2021 Fall Camp Preview: The linebackers

Erik McKinneyabout 2 months
Aritcle written by:Erik McKinneyErik McKinney


Drake Jackson
The USC Trojans and the UCLA Bruins battle for the Victory Bell on Dec. 12, 2020. (John McGillen via USC Athletics)

USC’s 2021 fall camp kicks off with the first full practice on Friday afternoon and we’ll be previewing camp this week with a position-by-position look at the biggest storyline, notable new and returning names and what to expect during the 14 fall camp and 25 total practices before USC starts its season against San Jose State in the Coliseum on Sept. 4.

Previous entries:

The quarterbacks

The running backs

The wide receivers

The tight ends

The offensive line

The defensive line

The linebackers

USC needs a big year from Drake Jackson at outside linebacker. Jackson was phenomenal as a true freshman defensive end in 2019 and it shows exactly what kind of players he was that 2020 was considered an up-and-down year for him, considering he had 5.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, an interception and 20 total tackles in six games. He also made late-game impact plays to help win games against Arizona State, Arizona and UCLA.

Jackson wasn't fully healthy for the entire spring, but when he was on the field, he was dominant. USC needs him to be a leader on defense and for the whole team and that starts during fall camp. He's going to give the offensive tackles a ton of work and that should get both sides of the ball better. It will be worth watching to see how comfortable he looks at outside linebacker after a true offseason because last year he was working in his first year under defensive coordinator Todd Orlando and doing it without having had a spring ball to make that position transition. It would be a great sight for the USC defense if Jackson comes out on fire and dominates from the opening whistle.

The two inside linebacker spots will go to Kana'i Mauga and Ralen Goforth. These two have been good in spurts, but need to find consistency and bring a physical edge where they can control a game in the middle. Again, a full offseason under Orlando and an understanding they are the two guys in the middle and need to be leaders of the defense should be a positive thing for both. Last season was Goforth's first as a starter, so this will be a big camp for him in terms of taking that next step forward.

Depth has been a major issue for USC at all three linebacker spots as injuries have left the Trojans extremely thin at the position in past camps and seasons. Raymond Scott returns at inside linebacker, having made the move there from safety last year. He was a valuable reserve there last season and should be again this year. Tuasivi Nomura will be someone to watch at inside linebacker as well. He was a very late addition to the 2019 recruiting class but has developed into one of the team's most physical hitters. He should be in the mix to get into that two-deep at the position.

One of the more interesting fall camp storylines in terms of development will be inside linebacker Julien Simon. After playing a lot of his high school career in the secondary, the move to linebacker as a spring early enrollee was not made with a resulting quick impact. It's clear that Simon has a ton of talent, but the coaches were up front in saying he was working his way into playing the position at this level. He mostly ran with the third team and, now with an offseason under his belt, it'll be noteworthy to see where he is in that development. There are good things ahead for Simon, but we'll see how much run he gets during fall camp.

Much of Simon's available playing time could be dictated by the health of three veterans, in Jordan Iosefa, Solomon Tuliaupupu and Tayler Katoa. Combined, the three have not played football in nine years, due largely to injuries (Katoa also missed two seasons while serving a mission). There is a bunch of talent there, though it's difficult to know what kind of athleticism still remains. Iosefa missed the 2019 season after dislocating his kneecap and then the 2020 season following arthroscopic surgery on that same knee. Tuliaupupu had foot surgery and missed the 2018 season, further foot surgery causing him to miss the 2019 season and then a knee injury that knocked him out of the 2020 season. Katoa tore a ligament in his knee in 2017 as a true freshman, took a Mormon mission during the 2018 and 2019 seasons and then sat out the 2020 season with a knee injury. At this point, it's safest to not count on a ton of production from any of these three this season and going forward, but the potential of them getting on the field still exists, and that would be a huge bonus for the position and the defense. Getting a sense of what kind of shape they're in and how much they might be able to contribute during fall camp is on the must-watch list concerning the first few days.

Redshirt sophomore Kaulana Makaula will add to the depth at inside linebacker after making the move from safety during the spring. Walk-on inside linebackers Clyde Moore, Danny Lockhart Jr., Spencer Gilbert and Micah Croom are very much more than your typical walk-ons. All four could be called upon to contribute heavily on special teams. Croom played in all six games last season, as did Gilbert. Lockhart appeared in the conference championship game despite being a walk-on true freshman and Moore played against Oregon as well. It's a good group of walk-ons and they should boost the USC special teams and also give a good look during scout team work to the USC offense.

Behind Jackson at outside linebacker, Hunter Echols returns for his fifth season. The USC coaches did well to get both he and Jackson on the field at the same time last season and it wouldn't be surprising to see some of those looks again. Echols got a lot of run during the spring with Jackson sidelined at times and responded with a very good camp. USC has to be able to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks with this defense and did so at a good rate while only rushing four last season. With Echols, Jackson, Korey Foreman and the returning defensive ends, there's a lot to like about the edges of the defensive line for the Trojans heading into camp.

Eli'jah Winston and Juliano Falaniko are hoping they can shake past injury issues and stick at one spot this fall. Both have bounced between inside and outside linebacker during their careers and Winston missed all of last season with a broken ankle. Winston is a big, 6-foot-3, 240-pound linebacker and it'll be worth watching to see what kind of impact he can make during camp.

One of the true freshmen who will draw the most attention this camp is outside linebacker Raesjon Davis. At 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, he doesn't have the stature of a typical hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end, but Davis is an explosive athlete and could turn into a real problem for offensive tackles as a pass rusher. He also has the ability to play inside linebacker, so it'll be interesting to see exactly how he's used by the defensive staff. There is some instant-impact potential there with Davis because of his speed, instincts and ability to get to the football.

The outside linebacker position will also have walk-on Peter Esparza to provide depth.