Inside linebacker could be a position of great strength for USC football in 2019, but first Palaie Gaoteote and company will have to prove worthy of trust.
USC football’s linebacker corps will transition to life without Cameron Smith this Spring Camp.
Despite the massive loss of a stalwart and captain, the narrative around the linebackers is likely to hinge on the progress of some highly-talented prospects ready to step into the spotlight.
How will the puzzle pieces fit with limited playing time to go around?
Departing (2):Reuben Peters, Cameron Smith
Returning (4):*John Houston (RS-Sr.)Palaie Gaoteote (So.)Raymond Scott (So.)Solomon Tuliaupupu (RS-Fr.)
Spring Enrollees (1):Ralen Goforth (Fr.)
Fall Enrollees (1):Maninoa Tufono (Fr.)
In addition to Smith, the Trojans will be without the services of backup Reuben Peters in 2019.
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One starter will be back, John Houston, who enters his third season as a starter at weakside linebacker. Houston has slowly but surely built himself into a key member of the defense. The fact that his trajectory has been consistently rising should bode well for his final season at USC.
Figuring out who will take the spot next to Houston shouldn’t require much effort. Palaie Gaoteote filled in for Smith when he was injured in 2018 and there is every reason to believe he will take over the stating job full-time as a sophomore.
The intrigue surrounds Solomon Tuliaupupu, another gifted member of USC’s 2018 recruiting class who redshirted while recovering from a high school foot injury. Only slightly less heralded than Gaoteote, Tuliaupupu has too much talent to stay away from the field for long.
Will he battle Gaoteote for the starting middle linebacker position? Or will he take over Levi Jones’ role as the heir apparent behind Houston? Might he even slide over to outside linebacker? Spring Camp will help shape the answer to those questions.
Raymond Scott impressed coaches with his versatility as a freshman. He lined up in practice at both inside linebacker spots and even trained briefly as a slot corner when injuries damaged the secondary. Breaking into the rotation would be a big step for him.
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Early enrollee Ralen Goforth will add some needed depth but it’s hard to say how long it will take him to carve out a role for himself.
Technically the biggest battle will be at middle linebacker, where Gaoteote may need to hold off Tuliaupupu, Scott and Goforth.
He wasn’t trusted enough to see playing time against UCLA, with Peters taking those snaps when injury required. Maybe that is a sign that his claim to a starting job isn’t as much of a forgone conclusion as it seems.
Smart money is on Gaoteote ultimately topping the depth chart, but open competition is open competition and complacency has no place in it.
Player to Watch
Figuring out Tuliaupupu’s position will be one of the first orders of business in Spring Camp. His landing spot will likely have a ripple effect, whether it’s the MIKE, WILL or SAM.
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Even beyond positioning, it will be worth while to track Tuliaupupu simply because he is a player with an apparently bright future. Finished with his lengthy rehab, spring will be his first shot to shine in a USC uniform.