Much like an RKO, last season USC quarterback Sam Darnold came out of nowhere. Clay Helton promoted the redshirt freshman to starter before the Utah game and well… you know the rest.
Now that we are fully aware of what Darnold is capable of, it’s time to take a look at which Trojans will emerge in similar dramatic fashion this year. These are the five most likely players to breakout and become superstars in 2017 (not including true freshmen).
Honorable Mention: So WR Michael Pittman Jr., So DE Oluwole Betiku, So LB John Houston
- Uchennna Nwosu SR Linebacker- While it may seem odd that a senior could become a “breakout star,” Nwosu has yet to fully make his mark in the cardinal and gold. During his first two seasons on campus, Nwosu mostly worked as a special teamer and backup. But when given an increased starting role last year, he showed flashes of brilliance in both coverage and the pass rush, especially against Colorado, when he came up big with 10 tackles, a sack, and two deflections. Nwosu enters this season overshadowed by fellow backers Cam Smith and Porter Gustin (both were featured on the Bendarik Award watch list). However, now that he has 14 starts under his belt and enters the year as a proven leader on defense, this could be the year that Nwosu makes a serious leap.
- Jack Jones SO Cornerback- As USC’s most highly touted recruit from the 2016 class, Jones has carried high expectations for Trojan fans. Last year was the perfect situation for the freakishly athletic corner; he got to learn under the likes of Adoree Jackson and Iman Marshall without the pressures of having to start right away. Still he played in every game, cutting his teeth on special teams and with the reserves. Now, however, his adjustment period ends. As the new starter opposite Marshall, Jones will be counted on to become a star in the PAC-12 both in coverage and in the return game (read: Replace Adoree Jackson).
- Tyler Vaughns RS-FR Wide Receiver- It’s no secret that USC needs someone to emerge from the receiver position. Last season Darreus Rogers and JuJu Smith-Schuster combined to account for over half of Darnold’s passing yards, but now both are in the NFL. With the slot position secured in Deontay Burnett’s hands (a 2016 breakout star in his own right), Darnold will need a go- to man on the outside. While sophomore Michael Pittman Jr. and junior Jalen Greene both could fill that role, Vaughns looked the most impressive in Spring leading all receivers with 3 catches for 48 yards and a touchdown in the Spring Game. Look for the former five star recruit to breakout out as a vertical, deep threat in 2017.
- Nico Falah SR Center- Falah is another reliable vet looking to attain better descriptions than “reliable vet.” While bouncing around between tackle and center, he watched line-mates like Zach Banner, Chad Wheeler and Demian Mama grab All- American or All- Conference honors. Now for the first time in his career, Falah enters the season with a definitive role. He started the last 12 games of 2016 at center and excelled, and comes into this year as the rock of an inexperienced offensive line. This is likely the year he receives the same type of acclaim as his former teammates.
- Velus Jones RS-FR All Purpose- While technically listed as a wide receiver, Jones follows a tradition of great Trojan athletes who can impact the game in a variety of different ways (think Joe McKnight or Adoree Jackson). The speedy freshman from Alabama can catch the ball out of the slot, run the ball on a reverse or make dynamic plays in the return game. Even if he doesn’t start a single game, offensive coordinator Tee Martin will likely use the home run threat early and often. Remember the name.