Our Trojans Top 40 for 2016

We rank the USC players 1 thru 40 on a scale of 'Who Must Come Through" for next fall with an eye as to how they handle winter and spring

With all the attention on the coaching staff and recruiting prospects, we thought we'd go a different way today.

It's something we tried a couple of Januaries ago. How about taking a look at the players -- the 2016 Trojans -- and see how they figure in going forward.

We decided to rank the players who had to come through for USC to have the 2014 season Trojans fans were hoping for. And as we look back at it, we realized this was a little like shooting fish in a barrel.

We had Cody Kessler at No. 1, Leonard Williams No. 2, Buck Allen No. 3, Nelson Agholor No. 4, Hayes Pullard and Josh Shaw -- how'd that work out? -- at Nos. 5/6, Su'a Cravens No. 7, Max Tuerk No. 8 and . . . well, you get the picture. Not that tough to put the numbers on the players two years back.

A little tougher today. More close calls. More players for starters. And another new -- well, sort of -- coaching staff -- and even a new quarterback and those extra numbers. So let's have at it. Here's our ranking of Trojans who must come through in the order they must to make it happen.

It's totally subjective. And we're going to limit it to 40 for now. We'll follow with the next group. Some guys may get ranked higher because there's more pressure on them to come through, some guys might be lower because there's more confidence they will. Some rankings will be higher or lower because of the talent at a position, or the proven/unproven nature there.

No incoming freshmen here. Talk to us after spring if they're mid-year guys.

And since this isn't Fantasy Football, this is always in the context of team. And anyone who's not for certain back next fall won't be on the list.

So here we go: Ranking our 2016 Top 40 on the "Must Come Through" scale.

1) MAX BROWNE: Not a close call. It's almost always the quarterback. When he's coming in off three years as a well-respected backup who was No. 1 in the nation at his spot coming out of high school, it's even more so. Look for getting back to the long ball/over-the-top, play-action game working much more naturally with the easy-throwing Browne getting a hoped-for much more dependable run game.

1a) SAM DARNOLD: Only time we'll go with an (a) ranking at a position spot. But because we think with this team this year in these circumstances, and with three former quarterbacks coaching these guys up in Clay and Tyson Helton and Tee Martin, there's plenty of time and talent and focus to bring both guys up to speed the next nearly eight months. We think it will work better if they do and if Sam makes us much progress as Max considering the different skill sets this pair brings to the table.

2) ZACH BANNER: A lot of ways we could go here but we're thinking that if USC is to be the run-first, physical team Clay says he wants USC to be, Zach has to become the All-American and first-round draft pick he says he came back to be. And he needs to do it at right around a svelte 330 pounds. What a message that will be to the rest of the team and we all know how much the voluble Zach likes to send messages.

3) RONALD JONES: Again, lots of ways to go here but when you have the kind of game-changing ability that the record-breaking freshman now sophomore from Texas has, you have to both recognize it and go to it. No more eight-carry games like the Holiday Bowl. He can do those special things you can't teach. But for the things you can, we're assuming that he'll be much better catching the ball and pass-protecting the quarterback with Tommie Robinson's arrival.

4) ADOREE' JACKSON: We'll say it now. Just the way Zach needs to be a first-team All-American, so does Adoree'. But not for Adoree's sake, for this USC team's sake. First thing UC has to figure out this summer, after AJ's winter and spring track seasons, is how to use Adoree' on offense. Way too much hit and miss, dependent on how the other team controls the ball with their offense. Trojans can't let opponents decide how and when Adoree' is going to get the call. Then there's the defensive component. Adoree' himself says he was just "OK" last fall at corner. He's too good for that.

5) CAMERON SMITH: The sophomore middle linebacker has to become the face of tough-minded USC defense the way Dick Butkus was for the Bears all those years ago. The Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year coming back from ACL surgery has to set the new tone on D. Big. Strong. Physical. And savvy.

6) JUJU SMITH-SCHUSTER: At the risk of getting a little bit top-heavy offensively here, we have to go with JuJu next. The tough guy leader with a grin on his face who loves the game and everything that goes with it should probably be higher but we're so sure he'll come through again in Season 3 that here's where he lands.

7) IMAN MARSHALL: After his baptism of fire as a freshman, we see the Long Beach Poly guy with 12 starts starting to play like a veteran, not just a sophomore. He's got the tools, the size, speed and toughness, to be a dominant player wherever that is in the secondary.

8) NOAH JEFFERSON: Need a D-line guy -- a number of them really -- to step up here. At 6-foot-6 and 330 pounds, Noah did as the lone non-senior to break through and earn a start against 42 for the four seniors when USC went with four D-line guys in the Holiday Bowl. For a team that plays Alabama and Stanford in two of its next three games, Noah, who had a non-senior D-line team-high 23 tackles last fall, better not be the only young gun here who steps up.

9) MARVELL TELL: The rangy sophomore has the tools to be special. He can run and tackle and hit people and at 6-2 and 190-plus pounds, can grow into something special at safety as he figures it out on the back line.

10) JUSTIN DAVIS: No team knows better than USC how much you have to have multiple running backs. Even more so this season. And with Justin the senior here, he clearly has to be the driving physical force that sets the tone -- the "Thunder" to Rojo's "Lightning."

11) OLAJUWON TUCKER: As the lone starting linebacker back from the Holiday Bowl, the 6-3, 235-pound junior from Serra has to be next in line no matter where Clancy Pendergast pencils him in. Like so many of what is a relatively young defense, he started just three games but that makes him a veteran here.

12-13) DAMIEN MAMA/VIANE TALAMAIVAO: If you're going to be able to run the ball, Damien and Viane have to be able to make the blocks without whiffing in this, their third year. We have them together here sharing these two spots because both can do this -- and will have to do this -- if they get leaner, meaner and coached-up in ways they haven't in their first two seasons. Calling Neil Callaway.

14) RASHEEM GREEN: Overcame that lingering knee injury from high school to be a regular contributor here as an athletic 6-5, 285-pound freshman D-lineman with a 31-yard scoop-and-score TD to his credit. Now the Serra alum who looks like he can play at a high level will get the chance to show it.

15) CHRIS HAWKINS: Can it be the versatile DB from Rancho Cucamonga is going into his fourth season? We think he will be despite whatever questions there might have been at season's end. And he'll be back doing all the things he thought he could as USC's third-leading tackler (with 70 in 2015). We're thinking with some solid coaching and scheming here, Chris becomes the tough veteran who doesn't have to play hands-on as much this fall. Having a solid back end on this defense will make it much easier for the front seven to get up to speed in a hurry.

16/17. OSA MASINA/PORTER GUSTIN: Not sure where they're going to be in the reconfigured 3-4/5-2 defense but they better be somewhere. Too much talent. Too much ability. And last fall, maybe too much freshman. No more of that for 2016. Get them up to speed and in the game and doing things that their abilities will allow them to do to change games USC's ways against the likes of the Stanfords and the Oregons. This is why you recruit these guys.

18/19) DARREUS ROGERS/STEVEN MITCHELL: USC needs one of these two -- or preferably both -- to step up as the next wide receiver after JuJu. That unbelievably athletic TD in the Holiday Bowl has to help Darreus and for Steven, who just hasn't quite gotten over the hump here, it's time to become that guy. Time for the fourth-year guys to show what those single-digit numbers they wear mean. Although at this position, with Deontay Burnett (below), Jalen Greene, Isaac Whitney and De'Quan Hampton all back, we're assuming someone will.

20/21) UCHENNA NWOSU/QUINTON POWELL: We have two positions here for the two guys who backed up Su'a Cravens even though there will only be one spot on defense because we think Quinton will at the very least succeed Soma Vainuku as the lead special teams guy where his 11 tackles were just behind Soma's 13.

22/23/24) TAYLOR MCNAMARA/TYLER PETITE/DANIEL IMATORBHEBE: Why so high for the tight ends who didn't get much opportunity but did seem to come through and make plays when they got the chance? Because we can only think they can't get less attention next fall. And again, if play action is your thing on a run-first team, tight ends as targets aren't a bad way to go. John Baxter, call your position players, including Florida transfer Imatorbhebhe who sat out last fall.

25) CHRIS TILBEY: From a fourth-year part-time rugby-style punter to a full-fledged Aussie -- from Melbourne -- USC will try to get some of that Down Under magic that has made Utah's Tom Hackett the nation's best punter the last two seasons. Here's hoping the 6-5 Tilbey can get flip the field with his rugby rolls since a team that wants to be physical and run the ball can't keep giving up short fields when it has to punt.

26/27/28) TO LOBENDAHN/CHUMA EDOGA/KHALIEL RODGERS: Not sure how this works out position wise for the multi-talented Toa coming off ACL surgery and the freshman starter Chuma, just learning how to play the game. We can see where one of them ends up might impact the other -- or maybe not. Just that having guys on this O-line who can push one another will matter a great deal.

29/30) ALEX WOOD/MATT BOERMEESTER: Not sure how the whole field goal/kickoff competition goes with Baxter back so it probably has to get better here as far as distance goes. USC has invested the scholarships. Now it's time for a return on that investment. Unless a new name appears here.

31) ACA'CEDRIC WARE: If it weren't for the talents of the RoJo/JD duo ahead of him, the tough freshman-no-more from Texas would be higher here in this run-first offense. He'll be ready to step in, no doubt. He'll benefit from the arrival of another recent Texan, T-Rob.

32) JOHN PLATTENBURG: A contact safety, Platt likes to mix things up. His 34 tackles had him right behind Marshall and Hawkins last fall and the eight-game starter will be on the field again doing his thing.

33) DOMINIC DAVIS: He can catch it, he's tough and got a chance -- at times -- to show it. And did you see his time in last weekend's 60 meters -- just behind Adoree' and the second best collegian at the University of Washington invitational meet. In 2016, USC will figure out how to fit that in.

34) KENNY BIGELOW: This is his time to step up and be the veteran leader on the defensive front for the redshirt junior whose career to this point has been a combination of potential and injury. But he's the man now. Trojans really need a veteran here. Nowhere else to look.

35/36) NICO FALAH/CHRIS BROWN: They got their chances with all the O-line injuries last fall and each had their moments. Now we're looking for more from these multi-positioned underclassmen to push hard and make the guys ahead of them better and a place for themselves if they don't.

37) DEONTAY BURNETT: Of all the newer and non-starting receivers, we think the slim but amazingly athletic second-year guy could be the one who separates himself from the rest. He can run and jump and find the open space and -- most importantly -- catch the ball.

38) LEON MCQUAY: It's time for the talented senior safety to make a place for himself on the field in this his final go-round. It won't be a gimme although the numbers say he's needed.

39/40)ISAIAH LANGLEY/JONATHAN LOCKETT: Two corners share the final two spots here with the junior Lockett having a couple of starts and the sophomore Langley coming fast at the end with similar stats.

So there you have our Top 40 for 2016. And yes, we know Jalen Greene, Jacob Daniel, Ajene Harris, De'Quan Hampton, Michael Hutchings, Malik Dorton, Scott Felix, Jabari Ruffin, Don Hill, Jordan Simmons, Connor Spears, Matt Lopes and Christian Rector aren't here for all sorts of different reasons. Let's see how this plays out.

Some of them almost certainly will be in the "Must Come Through" group as things change through the winter and the spring. And we'll include them in our next group when we finish our lookahead list.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.


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