Preseason Preview: USC

Joe Healey, Staff Writer
ASU Devils

Arguably no team in the Pac-12 is entering the 2017 season with more national buzz and lofty expectations as the Trojans. USC ended last year on a none-game winning streak and with a young signal caller that is generating Heisman Trophy considerations. Our Joe Healey examines the USC Trojans.

Head Coach: Clay Helton (Second full season, 16-7 record)

Previously an assistant coach at Duke, Houston, and Memphis, Helton joined Lane Kiffin’s staff at USC in 2010 and served as interim head coach for the Trojans in their bowl game that year. He remained on USC’s staff under Steve Sarkisian and again was named interim head coach after Sarkisian was let go midway through the 2015 season. That year, Helton guided the Trojans to a 5-4 record and an appearance in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

From that point, Helton was signed on as a full-time head coach for the 2016 season and helped orchestrated a 10-3 finish that included a Rose Bowl victory over Penn State.

2016 Review: 10-3 (7-2 in Pac-12, 2nd in Pac-12 South)

The Trojans’ 2016 season can essentially be broken into two sections – B.D. and A.D, “Before Darnold” and “After Darnold”.

Max Browne was named starting quarterback for USC to begin the year and did little to prevent the Trojans from limping out of the gates, staring with a 52-6 embarrassment against Alabama in Arlington, Texas. After a win over Utah State, USC traveled to Stanford for a rematch of the previous year’s Pac-12 Championship Game, which resulted in a 27-10 loss for the Trojans.

With a 1-2 record an anemic offense unable to score more than 10 points in two of the first three games, USC made the switch away from Brown to redshirt freshman Sam Darnold.

Though start one was a defeat to Utah, Darnold and the Trojans picked up spectacular steam from that point with Darnold as the dynamic offensive catalyst starting with a 42-20 home victory over ASU followed by wins over Colorado, Arizona, and California to complete a perfect October.

The wins continued in November, starting with a home win against Oregon and then Darnold and the Trojans made a major statement by handing Washington its first loss of the season in Seattle on Nov. 12.

USC finished the regular season with rivalry wins over both UCLA and Notre Dame and with Washington winning the Pac-12 Championship Game and earning a spot in the College Football Playoff, the Trojans were picked to return to the Rose Bowl for the 34th time and survived with a thrilling 52-49 win over Penn State.

In all, USC finished the year on a nine-game winning streak, allowing the Trojans to enter the 2017 season with the FBS’ second-longest active winning streak behind Oklahoma (10).

Key Number: 58 – Assuming all of USC’s 2017 signees qualify and the current roster stays intact, the Trojans will have 58 players on the 2017 roster that were ranked a four or five-star prospect by Rivals.

Program Overview: Undoubtedly the most storied college football program on the west coast and one of the most illustrious teams in all college football, USC has reached levels of success unparalleled by its conference adversaries.

The numbers speak for themselves: 11 national championships, 38 conference titles, 34 Rose Bowl appearances, six Heisman Trophy winners (and a seventh abandoned because of misdeeds involving Reggie Bush), 80 Consensus All-Americans, 35 College Football Hall of Famers – and one very redundant fight song.

One of the 20 oldest active teams at the FBS level and the second-oldest behind California, USC began play in 1888. USC joined the Pacific Coast Conference in 1922, essentially the great-great grandfather to the Pac-12 Conference. That season, The Trojans made their first Rose Bowl appearance, playing Penn State.

USC would play in nine more Rose Bowl games between 1929-47 and then again following the 1952 and ’54 seasons.

The 1960s and ‘70s featured a major rise to national prominence for USC, as the Trojans claimed Rose Bowl wins and undisputed national titles in 1962, ’67 and ’72. In those decades, Southern California featured its first three Heisman Trophy winners in Mike Garrett (1965), O.J. Simpson (1968) and Charles White (1979).

The catalyst of the Trojans’ growth in the 1960s was head coach John McKay, who guided USC from 1960-1975 before going on to become the first head coach of the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers franchise. From there, former offensive coordinator John Robinson would take over from 1976-82 before becoming head coach of the Los Angeles Rams.

The majority 1980s were relatively slow for the Trojans – though Marcus Allen claimed a Heisman Trophy in 1981 – as USC posted no more than nine wins in a season from 1980-88, however, the Trojans appeared in Rose Bowls following the 1984 and ’87 seasons. Included in that span was a 4-6-1 finish in 1983 – the first year after Robinson departed – USC’s first losing season since 1960.

Ted Tollner, head coach from 1983-86, was replaced by Larry Smith, who took USC to three consecutive Rose Bowls to close out the 1980s. The early 1990s were not nearly as kind to Smith and the Trojans, as he was fired after the 1992 season and replaced by a familiar face – John Robinson, who was out of coaching for the 1992 season after finishing his NFL tenure with the Rams the previous year.

Robinson’s second tour of duty wasn’t nearly as memorable as his first, though he helped USC reach the Rose Bowl after the 1995 season. Back-to-back six-win seasons in 1996 and ’97 resulted in Robinson being replaced by Paul Hackett. Hackett lasted just three seasons and USC yet again made a coaching change after a 5-7 finish in 2000.

Many were left scratching their heads when the proud and prominent USC Trojans chose a man who had never been a college head coach and compiled a mediocre 33-31 record in four years in the NFL to lead their program in Pete Carroll.

The rest, as they say, was history – though some of it was certainly dubious history – as in year two, Carroll guided the Trojans to an 11-2 finish and a No 4 final ranking. The next year, USC claimed the Associated Press national championship and in 2004 the Trojans won the BCS title. From 2005-2008, USC would win no fewer than 11 games each year and finish no worse than fourth in the nation.

After a 9-4 season in 2009, Carroll was hired back into the NFL by the Seattle Seahawks after compiling a 97-19 record at USC with seven top-four finishes and seven straight BCS game appearances. He also coached two Heisman Trophy winners in Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush – though Bush’s has since been surrendered. Carroll’s departure occurred not long before investigations into Bush’s NCAA violations began.

To follow Pete Carroll’s incredible run but in the midst of NCAA investigations, former assistant Lane Kiffin was hired. Kiffin would last a little over three seasons as he was fired midway through the 2013 season. From there, former Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian took the lead but lasted a little more than one full season as personal issues cost him his job.

Clay Helton then stepped in to replace Sarkisian and helped guide the Trojans to the Pac-12 Championship game against Stanford following the 2015 season. He later had the “interim” tag removed as head coach and last season guided USC to a 10-3 record and its first Rose Bowl victory since 2008.

If the last decade has taught us anything about USC, it is that the Trojan program seemingly is one that as long as a self-destructive coach is not at the helm – such as, for example, both Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian – USC has the clout to recruit and succeed on prestige alone.

Series Record vs. ASU (Most Recent Meeting): USC 20, ASU 12 (USC 41, ASU 20 on Oct. 1, 2016, in Los Angeles)

The series began in spectacular fashion as in ASU’s debut season in the Pac-10 Conference the Sun Devils downed second-ranked USC in Tempe by a score of 20-7 in 1978.

From there, ASU would miss USC over two of the following three seasons but suffered a 23-21 defeat in Los Angeles in 1980.

ASU held an edge through the remainder of the 1980s, winning four games to USC’s two from 1982-88. From that point, the Trojans won three of four against ASU in 1990, 1992 and 1995 with a Sun Devil win in 1991.

The Sun Devils got back in the win column against the Trojans with a thrilling double overtime victory in 1996 and another victory in 1997 and after a loss at USC in 1998, the Devils claimed a win in Los Angeles in 1999.

The 21st century quickly became a decade of doom for the Devils against the Trojans, largely due to Pete Carroll restoring USC to national dominance early in the decade.

In total, ASU would lose 11 consecutive games over the Trojans from 2000-10, ranging from blowout losses to heartbreaking defeats.

ASU finally restored order by claiming a 43-22 win over the Trojans in 2011 and after losing in the Coliseum the next year, the Sun Devils earned back-to-back wins in 2013 and 2014 to secure its first win streak in the series since 1996-97.

Both the 2013 and 2014 victories had unforgettable moments for Sun Devil fans as the first win resulted in the infamous Lane Kiffin tarmac firing and the next season’s game included the instantly legendary “Jael Mary” game-winning pass from Mike Bercovici to Jaelen Strong as time expired.

ASU’s momentum came to a quick halt after that as the Trojans have posted two dominant victories the past two seasons, compiling an average win margin of 24.5 points between their 2015 and ’16 wins.

Current Series Streak: USC, 2

After ASU won two straight and three of four across the 2011-14 seasons to create the first win streak of any kind against the Trojans since 1996-97, things between the two teams have reverted to what was seen for through the first decade of the 21st century in terms of USC dominance over the Sun Devils.

Key Departures: OL Zach Banner, CB Adoree Jackson, WR Juju Smith-Schuster, DL Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, OL Chad Wheeler

Though his productivity was up-and-down his junior season and a clear step down from his spectacular sophomore year, there is no debating JuJu Smith-Schuster was one of the most physical and talented wide receivers in college football over the past few years.

A Second-Team All-Pac-12 pick as a junior in 2016, Smith-Schuster caught 70 passes for 914 yards and 10 touchdowns after totaling 89 receptions for 1,454 yards and 10 scores as a sophomore, helping him earn First-Team All-Pac-12 and Second-Team All-America honors that year. Like Jackson, Smith-Schuster bypassed his senior season to enter the NFL Draft.

One of the premier offensive linemen in college football the past two seasons, Zach Banner was a three-year starter at tackle for the Trojans. A First-Team All-Pac-12 member in 2015 and 2016, Banner was also a First-Team All-American as a senior and a Third-Team All-American as a junior.

Joining Banner to form one of the nation’s top offensive tackle duos was Chad Wheeler – a one-time ASU verbal commit – who started all four years at USC. The former Trojan left tackle was a First-Team All-Pac-12 selection as a senior after earning Second-Team All-Pac-12 accolades his junior season.

A graduate transfer from division foe Utah, Stevie Tu’ikolovatu came to USC for his final season of eligibility and in a fashion similar to ASU’s Devin Lucien in 2015 he improved dramatically after his transition from one league team to another and ultimately became an NFL Draft selection.

After redshirting at Utah in 2009 and serving a Mormon mission during the 2010-12 seasons, Tu’ikolovatu was a reserve in 2014 and spot starter in 2015. Last season, he was a Second-Team All-Pac-12 pick after posting 53 tackles including 2.0 for loss as a starter in 12 of 13 games played.

Players Selected in the 2017 NFL Draft: 5: DB Adoree Jackson (1st round, 18th overall to Tennessee), WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (2nd round, 62nd overall to Pittsburgh), OL Zach Banner (4th round, 137th overall to Indianapolis), DB Leon McQuay III (6th round, 218th overall to Kansas City), DL Stevie Tu’ikolovatu (7th round, 223rd overall to Tampa Bay)

Boasting its second-largest overall draft crop since 2011, USC’s NFL Draft output included its third first-round selection in the past three years.

Jackson and Smith-Schuster bypassed their senior seasons at USC to enter the 2017 NFL Draft, as did OL Damien Mama, who fell undrafted but was signed by Kansas City.

Top Returners: QB Sam Darnold, LB Porter Gustin, RB Ronald Jones II, DB Iman Marshall, LB Cameron Smith

Even with defending Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson returning to Louisville in 2017 and defending Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year Jake Browning returning to Washington, Sam Darnold is perhaps the most highly touted quarterback in the nation entering 2017 after his meteoric rise from backup to Rose Bowl MVP last season.

After USC fell to a 1-2 start under starting quarterback Max Browne, the redshirt freshman Darnold took over in the season’s fourth game. Though his starting debut resulted in a loss at Utah, from there Darnold would lead the Trojans to nine consecutive wins to round out the year – including an incredible comeback victory over Penn State in the Rose Bowl.

As a starter, Darnold averaged 295.0 passing yards per game and threw 29 touchdowns with eight interceptions. As a whole on the year, he threw for 3,086 yards with 31 touchdowns and nine interceptions and added 250 net rushing yards and two scores. He posted four 300-yard passing games in his 10 starts and had three games with five touchdown passes.

Darnold hauled in a laundry list of postseason accolades as he was named the Pac-12 Conference Offensive Freshman of the Year, a Freshman All-American and Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 selection. Entering 2017, Darnold may be the odds-on favorite to win the Heisman Trophy – or at worst should be on every Heisman Trophy short list imaginable.

USC loses its top two receivers in JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers but has a highly explosive crop of running backs to bring offensive firepower highlighted by running back Ronald Jones II.

One of just three returning 1,000-yard rushers in the Pac-12 Conference, Jones rushed for 1,082 yards on 177 carries with 12 touchdowns last season. Jones also caught 11 passes, one of which resulting in a touchdown. Jones should see an even greater workload as a junior in 2017.

On defense, a stellar group of linebackers returns guided by juniors Cameron Smith and Porter Gustin. The Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2015, Smith has tallied 161 tackles in two years while Gustin, heavily pursued as a recruit by ASU, has totaled 94 tackles including 20.0 for loss with 11.0 sacks during his first two years at USC.

The departure of Jim Thorpe Award winner Adoree Jackson opens the door for Iman Marshall to step in as the next great Trojan defensive back. Marshall has started 25 games over his first two seasons and has collected 118 tackles and six interceptions through his freshman and sophomore years.

2017 Signing Class Ranking: No. 6 nationally, No. 1 in Pac-12

USC capitalized on its first Rose Bowl appearance and victory since 2009 (wow, what a drought) with its second-highest signing class since 2011 – bested only by the Trojans’ No. 1 rated class in 2015.

Though USC didn’t sign any five-star prospects, the Trojans ranked third nationally with 17 four-star signees.

USC also was equally impressive in signing quality and quantity as its average star ranking of 3.74 tied for fifth nationally to complement the Trojans’ No. 6 overall class ranking.

The Trojans signed five of the top-15 prospects in the state of California and also snared two of the top recruits out of Arizona in OL Austin Jackson and DB Isaiah Pola-Mao.

Ultimately, USC enjoyed a substantial distance from the second-best signing class in the Pac-12 Conference as Oregon was the runner-up according to Rivals with a No. 18 national ranking.

Top Signees: DT Jay Tufele, RB Stephen Carr, WR Joseph Lewis, DB Bubba Bolden, DE Hunter Echols

The top recruit from the state of Utah, the fourth-best defensive tackle and the No. 38 overall prospect, Jay Tufele brings readymade size to the Trojan lineup. The four-star prospect also visited BYU, Michigan, Ohio State and Utah and at 6-3, 295 pounds he should be ready for action right away.

One of three defensive tackles signed by USC, Tufele should be among the candidates to replace departed starter Stevie Tu’ikolovatu or fill out the depth behind the starter.

Rated the second-best all-purpose back in the nation and the No. 38 overall prospect, Stephen Carr was committed to USC for nearly two years before signing with the Trojans. The four-star recruit visited ASU less than a month prior to Signing Day but stuck with his pledge to Southern California.

With Justin Davis having graduated, Carr likely will be one of a few prime candidates to spell returning 1,000-yard rusher Ronald Jones II.

The top wide receiver on the west coast and the most highly touted receiver to sign with a Pac-12 school in 2017, Joseph Lewis should have a fair shot at playing time as a true freshman with the absence of 126 combined receptions departing from the 2016 roster along with former starters JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers.

The No. 50 overall prospect and the seventh-best wide receiver in the nation, the four-star Los Angeles native reportedly visited Nebraska and Oregon as well and chose the Trojans the day before Signing Day.

Bubba Bolden. Bubba Bolden. Bubba. Bolden. Bubba-freakin’-Bolden. A player that could have – and in a realistic context should have been – ASU’s top signee for the 2017 class, Bolden’s family influenced him to become a Trojan while many believed his heart was set on Arizona State.

The No. 7 safety and No. 61 overall prospect in the 2017 class, the Las Vegas native also visited Ohio State and verbally committed to USC in early January of 2017.

Chris Hawkins and Marvel Tell return as the probable starters at safety, but Bolden could be among the group vying for time on the two-deep.

Rated the No. 68 overall prospect and the fourth-best weakside defensive end in the country, Hunter Echols committed to USC prior to the 2016 and with the exception of a November official visit to Oklahoma stayed precisely focused on the Trojans.

Though Rivals has Echols listed at 6-4, 220-pounds, the USC Signing Day press release measures him at 6-5, 240. If he is closer to the 220 mark, he could need a redshirt season to add weight but at 240 or more he could be an option as a reserve defensive end in 2017.

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