Is Oluwole Betiku in line to steal snaps from Porter Gustin? Is Deontay Burnett being crowned too early? RoT’s USC Football mailbag seeks answers.
With spring camp and the NFL Draft all wrapped up, the time has come to patiently await the start of fall camp and the 2017 USC Football season.
In the meantime, there are still a number of threads from spring to discuss, including the budding competition between Oluwole Betiku and Porter Gustin at the Predator position and the expectations which have been attached to wide receiver Deontay Burnett.
All that and more in this week’s mailbag. It’s time to find the answers…
ANSWER: Oluwole Betiku was one of the big risers from spring camp, in part because Porter Gustin missed a couple weeks while recovering from hand surgery.
With first team reps, Betiku acquitted himself well. He was a force off the edge and gave a taste of his five-star pedigree.
But are his greater understanding of the game and developing physical ability a danger to Gustin? Not so fast.
Gustin is no slouch. He had 5.5 sacks and a team-leading 13 tackles for loss in 2016. He was also USC’s second-leading tackler.
Betiku may be an exciting prospect, but he’s still a prospect. Gustin is an established starter who should only get better in Year 2 in Clancy Pendergast’s defense.
Remember, Gustin himself was seen as a bright, shiny new toy for the Trojans in 2015 but he still saw limited snaps in favor of the more veteran Scott Felix. And Gustin is well ahead of Felix at this stage.
QUESTION: Guess the team captains? — @TasH_Ka1
ANSWER: It’s safe to assume Sam Darnold will be voted a captain this year. Outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu is also primed to get the nod as a senior leader on the defense.
As for the other two slots, that’s up in the air. Middle linebacker Cameron Smith could be in line for that honor, but safety Chris Hawkins is a much more vocal leader and could also warrant the “C” on his jersey.
The other spot on offense, is a free for all. One of the veteran offensive linemen like Toa Lobendahn, Nico Falah or Viane Talamaivao could be chosen. Or lead-by-example Rose Bowl hero Deontay Burnett. It’s hard to say.
QUESTION: Are we too quick to anoint Deontay WR1? Is he just a great slot receiver who benefited from so much attention being given to JuJu Rojo & Sam?— @dgeske
ANSWER: That’s a valid question, but it’s also the kind of thing that was being asked of JuJu Smith-Schuster when Nelson Agholor left for the NFL Draft. Could he be the No. 1 guy? As it turned out, he absolutely could.
It’s not exactly the same situation, but in terms of production there’s not a whole lot being asked of Burnett that wasn’t asked of Smith-Schuster.
Smith-Schuster had 724 yards receiving on 54 catches in 2014 before taking on a bigger role. Burnett had 622 yards on 56 catches in 2016. And now he’s being asked to take on a bigger role.
The best evidence that Burnett is legitimately poised to be USC’s primary figure in the receiving corps is Darnold’s comfort level with him.
Some of Darnold’s biggest moments as a freshman featured Burnett. Not only is he someone Darnold looks to when he’s in trouble, but he’s proven time and time again that he’s worthy of the trust the quarterback put in him by making the play. The Rose Bowl was just the grand finale on what was an impressive season full of big moments for the then-sophomore.
Burnett will have to prove that he’s capable of handling more attention from the defense. At the same time, USC shouldn’t need, or want, him to be the next Robert Woods, Marqise Lee, Agholor or Smith-Schuster in the sense of being the only option at times.
Sooner or later, defenses will realize they also have to pay attention to Michael Pittman and Tyler Vaughns, as well as Steven Mitchell, Jalen Greene and Velus Jones. That’s not to mention passing game weapons like Daniel Imatorbhebhe and Tyler Petite at tight end.
Perhaps that’s simply banking on a whole other group of players who have been prematurely anointed as the next big thing, but USC has too much talent at wide receiver. The Trojans are bound to find a least a couple true targets to take some of the pressure off Burnett.
QUESTION: What will this year’s team biggest strength and weakness? Are there any glaring deficiencies that no one is talking about? — @Toptrojanfan
ANSWER: It would be easy to pick USC’s biggest strength for 2017 as quarterback Sam Darnold. He’s undoubtedly the Trojans most talented player and their fortunes will go as he goes.
Still, I’ll go a different direction because you can’t get a sentence into USC Football coverage this offseason without hearing about Darnold.
Instead, consider the running back position as the Trojans greatest strength.
Unlike at quarterback, where a single injury could turn that strength to a glaring weakness, USC is so stacked at running back that any one of four Trojan rusher could be All-Pac-12 first team candidates. Seriously.
At the top, Ronald Jones II is a special talent who should be the undisputed featured back for the first time in his career. He averaged 7.3 yards per carry in six games as a starter last year.
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Then there’s Aca’Cedric Ware. His injury history is a worry, but when healthy he’s shown himself capable of being a productive all-around back.
Vavae Malepeai is another exciting prospect who redshirted in 2016 because of a collarbone injury. He’s deceptively quick to the outside and built broadly enough to work inside.
Finally, five-star recruit Stephen Carr will be waiting in the wings — if he doesn’t force his way into playing time right away with his bruising power and breakaway speed, as well as pass-catching ability.
Looking at weaknesses, the biggest question marks surround the offensive line, but it’s not necessarily a weakness. USC has some real options to fill the absence of Zach Banner, Chad Wheeler and Damien Mama, but injuries and their bad timing have prevented the Trojans from getting a real sense of what that line could look like in 2017.
CHECK OUT: Predicting USC’s 2017 Depth Chart
Inside linebacker has had similar injury issues and with a much more dire depth situation. Cameron Smith is a solid presence in the middle, but next to him John Houston is a complete wild card. The trouble is, if Houston doesn’t work out, there aren’t a ton of options to replace him.
That’s something to keep an eye on.