USC football spring preview: Outside linebackers must raise production

Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy
Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy /

Without Porter Gustin, USC’s outside linebackers were disappointing in 2018. Spring Camp in 2019 will be about moving beyond Gustin and delivering on talent.

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After leading the country with 46 sacks in 2017, USC football’s pass rushing prowess fell off a cliff in 2018, notching just 29 to finish fifth in the Pac-12.

Losing Porter Gustin to injury no doubt impacted those figures, as the Trojans struggled to produce pressure, especially from the outside. Even tackle for loss numbers, which didn’t drop from the previous year, were largely generated by interior linemen, inside linebackers and members of the secondary.

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Simply put, USC needs far more production from its outside linebackers in 2019. Spring Camp is where they will hope to train up the next generation of playmakers in that spot.

Roster Rundown

Departing (1):Porter Gustin

Returning (9):*Jordan Iosefa (Sr.)Hunter Echols (RS-So.)Juliano Falaniko (RS-So.)Kana’i Mauga (So.)Abdul-Malik McClain (RS-Fr.)Eli’Jah Winston (RS-Fr.)

Spring Enrollees (1):Stanley Ta’ufo’ou (Fr.)

Fall Enrollees (1):Tuasivi Nomura (Fr.)

*Returning starter

Gustin is gone, but the Trojans have been dealing with that absence since Week 6 of the 2018 season, deploying defensive end Christian Rector in his place. For the sake of simplicity, assume Rector will spend most of the spring in his natural position while Clancy Pendergast and new outside linebackers coach Joe DeForest get a look at other options.

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Hunter Echols saw some run in the position as a third down rusher, showing some bright flashes, but his production left something to be desired. Entering his third year in the program, now would be a good time to take a step forward, claiming the starting job as his own.

Oluwole Betiku’s transfer and Connor Murphy’s transition to the defensive line takes both out of the equation, though Murphy could still take another shot at contributing as a Predator linebacker.

That leaves redshirt freshman Eli’Jah Winston, a four-star in the class of 2018, to challenge Echols. Trojan fans may best remember Winston for the devastating hit he laid on special teams kick coverage.

Fellow redshirt freshman Abdul-Malik McClain, who lined up as a strongside linebacker last year, could also make a run at playing time on that side of the line. McClain would certainly have an clearer path to playing time there, given the players ahead of him on the strongside.

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Jordan Iosefa returns as the starter at SLB entering his senior year and he is unlikely to be unseated in that role. His job may not be in danger this offseason, but the Trojans do need him to pick up the pace and deliver more in 2019. His four tackles for loss, two sacks and four pass break ups were not enough to soften the blow of Uchenna Nwosu’s graduation.

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Kana’i Mauga impressed greatly during the 2018 offseason, but he didn’t shine as brightly as hoped during the season. He will either backup Iosefa or throw his hat into the ring for the Predator spot opposite.

It’s possible Mauga stepped into the playing time which might have been designated for Juliano Falaniko, who took a redshirt as a sophomore. Falaniko will be fighting to get back into the rotation.

One new face will be added to the group this spring as well. Stanley Ta’ufo’ou enrolled this January and will look to walk in Mauga’s footsteps as a potential surprise standout this spring, putting his tenacity and athleticism to work early.

Biggest Battle

Gustin’s starting role sits open with an army of linebackers angling to prove themselves worthy of it. It will all come back to Christian Rector though.

Echols, Winston, McClain, Mauga or Ta’ufo’ou all have the size to make a run at it, but whichever stands above the crowd will ultimately have to prove they are a better option than Rector in the end.

Player to Watch

Mauga was one of the stars of the 2018 offseason, hitting the ground running with surprising performances throughout. He bulked up quickly and picked up first team reps much sooner than expected.

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It was reasonable to hope those performances would translate on the field in 2018, but the playmaking from practice never materialized in games. With a year of experience to lean on, Mauga will have the chance to replicate last year’s camp level, and use it to propel himself into the 2019 season.