The Trojans won their first Pac-12 title since 2008 last season, but a lot fans of the program still seem unhappy with head coach Clay Helton. A good handful of the USC faithful still thinks its Pete Carroll roaming the sidelines and the team should be in the national title game every season. It’s impossible for a coach to ever receive credit for a great job he’s done if the fan base was never happy with the hiring of the individual from the jump. Unfortunately for Helton, 2018 will present challenges that the program hasn’t faced in a long time. Replacing the first 4,000-yard passer in school history, a 1,500-yard rusher and a 1,000-yard receiver is a tough mountain to climb, even for a blue-blood program like USC. For starters, Helton has decided to roll the dice and go with true freshman quarterback JT Daniels to take the reigns of the offense. Daniels inherits an offense with some nice pieces around him to ease the transition. The Trojans return four starters on the offensive line, along with a flashy true sophomore running back, a proven tight end and a couple of young talented receivers. The defense returns seven starters, which includes some All Pac-12 performers in the back seven.
Team strengths: The offensive line, linebackers and defensive secondary. Seniors Chris Brown, Toa Lobendahn and Chuma Edoga along with sophomore Andrew Vorhees have combined for 66 career starts along the offensive front and will make life easier for Daniels inside the pocket. John Houston, Cameron Smith and Jordan Iosefa form one of the best linebacker trios in the country. They all combined for 227 tackles, including 17.5 from behind the line of scrimmage, 2.5 sacks and two interceptions last season. The secondary is full of ball-hawking playmakers. Iman Marshall, Jack Jones, Ajene Harris, Marvell Tell and Ykili Ross all combined for 248 tackles, including six tackles from behind the line of scrimmage and 12 interceptions.
Team weaknesses: Inexperience at quarterback. With all the offensive talent surrounding new signal-caller Daniels, this Trojan team will only go as far as he takes them. USC has one cupcake contest in game one and then its’ on the road for the next two games where Daniels will have to be more than just a game manager and actually make some plays. Talk about being thrown to the wolves.
Players to watch: Running back Stephen Carr, wide receiver Tyler Vaughns, tight end Tyler Petitie, linebacker Cameron Smith and free safety Marvell Tell. Carr was one of the top running backs out of high school and the Trojans’ top recruit in 2017. He’s exciting to watch and has moves that resembles former Trojan legend Reggie Bush. Carr had over 500 all-purpose yards last season and can line up at wideout if needed. Vaughns is the Trojans’ leading returning receiver. He caught 57 balls for 809 yards and five touchdown in 2017 and will be the next great USC wideout. Petitie had 23 receptions for 307 yards and three touchdowns. Smith led all USC defenders in tackles last season with 112, including 11 from behind the line of scrimmage and had an interception. He is a flat-out beast and will be the heart and soul of this defense in 2018. Tell is the leader of the talented secondary. He had 85 tackles, including 2.5 for loss, a sack and three interceptions from his safety position.
The schedule: Difficult. The Trojans better be ready from the start because they have as tough of a September as any team in the nation, with three road games at Stanford, Texas and Arizona. The second half of the season gets easier and USC hosts Notre Dame for the season-finale.
My take: USC is expected to win the Pac-12 south again, and with a lot of teams rebuilding or inheriting new coaches in the division, there’s no reason for the Trojans not to accomplish that. The defense will have to carry this team early on with the true freshman quarterback at the helms. The Trojans may be talented on offense, but without a ton of experience, production and leadership, expect at least three losses for the regular season.