USC football’s defense was out front at Pac-12 Media Day with Cameron Smith and Porter Gustin representing the unit that will need to carry the Trojans in 2018.
If it wasn’t obvious before. It’s undeniable now. The 2018 USC football team is all about one thing: Defense.
The Trojans arrived at Pac-12 Media Day in Hollywood on Wednesday with that on full display. They were the only program to bring not one, but two representatives from the defense, leaving the offense at home for the day.
That’s not to say there weren’t offensive leaders to consider. Center Toa Lobendahn, the only offensive player to grace the cover of this year’s media guide, could have represented well. Tight end Tyler Petite could have been a veteran voice while wide receiver Tyler Vaughns might have warranted a look as a potential breakout star. Receiver Michael Pittman would have undoubtedly performed well in front of the cameras.
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Instead, USC went against the grain, bringing inside linebacker Cameron Smith back after his appearance last year while adding outside linebacker Porter Gustin to the mix.
“I brought two linebackers today because they represent what Trojans are,” Helton said.
“I could have brought a lot of guys…There’s a lot of guys on this team that are just like them. I just think that those two guys are tremendous examples of what we want Trojans to be.”
It’s no coincidence that the two players who most give light to Helton’s desired mentality at USC are defenders. Everything about this offseason has pointed to the importance of the defense as a foundation in 2018.
The defense is out front and center for a reason.
With Sam Darnold, Deontay Burnett and Ronald Jones II gone, the offense is in rebuild mode.
The defense, by comparison, returns five senior leaders, including Smith, Gustin, Marvell Tell, Iman Marshall and Ajene Harris. Those seniors will be supplemented by promising returning starters like Christian Rector, John Houston, Jordan Iosefa and Brandon Pili.
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It’s a group full of leadership, experience and talent. And no one expects more from them than themselves.
“We put pressure on ourselves because we want to be great. We want to be perfect,” Smith said. “Holding teams to zero points. That’s perfect. That’s what we’re pushing for.”
There’s an example to hold up, one Smith says new tight ends coach Keary Colbert can tell from experience.
Back in 2004, Colbert’s senior season at USC, Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer had graduated and the Trojans faced questions on offense. That team needed the defense to be dominant while the offense found their quarterback and new playmakers.
That defense held up their end of the bargain until Matt Leinart, Dwayne Jarrett, LenDale White and Reggie Bush emerged.
Now the 2018 Trojans face a similar task.
“It’s going to take some time to find the offense’s identity and our defense is going to do its job and do what’s asked of us to find that time for our offense, whatever is needed,” Smith said.
Before any games even begin, the defense has another important job: Help Helton and company pick a starting quarterback. They’ll do that by throwing everything they have at the three contenders for the job.
“During Fall Camp, we’re going to give every quarterback their own challenges,” said Smith. “We’re comfortable in our defense, we know what we’re doing. It’s our job to challenge them.”
Smith wants to give each quarterback everything they can handle by disguising coverages, getting after them with the pass rush and getting into their head.
It’s the ultimate “iron sharpens iron” mentality that Helton has pushed for three years.
“Right now that’s our role in terms of Fall Camp, getting these guys ready,” Smith said. “And when the season starts then it’s our job to get the ball in their hands.”
Hopes for the defense are high, but those hopes hinge on improvement. The defense was already vital, ranking fourth nationally in opponent red zone conversions. They were also overly vulnerable to big plays, seeing their hard work undone in an instant too often. By season’s end, they ranked 119th in opponent plays of 20 yards or more.
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The Trojans have the pieces to put it all together. That redzone mentality can be built on. Those big play liabilities can be limited.
USC is counting on it.