When USC brought in four linebackers all rated at four-star or above in the 2015 recruiting class, it was to be a resurgence of the position harkening back to the Pete Carroll days when Brian Cushing, Rey Maualuga and Clay Matthews were gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Cameron Smith did his part, quickly taking over the middle linebacker role and leading the team in tackles as a true freshman until tearing his anterior cruciate ligament. Porter Gustin and Osa Masina also carved out reserve roles as true freshmen.
That left John Houston Jr. as the lone 2015 linebacker not contributing immediately. But he couldn’t. Houston dealt with back problems all season and was eventually shut down, leaving him behind the rest of the group as he had to redshirt.
He’s trying to make up for lost time this year.
“It feels good to be back on the field,” Houston said. “I’m just ready to get every play I get -- special teams, defense, anything I'm in -- I'm going to be ready to make a play."
John Houston Jr. and Leon McQuay III bring down a Stanford ballcarrier in the fourth quarter. (Shotgun Spratling)
The 6-foot-3, 220-pound inside linebacker has become a special teams regular and earned his first defensive opportunities against Stanford when USC countered the Cardinal’s ‘Ogre’ lineup with a heavy defensive package. The Trojans removed three defensive backs and brought an extra lineman along with Houston and freshman Jordan Iosefa at linebacker when Stanford went with extra blockers and took out its receivers.
With Houston and Iosefa on the field, USC held Stanford to 4.6 yards per play compared to 7.0 when they weren’t. They’re play on Saturday prompted Clay Helton to call them “the future” of the USC defense.
“When you look at what these two kids are doing, I know Clancy is ultra excited about both. I did not think Jordan would be this far along this fast,” Helton said. “You’re talking about two really talented young linebackers.
“No. 56 [Iosefa] and No. 10 [Houston] are going to do some great things for this university. Really excited they’re here.
Houston and Iosefa played 13 defensive snaps and combined for five tackles. For Houston, his three-tackle performance was about seizing the moment.
“I just took that opportunity to make my best out of it and make as many plays as I could.”
“I’m really proud for John,” Helton said. “You remember him having to sit out basically a whole year to get his back right. Now it’s right. He’s playing good ball, helping us on special teams.”
The challenge for Houston and the USC defense was trying to bring down Stanford’s electric Heisman candidate Christian McCaffrey, who had success by staying patient behind his big offensive line. He calmly waited for small creases to open up and then burst through for solid gains.
USC was able to limit McCaffrey to two yards or less on 11 carries, but McCaffrey was able to rush for seven or more yards 11 times as well. He finished with 172 yards on 31 carries.
“[To bring down McCaffrey,] you just have to trust your job,” Houston said. “Everybody got to do their job on the defensive line, linebackers, safeties and if everybody does their job, somebody is going to make the play.”
USC linebacker John Houston Jr. stuffs Christian McCaffrey on the goal line on third down. (Shotgun Spratling)
Houston thought the defense did a “pretty good job” against Stanford, but didn’t execute consistently enough to stop the big plays.
“We just go back and go back to the drawing board. Everybody has to execute their jobs.”
The Trojans will once again be tested by a physical offense that will try to wear down USC’s defensive front. The early season matchups against Alabama and Stanford should help prepare the Trojans even though they are facing a short week.
“I feel like the defense is going to be ready. Offense going to be ready. The whole team is going to be ready. It doesn't matter if it's a short week or not, Friday we're going to be ready.”
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