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With 18 practices in the books and Coach Clay Helton naming a starting quarterback as well as a two deep depth chart, the regular season is quickly approaching. Coming into training camp, USC had significant questions at multiple positions. Some of these problems have been resolved, but there are a few position groups that are still a significant concern with Alabama looming less than two weeks away.
Defensive line rotation:
The first and most concerning question is the defensive line rotation. As it currently stands, the three starting down lineman in Clancy Pendergast’s 5-2 defense is Malik Dorton at DE, Stevie Tu’ikolovatu at NT, and Noah Jefferson at DT. In addition, Rasheem Green is listed as "OR" next to Dorton and Jefferson, suggesting that he may start at either of those two positions in 11 days. Among those four players, only Tu’ikolovatu has starting experience with a mere two games during his career with the Utah Utes. Green and Jefferson were rotational defensive lineman last season, but neither were regular starters. The defensive line would qualify as extremely young and inexperienced, and due to significant injuries during camp, a rotation does not appear set.
Green and Jefferson were injured at various times during camp with Jefferson sitting out a vast majority of the practices. Green’s knee injury hindered him at the back end of training camp, and Jefferson’s back problems prevented him from practicing throughout almost the entire duration of camp. These two players are expected to be SC’s biggest contributors in their position group, and their injuries, albeit not serious, are a concern for the Trojans coaching staff. Plus, Jefferson already had missed time during spring practices with a hyperextended elbow, further limiting the number of practice reps he has received since the end of last season.
The defensive line will need to be stout against Alabama’s vaunted offensive line and a lack of a set rotation with 18 practices already in the books is daunting. At nose tackle, converted offensive lineman Khaliel Rodgers is now the second string lineman behind Tu’ikolovatu. The fact that former high four star recruit Jacob Daniel is buried behind a graduate transfer with only two career starts and Rodgers who has never played a down on the defensive line is unexpected. The Trojans are going to need their talented young players to step up in order for the line to be effective and Daniel was expected to be a key piece. Thanks to injuries and underachievement, the defensive line is still just as concerning at the beginning of camp as it is now. The Trojans will be facing three power run offenses in the team’s first four games and the line will need to be ready for the challenge if USC hopes to come out of that stretch with a 2-2 or 3-1 record. Right now, it does not appear as though that is the case.
A second outstanding problem for SC is a second wide receiver behind JuJu Smith-Schuster. In the past, now graduated QB Cody Kessler would lock in on Smith-Schuster in his progressions, limiting the impact of other receivers; however, unlike Kessler, new starting QB Max Browne has been lauded for his ability to spread the ball around. Despite Smith-Schuster’s utter dominance last season, the junior will need some help around him if SC hopes to have a dynamic passing attack. Adoree Jackson was the team’s second leading receiver last season, but this year, he plans to stick primarily on the defensive side of the ball.
There needs to be secondary targets behind USC’s star wideout, and after 18 practices nobody has stepped up to grab control of that opportunity. Steven Mitchell and Darreus Rogers have been impressive in spurts, but that is not unlike their performances in practice over the last two seasons which has not carried over to the games (if anything they have been less impressive in training camp this year when compared to seasons past). Deontay Burnett has continued his emergence after his unexpectedly strong freshman season, but he is not listed as a starter and still sits behind the two aforementioned veterans. With that being said, it is imperative that Mitchell and Rogers step up behind Smith-Schuster and become the consistently solid receivers they were supposed to be coming out of high school. Without quality secondary receivers, defenses will key in on Smith-Schuster and force USC’s other weapons to get open. Browne has never started a college football game, and taking away his best receiver without having other options that can get open could spell disaster. Over the next two weeks, whether it be Burnett, Mitchell, or Rogers, a receiver other than USC’s preseason All-American will need to emerge as a quality receiver that can be relied upon to create space and get open for Browne.
The third issue that does not appear to be resolved is the inside linebacker spot next to Cam Smith. On the recently released depth chart, Michael Hutchings is listed in that position, but at 215-220 lbs., his lack of size may limit effectiveness especially in run defense. Coming into training camp, former five star recruit Osa Masina was supposed to emerge as the starter at this position, but it appears as though he has not done enough to overtake Hutchings. This idea has to be concerning for the Trojans as Masina has all the physical traits to be a menacing inside linebacker. However, Hutchings is a talented, experienced player that knows the defensive playbook like the back of his hand according to the Trojans’ coaching staff. Last season, Hutchings had his problems in pass coverage particularly on the road against Oregon, but his knowledge of the defensive play calls should help shore up those issues. Being a little bit lighter than most inside linebackers, Hutchings will need to prove he can consistently get off blocks and make plays. In pass coverage, his strong mental attributes will need to translate into the game unlike last season. For a player that has only made 52 tackles through his first three seasons as a Trojan, whether or not he can be the high quality linebacker next to Smith is a question mark.
For all the positivity surrounding USC, these three questions still appear unanswered. Wide receiver, defensive line, and inside linebacker are three vital position groups that will need to perform at a high level against not only Alabama, but also Stanford and Utah. With less than two weeks before the start of the regular season, time is winding down for these questions to be emphatically responded to. USC fans will likely not know whether or not these position groups are ready for the regular season until kickoff on September 3rd, but practice performances by players such as Michael Hutchings, Rasheem Green, Noah Jefferson, and Darreus Rogers over the next two weeks could go a long way.