It would be impossible to find a player who means more to USC’s offense than quarterback Cody Kessler. But quarterback is always an easy position to focus on for every football team. Here are 10 players worth keeping a close eye on this season. They may not be the 10 best players, but if you watch a USC game, how they perform could determine if USC’s season is special or just average by its expectations.
CB-WR Adoree Jackson, So. — He might be 10 players to watch in one body. Expectations are out of control especially when Jackson immediately looked like the best wide receiver his first day on offense during training camp. There could be a game when Jackson gets a hat trick: Catching a touchdown pass, intercepting a pass for a touchdown and returning a kickoff/punt for one.
LB Su’a Cravens, Jr. — He could easily lead USC in sacks, interceptions and tackles. That’s how omnipresent he will be in the game plan. And he’s really a safety playing linebacker because the coaches lack playmakers near the line of scrimmage. Enjoy him now because he will be off to the NFL after the season.
OL Toa Lobendahn, So. — If USC loses a tackle or highly regarded center Max Tuerk, Lobendahn moves from his starting spot and replaces them. He can start at every line spot. Not many linemen can play center and left tackle. Maybe this is why Steve Sarkisian tried to give him No. 55 last season before coming to his senses and realizing it is a hallowed number for USC linebackers.
WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, So. — It’s not enough that Smith-Schuster is the No. 1 wide receiver. He works harder than everyone else during practices and now doles out advice as a leader of the offense. The best part is Smith-Schuster will get all the chances he deserves this season because the offense tended to focus so much on wide receiver Nelson Agholor last season.
RB Ronald Jones, Fr. — Tre Madden is poised for a good season. But if he gets injured, keep an eye on Jones, who is a breakaway threat and will play even if Madden starts. He experienced a blip during training camp when he got homesick, but if he gets over it, he will be a tailback people watch with anticipation because of his speed and moves.
WR Steven Mitchell, So. — He might catch only one or two passes a game but he can turn a 10-yard reception into a 70-yard touchdown. He’s small but quick and even Jackson could not catch him on a touchdown play during spring practice. Like every wide receiver, though, he can only be as good as his opportunities.
CB Iman Marshall, Fr. — The coaches will offer doublespeak about all the options for the third cornerback, but Marshall is the star. He made several impressive interceptions in training camp and is possibly the hardest hitter in the secondary. So far, he’s lived up to the hype as one of the nation’s top recruits and would start at most Pac-12 schools.
LB Cameron Smith, Fr. — Let’s be honest: USC linebackers were pretty quiet the past couple years and if Smith can make a couple interceptions or force a few fumbles, he’s worth starting in the middle. Anything beats having a bend-but-don’t-break mentality and it’s better to go through some early growing pains if it means making plays in October.
DE Porter Gustin, Fr. — He’s really a linebacker, but in a strictly pass-rushing mode Gustin could pressure a lot of quarterbacks. It’s not unlike the way Pete Carroll used linebacker Keith Rivers when he was a freshman. A simplified role that could lead to maximum results. Forget that he is listed third on the depth chart, see where he is by midseason.
DT Delvon Simmons, Sr. — Everything is set for Simmons to have a perfectly fine season. The problem is he will hear comparisons to Leonard Williams, at least at the outset of the season. The truth is the rest of the defensive linemen are just as culpable when it comes time to determine if there is a drop-off from last year. Besides, if Simmons did not want to be in the spotlight, he would not have transferred from Texas Tech.
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