The USC football linebacker corps has struggled with poor play and injuries over the last couple of seasons. Will 2021 yield better luck and different results?
It'll be Year 2 in Todd Orlando's defense and a host of previously unavailable players will vie for starting places, but there are still major concerns.
Sell the USC linebacker unit despite potential because of huge unknowns
The biggest problem with USC's inside linebacker group is what we don't know about them.
Sure, there are two returning starters in Ralen Goforth and Kana'i Mauga. However, with practically no options on the table in 2020, those starts were as much a reflection of circumstance as merit.
That's not to say Goforth and Mauga aren't the best options USC has. They may be. Goforth had 38 tackles in five appearances while Mauga was second on the team with 41. He also had outstanding moments stopping the run.
Would they have started if Jordan Iosefa, Eli'Jah Winston and Solomon Tuiliapupu had been healthy? That's a major what if that will be resolved in 2021.
Iosefa, Winston and Tuliaupupu are expected to return for the coming season. That trio or any combination thereof should spice up the competition at linebacker.
Iosefa has starting experience and is a veteran leader. Will his status as a favorite of Clancy Pendergast transfer over to preference under Todd Orlando?
Winston started against ASU in 2019 and looked promising doing it. However, his injury record is far from stellar. Last year it was a broken ankle keeping him out. Can the Trojans count on him to finally breakthrough?
Tuliaupupu is the most exciting and frustrating of the bunch. He was a serious talent coming out of Mater Dei. Then he suffered a foot injury and hasn't been able to see the field since 2017. In the brief glimpses of practice he's managed, he looked every bit the Top 100 prospect he was. Now he's coming back from torn knee ligaments. How long is too long off the field?
A best-case scenario for the Trojans could involve any combination of those five players for two spots. A worst-case could involve any of those combinations as well if Orlando doesn't get the unit to perform at a higher level. Injuries could easily come into play again.
Incoming freshmen Raesjon Davis or Julien Simon could make waves with their immense talent, though starting roles will come with the necessary growing pains.
The entire unit is just too up in the air. There is potential to be sure. The linebackers could end up being a major strength. They could just as likely remain a liability.
The most exciting pairing? Tuiliaupupu and Davis.
The most likely pairing? Goforth and Mauga.
Wait and see may not be a particularly satisfying conclusion, but it's the only honest one.