2016 USC Football Spring Preview: Linebacker


USC football could have a free for all at linebacker this spring with two departed starters to replace and uncertainty across the board thanks to injury and suspension.

With USC football’s 2016 spring camp due to begin in just a couple weeks, it’s time to look forward to preparations for the new season.

At linebacker, the Trojans will be led by former running backs coach Johnny Nansen, who was one of just two holdovers on Clay Helton’s new staff

Nansen’s will have the unenviable task of replacing at least two starters, with a third potentially suspended for the season. Fortunately, there is a great deal of talent to work with as the unit takes shape.


Departing (3): Su’a Cravens, Lamar Dawson, Anthony SaraoReturning (10): Scott Felix*, Porter Gustin, John Houston, Michael Hutchings, Osa Masina, Uchenna Nwosu, Quinton Powell, Jabari Ruffin, Cameron Smith, Olajuwon TuckerEarly Enrollees (0): N/AIncoming Freshmen (1): Jordan Iosefa

Su’a Cravens and Anthony Sarao were long-time starters while Dawson also served as a starter throughout his career, so USC will be replacing some very experienced players in 2016.

Scott Felix holds the most experience remaining in the unit, but his senior season is in doubt thanks to a reported suspension.

If Felix’s suspension holds up, three of the four linebacker positions will need a new starter. The fourth position, middle linebacker, is also in limbo thanks to the ACL injury suffered by freshman phenom Cameron Smith. Though Smith will almost certainly return to his starting position next season, the spot will be open for competition this spring.

Mar 3, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans linebacker Olajuwon Tucker (34) at spring practice at Cromwell Field. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Olajuwon Tucker stood in for Smith following his injury at the end of the 2015 season, logging 40 tackles as a sophomore, while Michael Hutchings has served as a back up at the position since 2013 but fell short in taking over the starting job when Hayes Pullard graduated last year and again when both Smith and Dawson were injured against Colorado.

At WILL, Sarao’s departure opens the door for Osa Masina to deliver on the promise of his hype as a recruit after backing up the veteran as a freshman. However, his participation was less than expected in year one as he was slowed by a hamstring injury.

John Houston, who redshirted in 2015, is listed as an outside linebacker on USC’s roster, but projections favor a move inside. Now would be the time for him to take a shot at securing the open spot on the weakside.

On the outside, Porter Gustin led the team in sacks as a freshman while backing up Felix at rush end. He eventually earned two starts against UCLA and Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game so whether or not Felix is cleared to play there is an expectation that Gustin will take over the job.

Jabari Ruffin was buried on the depth chart behind Gustin and Felix in 2015, but has history with new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast after featuring as a regular for him in 2013 during his redshirt freshman season. Since Ruffin was due to fill the SAM position before tearing ligaments in his knee in 2014, he could end up on the other side of the line replacing Su’a Cravens, the very player who replaced him.

Considering Pendergast’s preference for having pass rushers on the outside, there’s a possibility that new defensive line recruit Oluwole Betiku could shift over to and fill the open strongside position. However, both Uchenna Nwosu and Quinton Powell, back ups to Cravens in 2015, return and will be gunning for the spot as well.

Biggest Battle: Interior Free For All

Sarao’s departure and Smith’s injury have created a free for all on the interior. With no established players slated to participate in spring camp at either MIKE or WILL, any one of Tucker, Hutchings, Masina or Houston to impress and earn a starting job alongside Smith in 2016.Adding to the murkiness is the potential for several outside linebackers, like Nwosu or Powell, to switch inside.

Though the pecking order will continue to shift through fall camp, spring will be a pivotal time for the entire group.

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Most to Gain: John Houston

Houston was the only one of USC’s top-level linebacker haul from the 2015 class not to see the field this past season. In addition to needing more bulking up than the rest, the four-star recruit dealt with back issues in the fall.

Now he has the chance to play catch up and establish himself in the line up as Smith, Gustin and Masina did.

Most to Lose: Scott Felix

Felix was allegedly suspended due to testing positive for a banned substance. The redshirt senior has reportedly appealed that suspension but his USC future is certainly up in the air.

With Gustin nipping at his heels for the entirety of the 2015 season, now is not a good time for him to miss out on such a big chunk of the Trojans’ preseason preparations. Whether or not he comes back as a senior, the potential progress by younger challengers at his position may be too much for him to reestablish his place as a starter.

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