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Key USC Players to Watch in the Season Opener

As USC prepares for Game 1 against USC, these are the players to keep your eyes on, and whose performance will most directly impact the season.

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Championship-Southern California vs Stanford Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

1. JT Daniels - Quarterback

High School: Gatorade Athlete of the Year Awards Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

This one’s obvious. JT Daniels is the first true freshman to start to for the USC Trojans since Matt Barkley, another Mater Dei graduate. Daniels’ first opponent will be a UNLV team whose defense has been ranked 116th, 114th, 116th, and 114th over the past four seasons, according to S&P+, a metric that measures a team’s defensive efficiency.

Last season, UNLV gave up thirty points or more to Howard, Ohio State, San Diego State, Air Force, Utah State, BYU, and New Mexico. In Michael Pittman, Tyler Vaughns, Stephen Carr, and Amon-Ra St. Brown, Daniels certainly has the weapons to overwhelm a consistently bad defense.

Against lesser talent, don’t expect to see Daniels utilize much of his running prowess. Rather, expect him to spread the ball around and stand tall in the pocket.

Even though Daniels won’t necessarily need to play well for a dominant USC victory, the confidence and pocket presence he experiences in week one will inevitably roll over to week two, when USC faces Stanford at the farm. In his first game, he has all of the weapons necessary to announce himself to the college football world. In order to do so, he must sling the ball around and stand strong in front of a dominate line.

2. Amon-Ra St. Brown - Wide receiver

This will be the first time many fans see the Daniels-St. Brown connection. Against a subpar defense, St. Brown will be playing opposite UNLV’s second or third best corner the whole game. This game, we’ll see if the hype that he generated this offseason will translate on the field. He certainly has the tools to be productive, with the speed, route-running, and hands to succeed against a subpar defense.

St. Brown is listed as USC’s starting punt returner which gives him the potential to score some touchdowns early in his Trojan career.

If St. Brown can break out in this game, he’ll be set up for a good season, and hopefully an explosive game during week two at Stanford.

3. Porter Gustin - Outside linebacker

NCAA Football: Southern California at Arizona State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

At this point, the theme of the UNLV game is clear. Players need to step up and be ready out of the gate, with Stanford looming in week two. Though Porter Gustin has less to prove than the previous two on the field, he is recovering from a torn meniscus, and wasn’t even expected to play week one until just recently.

UNLV’s offensive line is one the the few bright spots on the roster, made up of mostly returning seniors. Still, Gustin should be more talented than every player he lines up across from. His pass-rushing and run-stopping ability will rest on his ability to put pressure on his knee, and we should see whether Gustin is rounding into shape. Especially with week two against a dominant running team in Stanford, Gustin has to show improved health in week one.

4. Aca’Cedric Ware - Tailback

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Named as one of three co-starters in USC’s depth chart, Aca’Cedric Ware looks to create an impact in his senior season at USC. In his previous seasons, he has only totaled 433 yards on 90 carries. Against UNLV, Clay Helton will likely try to spread the ball around, and Ware will likely get a much larger workload compared to his previous stints.

Right now, the only given in the USC backfield is Stephen Carr, who performed admirably as an all-around back last season. Either Ware or co-starter Vavae Malepeai must step up. With Ware as the returning senior, the pressure is on him to perform.

5. Austin Jackson - Left tackle

NCAA Football: Texas at Southern California Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Toa Lobendahn, Chris Brown, and Chuma Edoga return as seniors on the USC offensive front, and all three should make the All PAC-12 teams this season. Austin Jackson, however, will be playing arguably the most important position in the offensive line: left tackle.

Tasked with protecting Daniels’ blindside, Jackson must perform better than he did last season, as he was arguably the weak link against the high level competition he faced with Notre Dame and Ohio State. This season, with a first year quarterback, Jackson must step up. That starts with a dominant week one performance against a poor UNLV defensive front.