USC football roster quietly returns key players for 2021

USC football safety Isaiah Pola-Mao
USC football safety Isaiah Pola-Mao / Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The 2021 NFL Draft declaration deadline passed on Monday without any additional USC football players announcing their intention to leave for the pros.

The Trojans already knew stars like Alijah Vera-Tucker, Talanoa Hufanga, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Tyler Vaughns, Olaijah Griffin and Marlon Tuipulotu would be moving on. That number didn't grow over the weekend, which is extremely good news.

Players who appear set to return include starters like Isaiah Pola-Mao, Stephen Carr, Vavae Malepeai, Jalen McKenzie, Brandon Pili and Greg Johnson.

USC football can build around the starters sticking around for 2021

Make no mistake, the players USC is losing were incredibly important to the 5-1 record the Trojans managed in 2020. They wouldn't have sniffed the Pac-12 title game without Vera-Tucker or Hufanga.

The personnel losses were expected, but could have been worse. The players that have apparently decided to stay (though any could enter the transfer portal or decide to go pro in something other than sport) will play an important role in transitioning the team into 2021.

Pola-Mao is the biggest figure returning as a leader on defense. Having to replace Hufanga and Pola-Mao would have left USC's safety unit as a major concern. Instead, Pola-Mao will anchor the secondary while transfer Xavion Alford and returning backup Chase Williams compete for a starting place.

The defensive line will have Brandon Pili to build around in the trenches despite the absence of Tuipulotu.

Carr and Malepeai both appear ready to take advantage of their extra year of eligibility. Having the two back, plus Kenan Christon, will ensure USC has rushing options despite the transfer of Markese Stepp.

Filling the hole left by Vera-Tucker is USC's biggest challenge in 2021. The good news is there's only one starting job to worry about. Four of five starters are returning with a new offensive line coach to guide, hopefully, get more out of them.

It's likely USC will take a step back before they can move forward. The size of that step back hinges on enough key players returning and new contributors emerging.

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