USC’s difficult 2016 schedule kicks off tomorrow with the most challenging matchup of them all against the reigning national champions, Alabama. As expected, SC are significant underdogs to the SEC powerhouse, but the two teams are relatively on par in terms of talent making an upset a little more likely than the typical 1 vs. 20 matchup. The Trojans are breaking in new starters along the defensive line and at quarterback, but the Crimson Tide also lost a number of important players from last season’s squad. That being said, Nick Saban has made it a habit to “reload” rather than “rebuild” and the Trojans will have to prove that they can stick with the number one team in the country. Here are three key players for USC that will be pivotal to the team’s success on both sides of the ball.
RB Justin Davis
After a scintillating debut season from Ronald Jones II, many Trojan fans expected Davis to be the second fiddle behind Jones in the running back rotation coming off the 2015 campaign. However, Davis has kept the starting job from last season and has been called out multiple times by RB coach Tommie Robinson as being the team’s most complete running back. Carrying that title may be a nice accomplishment for Davis, but he will need to prove it against the Crimson Tide. Head Coach Clay Helton is looking to implement a run-first offense that will lean heavily on the legs of Davis. The senior may not have the explosiveness of Jones, but he is a solid all-around running back who is quick, fast, and powerful. Late last season, Helton rode Davis to victory late in games by consistently running the ball in the fourth quarter and if the Trojans are ahead, look for a similar approach from the USC head coach.
While Davis will need to be effective with the ball in his hands, he will also need to make sure he truly plays up to his title as the team’s best all-around running back. This includes catching balls out of the backfield and picking up blitzes in pass protection.
Alabama’s two best defensive lineman, Jonathan Allen and Tim Williams, are going to create problems for the USC offensive line. It will be Davis’ job to help his inexperienced quarterback by picking up the blitz or leaking out in the flat for short, easy throws under pressure. Starting left tackle Chad Wheeler will be extremely limited throughout the night forcing true sophomore Chuma Edoga into the starting position. Edoga was a significant contributor at multiple spots last season and was a highly touted recruit out of high school, but facing Tim Williams on every passing down is going to be a huge challenge for the young tackle. Davis will need to be a big part of pass protection by picking up blitzes and helping to block in the event Williams is able to beat Edoga off the edge. Being named the team’s best running back with a budding star like Jones also on the roster is a big endorsement and Davis will need to live up to the billing if the Trojans hope to win tomorrow night
While USC is breaking in a new starter at the left tackle spot, Alabama has new starters at center, left guard, and right tackle. Even though highly touted recruits will be filling the shoes of departed starters Ryan Kelly and Dominick Jackson (Alphonse Taylor is now the backup at RG), two inexperienced players beginning their careers in a primetime game to start the season is not an easy environment. This opens up an opportunity for the Trojans to exploit. USC’s defensive line is very flexible in that Rasheem Green and Noah Jefferson will likely be playing multiple positions throughout the night in order to gain superior matchups for the Trojans.
One player who was expected to be perhaps the biggest contributor on the d-line entering the offseason is Noah Jefferson. Although he has battled injuries ever since the end of 2015, Jefferson has practiced without any issues the past two weeks and looks to be ready for a full game’s worth of snaps on Saturday. Listed as the starting defensive tackle with Rasheem Green, Jefferson has the athleticism to play both defensive tackle and nose tackle. These two spots would often see him face off against two of Alabama’s new starters: Center Bradley Bozeman and freshman RT Jonah Williams. Listed at 6’6” 315 lbs., Jefferson is a massive lineman with the strength to overpower opposing offensive lineman with ease. Williams is Alabama’s biggest weakness on the offensive line and could be exposed particularly in the running game if he has to face Jefferson. The big defensive lineman has almost a 20 pound size advantage over Williams while also having superior strength being in a college weight program for an extra year. At nose tackle, Jefferson can collapse the pocket and disrupt the rhythm of Alabama’s offense by beating Bozeman at the line of scrimmage. For a power run team like Alabama that will also be starting a new quarterback, Jefferson could play a huge role in destroying the Crimson Tide’s game plan on offense.
WR Steven Mitchell Jr
With star wide out JuJu Smith-Schuster taking all the headlines, it is easy to overlook the other wide receivers on the Trojans’ roster. Smith-Schuster will get his catches against any defense, but it is the lesser known receivers that are going to make the difference against Alabama. The Crimson Tide have one of the best cornerback combinations in the nation that will likely limit the impact of USC’s outside receivers (sans Smith-Schuster). As a result, USC’s slot receivers will need to pick up the slack. Cody Kessler is no longer the quarterback meaning that there will be far more balls spread around to the rest of the receiving core. These two factors open up a massive opportunity for redshirt junior Steven Mitchell.
Last season, Mitchell had a decent performance recording 335 yards and four touchdowns, but one that was slightly underwhelming after a slew of impressive showings in practice. Part of this can be attributed to Kessler who was notorious for locking on to Smith-Schuster on almost every drop back, but Mitchell also did not do enough to provide a consistent secondary option. This year things will be different now that Max Browne is the starting quarterback and Tee Martin/Tyson Helton are calling the plays. Everyone around the USC offense has made it a point that the ball will be spread around far more than in seasons past.
Against Alabama where Minkah Fitzpatrick and Marlon Humphrey will be locking down receivers on the outside, slot receivers such as Mitchell will become all the more important. Plus, if the Crimson Tide are able to consistently pressure Browne into quick throws, the Trojans will need the underneath routes to consistently pick up large chunks of yardage. Mitchell has the agility to be dynamic with the ball in his hands and this could be vital for SC. If the veteran receiver can make big plays out of short dump-off passes, it could be a long night for the Alabama secondary.
If the Trojans are to upset Alabama, just about every position group will need to play exceptionally well. Each and every player will be important for SC, but the three mentioned here will be of particular importance to the team’s success. USC’s headline players such as Smith-Schuster, Adoree Jackson, and Max Browne will have to be effective, but against top teams it is the role players that can make the biggest impact. Nick Saban and company are likely not game-planning against a player such as Mitchell nearly as much as other game changers on the Trojans’ offense. Alabama is going to force the Trojans’ under-the-radar players to beat them, and this could be an excellent opportunity for a guy like Mitchell to have a fantastic game. Davis and Jefferson will be just as important in their respective roles and the Trojans will need all hands on deck if they hope to pull off a stunning victory to start the 2016 season.
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