Shotgun Spratling | USCfootball.com

USC 2016 is different . . . Here's why

The question every summer at this time is whether this USC team really is bigger, faster, stronger, better and moving in the direction Trojan fans hope, as reports here say it is. We say yes. Here's why.

Yes. This USC team is many of the things USC fans hope it will be as we move past midsummer and just two days shy of the first August practice.

It is bigger, leaner, stronger, faster, more together and working both harder and smarter -- from everything we can see and observe and ask about -- than in recent years.

There's really no doubt about that. No doubt about this either: This team is still out of pads. You don't beat anyone on the nation's toughest schedule in shorts and t-shirts although what you do there matters a great deal. Is it good enough? Hey, that's why they play the games. We'll see.

But what about the things we can measure -- like experience? How does USC stack up there?

Not bad, says Phil Steele, in his mathematical rankings that quantify returnees and the quality and percentage of their starts and production at various position groups. He has USC No. 39 in the nation, the third best in the Pac-12 after Colorado and Washington State.

Nationally, only two ranked preseason teams are better -- LSU and Georgia. For a point of reference, Alabama is No. 116, Notre Dame 121 and Stanford 122. The good teams tend to turn over the talent, obviously. Guys move on early to the NFL. Good talent is waiting in the wings to replace them.

But does USC, because of the necessities of the NCAA scholarship limitations in previous years, hit that sweet spot this season regarding experience? Real talent in big numbers that picked up tough experience the hard way to start their college careers? We think maybe that's part of what we're seeing.

Not only does USC have 14 starters (nine on offense, five on defense) back, a decent number, it has 20 others who have started a total of 108 games among them. That's pretty amazing -- 34 former starters on this team. Not sure that number has ever been hit on any USC team we can remember.

But it's not the experience that sets this team apart, we think. It's the depth -- the numbers. Last year we focused on the Top 30 -- or was it 40 -- Trojans coming into the season. And that might have been the way to look at that team -- a collection of individual talent, which might have also described a coaching staff as it tried, not always successfully, to get on the same page.

While that coaching story line will play out as we move on to the season, the player numbers are playing out every day -- five days a week, they remind you, up from four last summer -- in the weight room and on the field.

The numbers matter. The talk doesn't. Zach Banner says he's advised that this USC team should "twork hard and shut our mouths . . . let Coach [Clay] Helton do the talking . . . it's good to have their buy-in." Not that they have any choice.

"Buy-in" is a big deal here with a big squad making it possible. Every player we've talked to notes how the weight room is a different place. It's their weight room now. They're the enforcers, these guys say. They tell the guys who aren't getting it done to get it done or . . . or what?

That's something that wasn't possible when they barely had enough players to fill out a 22-man one-deep. Now they do. Quinton Powell was talking the other day about how the full 11-man defense runs to the ball every play every day.

"Those big dudes are doing some running," he says. And that's after the most extensive conditioning sessions in recent years that precede them.

There's a reason why this is happening. It's in those numbers. Don't run to the ball on defense, don't run the right route on offense? Don't expect to play. There's another guy right behind you ready to step in.

We've started to notice that difference this summer the way we think about the position groups. Running back, for example. Sure, we hear and see how Justin Davis is in a different place as a senior leader. But not in all that different a place from Ronald Jones and Aca'Cedric Ware, or Dominic Davis, even walkon James Toland, who neither looks not acts like a guy without a scholarship. Or even freshman Vavae Malepeai, the Stanley Havili lookalike. Add then there's converted linebacker fullback Reuben Peters. This is a group thing here with one ready to step in for the other. And they're coming in with experience, not just a hope and a prayer.

Then there's tight end. It's not possible to look at these guys in any other way than as a three-headed monster -- the way they do themselves, as Tyler Petitie was saying the other day of his multiple-threat buddies Taylor McNamara and Daniel Imatorbhebhe. And lean as he is, the nearly 6-foot-7, 230-pound freshman Cary Angeline never seems to not catch the football.

On the offensive line, the numbers are even better. There are basically three first-team tackles among Banner, a bigger, stronger 317-pound Chad Wheeler and quick-footed sophomore Chuma Edoga. That's not counting incoming freshman E.J. Price, the 6-foot-6, 325-pound Georgian they think has a chance to see the field. Four guards could easily start with Viane Talamaivao, Chris Brown, Damien Mama and Jordan Simmons sharing the spot. Center? Toa Lobendahn and Nico Falah are back there. Backups include Nathan smith, Jordan Austin, Clayton Johnston, Cole Smith and freshman Frank Martin.  

Among that top 10 group, there are 122 total career starts. As Phil Steele says, that's a big deal.

At wide receiver, USC brings back the top three -- JuJu Smith-Schuster, Darreus Rogers and Steven Mitchell who combined for 34 starts last fall. But really, it's the dozen or so -- including the two-way freshmen behind them -- without even mentioning Adoree' Jackson, that jumps out here even without the room to name them all. Isaac Whitney has started. So has Jalen Greene and De'Quan Hampton is playing like he maybe should have. Again, numbers USC hasn't seen in a long time when you note the way Deontay Burnett, Josh Imatorbhebhe, Michael Pittman and Tyler Vaughns have shown up this summer. And numbers that play out in the way this team can run its summer stuff without even trying. You don't have to tell them to run hard, run it right, they really have no other choice.

Even at quarterback, it's a two-man show -- Max Browne and Sam Darnold. Again, that's depth and where it matters most, USC has the numbers that matter. Two guys who can run first-team reps.

Flip to defense. Start up front, the position that Clay compares to USC's O-line group two years ago -- young, too thin and not enough experience. Uh oh. And then along comes 25-year-old Stevie Tu'kolovatu, the soon-to-be blueshirt graduate transfer from Utah's best D-line in the conference. And Josh Fatu, the sleeper from Long Beach CC along with the switch of nine-time O-line starter Khaliel Rodgers. The group of most improved spring ball player Malik Dorton, the talented Rasheem Green, Noah Jefferson, Jacob Daniel, Kevin Scott, Liam Jimmons and Christian Rector were seeming like they were going to have to go it alone. And then -- reinforcements.

But it may be at linebacker, inside and out, where Clay thinks USC has even more numbers that matter. Start with freshman All-American Cam Smith, who they believe will be back full-go from knee surgery, then add in the starting experience of Olajuwon Tucker, Porter Gustin, Michael Hutchings, Uchenna Nwosu and Jabari Ruffin with the likes of Osa Masina, Powell and Don Hill with five-star John Houston, now healthy, and that's a ton of guys pushing guys. Then there are incoming freshmen Connor Murphy, Jordan Iosefa and Oluwole Betiku, newcomers with imposing physical skills. Two walkons also matter here -- veterans Joel Foy and Grant Moore.

Then there's the secondary. A case could be made that USC has never had this many athletes who can play. In the entire Pac-12, there are three five-star secondary recruits. All three reside at USC -- Adoree', Iman Marshall and freshman Jack Jones, who comes in with Adoree' athleticism. And that's just the start here. Add Chris Hawkins and John Plattenburg and that's all four starters back. Then factor in senior Leon McQuay with a dozen career starts into the nickel slot guy and two-time starters Marvell Tell and Jonathan Lockett and one-time starter Ajene Harris, coming on strong after his switch to defense,     

But it doesn't end there. Ykili Ross is back and the 6-foot, 200-pounder redshirt freshman looks ready to go with Isaiah Langley, freshmen Keyshawn Young, Jamel Cook and C.J. Pollard with a host of valuable walkons led by redshirt junior Matt Lopes with Davonte Nunnery, Kevin Carrasco, Yoofi Quansah, Jalen Jones and Deion Hart. By our count, that's 20 in a secondary that will most often play five. Not bad numbers including this one: 85 career starts for this group.

And finally, even though USC doesn't list any returning starters on special teams, really there are. Senior long-snapper Zach Smith has 40 flawless career starts, Adoree' is obviously back although with maybe not in a double return role, focusing more on punts. And lefty kicker Matt Boermeester has a start and game experience with redshirt Aussie rugby punter Chris Tilbey at least having an entire practice season behind him.

"I think our special teams will be the difference against Alabama," says Powell, who may just lead that group. But not as individuals, as a group. In numbers we haven't seen here in a long while.

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

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