USC Football is looking for the next generation of dynamic leaders to take the program to the top. Clay Helton already has an idea of who will step up.
Team captains for USC Football’s 2017 squad have yet to be voted on, but the Trojan coaching staff already has an idea of who they will turn to in order to fill the leadership gap left by an impactful group of departures.
USC lost big personalities in the locker room and important leaders to the NFL and elsewhere earlier this year. Along with the four team captains, Adoree’ Jackson, Zach Banner, Michael Hutchings and Max Browne, the Trojans will also be without key figures across the lineup.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, Darreus Rogers, Taylor McNamara and Justin Davis provided strong examples for their peers in addition to being starters. Utah transfer Stevie Tu’ikolovatu added undeniable maturity to the defensive line group, while Leon McQuay III and Quinton Powell were veteran personalities on defense.
“We had 14 dynamic players that were true leaders [last year],” Helton said. “Now it’s time for the younger brothers to step up and take the older brothers’ place.”
The core leadership group has already taken form ahead of fall camp. Helton designated a group of representatives from each class — one from the offense and one from the defense — to meet with him every other week to touch base and to keep the flow of information going both ways.
From the senior class, it’s offensive lineman Viane Talamaivao and outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu. For the juniors, it’s wide receiver Deontay Burnett and linebacker Cameron Smith. For the sophomores, it’s quarterback Sam Darnold and linebacker Jordan Iosefa.
Senior safety Chris Hawkins and redshirt sophomore tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe were also brought into the fold while the freshmen representatives will be chosen by the other players once they have had a taste of fall camp.
If the players have concerns or issues, they can voice them. But the group will also serve as a way for Helton to reinforce his message with different voices.
“It comes from them because it can’t always come from me,” Helton said.
That concept worked well for the Trojans last year, when a group of players including Darnold, called a players-only team meeting after USC fell to 1-3.
“One of the things that I was really proud of our guys is after the Utah game, being able to take ownership and say, you know what, this is our team,” Helton said. “They took ownership from the team and met together and they held each other accountable.
“When the leadership comes from not only the head coach but also from within, from the players, then you’ve got something special.”
Tapping back into that something special is the challenge for this season, having lost so many of the voices that helped guide USC to nine-straight victories to end 2016.
It helps to have Darnold, whose natural tendency to lead by example has been bolstered by increasing confidence. But there are others whose leadership has set them apart already this year.
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Helton raved about Imatorbhebhe’s growth as a leader since transferring in from Florida as a freshman in 2015
“He’s not afraid to speak his mind,” Helton said. “One of the hardest things to do as a young person is to go to one of your peers and say, hey that’s not the way we do things. He has enough courage to be able to do that.”
During spring camp Helton also had great things to say about Nwosu.
“I knew he was going to be a good player but what I didn’t realize is how good a leader he is. He’s really capturing this bunch,” said Helton. “Stevie had that role last year, you kind of feel it coming on with Uchenna. He’s the lead dog. He’s the king of the lions.”
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Others like Hawkins and Burnett have drawn praise from coaches and their teammates for their ability to mentor teammates and set a good example.
Now that fall camp has arrived, the new generation of Trojan leaders is primed to take center stage. How far they lead the team is up to them.