The spring football season is essentially here. Spring practices have started around the country and USC’s spring football program will begin on March 10 with their spring game culminating the action on April 11.
As we get closer to action for the Trojans, it’s time to take a look at the 10 best returning players to the field for the 2020 season. Whether these players are full participants during spring practice or not is irrelevant as we’ll take a look today at the top 10 players who should be big contributors when USC opens the season against Alabama on September 5.
Important to note that with any cross-positional rankings, the value of the player’s impact at his position is also weighed heavily as is his documented plus-play, ability to avoid negative play and other factors.
Here are the top 10 returning players to USC for this football season:
1. Kedon Slovis, QB
Just where you’d expect to start is where we begin with this countdown. Slovis is the most important person in Graham Harrell’s Air Raid offense and just so happens to be the Trojans top player returning to action. Slovis showcased his skills to hit all levels of the field and hit them accurately during his freshman season in 2019 and with another year in the system, expect big things from No. 9 in 2020.
2. Jay Tufele, DI
Tufele could have left early for the NFL draft this offseason but instead decided to return to USC for at least one more year. He returns as an incredibly versatile asset along the defensive line as he can play multiple interior positions and even flashing at times while playing heads-up on tackles. He had five sacks a season ago but was seemingly always pushing the pocket from the interior and with a rising star of the coaching ranks as his new position coach in Vic So’oto, Tufele should see his stock soar as well as his production this fall.
Fully expecting a BIG YEAR from #USC DI Jay Tufele.— Cam Mellor (@CamMellor) March 3, 2020
Should push for top DI by season's end and perhaps even one of the better DI in the 2021 draft class as well.
Speed & Agility✅
He's got it all. pic.twitter.com/gNHPUslRB1
3. Tyler Vaughns, WR
Another player putting the NFL on hold to return to USC this season is Vaughns, who probably made the right decision to stay and not enter his name into an incredibly deep receiver class for the 2020 NFL Draft. Vaughns was highly productive opposite Michael Pittman Jr. and returns to anchor what is essentially a very young, but still very experienced wide receiver room. Vaughns finished with 74 catches for 912 yards and six touchdowns and will be relied upon heavily as the team’s leader in first-down catches in 2020.
4. Drake Jackson, Edge
Jackson is a mammoth of a man for his age and he seemingly got better (save for the bowl game) as the year went on during his freshman season. Jackson racked up five sacks and a multitude of tackles for loss as well as three passes batted at the line of scrimmage. He has elite-level hand usage and can use his big frame to his advantage from just about any alignment on the defensive line.
5. Alijah Vera-Tucker, G
Vera-Tucker, like many on this list, opted to return to USC this fall and, in doing so, enters the fold not only as the best offensive lineman on the Trojan roster but perhaps one of the better interior linemen in the Pac-12. He’s a stalwart in pass protection, rarely beaten on the inside and has incredible quicks and moves in the run game to boot. Expect big things from Vera-Tucker this season and when he makes the leap into the NFL.
6. Talanoa Hufanga, S
Flying to a football near you, Hufanga is the team’s leader returner in tackles from last season, recording 58 solo tackles and another 32 assists. Sure, he didn’t record an interception in 2019 but his play in coverage was top notch as well. On multiple occasions, Hufanga made plays on passes not even intended for his coverage and for the boom-or-bust type of football he plays, he rarely busted. Combine that with his underutilized pass-rushing skillset and you’ve got an incredible chess piece to move around the USC defense for at least the 2020 season before he likely leaps to the pros.
7. Chris Steele, CB
Steele is a household name waiting to happen. He’s in the conversation for best true sophomore cornerback in the Pac-12 and he has just as good a case as anyone. Steele looked every bit like the big-name recruit that he was last season and with another offseason with USC under his belt, the sky is the limit in 2020. He limited missed tackles and made multiple plays on the ball while avoiding penalties in his true freshman year that sets him up to be a marquee name for at least two more seasons.
8. Amon-Ra St. Brown, WR
St. Brown enters 2020 as the team’s leading returning receiver in catches and yards as he capped an impressive second season with 77 catches for 1,042 yards for six scores and a bunch of yards after the catch. Drops were an issue at times a season ago as were touch stretches to open the season but if he can iron out the consistency, St. Brown will rise on these rankings as he has some of the conference’s slickest routes.
9. Marlon Tuipulotu, DI
A force against the pass, Tuipulotu often requires double-teams in the middle but even then, it often didn’t matter as he recorded three sacks a year ago but multiple other pressures. He’ll also see an increase in production if So’oto holds up his end of the bargain before Tuipulotu makes that NFL leap.
10. Drake London, WR
Sure there are other receivers who may take targets from London this fall including Bru McCoy and Kyle Ford (Ford still an honorable mention) but at this rate, the one who has produced and produced big enough to warrant a top 10 spot is London. The true sophomore finished his first season as a Trojan with 39 catches for 567 yards and five scores as he was a big-play threat and a constant first-down on his targets. London should only see more targets and with his average of 14.5 yards per catch, he should make a ton of waves in 2020 and beyond.
Honorable mention: Max Williams, CB; Brett Neilon, C; Kyle Ford, WR; Brandon Pili, DI; Isaiah Pola-Mao, S