Trojan football roster brings promise of breakout talent

Senior running back Stephen Carr will be essential in the ground game and pass blocking for USC this season. (Daily Trojan file photo)

What began as a fall semester with no signs of whether the USC football team would play is now an anticipatory countdown to a shortened Pac-12 season. Let’s look back at what was left off in the spring and from last season.

The Trojans had an up-and-down 2019 campaign. They lost half of their first six games but proceeded to go 5-1 for the remainder of the season. This secured a spot in the Holiday Bowl, but the Trojans lost 49-24 to No. 16 Iowa.

It was a disappointing end to an odd season where head coach Clay Helton consistently was on the hot seat and freshman Kedon Slovis took over as quarterback after J.T. Daniels suffered a season-ending injury in the first game. 

However, the new season awaits and with that comes new expectations. The Trojans will be without at least six players from their 2019 campaign. Wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr., defensive lineman Christian Rector, linebacker John Houston Jr. and offensive tackles Drew Richmond and Austin Jackson all went on to the NFL, while linebacker Jordan Iosefa is out indefinitely with a dislocated kneecap.

Two players have also decided to opt out this season, though it remains to be seen whether they will reverse their decision after the Pac-12’s announcement to return: Defensive lineman Jay Tufele, who is projected to be a first-round pick, declared for the draft, and left guard Alijah Vera-Tucker, a second-team All-Pac-12 member last season, also declared for the draft.

There will be challenges at the offensive line with Jackson and Vera-Tucker gone, as both held prominent roles in protecting Slovis. According to the Los Angeles Times, Slovis spoke with Vera-Tucker about a possible return but chose not to pressure him. 

Even with these departures, the Trojans still have the potential for a high-powered offense with Slovis as signal-caller once again. He had an outstanding first year with 30 touchdown passes and 3,502 yards. His Achilles heel, however, was turnovers. He had eight fumbles and nine interceptions, and with a new-look offensive line, this will be something to watch.

Nevertheless, last season’s performance put Slovis on the watchlist for the Heisman Trophy.

Along with Slovis, redshirt senior Vavae Malepeai and senior Stephen Carr are two dynamic running backs who will be returning this year. 

Malepeai led the Trojans in rushing yards with 503 and six touchdowns. A patient and powerful runner, Malepeai has the field vision that will be an important aspect of the Trojan running game. 

Carr was second in rushing for the Trojans last season with 396 yards and five touchdowns. He provides the lightning to Malepeai’s thunder, with elusive and agile running that can juke defenders out of their cleats. He also had the fifth-most receiving yards on the team last season with 143. Redshirt sophomore tailback Markese Stepp is expected to pick up the momentum lost after an ankle injury last season, logging more than 300 rushing yards in his seven game appearances in 2019.  

USC’s backs are also capable pass blockers, which may be more in play without Vera-Tucker and Jackson. However, there’s more to look out for from the Trojans’ offense than Malepeai, Carr and Stepp, as the team’s wide receiving corps is one of the nation’s best. 

Junior wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown is set to pick up Pittman’s load. St. Brown caught 77 passes with six touchdowns and 1,042 yards last season and is expected to be a huge part of the offense. Helton told the Times he believes St. Brown will “separate himself among other receivers in this country.”

St. Brown is joined by two more exceptional returning receivers — redshirt senior Tyler Vaughns and sophomore Drake London. Vaughns racked up nearly 1,000 receiving yards along with six touchdowns. London brought in 567 yards and five touchdowns in his freshman year. 

Both receivers alongside St. Brown have the ability to each notch in 1,000 yards receiving this season off of Slovis’s hand.

On the defensive side, the Trojans will have two of their best safeties returning for another season. Junior Talanoa Hufanga was second on the team last season in tackles behind the departing Houston, and redshirt junior Isaiah Pola-Mao followed in third with 73 tackles while leading the Trojans in interceptions. 

They’ll be joined by two standout linebackers in sophomore Drake Jackson and junior Kana’i Mauga, who are crucial in disrupting and pressuring quarterbacks. 

There is a lot of potential breakout talent for USC this upcoming season, whether it be the potential for a Heisman season from Slovis or the explosive backs and receivers or even a lights out defense under new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando.

The main concern is if the offensive line will be able to hold up without Vera-Tucker and Jackson and if Tufele’s absence will exhaust the defense.

Nonetheless, USC’s fan base can expect some entertaining play with this roster.