USC Trojans football: Most Important player, breakout star, newcomers to watch

By The Sports Xchange  |  Aug. 18, 2017 at 5:51 PM
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Sam Darnold, you know. He's the early choice for top pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. He's the betting favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, unseating the current holder of the stiff-armed trophy, Lamar Jackson.

Darnold, a redshirt sophomore quarterback, led USC to nine consecutive victories to end last season, fueling the Trojans' skyrocketing expectations heading into 2017 -- a Pac-12 title, a spot in the College Football Playoff ... and then, who knows?

So, yes, Darnold is a given. The superstar. The face of the program.

The questions with the USC offense -- and you kind of have to nitpick here -- are about what Darnold has around him, specifically at wide receiver.

JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers are gone. Junior Deontay Burnett -- 13 catches for 164 yards and three touchdowns in the Rose Bowl win over Penn State -- is a go-to receiver. After that, though, the experience level drops way off, especially with 6-foot-4 sophomore Michael Pittman suffering a high-ankle sprain in camp that seems certain to cost him at least one game, if not more.

"In terms of the young receivers getting to know the playbook a lot better, we've grown a lot in that area," Darnold said. "We are going to continue to learn, continue to get better, continue to develop that chemistry with them and continue to roll into the season, and we are going to be ready come week one."

Names to know at receiver are redshirt freshmen Velus Jones, Tyler Vaughns and Josh Imatorbhebhe, along with touted true freshmen Joseph Lewis and Randal Grimes. Senior Steven Mitchell Jr. is only 5-10 -- and he has suffered torn ACLs in each knee during his USC career -- but he could start as an outside receiver. Junior Jalen Greene has 10 career receptions. Tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe is a budding star.

That's still a lot of talent, but much of it is unproven. The hope of opposing defenses will be that they cheat effectively against the run and the short passing game ... and then pray USC's timing isn't quite in sync between Darnold and his mostly young receivers deep down the field.

Otherwise, of course, USC is loaded on offense.

Junior Ronald Jones II is one of the best running backs in the country, and true freshman Stephen Carr, a five-star recruit, has earned camp raves as a potential tag-team partner in the backfield. The offensive line is replacing both tackles, but junior Toa Lobendahn is returning from a medical redshirt year (torn ACL in the 2016 opener) to man the left tackle position. Junior Chuma Edoga has been a spot starter and should be just fine at right tackle.

"We are moving pretty good," Darnold said of the offense. "There are a lot of things that we need to work on, but I am confident that we will get it fixed."

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER:

QB Sam Darnold -- Becoming the starter in the fourth game of last season, Darnold completed 246 of 366 passes for 3,086 yards, with 31 touchdowns and nine interceptions. His nimble feet in the pocket buys him extra time and his size is such (6-4, 220) that he's hard to bring down, even if defenders get hands on him. If Darnold is healthy, all things are possible for USC. If he were to go down, however, USC has no experience behind him, with redshirt freshman Matt Fink likely to win the No. 2 role.

{b:BREAKOUT STAR: } CB Jack Jones -- The sophomore might be Adoree' Jackson-lite this season. Jones is in the mix to start at cornerback, is likely to dabble on offense -- "He's so dynamic with the ball in his hands," coach Clay Helton said -- and is auditioning to handle kick and/or punt returns. Jones had 13 tackles last season. If he's a defensive playmaker opposite returning starting cornerback Iman Marshall, USC's secondary should be lethal.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH:

DT Marlon Tuipulotu -- True freshmen usually aren't strong enough or physical enough to start right away in the middle of the defensive line, but this five-star recruit has a chance to do just that. USC is teeming with flashy offensive freshmen -- RB Stephen Carr, WR Randal Grimes, WR Joseph Lewis -- but Tuipulotu could have a bigger impact because of the need on the defensive front after losing 2016 anchor Stevie Tu'ikolovatu. Tuipulotu looked good after he enrolled early in the spring and has continued to get positive reviews in fall camp. If he doesn't start, he figures to at least time-share with senior Josh Fatu.

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