Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 23 Southern California.
Remember yesterday when we visited the unfortunate reality that is Wisconsin’s schedule? Well, I promise you no tears were shed by the Trojans in Los Angeles. On top of again having to face one of the nation’s toughest slates, USC has to do so in the wake of one of the university’s oddest and more publicly embarrassing years since 2014, the year Josh Shaw “rescued” his nephew and Anthony Brown called out Sark for being racist.
The Steve Sarkisian saga—a disheartening tale of an openly struggling alcoholic that resulted in an ugly, ultimately settled lawsuit—and the embezzlement revelations concerning former athletic director Pat Haden, who spent the entire season wagging his holier-than-thou finger in Sarkisian’s face, marred the past 12 months for the entire athletic department. After all this time, LenDale was right.
The department is now attempting to move forward with a more stable core consisting of AD Lynn Swann and football head coach Clay Helton. Sadly, Sarkisian’s troubles and Haden’s greediness has forced many to stop thinking about how truly amazing it is that USC currently boasts two of the best athletes the program has recruited in the past decade. With this season likely being the final year prior to an NFL jump for cornerback Adoree’ Jackson and receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, the Trojans had better cash in while they still can.
Jackson is a three-way player at USC, the likes of which are a rarity given his productivity at each facet of the game. In a secondary boasting three upperclassmen, he goes as a shutdown corner in who nabbed one pick and defended eight passes last season; he goes as a return specialist with four returns for scores in two years; he goes as a receiver who averaged 15.3 yards per catch in 2015. Simply put, this man is getting paid to play football come next fall because he possesses athleticism that knows no boundaries, and has a knack for making people miss in the open field. I forgot to mention he is also the two-time Pac-12 long jump defending champion. And he’s not even USC’s “Guy To Know.”
The efforts of Jackson and Smith-Schuster will be all for naught if USC, as a team, is not able to collectively get its shit together and move on from last year’s fiasco. Time is not a friendly factor for the Trojans either—USC opens its season against Alabama, and will do so with a green quarterback. I can only imagine this makes Nick Saban happy, which makes me unhappy.
Cody Kessler has moved on to greener pastures, so redshirt junior quarterback Max Browne will likely start under center, as he’s had the edge over redshirt freshman Sam Darnold throughout the spring. Browne is a more prototypical quarterback in the sense he has a big arm, an asset not attributed to Kessler, that will make him useful with such speedsters on the outside. Darnold, though, is the more athletic of the pair—the Trojans originally recruited him as an outside linebacker, according to the Los Angeles Times. He will present Helton a redzone option, should the first-year coach opt to use his budding recruit in such a physical manner.
Up front, the Trojans return all five starting offensive linemen from last season; lining up behind Browne or Darnold will be senior running back Justin Davis and sophomore Ronald Jones II. The pair shined last season while sharing the backfield; both players cracked 900 yards rushing, combining for 1,889 yards and 15 scores to grant Kessler some relief. Even with threats such as Jackson, Schuster-Smith, and Darreus Rogers out wide, having a two-headed running game will be an immense help to the new first-time starter, whoever it is.
On the other side of the ball, the Trojans will have a few questions to answer come the season-opener, as USC lost five defensive starters this offseason. Although it does not provide all the answers, the program’s decision to bring back defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast is a good initial move. The man has worked miracles for the Arizona Cardinals and Cal Golden Bears and is plenty familiar with the Trojans—before Sarkisian sacked him in favor of the dreadfully bad Justin Wilcox, Pendergast was previously employed at USC in 2013, when he took a USC defense ranked seventh in the Pac-12 to the top of the conference in a single season. This time around, his task is a bit taller.
USC is without three starters from last year’s defensive line and had to replace three of its four starting linebackers as well. Sophomore linebacker Cameron Smith, the sole returning starter, was a joy to watch as a freshman in 2015. He racked up 78 tackles, picked off three passes, returning one for a score, and forced a fumble in 2015 despite missing the final five games of the season. While he’s not yet a marquee player in the sense of a Myles Jack or Scooby Wright (who is, really?), his potential within Pendergrast’s 5-2 system bodes well for the unit.
The base system Pendergrast will have the Trojans employ will be a 5-2, though it’s really more of a 3-4 with the outside ends being linebackers. Sophomore tackle Malik Dorton had a solid spring with the first team and garnered praise from his coaches, but the fact is he, along with classmates Rasheem Green and Jacob Daniel, have yet to start a game. Considering they may receive their first nod against Alabama, getting some of the more experienced linebackers on the field is a smart move from the Trojans’ new defensive play-caller.
JuJu Smith-Schuster is the nation’s top receiver heading into the 2016 college football season. When you watch the above highlight reel, note how many times Cody Kessler sits back in the pocket and just unloads the ball as far as he can. That’s the beauty of having Smith-Schuster on the outside—he has wheels like few others in college football, which will make Browne or Darnold’s job a helluva lot easier, especially considering Smith-Schuster will presumably have two healthy hands all season instead of one. The speedster broke his right hand against Cal in Week 9 last year—the next game, he went out and torched Arizona for 138 yards and a touchdown on eight receptions with an air cast on his hand.
If you need a reason to be happy about the fact Smith-Schuster will once again take the field sans cast, take a gander at what happened to Utah’s Domonique Hatfield the week prior to the Cal game.
RIP Hatfield, we barely knew ya.
No. USC has a ton of fun players on both sides of the ball, and it’s offense really is loaded beyond belief. But the defense will need some time to gel, and like I said, with Alabama, Stanford, and Utah in its first four games, time is a luxury this team won’t be afforded. The defensive line is going to need time to figure out how to play together, and the Trojan’s secondary, which allowed 25 scores through the air last year, still has to prove it can slow down Pac-12 aerial attacks. USC can and likely will be a top-25 team all season; the playoff just doesn’t seem like their final destination. That being said, the Trojans should do better than a third-consecutive Holiday Bowl appearance.
It’s too soon to tell with Helton. The players there really love him, though, and he’s apparently been pretty great with his two competing gun-slingers regarding the ongoing quarterback competition. But USC doesn’t have a great track record, so I’ve got my eye on him.
Sept. 3: Alabama
Sept. 10: Utah State
Sept. 17: @ Stanford
Sept. 23: @ Utah
Oct. 1: Arizona State
Oct. 8: Colorado
Oct. 15: @ Arizona
Oct. 27: Cal
Nov. 5: Oregon
Nov. 12: @ Washington
Nov. 19: @ UCLA
Nov. 26: Notre Dame