Does USC football have a real Heisman candidate in 2018?

Harry How/Getty Images
Harry How/Getty Images /

Does USC football have a real Heisman Trophy candidate in 2018? And if not, does the Trojan coaching staff need to answer for that?

USC football knows how to bring in top talent at the college level, securing Top 10 recruiting classes for five years running. That includes gifted players across nearly every position, but in particular skill positions.

So it stands to reason the Trojans should feature players who are in the running for national awards each year, like the Heisman Trophy.

USC hasn’t had a player in the Top 10 of Heisman vote getters since Marqise Lee in 2012. But every year renews the opportunity for someone.

Who could make that run in 2018?

Last year, there were options aplenty. Sam Darnold was one of the favorites to win it while Ronald Jones II stood as a dark horse candidate for the award. However, neither made it close enough to sniff a ticket to New York as a finalist.

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USC’s current roster doesn’t lack talent, but it’s tougher to pick out a real Heisman candidate from the bunch.

Freshman quarterback JT Daniels picked up Heisman odds last week, but framing him as a legitimate candidate is undoubtedly a stretch. Firstly, he hasn’t won the starting job yet.

Second, if we assume he crosses that first hurdle, he’ll be a true freshman making his debut in 2018. Alabama’s Jalen Hurts had an exceptional true freshman campaign in 2016 and didn’t make the Heisman finalist list. Georgia’s Jake Fromm led his team to the College Football Playoff in 2017 and didn’t get that individual recognition either.

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Then there’s running back Stephen Carr, whose exceptional start to the 2017 season flashed of future Heisman potential. Could his rise to that level come as soon as this year?

He has his own major hurdles to clear. After undergoing back surgery this spring, Carr will need prove his body is up to the task of carrying USC’s rushing attack. He’ll also need to produce more consistently, having returned from injury in 2017 with some lackluster performances.

There are other dark horse figures on offense for the Trojans. Using last season’s end as a spring board, wide receivers Tyler Vaughns and Michael Pittman could make a spectacular vault into the national consciousness.

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And whose to say Jack Sears couldn’t shock the world with a Darnold-esque rise.

There’s another underlying question, one more troubling from a team perspective: Does Tee Martin have what it takes to make a Heisman winner?

Obviously, players do the heavy lifting when it comes to winning such a prestigious award, but offensive systems can give them a boost. Lee finished fourth in Heisman voting in 2012 in part because Lane Kiffin went all-in on him. Kiffin also got the most out of Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush in 2005 while Norm Chow showed those chops in the preceding campaigns.

Martin, on the other hand, hasn’t established the same kind of confidence in his abilities. His USC offenses in 2016 and 2017 have put up strong statistics, but they have been largely underachieving given the players available to him.

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Clay Helton’s mantra of “balance” on offense also hasn’t netted prime opportunities for individuals to stand out. On the one hand, that’s not a bad thing considering the sometimes dark side of Kiffin’s approach in focusing too heavily on one star player. On the other hand, the likes of Darnold and Jones II were Heisman-level talents who may be looked back on as having been misused or underutilized.

Martin was a first time playcaller in 2016 and he clearly had growing pains to overcome in 2017. Third time may be a charm, but current evidence is working against him. If he couldn’t get Jones II to New York, how is he going to get Carr there?

That may be the biggest indictment against USC’s offensive coaching staff, one they’ll have to answer in 2018.

Winning a Heisman would be a pretty spectacular sign of progress, but at least developing a player to at least be in that discussion? That would go a long way towards easing concerns.

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There was a time following Leinart and Bush’s success when every Trojan team featured someone in the Heisman discussion. Great offenses and great teams produce players of that caliber.

Trojan fans need to feel like this staff is getting more out of its players. The talent is there, that’s for sure.