the field, he maintained his mediocre performance, finishing the year with 23 rushes for a disappointing 44 yards. Jones will look to harness the explosiveness that made him a second-round pick to improve his production next season.