As it goes almost every season for the Trojans, there is never a shortage of talent. This season marks consecutive years with USC ranking fourth overall in recruiting class according to 247 Sports—but this season marks greater opportunities for incoming freshman than previous seasons.
With the NFL Draft, graduation and “other things” siphoning away talent, there are ample chances in key positions which is ultimately the most important facet in analyzing breakout freshman. There are plenty of highly-talented football players coming in, but much like four-star recruits Bubba Bolden and Jay Tufele a year ago, positional logjams bury true freshman talent. With talent and opportunity, here the top -three breakout freshman candidates for this 2018 Trojan squad.
Justin Dedich—Center(Chaparral, Temecula, Calif.)
A four-star recruit who committed to USC almost a year ago, the nation’s top-ranked center in the 2018 class can be the anchor of this rebuilt offensive line as a true freshman. I wrote about Dedich’s commitment last year and my scouting report still rings true:
“An old-school mauler at C, Dedich’s prototypical size at 6’2” 290 lbs. (and obviously still growing) is a welcomed sight for the oft-injured Trojan offensive line looking to solidify themselves in anticipation for a post-Sam Darnold 2018 season…Dedich’s strength and strong hands are evident on tape as he is frequently locking up lineman and viciously hurling them into the turf—amazing for a team poised to be rich with backfield talent.”
As mentioned in the former, without Darnold USC most likely won’t be a pass-heavy team with an inexperienced QB at the helm. With the proven talent of Stephen Carr as well as Aca’Cedric Ware and four-star recruit Markese Stepp—the Trojans are poised to feature the run on a consistent basis versus last season.
However, competition for Dedich comes in the form of offensive line stalwart Toa Lobendahn and 2017 four-star C Brett Neilon. Lobendahn is once again team’s starting center on the spring roster but hasn’t been able to do much as his been sidelined with injury—a staple of his Trojan career.
He missed seven games in 2015 due to knee injuries and played in only one game in 2016 after tearing his ACL in the opener against Alabama. Injuries across the line last season forced Lobendahn to play left tackle exclusively, but the starting center position is his to lose. It’d be a disservice not take his injury history into account for the 2018 season, as he hasn’t proven to be durable throughout his time with the Trojans.
Neilon has been competing hard and alongside Dedich, is catching the attention of both Clay Helton and offensive line coach Neil Callaway.
The tape on Neilon is great and as a superior student-athlete with 4.0 GPA average, he has the craved intelligence of a center. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Neilon eventually start, but Dedich is the superior player—and at the rate the offseason is going, I wouldn’t count on Lobendahn to be healthy on a consistent basis.
Markese Stepp—Runningback (Cathedral, Indianapolis,Ind.)
On the topic of healthy starters, incumbent starting running back Stephen Carr is sidelined for the entirety of the spring after surgery for a herniated disk. Carr missed four games last season with a foot injury, but when he was healthy and playing, there was no better RB combo than he and Ronald Jones II. In his absence, senior Aca’Cedric Ware and sophomore Vavae Malepeai who are both identical in size at 6’0”, 190 lbs.(Ware) and 195 lbs.(Malepeai) have handled all the reps in camp.
Enter true freshman Markese Stepp.
Originally committed to Trojan blood rival Notre Dame, the four-star recruit out of Catherdal (Indianapolis, IN) flipped to USC and legitimately changed this backfield. At six-foot tall and 228 pounds, Stepp brings high-level athleticism combining brutal power and homerun speed. Hamstring issues limited his overall playing time in his junior and senior seasons, yet he finished with 1,863 yards and 29 rushing touchdowns over the course of 19 games.
The size is something the Trojans are missing from the backfield and combining two explosive running backs in Carr and Stepp is solid continuance of rushing success of a year ago.
Olaijah Griffin—Cornerback (Mission Viejo, Mission Viejo, Calif.)
The most painful part of this Trojan team in 2017 was the play of the secondary. The solid play of safeties Marvell Tell and Ykili Ross as well as nickel corner Ajene Harris was overshadowed by frequently burned Iman Marshall and Jack Jones. Both starting corners were among the most promising duos in the nation before the start of the season, but even the sack-leading Trojan front-seven couldn’t dispel the poor secondary play.
Marshall’s poor season forced him back for his senior year in hopes to repair his NFL draft stock and senior Isaiah Langley remains the only experienced perimeter corner. Jones has been deemed academically ineligible for the 2018 season, leaving a glaring need in a position already in dire straits. However, USC’s 2018 recruiting class saw the team snag four-star cornerbacks Chase Williams, Isaac Taylor-Staurt and arguably the crown jewel of the class—Olaijah Griffin.
The five-star corner out of Mission Viejo was yet another top recruit who flipped a rival school for USC as he announced his decision to leave UCLA on National Signing Day. Tim Daniels of Bleacher Report has Griffin pegged as the following:
The rest of his skill set makes him an ideal cornerback. He possesses quick feet, good straight-line speed and he’s more advanced than most young defensive backs in terms of reading the play, which is usually the benefit of becoming a dual-threat prospect…he’s more than willing to play physical on the outside, even though he doesn’t own what would be considered a prototypical corner frame at 6’0” and 170 pounds.
With corners in Trojan defense asked to play almost exclusively press man-to-man, Griffin’s aggressiveness, athleticism and instincts make him an ideal fit. His tape is very reminiscent of Marshall’s while at Long Beach Poly, and even though last season was a down year for Marshall, he was a solid ascending player his two seasons prior. There is serious potential in this Trojan secondary, but Griffin can give them the playmaker they’ve been missing since the departure of Adoree’ Jackson.