New leaders . . . just like the old leaders?

More leadership may have walked out the door after the 2016 season than talent that can't be replaced. It often appears that way in spring. But have USC's new out-front and push-from-behind guys started coming on now? Maybe, just maybe. Here's our list.

They're gone, almost all gone.

The wise heads. The go-to guys after practice or in the locker room who could calm and lead, cajole and even coerce, if needed, their younger teammates.

And talk -- to them and for them and, in our typical media self-interest, to us. Which is what we've been doing this spring, you might say, auditioning the next group of leaders.

Not that what we say matters here. What they say and do is all that counts. 

You know the names of those who left. JuJu, Adoree', Zach, Michael, Justin and Stevie T. That's 21 seasons of combined experience and 172 career starts of both in-game and post-game -- not to mention in- and post-practice -- leadership.

And that's a lot. As Nico Falah was saying Tuesday about the offensive departures -- "We lost a lot of guys -- a lot of old guys, good friends."

So did the defense, Nico was saying, but he figured they seemed to have replaced their losses a bit more quickly with new "old" guys. Which is probably how it's supposed to work -- it usually works faster on defense.

So let's look there first for the candidates to replace Hutch, Adoree' and Stevie. The leadership we see here on both sides of the ball comes from a combination of position, personality and potential to make an impact.

*** First, a dark horse candidate --Kenny Bigelow. His return from a second knee surgery has been inspiring. All the way back, he's led by doing. Now if he can get on the field the way everybody on this team hopes he can, he can be one old hand who, like Stevie T., just dropped into the picture for the Trojans. And no matter what, Kenny will have a chance to drive things and be that positive influence he was last season when all he could do was rehab and ended up as something of a grad assistant-type coach.

*** Next, there's the inside-outside linebacking duo of Cam Smith and Uchenna Nwosu. That's five years going on seven of official and unofficial take-charge time between them. Cam has been the serious signal-caller in the middle since he was a freshman. Uchenna the senior force on the edge who has found that special something in his final go-round. There's a special opportunity for these enforcers who are going to be in the middle of whatever this USC defense becomes. Talk to either of them and you can tell they get what Clancy Pendergast is trying to do. Now in what Clancy calls his "communication-heavy" defense, they get to be his on-field translators and enforcers. So far, so good.

*** No surprise here. Chris Hawkins has been that sound you hear when talking the Trojan secondary. He's not bashful. Thinks like a coach. Can step back and look at his teammates and say what'son his mind. Loves to say what he's thinking. Keeping in the mix at safety will be the key for C-Hawk. Perfect place for your senior leader. Then there's the much more quiet but driven-to-be-good Iman Marshall. He can lead by example, by his so-obvious competitiveness and drive to be the best.

*** Now to the offense where since Day 1 of the spring, it's been clear there's a pact between the Rose Bowl starring tandem of Sam Darnold and Deontay Burnett to take the lead. As they explained it, Sam's role is to get everything right in the huddle -- or in the play in the no-huddle -- and afterward calling out guys who don't get it right as the competitor in him makes him bring them along. As to Deontay, it's obviously not his nature to be vocal, he says, but he'll lead by example as the last man to leave the practice field, for example, wearing out the Juggs gun. Or by putting together one perfect practice after another.

*** With the voluble Zach Banner gone, it may take a pair of seniors to replace the big guy up front so that's our call -- Nico and his fellow multi-position and rehabbing senior -- Toa Lobendahn have the chance to step up here. At what positions, it's still to be determined. But Nico has been thinking about it as he talks of 2017 as "a big chemistry-building year" with him as one of the guys in the lab coats. "As a senior I'm trying to take on more leadership," Nico said Tuesday, talking like a coach about his back issues and potential position switch from center, a position he loves, to tackle, where it might be better for the team and his health. His take for this O-line: It must be in much better shape than a year ago as it already is. That could apply to Toa, coming back from his second knee surgery, who is more the strong, silent type from a football family who gets it. He's not 100 percent but he's out here every day snapping and building up that camaraderie a five-man O-line needs.

*** Then there's this pairing. When tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe talks, it's as if he's been here for far more than his single 2016 season of eligibility. The physically gifted Florida transfer but native Southern Californian speaks with an authority that allows him to lead. He gets it. But he'll have a young understudy out at wide receiver who is big and strong and talented and not afraid to show his competitive side. We're talking about Michael Pittman, another football-family guy who will be asked to make the tough-man catches that JuJu and Darreus Rogers made last fall -- those third-down,move-the-chain moments that matter so much. Do that and you take your leadership with those drive-extending first downs.


USC's Thursday practice will still start at 3:15 but will be in the Coliseum, not on campus. The public is still permitted to attend practice and sit in the South stands but parking in the Coliseum lots with some of the construction going on there could be iffy.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at

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