After a brutal 5-7 season, the USC Trojans are looking to get back on track. One positive heading into next year? The team is returning some studs on the defensive side of the ball. Here are the three players to keep an eye on heading into the 2019-2020 season:
1) John Houston Jr. — Inside linebacker
2018-2019 stats: 67 total tackles, one sack, one forced fumble
The soon-to-be redshirt senior picked up right where his sophomore season left off by having yet another phenomenal season last year. There were some games where he just took over. The one that comes to mind is the stellar performance he had against the Utah Utes in a 41-28 defeat. In that game, Houston had 15 total tackles, 12 solo tackles, one sack and one forced fumble. This is a great example of just how good Houston can be when he’s at the top of his game. If he can have a few of these types of games next year, the Trojans are going to be in good hands at the inside linebacker position.
2) Palaie Gaoteote IV — Inside linebacker
2018-2019 stats: 38 total tackles, two sacks
The incoming sophomore and former five-star recruit had as good a freshman year as a player could possibly have at a prominent Division 1 program. Palaie Gaoteote was able to produce whenever he was given playing time, with his best game coming against Utah. His ability to play smart and stay composed as a freshman are some of the reasons why he is in line for a huge year. The main reason though? Star Cameron Smith, who started at inside linebacker for the Trojans the last few years, is graduating this spring, which means a gaping hole needs to be filled. Gaoteote is expected to fill that hole and produce at Smith’s level, if not better. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast and the rest of the Trojan coaching staff couldn't be more excited to see what’s in store for this kid next year.
3) Christian Rector — Defensive lineman/outside linebacker
2018-2019 stats: 48 total tackles, 4.5 sacks, one forced fumble
The incoming redshirt senior from south Pasadena was a key contributor to last year’s defensive unit, finishing second on the team in sacks and tied for first in forced fumbles. With the graduation of senior Porter Gustin, Christian Rector is going to need to show veteran leadership this year and lead the Trojans’ defense. Games like the one he had against the Oregon State Beavers, where he finished with nine tackles and two and a half sacks, lead us to believe he can be this defensive stalwart and lead the unit to victories next year. Rector is going to be someone to keep an eye on next year as the season unfolds.