COLUMN: A new era dawns for USC in the NFL
There are a few traditions that span decades of the Super Bowl — wings, beer, crazy halftime shows, that one uncle who gets too drunk and thinks he’s turned into Joe Buck. And, of course, there’s the annual tradition of watching a handful of former Trojans duke it out on football’s biggest stage.
With 116 total appearances, the Trojans boast the second-largest number of alumni in the Super Bowl, outflanking UCLA, Michigan and Penn State.
But this year, the 51st Super Bowl took place without any USC alumni present on the field.
It was a rather odd sight to see. Before Sunday, there had only been five Super Bowls without a Trojan on either sideline. The players who made it to the championship were game changers: the likes of Marcus Allen, Keyshawn Johnson and Clay Matthews. Three were named Super Bowl MVP, including current Athletic Director Lynn Swann.
Before anyone starts speculating that the prestige of USC football is dying out, let’s take a quick look back at the 2015 Super Bowl, when the Seattle Seahawks listed a combined 16 former Trojans on their roster and coaching staff. The skill level of USC alumni is clear, even if they aren’t always present in the championship game.
For instance, oddly enough, the New England Patriots didn’t — and still don’t — roster a single Trojan on their team in 2015, when they eventually took home the Super Bowl trophy in a last-minute heart stopper.
However, this year’s Super Bowl brings into question what type of impact the Trojans are bringing to the NFL. In the past, names shaped by USC such as Junior Seau, Troy Polamalu and Marcus Allen brought fear into the hearts of opposing fans. My mother still jokes that she had nightmares of Seau chasing her after he clobbered our Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive line for four quarters.
That isn’t the case for former Trojan stars anymore. Reggie Bush used to carve defenses apart with his speed and agility, averaging close to 1,000 yards a season during his breakout from 2011 to 2013. But in 2016, he earned a devastating total of -3 yards for the Buffalo Bills on their way to a 7-9 season.
The same goes for Matthews, who fought off ankle, hamstring and shoulder injuries this year to finish with half as many sacks and tackles than he has consistently posted in years past. And Trojan quarterbacks don’t fare much better. Carson Palmer tossed 364 yards on his way to the Cardinals’ 7-8-1 finish, and Cody Kessler barely broke 100 yards in his rookie season. Even Brian Cushing, an inside linebacker for the Houston Texans, saw the same slow down in his eighth season after graduating from USC.
It might just be a fluke — the result of a few poorly timed injuries — but it’s hard to argue against the facts: 2016 wasn’t a good year for the Trojans left in the NFL.
The dominance of the USC football program’s impact in the pro league stretches back for decades, with more NFL draft picks (496) than any other university. Only USC and Michigan can claim an NFL draftee every year since 1939, and those 78 years saw hundreds of Trojans become pro athletes.
So what happened? It’s not as if USC struggled to put players into the NFL: At the start of the summer, there were 51 alumni on NFL teams, including 11 recently graduated rookies. Trojans could be found on 25 pro rosters, mostly consisting of linebackers, defensive backs and linemen.
The year before, 35 Trojans made opening day rosters, more than any other program except for LSU and Miami. And for 40 years, the Trojans led the NFL in total players represented on teams.
What was it about this year? While I’d be fascinated to hear the wildest speculations of how the Patriots are conspiring against USC, I’d put it down to a simple realization that we’ve all come to this season — it’s time for the Trojans to turn a new page in their history.
It’s a universally recognized truth that Trojan football is marked by different eras of coaching. But ever since our last great era ended with Pete Carroll’s departure for the NFL, there’s been a visible gap in the Trojans’ impact at the professional level. Our campus stars don’t become NFL stars, and it’s rare to see little kids wearing the jerseys of any USC players who graduated after 2009.
But anyone who watched this year’s season can agree that we’ve officially ushered in a new era: the Clay Helton era of USC football. As fans, we can’t be sure where this era will take us, although the aftertaste of the Rose Bowl and the promise of a future led by redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold has a dangerously promising feeling to it.
It’s hard to tell if it will be this year’s class of Trojans — who range from wideout JuJu Smith Schuster to offensive tackle Zach Banner — will be the ones to kick start a new wave of USC dominance in the pros. Maybe it will take a few years and a combination of Helton’s phenomenal recruiting skills and his coaching methods. But as the Trojans continue to regain their pride and prestige in the NCAA, fans can count on the fact that our future alumni will gain the same recognition in the pros.
As a program, the Trojans are starting a new chapter. And in a few years, the NFL will have Clay Helton to thank for that.
Julia Poe is a sophomore studying print and digital journalism. She is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, Poe’s Perspective, runs on Wednesdays.