As the focus changes from the incoming 23-man Class of 2017 to the USC team that will take the field in the fall, it's time to turn our focus as well. And to look at how this might all play out for them.
Last year at this time, we were pretty certain that, as talented as the Class of 2016 was, there just wasn't all that much need for them. Not with the new lives that were being extended to seniors like Leon MqQuay, Michael Hutchings and Quinton Powell, for example. Or the fortuitous recruiting of grad student Stevie Tu'ikolovatu.
Turns out we were right. Just six rookies appeared on the two-deep for the Rose Bowl, none as starters.
But not for lack of talent. The redshirt and Scout Team class was as deep and competitive as we've seen here. And a big part of USC's ability to get better as the season went on. Because those guys got better. And practices got better.
And now a couple of dozen of those second-year guys are first in line for the fight to replace the 17 names on the two-deep who will not return. This is how the big boys do it when they re-load.
USC is re-loading here.
And it's not going to be easy to get on the field. Between Clancy Pendergast on defense and Tee Martin and Clay Helton on offense, USC coordinator types can be very choosy. You will not get on the field because of where you were recruited. Or how many starts you had after your name.
"The best 22 will play," Clay Helton said on Signing Day. Or 28 counting the six special teams guys. But as much as that was a promise to the opportunity these first-year signees have, it was a statement for a ton of guys ready to step up and step in.
But what are the chances, and where exactly might those chances be, for rookies to realize this opportunity in the short run?
Actually, despite the presence of all the talent and numbers ahead of them, there would seem to be more of an opportunity for this class to make an immediate impact than the 2016 class. Here's the outlook by position group opportunity:
*** LONG SNAPPER: One rookie will definitely start with Glendora's Damon Johnson a cinch as the scholarship snapper to replace four-year starter Zach Smith. He's in school already and will have the spring to get acclimated to holdover place-kicker Matt Boermeester, punter Chris Tilbey and holder Wyatt Schmidt. The regular first-year starter last fall was nose tackle Stevie T but he was a grad student transfer who wasn't scholarshipped until August practice.
*** RUNNING BACK: The next best path to the field for Game 1, we think, belongs to Stephen Carr whose size and hands and all-around abilities as a physical receiver/runner will allow the rookie to replace Justin Davis as the "every down back" USC's offensive coaches can't wait to throw the ball to.
*** DEFENSIVE LINE: By the numbers, you could say that the D-line is not where the next best opportunity will come. Sure, Stevie T. may be the single-most missed player on the roster and there are three-two-deep guys to step in here -- Josh Falo, Malik Dorton and Jacob Daniel. But as you look at the talent coming in, especially Marlon Tuipulotu (6-3, 295) out of Oregon and Utah's Jay Tufele (6-3, 295), there will be a rookie in there -- probably two. And probably those two. Their size is perfect. Not too elongated, no 6-6 guys here. We like Marlon's low center of gravity and quick-twitch state wrestling champion balance and hands -- and the fact that he's here for spring. And we like Tufele's arm action and feet with the kind of speed moves you don't often see from high school guys. And that's not to put down Brandon Pili (6-4, 320), the athletic Alaskan by way of Oregon, and Floridian Jacob Lichtenstein (6-5, 255) when he fills out. These guys did not seem to depend on their size to get it done against high school competition.
*** LINEBACKER: With the loss of one inside guy -- Hutchings -- and one inside/outside guy -- Powell, there would seem to be a real chance for the four linebacker recruits to make an impact somewhere. Again, we think we know where these guys will land but the way there was mixing and matching last fall, let's let that play out for the six returning ILBs and OLBs where some of the best talent on this team resides -- starting with Cameron Smith, Uchenna Nwosu and Porter Gustin backed up by Connor Murphy, Oluwole Betiku and Olajuwon Tucker. But give Levi Jones (6-2, 215), Tayler Katoa (6-2, 220), Juliano Falaniko (6-4, 220) and edge guy Hunter Echols (6-5, 240) a real shot to get into this group with at least two of them getting on the field.
*** OFFENSIVE LINE: Numbers alone would say it's on the O-line where the next best chance lies with the loss of five from the two-deep including a pair of three-year starters at tackle in Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler -- not to mention the transfer of top freshman E.J. Price. And yet, unless you have the kinds of roster emergency USC had three years ago when freshmen Damien Mama, Viane Talamaivao and Toa Lobendahn were all forced to start, this isn't that situation where the cupboard is completely bare. Nor is there any more difficult place for a true freshman to find the field. This is so not like high school for these big guys. Although even Alabama started a true freshman on the O-line against USC -- a kid from Folsom, Calif., to boot. So it can be done. But for USC legacy Austin Jackson (6-6, 290) or Oakland's Alijah Vera-Tucker (6-4, 300) or Santa Margarita's Brett Neilon (6-2, 295) or Kingsburg's Andrew Vorhees (6-6, 290), who is in for spring, to have an impact, they'll have to jump in line ahead of the returning, rehabbed Toa not to mention sometime starters Chuma Edoga and Chris Brown as well as Roy Hemsley, Nathan Smith and Clayton Johnston. Going to be an interesting August. Not sure we see any starters here but Jackson seems to have the best shot at the two-deep on a re-mixed O-line.
*** WIDE RECEIVER: The numbers also would say that with four two-deep wide receivers departing, and Steven Mitchell rehabbing his second major knee surgery, there would be a chance for someone to join lead man Deontay Burnett. Except that is, for the five second-year guys -- four of them redshirts -- with all the talent needed to step in. Michael Pittman leads this group followed by redshirts Josh Imatorbhebhe, Tyler Vaughns, Velus Jones and Trevon Sidney, rehabbing after hip surgery. There's a place for each of them on the field after seeing them in action last fall. But that doesn't mean that there's not room for the two signees. The departure of JuJu Smith-Schuster leaves room for Hawkins High's Joseph Lewis IV (6-2, 205) , considered by some the nation's best, to step in there. And for the physical combo of Darreus Rogers and De'Quan Hampton, Las Vegas' Randal Grimes (6-4, 205) fits the bill. Let the competition begin.
*** SECONDARY: Again, a position group where the numbers say there's a chance for the talented new guys with the departure of corner Adoree' Jackson and safety Leon McQuay. But holdover starters Iman Marshall and Marvell Tell and two-deepers Chris Hawkins, Ajene Harris and Jack Jones along with veterans Jonathan Lockett, John Plattenburg, C.J. Pollard, Matt Lopes and second-year guys Pie Young and Jamel Cook not to mention the offense/defense possibilities like Isaiah Langley and Ykili Ross, won't make it easy for them. The tall, athletic trio of Bubba Bolden (6-3, 190), Je'Quari Godfrey (6-2, 185) and Isaiah Pola-Mao will be on the field some day for USC, no question about that. Whether that some day is at the end of this summer is the question.
*** QUARTERBACK: Higher than you might think for this spot with Sam Darnold coming back but we're thinking this will be a USC team capable of putting up lots of points and interested in getting the heir-apparent to Sam as much action as possible this season. Which is where Jack Sears (6-3, 205) comes in to battle Matt Fink and WR/QB Jalen Green for the backup spot. He will get the chance and very much have a chance here.
*** TIGHT END: These last two positions are longer shots for the first-year guys and that's not meant as any comment on the signees' talents. Take for example this position where with the departure of Taylor McNamara from the three-man position group with the dangerous Daniel Imatorbhebhe and Tyler Petite, talented redshirt receiver Cary Angeline slides right in at 6-foot-7 with excellent hands and route-running. But that's not to say that the rangy pair of Josh Falo (6-6, 235) and Erik Krommenhoek (6-5, 245) will have nowhere to go. As was smartly noted by Gerard Martinez the other day, having two players this talented challenging the starters every day on the Scout team will work for both groups -- especially Stanford Week when getting to go against a two-tight end set is imperative.
*** RETURN SPECIALIST:You'd think with the loss of Adoree' Jackson and all those kickoff and punt returns might open a spot here for Hawkins athlete Greg Johnson, although his high school play has seen him maybe more likely on either defense or offense. But for now, we'll slot him here as the lone possibility to join the likes of Burnett and Jack Jones as punt returners and Harris, Jones and Dominic Davis as kickoff return possibilities. Although it's not always easy to convince coaches to go with the rookies on returns, especially punts.
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