USC entered last season with the hopes that the linebacking core world be transcendent. With upperclassmen at every position, the linebacking core one of the best position groups - on paper. But as the year progressed, opponents began to find success challenging USC’s linebacking core. Porter Gustin’s absence was too great a loss to USC’s pass rush, with few stepping up. Far too opponents converted late down rushes with USC linebackers failing to get off blocks to make the early tackle. Tight ends began to have some success against coverage, highlighted by Caleb Wilson’s 63 yard game against Trojan coverage. His 29 yard reception was the beginning of the end for USC against UCLA.
This year, there are some new faces and a reshuffling of the defense. Gone are Cam Smith and Porter Gustin, stalwarts of USC’s defense. Changed is Clancy Pendergast’s defensive system. With it, gone is the on-ball, pass-rushing linebacking position known as the predator.
Here are next year’s projected starters:
Palaie Gaoteote, John Houston Jr., Hunter Echols
The most hype in this group is surrounding Palaie Gaoteote, who sat behind senior Cameron Smith for much of last year. In a few games when Smith was out, Gaoteote was pressed into service, playing the MIKE linebacker and quarterbacking the Trojan defense. Gaoteote is an imposing physical presence, and he is both bigger and faster than Smith on the field, highlighted by a dominant 9 tackle showing against Colorado. Gaoteote has the talent and tools that have warranted comparisons to Rey Maualuga. It will be up to him to show it for the season. This season, he will be shifted to the WILL, leaving senior John Houston to diagnose the offense and quarterback the defense.
For some reason, John Houston has been slept on as a contributor to the Trojan offense. For years, he has ceded attention to Porter Gustin and Cameron Smith. But now, Houston will be the most important mind on the Trojan defense. Houston is experienced in Clancy Pendergast’s system, and his understanding of the changes to Pendergast’s system will be critical to ensuring that USC’s defense is on the same page. He’s not as vocal as Jordan Iosefa, but he must impart his wisdom on the Trojan defense.
With the predator position functionally axed, expect pass-rushing linebackers to fit in as strong-side linebackers. The leader of the pack right now seems to be Hunter Echols, but Echols also failed to break through to help an anemic Trojan pass rush post-Gustin injury. Expect Echols to rotate with Elijah Winston and Abdul Malik McClain during the season. If there is any one position where competition about playing time lasts into the season, expect it to be strong-side linebacker.
USC is crazy deep at off-ball linebacker, and Clancy Pendergast should have a myriad of options to mix and match with. Expect to see Jordan Iosefa rotating in to a variety of spots. An outside linebacker last season, Iosefa has practiced on the inside. He should be a versatile piece that provides power and ferocity to the Trojan linebacking core. Kana’i Mauga is the dark horse of this group. As a freshman last season, Mauga wowed in camp with his grasp of the defense, and even worked with the starters when other linebackers were dinged up. When offenses are rolling, expect Pendergast to reach into his back pocket for Mauga as an option to stem the tide.
Every projected contributor to the USC linebacking group was on the roster last year. So in order to improve, players will need to work on their game and integrate into Pendergast’s system. We’ve seen these ingredients before. Now we wait for the final dish.