Last offseason, junior quarterback Max Browne was ready for his full Trojan debut after sitting behind three-year starter Cody Kessler. A redshirt freshman quarterback named Sam Darnold performed well in summer camp, but Browne, a former five-star prospect, got the nod on opening day against Alabama.
USC then stumbled to a 1-2 record under Browne, resulting in head coach Clay Helton’s decision to turn to Darnold.
With a calm, unassuming expression on his face throughout the ups and downs of games, Darnold was almost playing in his backyard as he led the Trojans to nine consecutive wins, including their first Rose Bowl victory since 2009. His knack for making critical plays at crucial times has thrust him into the spotlight in Los Angeles and beyond.
”Personnel executives have spent the last month or so watching a ton of tape,” NFL analyst Daniel Jeremiah said in March. “When you’re studying draft-eligible defenders against USC, [Darnold] jumps off the screen. He only has one year of college playing experience, but he’s clearly captured the attention of NFL evaluators.”
While Darnold is the glue that binds his team together, the Trojans lost 11 starters from last year, most notably wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and defensive back Adoree’ Jackson.
With Jackson gone, junior cornerback Iman Marshall will have the opportunity to establish himself as the No. 1 corner, and sophomore cornerback Jack Jones will work to build off a freshman year during which he got his feet wet as a backup. Freshmen Je’Quari Godfrey and Greg Johnson will also join the fray.
In addition to Smith-Schuster, Darnold also lost key wide receivers in De’Quan Hampton and Darreus Rogers to the NFL Draft. But junior Deontay Burnett will return after scoring seven touchdowns in 2016 — including the late game-tying score in the Rose Bowl — and amassing 56 receptions for 622 receiving yards.
Redshirt senior receiver Steven Mitchell Jr. will return from an ACL injury, and incoming five-star wide receiver Joseph Lewis will compete with a host of redshirt freshmen at the position. Redshirt junior Jalen Greene (8 receptions, 116 yards in 2016) and sophomore Michael Pittman (6 receptions, 82 yards in 2016) figure to see more balls thrown their way as part of a talented receiving corps.
But Helton has always emphasized the running game, and USC is stacked at the tailback position. Leading rusher junior Ronald Jones II should get most of the carries, and the crew only got stronger with the addition of a five-star recruit in freshman Stephen Carr.
The offensive line, contrastingly, will lose a wealth of experience after core players moved on to the NFL: ex-starting tackles Chad Wheeler and Zach Banner, as well as former guard Damien Mama. Austin Jackson and Alijah Vera-Tucker, four-star recruits and freshman offensive tackles, are among those who will provide extra strength to the current roster.
There are also questions surrounding who will step up on the interior defensive line with Stevie Tu’ikolovatu now fighting for a spot on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Redshirt senior defensive tackle Kenny Bigelow Jr. is back from injury. Freshmen Jay Tufele and Marlon Tuipulotu will look to factor into the competitive group.
At linebacker, Cameron Smith and Porter Gustin are the headlining playmakers. Smith, however, is suspended for the first half of the Western Michigan game, stemming from his ejection in the Rose Bowl due to a targeting penalty. Sophomore linebacker Jordan Iosefa seems like the probable replacement at the MIKE position.
The Trojans’ X-factor next season may come at tight end, where they have no shortage of size and catching ability. Helton managed to sign two notables, 6-foot-5 Josh Falo and 6-foot-6 Erik Krommenhoek, in his last recruiting class. Sophomore Daniel Imatorbhebhe (17 receptions, 250 yards and four TDs in 2016) spearheads the group along with junior Tyler Petite (10 catches, 156 yards and two TDs in 2016). This year, fans might witness the inclusion of redshirt freshman Cary Angeline.
Fortunately this season, the talented Trojan squad will not have to contend with the likes of the Crimson Tide right off the bat. Instead, they will begin against Western Michigan at home and the following week, will stay in the Coliseum to battle the Christian McCaffrey-less Stanford Cardinals. Week 3 features a long-awaited rematch with the Texas Longhorns.
USC’s first day of fall football camp is set for July 29.