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Summer Position Preview: Linebackers

USC loses talented pass-rusher Uchenna Nwosu, but linebacker remains one of the Trojans’ strongest units

NCAA Football: Cotton Bowl-Ohio State vs Southern California Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Projected Starters

USC returns two veterans at inside backer in John Houston and Cam Smith. Houston progressively played better throughout last year. Look for the junior to get even better this coming season. Cameron Smith was a tackling machine last season, recording 112 over the season. With captain safety Chris Hawkins leaving for the NFL, expect Houston and Smith to play a greater role in aligning the Trojan defense. Cam Smith was specifically mentioned by defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast for his leadership in practice.

Goodyear Cotton Bowl - USC v Ohio State Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The outside linebacker position will be judged primarily for how they replace Uchenna Nwosu’s edge presence, as a run stopper and a pass-rusher. Porter Gustin, who sat out much of last season with a toe fracture and bicep injury, is expected to contribute. Gustin has a great motor and has also been called out as an emerging leader within the defense. Jordan Iosefa is a versatile linebacker who’s played predator last season. Iosefa was sidelined with a knee injury during spring football, but this shouldn’t affect him going forward this season. Both have shown talent and ability last season, but have been hampered due to injuries; both look to put together a complete season this year.

Backups

Though defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has been notorious for not rotating his players, he and Clay Helton seem to be more inclined to doing so this year. Two backups to watch are Levi Jones and Kana’i Mauga. Pendergast has raved about Levi Jones, calling him one of the best 11 defenders on the roster. Look for Jones to come in on third down for his pass-rushing acumen.

Kana’i Mauga, a true freshman, was singled out by Pendergast as one of the best young contributors during spring practice. When Jordan Iosefa went out with a dislocated knee, it was Mauga who practiced with the ones. Mauga has shown the ability to play multiple linebacker positions. Mauga’s high school tape shows great athleticism, quick feet, and good awareness. Though Mauga may not get much run this season, he looks to be the future as a true freshman who’s already impressed in spring football.

Player to Watch

NCAA Football: UCLA at Southern California Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Cameron Smith surprised many by returning to USC for his senior season. An All-PAC 12 ILB last season, Cam Smith was seen by many to be one of the best draft eligible inside linebackers. The 6’2”, 250 lb inside linebacker is powerful enough to stop the run, yet fast and nimble in space. Cam Smith is an instinctive tackling machine, totaling the second most tackles of any PAC-12 player in 2017. As the leader of USC’s defense, Cam Smith will look to lead the way and be a role model for the others.