SPRING PREVIEW: YOUNG GUNS LEAD LINEBACKERS

With starters Cameron Smith and Olajuwon Tucker back, it's on the inside where USC's defensive toughness starts.

With USC’s outside linebackers now considered D-linemen for the purposes of Clancy Pendergast’s 5-2 alignment, we’ll focus here on the inside linebackers.

And much like for the outside guys, inside it’s been a youth movement – with talent and experience leading the way despite the loss to graduation of three-year starters Anthony Sarao and Lamar Dawson.

Of note here, with the loss of Peter Sirmon to Mississippi State as defensive coordinator, USC switched running backs coach Johnny Nansen to linebacker -- his college position. Should be a better fit.

That’s because you start with Pac-12 freshman defensive player of the year Cameron Smith, the surprise of 2015 for his leadership, toughness and total skill set. Despite his ACL injury requiring surgery and rehab through this spring, after 10 games he was tied as USC’s top tackler with Su’a Cravens. Both had 78. The 6-foot-3, 245-pound Smith also had three interceptions in the turnaround upset over Utah for 122 yards and a touchdown.

Here’s what we said about Cameron, whose spring action will be limited, in ranking him No. 5 among Trojans who must come through in 2016: “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.”

But he won’t be alone. Back from his starter’s role in three of the final four games, ever-improving junior Olajuwon Tucker, is a 6-foot-3, 235-pounder who has grown into his role with each game that included team-high tackle totals of nine against Oregon and 13 against Stanford.

Here’s how we ranked Tucker as USC’s No. 11 player: “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.”

We’re not as sure of where to put the next two second-year guys or for one of them, when. Talented sophomore Osa Masina looks like he’ll get a look both inside and out as they try to figure out the right spot for the Utah native “Too much talent, too much ability,” we said of him and fellow Utah linebacker Porter Gustin. “Not sure where they're going to be in the reconfigured 3-4/5-2 defense but they better be somewhere . . . 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."

Why USC recruited five-star John Houston from Serra is obvious. Now it’s time to find a place for him as he works his way back from a redshirt freshman season that had a lingering back problem cause him to sit out his first year. Here’s our evaluation: “Not sure what's up with his back injury that wasn't going to require surgery but did keep the Serra five-star outside linebacker from stepping in this past fall. He was supposed to be able to rehab it and outgrow it without surgery so spring should be a big deal for the 6-foot-3, 220-pounder who could only watch and wait last fall.”

One good piece of news for USC is that veteran senior Michael Hutchings will be back. He’s done everything USC has asked of him when he’s had to step in and step up. Here’s our take: “The senior inside linebacker from De La Salle has operated pretty much under the radar but when given the chance, as he was in the Oregon and UCLA games where he recorded eight tackles, or in practice where he's a tough out, he's come through. Look for nothing less in his final season.”

Then there’s the walkon pair who make this position USC’s toughest in practice as Joel Foy and Reuben Peters have done nothing put push and play hard every single day. And if given the chance, can contribute on game day. They’re everything a top team needs when it comes to walkons.

LINEBACKERS

Joel Foy, Jr.

John Houston, RFr.

Michael Hutchings, Sr.

Osa Masina, So.

Reuben Peters, So.

Cameron Smith, So.

Olajuwon Tucker, Jr.

Seventh in a series of fall position previews for the 2015 Trojans. Next: Secondary.

Here's the spring practice info:

*** The dates of USC’s 2016 spring football practices are: March 8-10-12-22-24-26-29-31-April 2-5-7-9-12-14-16.

*** Spring practice times: Tuesday and Thursday practices at 3:30 p.m., Saturday practices at 10 a.m. (except the April 16 Spring Game at 3 p.m.). All practices will be held on Howard Jones Field/Brian Kennedy Field on campus, except for two practices at the Coliseum (March 26 and the April 16 Spring Game).

*** All of USC spring practices will be open to the public for viewing from a designated area on the east side of Howard Jones Field (north of Goux’s Gate) or from the south stands at the Coliseum.

. *** USC's Spring Game will be Saturday, April 16, at 3 p.m. in the Coliseum. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at the door (or online on USCTrojans.com).

*** USC's Pro Day is March 23 at 10 a.m. on Loker Stadium’s Cromwell Field. It is closed to the public.

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

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