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2018 is a big year for the USC Trojans alongside their fourth-year head coach Clay Helton. SC is coming off a generally successful season during which they paired 11 wins with just 3 losses, crowned Pac-12 Champions after a 31-28 win vs Stanford, and finished the season ranked 12th in the country in the final AP Poll.

But last year also saw the Trojans face their fair share of adversity. The offense was inconsistent and struggled with turnovers. The offensive line and defense had injury problems. And the season could not have ended in a more disappointing fashion. A 24-7 loss to Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl that saw the Trojans completely outmatched from start to finish and showed that they simply weren’t ready for the big time.

2018 now sees the Trojans come into the season having lost some really big-time playmakers on offense. Quarterback Sam Darnold, running back Ronald Jones, and wide receiver Deontay Burnett all entered the NFL Draft. On the defensive side, key players like Rasheem Green, Uchenna Nwosu, and Chris Hawkins took the same path as their offensive counterparts.

Per usual, USC also has several returning stars and was able to bring in the 4th-best recruiting class in the nation (and best in the Pac-12).

The early season schedule is tough this year, and SC will have to quickly find replacements for their losses, particularly at quarterback. If they can stay healthy and establish rhythm and consistency on both sides of the ball, USC should be right up there in the mix once again. But to really make a run at the College Football Playoff, they’re going to have to improve on last year’s performance.

Here are seven players we will be following closely all season that will be key in leading the Trojans to a successful season.

JT Daniels – Quarterback

Height: 6’2’’ Weight: 205 lbs Class: Freshman (2018)

Out of all the prospects to keep an eye on this year, this is by far the most important one. JT Daniels takes on the tall task of replacing USC’s superstar quarterback and No. 3 overall NFL Draft choice, Sam Darnold. But if anyone’s up to the task, it’s him. The 18-year-old Daniels graduated from Santa Ana Mater Dei High School in California, the same school that produced USC superstars Matt Leinart and Matt Barkley at quarterback.

Daniels committed to USC on July 30, 2017, choosing to graduate from high school a year early. Had he joined the recruiting class of 2019, Daniels almost definitely would have been the highest ranked passer in the nation. Instead, he was ever so slightly pushed to the 2 spot behind the other 2018 QB class superstar Trevor Lawrence, now at Clemson.

But the difference is marginal, and Daniels still joins USC as a 5-star prospect and the number two ranked pro-style QB in the nation. You’d be hard pressed to find a more big-time prospect at the quarterback position, and his ceiling could very well be above that of Sam Darnold.

Daniels left for the NCAA early looking for more of a challenge, as he felt like he had learned as much as he could at the high school level. He probably wasn’t wrong. In three years at Mater Dei, Daniels threw for a whopping 12,014 yards and 152 touchdowns to go along with just 14 interceptions. He won Gatorade Player of the Year his junior season, but his sophomore year was probably the most impressive.

He completed 74.5% of his passes for 15.4 y/a, and an otherworldly 4,849 yards and 67 touchdowns. Going back to his high school, Daniels has been widely praised by colleagues and appears to have all the physical and mental traits necessary to succeed at the college level.

He’s currently in a three-way competition for the QB job at SC, but I’d be shocked if he didn’t come away with the job. Especially considering the mistake Helton made by sitting Darnold early last year. JT Daniels is the future at QB for USC, maybe for the NCAA, and maybe even eventually, the NFL.

Stephen Carr – Halfback

Height: 6’0’’ Weight: 210 lbs Class: Sophomore (2017)

After a promising freshman year cut short by injury, the 19 year old Stephen Carr comes into 2018 with big expectations. He got off to a nice start to last season, rushing for 309 yards on 52 carries and 3 touchdowns, good for 5.9 yards per attempt. His best game was an 11 carry, 119 yard effort vs Stanford in week 2.

Carr also added 13 catches for 130 yards through the air to start the season, all before suffering an ankle injury in week 5 against Washington State. Ronald Jones took over as the primary back, and though Carr would eventually return in November, he had an underwhelming finish due to the nagging injury as well as Jones’s presence.

Carr would finish the season with 363 yards on the ground, 5.6 yards per attempt, and 3 rushing touchdowns, as well as 17 catches for 188 yards through the air.

But Jones is off to the NFL, meaning it’s Carr’s time to shine. A 5 star prospect, Carr was the 3rd ranked running back nationally in his recruiting class. He’s currently on the Maxwell Award Watch List for 2018. When it comes to Carr, it’s the versatility that gets coaches excited, specifically when it comes to his ability to both run and catch the ball.

Carr is USC’s leading returning rusher, and he’s currently in a competition with senior Aca’Cedric Ware for the starter position. He unfortunately missed spring practice due to a back injury, but he seems to be healthy now. If he can stay healthy and recapture his early season form from last year, expect Carr to make an impact as the primary ball carrier for USC this season.

Chuma Edoga – Offensive Lineman

Height: 6’4’’ Weight: 295 lbs Class: Senior (2017)

The 21-year-old, 5-star recruit was the highest ranked guard of his class (he now plays tackle). He has 16 career starts in 34 games at USC. This will be his second year as a full-time starter after having started 12 games last year, missing two due to an ankle injury. He has played in at least nine games in every one of his three seasons thus far.

Edoga was the best of a USC offensive line that struggled last year. According to Pro Football Focus, he was the only SC lineman that ranked in the top 30 in his position. He also returns having allowed the least amount of pressures last season among all returning Pac-12 tackles. His productivity on the line will be key to the success of the SC offense this coming year.

Christian Rector – Defensive Lineman

Height: 6’4’’ Weight: 295 lbs Class: Redshirt Junior (2015)

Rector took a redshirt year as a true freshman and played on special teams in 2016. He had an explosive start to 2017 as a hybrid defensive end / outside linebacker. Coming into the season as a backup, Rector took over this “predator” position for the incumbent Porter Gustin who suffered an injury during the Texas game in Week 3.

Rector was crucial in this game, as a strip in double overtime helped set up USC for the eventual game-winning field goal. Rector was only getting started. Through 5.5 games starting at the predator position, Rector had 30 tackles (10 for losses), 6.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and was named to the Midseason AP All-American second team.

The predator position put Rector further wide than he would have been as a pure defensive lineman, and this allowed him to absolutely dominate as a pass rusher. At that time, he led the Pac-12 in sacks.

Unfortunately, Rector did not finish the season as well as he started. He was benched in the second half of the Notre Dame game, during which USC’s falling so far behind exposed Rector’s struggles stopping the run. Rector then broke his hand in practice, had to have surgery, and missed the next two games. The final chunk of the season saw Rector’s snap count and productivity drastically reduce.

Nonetheless, he still finished the season on the All Pac-12 second team and tied for fifth in the Pac-12 in sacks. In his career, Rector has played in 24 games and started 5. He has 40 tackles, 11 for losses, 7.5 sacks, and 2 fumble recoveries.

Rector has been working on his game this offseason to improve his run defense. He’s shown that at his peak, he’s an absolute force to be reckoned with. Now, coming into 2018, he’ll have to show that he can avoid injury, play better run defense, and adjust to playing a more traditional defensive line position. If so, he’ll absolutely be a force.

Our next three players, Cameron Smith, Iman Marshall, and Marvell Tel III have a lot in common. They all were eligible for the 2017 NFL Draft but instead chose to return to USC for their senior years, feeling they had more to prove. They all have started at least 10 games in every year they’ve been at USC. All three are considered to be top NFL prospects for next year’s draft.

And all three are on the Nagurski Award Watch List (Marshall and Tell are also on the Thorpe Award watch list, while Smith is on the Butkus Award watch list). Together, this senior defensive core hopes their experience can help carry USC to a title.

Cameron Smith – Linebacker

Height: 6’2’’ Weight: 250 lbs Class: Senior (2015)

The 21 year old senior has built up quite the resume in his three years at SC. A 4-star prospect and the 6th ranked inside linebacker in his class, Smith has accumulated 237 tackles (19 for losses), 2.5 sacks, 10 deflections, 3 fumble recoveries, and 4 interceptions (one for a TD) in his career.

He has played in 37 games, 35 of which he started. He had 112 tackles last year, good for second in the Pac-12, and has led the team in tackles for two consecutive years. He has won awards for his on-field performance every year since his sophomore year of high school.

Smith chose to return to USC for his senior year with the aim of becoming an All-American. He also wanted to help SC win more games, in addition to earning his degree. A physical and talented player since his arrival at SC, Smith has put in extra work this offseason, both in terms of rounding out his game on the field and increasing his studying, leadership, and involvement with the program off the field. The Trojans will no doubt look to Smith for his leadership both on and off the field as they roll into 2018 season.

Iman Marshall – Cornerback

Height: 6’1’’ Weight: 205 lbs Class: Senior (2015)

The highly decorated high school cornerback came to USC as a 5-star prospect, the highest ranked cornerback in the nation, and the 4th highest ranked player in the nation at any position. Throughout his three years, he has accumulated 170 tackles (4 for losses), 27 deflections, and 6 interceptions.

He has played in 38 games, 36 of which he started. Marshall played in all 14 games as a freshman, during which he had a team-best 3 interceptions and 9 deflections, and was fourth in the team with 67 tackles.

Opposing all-star corner Adoree Jackson left for the NFL in 2016, so for the second straight year, Marshall will return as SC’s number one corner. Although he missed some games due to injury last year and did not intercept a pass, he still had 10 deflections and was an all Pac-12 Honorable Mention. Like Cameron Smith, Marshall plans to assume more of a leadership role for his final year at SC.

Marvel Tel III – Safety

Height: 6’2’’ Weight: 195 lbs Class: Senior (2015)

Currently 22 years old, Marvell Tell came to USC as a four-star prospect and the fourth-ranked safety in the nation. In 37 games (29 starts), he has 164 tackles (5.5 for losses, 1 sack), 8 deflections, 4 INT (one for a TD), and a fumble recovery. Tell saw the field right away as a freshman, where he backed up Chris Hawkins at the SS position.

Since then, he has started as a free safety. Last year saw Tell rack up 85 tackles (third on the team), 3 interceptions, and a fumble recovery, all to earn 2017 All-Pac 12 First Team honors. Like his senior colleagues, Tell has spent the offseason working on rounding out his skillset as well as improving his leadership. With Chris Hawkins having left for the NFL, Tell becomes the de-facto leader of the secondary.

Cary Krongard

Author Cary Krongard

UCLA and USC Beat Writer for Sports Al Dente

More posts by Cary Krongard

Sports Al Dente 2019

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