Cleat Geeks

2016 Pac 12 Preview: USC Trojans

For the first time in nearly a decade, the South division looks to crown the Pac-12 champion – and this very well could be the year that they do so. The favorite within the division looks to be the Trojans of USC. Despite moving onto their third head coach in five years, the Trojans enter the season with arguably the highest expectations of any team in the conference, and deservedly so. They have all the pieces to make a legit run at a conference championship, but can Clay Helton lead them to glory in his first full season as the headman in LA? The UCLA pose the biggest threat to USC as they return promising sophomore QB Josh Rosen, a QB with #1 pick potential. His talent alone could lead the Bruins to a conference championship. One of the most underrated teams in the country, the Arizona Wildcats are a sleeper to take the conference this season, but will they be able to overcome the likes of USC and UCLA? Kyle Whittingham leads a strong Utah unit year after year, but will their depleted offense be able to keep up with other high-powered offenses in the country? Arizona State has one of the best RB tandem in the country, but their defense still poses as a liability to giving up the big play; they may be a year or two away as Manny Wilkins needs experience under center. Colorado went 1-8 in conference play last season, but they return 16 starters, and experience goes a long way in the college game.Pac12IntroPhoto

Take a look as we dig deep into the Pac-12 South division. Comment with some predictions of your own for the USC Trojans and if you think they’re the favorite to win the Pac-12 this season. Follow @JonValencia_WiB for more Pac-12 updates throughout the off-season as we gear up for opening week.

1 – USC Trojans (9-3, 7-2 – SOUTH)

Players to Watch: QB Max Browne, RB Justin Davis, RB Ronald Jones, WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, OT Zach Banner, OT Chad Wheeler, DE/LB Jabari Ruffin, DT Rasheem Green, LB Cameron Smith, CB/WR Adoree’ Jackson
Key Departures: QB Cody Kessler, RB Tre Madden, C Max Tuerk, LB/S Su’a Cravens, CB Kevon Seymour

The former Pac-12 powerhouse hasn’t quite lived up to their rich, prestigious history since Pete Carroll jetted for the NFL all the way back in 2010. The Trojans have since seen only two double-digit win seasons in the past six seasons and haven’t won a conference title since 2008. Following Carroll’s departure, USC has now appointed their third head coach as Clay Helton’s interim status was removed following his 5-4 finish, including a 5-1 conference record after Steve Sarkisian’s mid-season dismissal. The team showed a lot of heart and willpower under Helton’s guidance – something they seemed to be lacking over the past five years or so. They enter the season with huge expectations, as many expect them to take the conference in 2016.

AP Photo/Gregory Bull

AP Photo/Gregory Bull

It all starts on the offense which features one of the best wide receivers in the nation, JuJu Smith-Schuster. A strong candidate for the Biletnikoff award, Smith-Schuster is a dynamic playmaker on USC’s offense and hauled in nearly 1,500 yards and 10 TDs last season. Super athlete Adoree Jackson may even be more dynamic than Smith-Schuster. While a primary cornerback, Jackson has blazing speed and big play ability and will contribute on offense. Reliable senior Darreus Rogers adds a consistent, sure handed threat on the outside. Steven Mitchell is back as well to occupy the slot, he was 2nd on the team in TD receptions last season. The Trojans have a trio of big-name freshmen in the WR corps which features four star recruits: Michael Pittman, Tyler Vaughns and Josh Imatorbhebhe.

With a loaded WR corps, there lies a question under center. One of the best passers in school history, Cody Kessler went on to get drafted in the 3rd round by the Cleveland Browns. The man stepping in for Kessler will be redshirt junior Max Browne. After completing his fourth Spring with the team, Browne is more ready than ever to assume starting duties at QB. He has a big stature at 6’5” and will be able to take advantage of USC’s downfield threats with his big arm. Helton has raved about his poise, intelligence and game management ability. While he may be no Kessler, Browne should enjoy a productive two years as starter of the Trojans.

RONALDJONES3As if the passing game won’t be dynamic enough, the backfield is just as explosive led by the two-headed monster of Justin Davis and Ronald Jones. As  a true freshman, Jones led the team with 987 rushing yards (school freshman record), 8 TDs while compiling an impressive 6.5 yards per rush. Davis is a quick, darting runner who adds an extra dimension as a receiver out of the backfield. The tandem of Jones and Davis is arguably the best RB duo in the conference. They’ll have one of the nation’s best offensive lines to operate behind headlined by a great bookend tandem in seniors Chad Wheeler and Zach Banner, both of whom should be up for All-conference honors. Damien Mama joins Wheeler on the left side of the line, one of the best guards in the Pac-12.

Things won’t be quite the same on defense as USC returns only four starters, none of which come on the defensive line. Clancy Pendergast returns as the defensive coordinator in Southern Cal after a two-year stint in the NFL, he re-instills his 5-2 defense. While they are fairly unexperienced up front, they have a lot of talent in guys who bring versatility to the table. Senior Jabari Ruffin will see time at both defensive end and linebacker, serving as a pass rusher. Sophomore Rasheem Green has tons of potential and will flip all over the defensive line. Noah Jefferson will serve as the team’s primary nose tackle and anchor up front with his 6’6”/315 size and plus athleticism.

Headlining the LB corps is lone returning starter, Cameron Smith. As a true freshman Smith emerged as the team’s leader at inside linebacker and is in for a breakout sophomore campaign. Contributors on the outside of Smith include Porter Gustin, Uchenna Nwosu and Osa Masina – some of whom could even see time coming off the edge on the defensive line as well. If Smith continues to emerge as a leader and the other pieces around him in the second tier gel together, the Trojans should be just fine in the front 7 led by a good coordinator such as Pendergast.

The secondary is where USC sees most of their experience. The aforementioned Adoree Jackson leads the charge. An elite athlete with ball skills and the ability to make plays for the defense. He is joined by sophomore Iman Marshall who has lockdown ability and could see All-Pac 12 honors this season. Five star Jack Jones is a freshman to watch. The dynamic athlete recruit is comparable to Adoree Jackson as both will see time as a two-way player. The Trojans are loaded with athleticism at the corner position. Returning starter Chris Hawkins along with Marvell Tell project as the starters at safety. Freshman Jamel Cook is expected to chip in with a good amount of playing time as well.

In their first full season with Helton at the helm, USC will be a force to be reckoned with. Their offense very well could be the best in the entire conference, especially if Max Browne progresses accordingly, which he should with one of the best supporting casts in the nation. Their explosive backfield and deep WR corps headlined by All-American JuJu Smith-Schuster will be sure to keep USC one of the most potent-scoring offenses in the country. The defense is a bit inexperienced, but it’s filled with playmakers in every tier. Helton led this team tremendously in conference play last season which will be huge in a deep Pac-12 conference. USC will find themselves in their second consecutive Conference Championship game.

9/3: vs Alabama LUSC.YELLOW.HELMET
9/10: vs Utah State W
9/17: @ Stanford L
9/23: @ Utah W
10/1: vs Arizona State W
10/8: vs Colorado W
10/15: @ Arizona W
10/27: vs California W
11/5: vs Oregon W
11/12: @ Washington W
11/19: @ UCLA L
11/26: vs Notre Dame W

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