Heading into USC football’s spring practice, there are a lot of questions that a new coaching staff is trying to search for answers for. Among those is position battles, position fits and overall improvement from individuals.
All eyes will be on Max Browne as the heir apparent to Cody Kessler and the “competition” between he, Sam Darnold, Jalen Greene and Matt Fink to take over the illustrious position of USC quarterback.
But there also huge questions that must be answered at defensive line where the Trojans lost five seniors and on the edge where Su’a Cravens was a tremendous playmaker. New-old special teams coach John Baxter will also be breaking in some newbies.
Here’s the 10 must-watch players battling for positions and playing time:
1. Max Browne - The reason competition is in quotes above is because the quarterback spot is Browne’s…unless he utterly flops. There’s no way that Sam Darnold is going to beat Browne out unless he has completely regressed in the offseason. Browne is too talented to be beat out. However, there is real concern about his progression. What has Browne learned during his time at USC? Is he the same quarterback as he was in high school? Now that the job is his to lose, we need to see him take the next step.
2. Scott Felix - After losing his starting job at rush end at the end of the season, Scott Felix needed a strong offseason to reclaim a starting spot. Instead, “his status for the 2016 season currently is undetermined because of a personal issue.” Will Felix practice and what position will he play if he does? Clancy Pendergast moved Felix from inside linebacker to outside in 2013, but Felix was still recovering from neck surgery the first half of the season. Will Pendergast see him in the same spot? Can he reclaim any playing time with so many talented young guys at defensive end/outside linebacker?
3. Chad Wheeler - Is he back with the team? Clay Helton said Chad Wheeler would be welcomed back by the team after his off-field incident right before the bowl game, but does that also mean he’ll be welcomed back to the starting lineup as well? Zach Banner wouldn’t mind taking over that left tackle spot that he manned in Wheeler’s absence. After a lackluster junior year, Wheeler has to prove his value on the field.
4. Osa Masina - Much was expected from five-star linebacker Osa Masina. Many predicted him to be the best of the incoming defensive class, but instead Masina got buried on the depth chart playing inside linebacker and got banged up multiple times. Now he is being moved to the edge by Clancy Pendergast — something many fans have been clamoring for since the fall. Can he become a hair-on-fire rusher? If so, he could vie for a starting role with his ability to cover.
5. Matt Boermeester - USC borrowed ahead a class to bring Boermeester in as a scholarship kicker. He was beat out by veteran walk-on Alex Wood last season, but Wood has departed. The original USC blueshirt, Boermeester has to prove that wasn’t an ill-advised decision by a head coach that made several. The left-footed kicker has a strong leg, but can he make the ball go straight.
6. Kenny Bigelow - Injuries derailed the start of his USC career, but the highly touted five-star defensive lineman hasn’t shown the consistency worthy of that loft high school ranking since getting healthy. Bigelow had a couple of flashes of his playmaking ability last year, but never could truly break into the defensive line rotation. Well he’s now the veteran of the group rather than the understudy. He has the inside track for a starting role, but he has to show new defensive line coach Kenechi Udeze, he can consistently make an impact.
7. John Plattenburg - The Cali/Texas safety had an up-and-down 2015. He was the expected starter and then lost his spot. Then seemingly gained or lost the starting role and/or playing time back and forth throughout the season. Plattenburg never complained, but never fully asserted himself. In USC’s spring guide, he is considered a returning starter, but Leon McQuay III and Marvel Tell III both will be fighting for that spot as well. With Chris Hawkins and Ykili Ross likely limited due to off-season surgeries, Plattenburg will have plenty of opportunities to prove his abilities.
8. Leon McQuay III - Not far behind Plattenburg is McQuay III. He looked great in the middle of the season, earning the starting nod against Utah and California. He finally appeared to have turned the corner and fully tapped into his five-star potential, but then he sprained his knee trying to block a field goal in practice and never got back to the playing level he was at during those two weeks starting. As a senior, McQuay III has a lot to prove this season.
9. Uchenna Nwosu - One of the Trojans’ biggest playmakers when he gets around the ball, Nwosu was stuck behind Su’a Cravens last season and didn’t get a ton of chances to get on the field. After an injury to Cameron Smith, Nwosu moved inside part time and that move appears to be permanent now. The high school linebacker/safety has an ability to cover the middle of the field, but can he be a consistent downward tilt run-stopper? That’s what needs to be seen this spring with Smith still recovering from his knee injury.
10. Daniel Imatorbhebhe - USC seemed hesitant to bring Imatorbhebhe in at first last season, but when the freshman transferred in from Florida after spending a spring there, the blueshirt tight end showed tremendous athleticism and an ability to make plays. Without any fullbacks on the roster, USC plans to use tight ends to fill the void and if Imatorbhebhe can block adequately, he seems to be the top candidate to feel that role because of his overall athleticism. With only three scholarship tight ends to fill both the tight end and fullback positions, there will be plenty of opportunities for the older Imatorbhebhe.