The Trojans return to Brian Kennedy/Howard Jones Field this spring as defending Pac-12 champions but with a lot of questions about the program taking the next step in the college football landscape. USC coach Clay Helton had his contract extended by athletic director Lynn Swann, as did the contracts of offensive coordinator Tee Martin and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. That’s the kind of continuity Helton wants on his staff and now it’s time to translate that to continued improvement on the field.
One of the high-profile position battles will begin this spring as the Trojans look to find a replacement for Sam Darnold, and it will be Matt Fink and Jack Sears getting the first opportunity to make an impression on the Trojan coaches before JT Daniels arrives in the fall. Fink is a good athlete who dazzled USC fans with a touchdown run against Oregon State, and he completed 6 of 9 passes for 43 yards in limited action. Sears redshirted last season and offers a nice combination of passing and running skills. There will also be a new coach in charge of the position as Bryan Ellis takes over for Tyson Helton, who has moved on to be OC at Tennessee. Don’t expect a starter to be named at the end of spring, however, as Daniels is expected to compete for the starting spot in the fall.
This spring was supposed to be the time that Stephen Carr transitioned to the starting role after having his freshman season limited due to a foot injury. Unfortunately, Carr will be forced to sit out spring drills with a herniated disc so that means extended reps for Aca’Cedric Ware and Vavae Malepeai, two guys who certainly can make a case for bigger roles based on what we’ve seen from them in the past. We don’t know for sure yet who will be coaching them, there were reports over the weekend that Tim Drevno will be hired for the spot but nothing confirmed from USC yet.
The Trojans are set at the two outside receiver spots with Tyler Vaughns and Michael Pittman returning but there is a lot to be determined outside of those two slots. Don’t be surprised if Randal Grimes is one of the young receivers who steps up to claim more playing time, he’s got good size and a lot of athleticism. It remains to be seen if Jalen Greene will be taking part in spring as there are rumors he could be looking to transfer for a final year of playing QB elsewhere. We also don’t know the status of Joseph Lewis as he is being investigated for a domestic violence incident. Josh Imatorbhebhe will be there as he looks to establish a role for himself. In the slot, Deontay Burnett has moved on to the league so there is opportunity now for guys like Trevon Sidney, Velus Jones and Pie Young to assert themselves before Amon-Ra St. Brown arrives in the fall.
What is the health status of Daniel Imatorbhebhe? That’s probably the biggest question for the tight end group coming into spring because we never really saw Daniel at full strength last season. There is also the emerging rise of Josh Falo who should be ready for an an extended role. Tyler Petite showed us that he can be a dependable option if needed, and Erik Krommenhoek is also available. This is a deep group for new coach Keary Colbert to show what he can do.
Same as last year, the spotlight will be on the offensive line to see how they come together as a key component of the offense. The senior leader in the middle of the line is expected to be Toa Lobendahn, who will move back to center after spending last season as the USC left tackle (Toa has started at center, guard and tackle in his USC career) and he will be backed up by Bret Neilon and early enrollee Justin Dedich. Chuma Edoga at right tackle and Chris Brown are left guard are the other veterans, while Andrew Vorhees returns at right guard and Austin Jackson moves into the left tackle spot. Vorhees and Jackson showed a lot of promise last season as true freshmen. One of the important parts of spring will be to find out the key reserves along the line, from guys like Clayton Johnston, Jordan Austin, Nathan Smith, Alijah Vera-Tucker and Jalen McKenzie.
This could be one of the strongest units on the defense even with the departure of Rasheem Green. There are a few options to replace Green in the starting line-up, we could see Christian Rector get moved back from OLB where he spent time earning 2nd team All-Conference honors with Gustin out. We could also see Jay Tufele, a promising redshirt from last year, or junior college transfer Caleb Tremblay who comes with an impressive resume. At nose tackle, you aren’t going to find a much better young duo than Brandon Pili and Marlon Tuipulotu. although it remains to be seen how much Marlon will go in spring as he rehabs from a back injury. Malik Dorton is the lead guy at the other tackle spot with Liam Jimmons and Jacob Lichtenstein behind him.
Cameron Smith returns for his fourth spring ball as a Trojan and the leading piece in the middle of the defense. His presence gives Clancy Pendergast the signal-caller to get everyone lined up right and the hitter who has led USC in tackles the past two years. John Houston will enter spring as the starter at will linebacker and he finished the year strong. The interesting battles will take place at the reserve spots with guys like Levi Jones and Tayler Katoa, along with early entry Raymond Scott, as this is a chance to show the coaches what you can do before some big-time freshmen arrive in the fall.
At the outside linebacker spots, things look set for Porter Gustin to return, although it remains to be seen how much work he will get in the spring as he comes back from injury. Gustin is a physical senior who will help to set the edge of the defense. We saw two players move positions to fill in more than capably for Gustin in Christian Rector and Jordan Iosefa, and that gives Pendergast some options in how he plays those two moving forward. He could give them reps to spell Gustin, and he could also put them at defensive tackle (Rector) and the opposite outside linebacker spot (Iosefa). I think Iosefa could make sense to get a look at replacing Nwosu, and we also have Oluwole Betiku, Juliano Falaniko and Kana’I Mauga in that spot. Connor Murphy and Hunter Echols are also options behind Gustin.
The corner spot returns three starters in Iman Marshall and Jackie Jones on the outside, and Ajene Harris in the slot. However, with the recent news that Jones will miss spring ball, it figures that will be a huge opportunity for someone like Isaiah Langley, who filled in more than capably at times last fall. Greg Johnson returns from injury after a strong start to his freshman year and he could get in that mix. We don’t know the status on Jonathan Lockett but he offers a veteran for the rotation. You also have Jamel Cook, Ykili Ross and Jay Godfrey, along with early enrollee Chase Williams.
Marvell Tell returns as the clear leader of the safety group but there is an open starting spot alongside him following the departure of Chris Hawkins. Bubba Bolden certainly figures to get a look, and we could also see Isaiah Pola-Mao, C.J. Pollard and early enrollee freshman Talanoa Hufanga.
Chase McGrath returns as placekicker and Reid Budrovich as punter. Chris Tilbey and Michael Brown are also available as reserves. Ajene Harris handled punt returns and Velus Jones handled kickoff returns last season. Damon Johnson returns as the long snapper.
Garry Paskwietz (1966-2019)
Garry Paskwietz was a pioneer in bringing team-specific sports coverage to the internet. He founded WeAreSC in 1998 and was an Emmy winner for his work with Fox Sports West. Always generous with his time, knowledge, and compassion, he touched the lives of countless USC and high school football fans.