USC Football: Best-case, worst-case at outside linebacker in 2017

Sep 23, 2016; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; USC Trojans defensive end Porter Gustin (45) and linebacker Uchenna Nwosu (42) during a NCAA football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Utah defeated USC 31-27. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 23, 2016; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; USC Trojans defensive end Porter Gustin (45) and linebacker Uchenna Nwosu (42) during a NCAA football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Utah defeated USC 31-27. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /

Does USC Football have a pair of potential All-Americans at outside linebacker in 2017? Or will the Trojans stagnate on the edge?

When USC Football was at it’s best on defense in 2016, the Trojan outside linebackers created chaos by rushing in off the ends and making life difficult for opposing quarterbacks.

This season, they’ll want to up the ante with two returning outside linebackers ready to take the next step.

Here are the best- and worst-case scenarios at outside linebacker in 2017:

Best-case scenario

Porter Gustin and Uchenna Nwosu earn All-American nods.

Simply put, USC has potentially the best outside linebacker group in the Pac-12 heading into the 2017 season. Returning starters Porter Gustin and Uchenna Nwosu could both push for All-American honors in Year 2 under defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast.

Gustin’s ability was clear from the moment he stepped on campus as a four-star recruit in 2015. Serving as a back up during his freshman campaign, there were growing calls for him to take over the starting role by season’s end thanks to his powerful pass rushing ability.

Now entering his junior season, the 6-foot-5 Predator linebacker, who only seems to get bigger and stronger each month, can build on his All-Pac-12 honorable mention from last year by becoming an even more familiar sight for quarterbacks in the conference.

If Gustin can replicate his menacing performance against Washington in 2016, the All-American votes will come flying in.

On the opposite side of the line, Nwosu was one of spring camp’s brightest stars as his familiarity with the strongside linebacker position solidified and he blossomed into a defensive leader.

Nwosu is well on his way to replicating Su’a Cravens’ impact at the line of scrimmage and in the backfield, tallying 7.5 tackles for loss as a junior.

Behind those two, the Trojans boast an exciting young talent in Oluwole Betiku, whose progress this spring standing in for Gustin while he recovered from hand surgery raised the possibility of a devastating Predator rotation.

Worst-case scenario

Gustin and Nwosu stagnate with risks outweighing rewards.

USC’s greatest concern across the board in 2017 is stagnation. All the hype the Trojans have enjoyed this offseason is based on the belief that they could be even better than they were in 2016 as the roster continues to mature.

But what if the roster doesn’t? What if Year 2 in the Pendergast defense is more of the same? Or worse because now the Trojans don’t have Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, Adoree’ Jackson, Michael Hutchings and Leon McQuay III providing the spine of the defense?

MORE: How Will USC Replace 11 Lost Starters in 2017?

Both Gustin and Nwosu were prone to lose containment on the edges in 2016. Their ability to balance controlled aggression on the outside is key to USC’s defense. Tip the scales one way too far and consequences can be devastating.

Behind them, depth is a slight concern. Though Betiku and Connor Murphy are intriguing prospects, there’s really no like-for-like replacement for Nwosu if he were to miss any time due to injury or other circumstances.

That’ll get especially complicated if Olajuwon Tucker’s services are needed at inside linebacker.

There’s also no guarantee Betiku or Murphy are ready to take the next step and become regular, dependable contributors behind Gustin and Nwosu. Betiku’s strides in the spring will be put to the test when the season arrives, but Pendergast isn’t known for using subs who haven’t completely earned his trust.

Most-likely scenario

The linebacker duo of Gustin and Nwosu is too talented and experienced to not be one of USC’s strengths in 2017.

Regardless of what happens behind them with Betiku and company, Gustin and Nwosu are probably the two biggest sure things on the defense.

SEE ALSO: USC’s Best-Case, Worst-Case at Tight End

More from Reign of Troy

And that’s just making the assumption that neither will take a step back in Year 2.

However, the evidence would suggest that they’ll do a lot more than just keep the pace.

When Clancy Pendergast arrived at Cal in 2010, the Bears tallied 76 tackles for loss. In 2011, with a squad of experienced players hitting their stride, Cal’s TFL numbers exploded to 99 –tops in the conference.

USC had 71 tackles for loss in 2016 –Gustin led the team with 13 while Nwosu was third with 7.5– leaving plenty of room for growth.

The message from spring camp was the noticeable increase in playing speed by USC’s outside linebackers.

CHECK OUT: Four Big Takeaways From Spring Camp

They gave the Trojan tackles fits coming off the edge, and there’s plenty of reason to believe they’ll be a handful for USC’s opposition this fall.