Anthony on LA: Predicting USC’s difference makers to a championship season

Can you feel it in the air? 

USC football is back with brand new expectations and pressure. Members of the Trojan faithful are optimistic. This is the year football can return to glory. Most importantly though, fans are back in the stands and the buzz around the Coliseum is high. 

USC has a chance to create a memorable season with a fairly easy schedule at hand. No matchups against Pac-12 north staples such as Oregon and Washington. The colder away games against Washington State and Colorado are played earlier in the season, and an extra week was gifted to the Trojans in preparation for rival Notre Dame.

However, the games still need to be played. Here are my predictions for the difference-makers of the season. 

Team MVP: Kedon Slovis

When I wrote this exact story last year, it was simple — junior quarterback Kedon Slovis would be USC’s clear-cut MVP.

It didn’t really turn out that way after a subpar sophomore season saw Slovis throw for nearly 2,000 yards, 17 touchdowns and 7 interceptions in five games. His completion percentage struggled mightily as well with only one game over 70%. 

Even with all the negatives and disappointing plays last season, Slovis is still the team MVP, simply because the Trojans will live and die off the junior signal-caller’s play. If the Arizona native exceeds his freshman season Cinderella run, which is possible, USC will find themselves in contention for a College Football Playoff spot. If not, well, we’ll be hearing more cries to fire head coach Clay Helton. 

Slovis’ accuracy and arm strength were very concerning last season. Questionable, inaccurate and wobbly throws led to  concerns from reporters and fans about whether he was healthy. 

“My whole life, I’ve been confident with my accuracy and me throwing a football,” Slovis told The Los Angeles Times. “Last season, I’d say for the first time was kind of a point where I wasn’t there entirely.” 

Slovis looked sharper throughout spring practice and fall camp. At his best, he’s one of the more accurate and electrifying quarterbacks in the country with his laser line drive throws and precise passes for touchdowns. 

A presence as cool as the other side of the pillow, the Trojans will need Slovis to be at his best if they hope to return to glory. 

X-Factor: Every receiver outside of Drake London

It’s no secret that the receiving corps for USC this year are very thin. After losing veterans Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns to the NFL Draft and Munir McClain to the transfer portal, the Trojans are in need of some help. 

Junior receiver Drake London is the clear star of the group. But, outside of him, the names are fairly unproven. 

Sophomore Gary Bryant Jr. was expected to fill some form of a role, but the receiver has been struggling with injuries. Helton recently said Bryant is also out due to health and safety protocols. With a lack of practice time, he will likely be thrown into the lions den against Stanford next Saturday.  

Redshirt sophomore Bru McCoy was also expected to play a big part in the offense. However, he was removed from team activities after being arrested in July on a charge of intimate partner violence. His status is certainly up in the air entering the season.

With a growing amount of uncertainty at the position, Memphis transfer receiver Tahj Washington has seized his opportunity. Washington turned heads with his explosive play during fall camp and scrimmages. He has speed reminiscent of the Road Runner, as he blows by defensive backs for catches. In the open field, his quick feet and agility make him a player with the ability to make big plays. 

Washington has  been building the trust of Slovis along with freshman receivers Michael Jackson III and Joseph Manjack IV. Both men will need to step up. Jackson III, no relation to the pop star Michael Jackson, and Manjack have been impressive at times during practices. 

Manjack and redshirt junior tight end Malcolm Epps were both named starting receivers alongside London and Washington. Veterans like redshirt sophomore Kyle Ford and junior John Jackson III will surely get some playing time as well. 

A young and unpredictable pass-catching group will have to grow up fast.

Best position group: Linebackers

A year ago, USC entered the season with defensive doubts after hiring new coordinator Todd Orlando. A year later, the linebacker crew is the best position group. 

Junior Drake Jackson  is a flat-out beast, capable of breaking up plays with his Herculean strength and lightning speed. Dominant throughout practices and poised for a breakout, he’ll surely be a first-round pick next year.

If you pass Jackson, good luck dealing with senior Kana’i Mauga, who’s been a staple of this defensive side for three years now. Second in tackles for USC last season with 41, Mauga was named to the 2020 Pro Football Focus All-Pac-12 third team. 

 Junior Ralen Goforth and redshirt junior Raymond Scott are more proven and seasoned veterans, who are solid producers. They get the job done and will share time being placed alongside Jackson and Mauga. 

Four-star freshman Raesjon Davis from Mater Dei High School will also most likely see some playing time. A raw talent, it’ll be Orlando’s job to get Davis as comfortable as possible. 

Player most likely to breakout: Keontay Ingram

The Texas transfer has had a Texas-sized impact throughout the spring and fall camps. His off-the-field swag carries onto the field with his bruising run game and elusive speed. Ingram has been a breath of fresh air in this running back room in need of some juice. 

When former back Stephen Carr transferred to Indiana, redshirt senior running back Vavae Malepeai seemed to be locked in as the starter. Helton has now said he’ll be using both in a “1A-1B” approach against SJSU with both men getting carries. Ingram, though, has clearly established himself as the lead back. 

He’s an electric runner who can make big plays while defenders hang on for dear life trying to bring him down. During a sequence in fall camp, Ingram juked Drake Jackson out of his shoes before going on for more yards after the highlight. 

Ingram even shined during the spring football game and fall scrimmages looking agile in the open field. At 6-feet and 215 pounds, his combination of speed and power is an offensive coordinator’s dream. 

However, offensive coordinator Graham Harrell relied on a more pass-heavy Air Raid offense in his two seasons with the Trojans. USC hasn’t had a consistent, legitimate star running back to rely on during Slovis’ tenure. With Ingram’s potential, it might be time to rethink this strategy. 

He’s caught the attention of everyone around Trojan football with his physicality and willingness to work. Add in the fact that he’s also a pass-catching back and he’s the perfect backfield threat for the Trojans. 

Anthony Gharib is a junior writing about all things Los Angeles sports. His column, “Anthony on LA,” runs every other Friday. He is also the sports editor.