The USC Trojans offense has received plenty of attention in the 2017 offseason and rightly so, with a Heisman Trophy candidate QB in Sam Darnold, a loaded backfield, and talented pass catchers, which is everything you need for a high-powered attack. The offense is going to win a lot of games for the Trojans, but if USC is going to be a real contender, the defense is going to have to come through. USC relying on its defense isn’t such a bad thing, in fact, in 2017 the USC defense will be led by one of the nation’s most talented position groups, its linebacking corps. With multiple All-Americans, Bednarik Award hopefuls and legitimate contenders for PAC-12 Defensive Player of the year, the linebackers at USC are poised to wreak havoc on offenses and anchor a strong defensive unit.
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Cameron Smith is the leader of the talented group, and arguably one of the most talented linebackers in the country. Smith broke out as a true freshman against the Utah Utes with a 3-interception game and has been a rock at inside linebacker ever since. Smith led the Trojan defense with 83 tackles in 2016 and is likely to do so again in 2017. Smith's ability inside the box will invoke memories of past Trojan greats like Rey Maualuga. However, his ability to get into passing lanes and make passes over the middle of the field more difficult, which is key in stopping spread offenses, will remind the Trojan faithful of Lofa Tatupu. Hopefully, Smith can lead USC to National Title like Tatupu did, while collecting some hardware of his own along the way.
Football can frequently break down into two basic concepts, protect your quarterback and hit their quarterback, Porter Gustin does just that, hit opposing QBs. Gustin is another star out of, what is looking like a legendary recruiting class of 2015. Gustin was second on the team in tackles in 2016, with 68, he also led the team with 13 tackles for loss and was second on the team with 5.5 sacks, if you squint really hard you’ll swear it's Clay Mathews III out there. Gustin will be a key member of the USC defense this upcoming season, playing Outside Linebacker, he’ll be responsible for blowing up the zone read and getting to the quarterback. If Porter continues to progress as he has his first two seasons at USC, his junior season could see him pitted against teammate Cameron Smith for the Bednarik award, and see USC in the CFB Playoff.
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On the other side from Porter Gustin, is a less heralded, but just as important Uchenna Nwosu. He plays the “drop” linebacker in USC 3-4 defensive scheme. While Gustin is the key man when it comes to getting off the line and attacking the opposing backfield, Nwosu has more responsibility dropping into coverage and checking backs out of the backfield. Make no mistake though, Nwosu has the ability to get to the quarterback as well. He was third on the team in tackles for loss with 7.5, posted a respectable 3 sacks and an impressive 5 passes defended, which is a team high for linebackers. In 2017, expect Uchenna Nwosu to continue to be a rock for this defensive unit.
Oluwole Betiku Jr.
Oluwole Betiku Jr. was the pride of the 2016 recruiting class; however, he saw limited time as a true freshmen in 2016. The 6’3 250 pound Betiku Jr. is the future at rush linebacker for USC, while Gustin has a stranglehold on the position now, Betiku Jr. is going to get a lot of playing time in 2017. It would not be a surprise at all if he is the breakout star of this season.
Michael Hutchings was a constant producer and a calming presence on the field for the USC linebacking corps and his graduation will leave big shoes to be filled. Jordan Iosefa, a sophomore, could be the one to fill those shoes. Iosefa saw spot duty as a true freshman on special teams and as a backup to Hutchings. He appeared in all 12 games and even racked up 9 tackles as a true freshman. If the sophomore from Waipahu, HI has a good summer camp, he could see time next to Cameron Smith in the middle.
John Houston Jr.
Houston Jr. is another Trojan who will look to fill the void next to Smith at inside linebacker. The 6’3 220-pound Redshirt Sophmore will look to build on a solid freshman season after recovering from a back injury in 2015. Houston Jr. appeared in 10 games in 2016 and tallied 16 tackles, including one against Penn State in the Rose Bowl when Smith was ejected for targeting.
The incoming freshman is highly touted and at 6’3 215, could work his way into the rotation as he gets acclimated to college life and the defensive scheme. His impact would a pleasant surprise, and should he prove well enough he could be the heir to the top inside linebacker spot when Smith moves on.