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If the past year has taught us anything about USC football’s reputation, it’s that it doesn’t take much to get the hype train rolling.
For a program with a historic legacy, proud alumni and perennially high expectations, last season marked a return to glory for the Trojans that not even their most ardent supporters could’ve expected after a 1-3 start: an eight-game winning streak to end the regular season, capped off with a thrilling Rose Bowl victory for the ages. And in the process, USC discovered that Sam Darnold, the quiet redshirt sophomore who started as the backup quarterback last year, may end up as this year’s Heisman Trophy winner and one of the greatest players to ever don the Cardinal and Gold.
Just like that, USC — a program three years removed from crippling sanctions and two years removed from firing a head coach over a drinking problem — is suddenly back, and the nation agrees. In the preseason Coaches Poll released at the beginning of August, the Trojans came in fourth, expected to compete for a national title at the end of the season against the likes of Alabama, Ohio State and Florida State.
To be clear, this is all good. Every national championship-contending team wants — no, needs — to be hyped up. And the Trojans deserve it. They were the best team in college football during the final eight weeks, and had Darnold started from week one, USC could have played for a title.
Instead, they had to settle for a Rose Bowl win. Yes, it was cool and all — USC regaining its rightful place as the victor in The Granddaddy of Them All. But it was just a bowl win. In a season that restored the Trojans to national prominence, they didn’t even win the Pac-12 South, let alone a Pac-12 or national championship.
So they’ll have to prove they’re worth the hype this season, and there will be some hurdles. Darnold will have to deal with the attention that comes with being the Heisman favorite and try to fend off any type of “sophomore slump.” Meanwhile, teams have had a full offseason to gameplan for him. Head coach Clay Helton, who was on the hot seat after a turbulent 1-3 start last season, needs at least a Pac-12 Championship to solidify his position.
They won’t have the help of arguably their two most explosive contributors from last season in leading wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and Adoree’ Jackson, the Draymond Green of football. Both declared for the NFL Draft a year early, leaving USC with uncertainty over who will step up as the top receiver and how the gaping hole left by Jackson’s presence in all three facets of the game will be filled. And the offensive line, tasked with protecting Darnold, was riddled with injuries in spring camp and is still very much in flux.
But for all the potential issues that might flare up, USC is uniquely equipped to handle them because of who it has under center. A good quarterback can mask a lot of things. It’s no coincidence that when Darnold took over the job last season, the problems the team had with Max Browne as quarterback disappeared. Helton’s in-game decisions were no longer questioned. Smith-Schuster, who struggled early on, became himself again when he started working with a new quarterback. The offensive line, which was awful in the opener against Alabama, was largely spared because Darnold is basically impossible to sack. Even the tight ends, who historically have not played a key role in USC’s offensive scheme, started thriving with redshirt sophomore Daniel Imatorbhebhe, junior Tyler Petite and Taylor McNamara recording more receptions.
This is not an attempt to disparage Browne, who was put in a tough situation and a rough early schedule. It’s not even an effort to portray Darnold as some kind of wonder healer who can patch up every bump and bruise, because there will eventually come a point this season where he will face adversity.
And when that time comes, he’ll learn that winning a Heisman is as much a team effort as it is an individual accomplishment, like how the Trojans wouldn’t have won the Rose Bowl without unsung heroes like defensive back Leon McQuay. So they can’t answer every question that comes up this season with, “We have Sam Darnold.”
They’ll need junior wide receiver Deontay Burnett to build off his Rose Bowl hat trick and become their go-to man, and for unproven receivers like sophomore Michael Pittman Jr. and quarterback-turned-wideout redshirt junior Jalen Greene to slide into reliable roles. They’ll need junior cornerback Iman Marshall to take over Jackson’s spot on defense and sophomore cornerback Jack Jones to try to beat Darnold for the Heisman, as he said he would. And they’ll need Michael Brown to be a trustworthy placekicker as a redshirt freshman, since Matt Boermeester, last year’s Rose Bowl hero, is off the roster. Sam Darnold can throw a football very well, but he can’t throw and catch the ball at the same time, play on defense or make field goals.
We could go up and down the depth chart and look at what each player needs to do, but the point is that this will be a two-way street: For Darnold to win the Heisman, USC needs to be a championship contender; and for USC to be a championship contender, Darnold needs to play at a Heisman level.
And the thing is, like the Lakers or the Yankees in their respective sports, USC might be seen as an evil empire by fans, but the Trojans doing well is a good thing for college football — good for debate, good for attention, good for ratings. So, you can expect the playoff committee to give the Trojans every benefit of the doubt when it comes to the final rankings.
Now, can we expect the Trojans to avoid another 2012-like debacle and meet their lofty expectations? That remains to be seen, but we’d much rather talk about championship hopes than sanctions or head coaching changes.
Welcome back to school, folks. This is going to be a fun ride.
Summer in Southern California normally means one thing: USC football is right around the corner. Fresh off a Rose Bowl victory, Heisman-hopeful quarterback Sam Darnold stayed healthy while his sophomore coach, Clay Helton, welcomed a highly ranked recruiting class.
Normally, that is enough to satiate Trojan fans’ title-thirsty anticipation. Yet for one sunshiny week at the end of June, another program shared the limelight.
From June 26 through July 2, the men’s basketball team received three commitments from four-star recruits: forward J’Raan Brooks, guard Kevin Porter and forward Taeshon Cherry (who some scouts list as five-star). At the time, the trio gave the Trojans the top 2018 recruiting class per 247sports.com. Only last week did conference rival Arizona edge USC out, when five-star point guard Jahvon Quinerly committed to the Wildcats.
With their rapid growth, the Trojans have a legitimate chance to reach the Final Four as early as this season — a sentence that may still sound far-fetched to many USC fans. But it’s true: Head coach Andy Enfield’s squad figures to be a preseason top-15 team, and last year’s entire rotation will return.
The Trojans also welcome a top-30 recruiting class led by two four-star shooting guards: Jordan Usher from Marietta, Ga., and Las Vegas native Charles O’Bannon, Jr., whose father started at power forward on UCLA’s 1995 NCAA Championship team. Seven-foot center Victor Uyaelunmo, from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., rounds out the class of freshmen.
But the newcomer most likely to contribute immediately is Duke transfer Derryck Thornton, now eligible after sitting out last season. Thornton was the top-ranked transfer in 2016 after starting 22 games at point guard for a Final Four Blue Devils team loaded with talented stars such as guard Grayson Allen and forward Brandon Ingram.
USC could form a superteam of its own this season pending a final recruiting twist. The top prospect in the class of 2018, power forward Marvin Bagley III, has petitioned the NCAA to reclassify for this year. Although Bagley would forgo his senior year in high school and the extra year of development that comes with it, scouts still consider him a potential No. 1 draft pick next year. He has listed USC and Duke as his top two colleges ahead of powerhouses Arizona, Kansas, UCLA and Kentucky. If all goes smoothly, he could dawn a Trojan uniform as early as this fall. If not, Enfield will hope at minimum Bagley does not choose a Pac-12 rival.
But the Trojans want him badly. According to Sports Illustrated, Enfield has not only offered a scholarship to Bagley, but also to his sophomore brother, Marcus, plus their 7-year-old brother, Marlay.
USC has already filled all 13 scholarships for the 2017-18 school year, but someone could be on the move whether or not Bagley arrives. With Usher, O’Bannon and Thornton in the fold, the roster is flush with guards. The list goes on: returning senior captain Jordan McLaughlin, senior Elijah Stewart, sophomores De’Anthony Melton and Jonah Mathews and redshirt sophomore Shaqquan Aaron.
Enfield could choose any number of rotations from this group, but the depth at his disposal could be a blessing and a curse. Only three of these players can start as long as junior forwards (and NBA Draft prospects) Chimezie Metu and Bennie Boatwright stay healthy. The rest will be strapped for minutes. At least one player — likely more — is bound to be unhappy. Someone could transfer before the season begins. If not, maintaining chemistry may be challenging even if the team is winning at a program-record pace.
Enfield faced the opposite problem last season. During some rough stretches, it appeared they could barely field a starting five. McLaughlin and Metu, the Pac-12 Most Improved Player, were the only consistent contributors. Stewart and Aaron showed flashes of brilliance but then disappeared for weeks. Aaron, the Louisville transfer, even won Pac-12 Player of the Week in late January when his 23-point performance led the Trojans to a stunning upset over No. 8 UCLA at the Galen Center. Throughout the rest of the season, however, he scored in double digits just twice; and in three NCAA Tournament games, he did not score in 23 minutes of play.
While USC is rich at guard, it enjoys less depth at forward. Behind Boatwright and Metu stands a giant question mark as sophomores Nick Rakocevic and Harrison Henderson and
three-star recruit Victor Uyaelunmo complete the roster. Should either starter get hurt, Enfield must either play small or trust one of these three to shoulder the remaining weight.
Last year when Boatwright missed 17 games, Rakocevic received plenty of playing time. While he impressed at times, he also floundered when matched-up against first-round NBA draft picks such as Ivan Rabb and Lauri Markkanen. Meanwhile, Henderson played just 50 minutes the entire season, and Uyaelunmo awaits his collegiate debut.
Despite USC’s depth dichotomy, the program’s recent recruiting prowess has given Enfield a significant boost. Just last summer, the verdict was still out after his best players and earliest recruits, Julian Jacobs and Nikola Jovanovic, forwent their senior year for the draft only to fail to make NBA rosters. Consequently, most experts tempered expectations for the Trojans and essentially adopted the mantra “What Could Have Been?”
After being mere minutes away from the Sweet Sixteen last season, the sky is the limit for the Enfield era. For the first time in his five-year tenure, Enfield has established senior leaders in McLaughlin and Stewart, and he will not have to rely on a host of freshmen starters. If likely draft picks Boatwright and Metu stay healthy, the Trojans could conceivably win their first conference title since 2009 — and
maybe play basketball into April.
But even in the case of Murphy’s Law — if injuries strike, Boatwright and Metu forgo their senior seasons and Bagley chooses UCLA — USC still looks set to compete for the foreseeable future. It is only a matter of time before Trojan fans start dividing their summers evenly between football and basketball recruiting.
The USC women’s lacrosse team may have endured a frustrating end to the 2017 campaign, losing to Boston College in a NCAA quarterfinal after entering the tournament with a 10-game winning streak.
For associate head coach Devon Wills and senior goalie Gussie Johns, however, the offseason brought a memorable rebound.
The USC duo was named to the Team USA squad in January, and the team traveled to Guildford, England, in July to compete in the FIL Women’s World Cup. The U.S. ran riot across the pond, posting a perfect 8-0 record en route to an eighth world championship, and Wills anchored her side in net throughout, posting a .420 save percentage with 24 saves on 57 shots. Johns backed up her collegiate coach in her first senior national tournament, and she made four saves on eight shots across five games.
Johns was a stalwart in the Trojan goal last season. Her presence was central in USC’s undefeated campaign in MPSF play (10-0) as she set a new career high in saves (142) and recorded a .460 save percentage on 306 shots.
In the final at Surrey Sports Park, Wills and Johns triumphed over Team Canada, 10-5, beating out two fellow Trojans, senior defender Lydia Sutton and junior defender Avery Hogarth, for the gold medal. It was Johns’ first career gold and Wills’ third, while Hogarth and Sutton — a third-team IWLCA All-American — won silver medals in their first tournament with Team Canada. With the victory, Team USA improved its record to 60-6-1 all-time in World Cup games.
Wills and Johns then flew to Wroclaw, Poland, for The World Games, where lacrosse was making its first appearance. Much like the World Cup, the U.S. dominated the inaugural tournament, once again beating Canada in the gold medal game to win the first-ever World Games championship. Johns, Wills, Sutton and Hogarth all earned their second medal in a month.
After sitting behind her coach in England, Johns manned the cage throughout the World Games. She tallied eight saves across four full contests while conceding 19 goals. With Johns in net, Wills anchored the backline in defense. The U.S. edged Canada, 11-8, in the final game after outscoring opponents 52-11 through the first three games.
The next World Cup and World Games will take place in 2021. The World Games come to Birmingham, Ala., in four years with the hope that both men’s and women’s lacrosse will be featured — and with an eye toward eventual Olympic involvement.
July likely marked Wills’ final appearance for Team USA (she will be 37 in 2021). Johns, Sutton and Hogarth, however, will hope to find themselves in international competition again soon, possibly alongside other fellow Trojans. But for now, following an 18-4 season at USC, they will set their sights on bringing the program its first national title.
The reigning Rose Bowl champion Trojans enter the 2017 season with lofty expectations after last season’s dramatic sprint through the finish line. USC concluded last season with a nine-game winning streak, capping it off with a dramatic 52-49 victory over Penn State in the Rose Bowl.
The blazing finish to the 2016 campaign has accelerated the USC hype train to the highest gear. A Pac-12 preseason media poll pegged the Trojans as favorites for the conference title, and they enter 2017 ranked No. 4 in the preseason Coaches Poll. Only Alabama, Ohio State and Florida State are ranked ahead.
In order to meet these weighty projections, USC will need top-tier contributions from established veterans on both sides of the ball in the upcoming season. After losing numerous key players to graduation and the NFL Draft, the Trojans will also seek breakout performances from their new additions in order to aid the effort toward a national championship run.
Here are some of the marquee players who will need to tackle big roles for the Trojans this season:
Sam Darnold, redshirt sophomore quarterback
It’s no secret that USC’s central asset comes at signal caller. Since being named the starter before Week 5 of the 2016 season, Darnold has transformed the Trojan offense into a high-powered unit capable of scoring from anywhere on the field. The quarterback was named Rose Bowl MVP after his 453-yard, five-touchdown performance in the Grandaddy of Them All in January.
As a redshirt freshman, Darnold threw for 3,086 yards and 31 touchdowns while completing 67.2 percent of his passes. His standout first season as the starting quarterback has earned him national acclaim: In addition to being the preseason Heisman Trophy favorite, Darnold has been touted for several other honors, including the Maxwell (top player) and Davey O’Brien (top quarterback) awards. Whispers of Darnold being the top prospect in the 2018 NFL Draft have already begun following his breakout debut campaign.
As Darnold goes, this Trojan offense will go in 2017. If he plays up to his projections as the top quarterback in the nation, USC fans can expect to see their team make a deep postseason run.
“We’re just focusing on ourselves,” Darnold said. “We’re just going to continue to work hard … and good things are going to come from that.”
Ronald Jones II, junior running back
Following running back Justin Davis’ graduation, Jones will be called upon to spearhead the Trojan’s rushing attack this fall.
During his sophomore season, Jones tallied 1,082 yards and scored 12 touchdowns on the ground. In a Week 8 contest against Cal last season, Jones gashed the Golden Bears’ defense for 223 yards and a score.
“I’ve just been working hard in practice this offseason, trying to build up my stamina so I can take on more carries,” Jones said.
Jones has undoubtedly put his rushing ability on display during his first two seasons at USC, but many will keep an eye on Jones’ development as a pass catcher and blocker in the season to come. Already on the preseason watch list for the Doak Walker Award (top college running back), Jones would be even deadlier if he contributes to the Trojan air attack.
“[Catching passes] is not completely natural for me yet,” Jones said. “I’m working on the hands, though — they’re coming.”
Deontay Burnett, junior wide receiver
Burnett turned in a heroic performance during the Rose Bowl, hauling in 13 receptions for 164 yards and three touchdowns. One of the scores came late, and it tied the contest at 49-49 with 1:20 remaining in regulation.
As a sophomore, Burnett developed a strong rapport with Darnold and was a key cog in the Trojans’ passing game. He caught 56 passes for a total of 622 yards and seven touchdowns during the regular season.
As USC’s primary option out of the slot, Burnett can once again expect a high volume of offensive opportunities during his junior campaign.
Daniel Imatorbhebhe, redshirt sophomore tight end
Entering the 2017 season as a preseason watch list selection for the Mackey Award (top tight end in the nation), Imatorbhebhe is looking to follow up a strong freshman campaign with another successful season.
Acting as a potent red-zone threat at tight end, Imatorbhebhe hauled in 17 receptions for 250 yards and four scores last year. In USC’s crucial win over then-No. 4 Washington, Imatorbhebhe posted career-highs in receptions (5) and yards (78) while also scoring a touchdown.
Listed at 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, Imatorbhebhe also has the physical frame to be an effective blocker for the Trojan offense.
While Imatorbhebhe has been dealing with several minor injuries this fall camp — most recently a hip flexor issue — he is expected to be healthy and ready for the Trojans’ season opener against Western Michigan.
Viane Talamaivao, senior offensive guard
Any time an offensive line loses a pair of All-American tackles during the offseason, there is going to be a fair share of question marks leading into to the season. USC lost All-American linemen Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler (both are now in the NFL). Damien Mama, a starter on last year’s offensive line, also left the team to enter the draft.
Talamaivao returns this season as the most experienced player on USC’s offensive front. A four-year starter and former freshman All-American, Talamaivao is about the only sure thing on the Trojan offensive line at the moment.
With an offensive line that currently looks like it could be playing musical chairs throughout fall camp, Talamaivao brings some security to an uncertain situation up front.
Freshmen to watch on offense
While Jones is set to be the main tailback for the Trojan offense, USC may have found a nice accessory for its backfield in freshman Stephen Carr. Due to his impressive build (6 feet, 210 pounds) and running ability, Carr opened many eyes during fall camp after arriving as a high-profile, four-star recruit. At a team scrimmage on Aug. 5, Carr rushed for a pair of touchdowns and sparked plenty of conversation about what his usage will be this season.
USC is looking toward its youth as a possible remedy for some of the unknowns it has on the offensive front. Freshmen Austin Jackson and Andrew Vorhees have both seen practice time on the starting units this offseason.
Cameron Smith, junior linebacker
Smith will be the undisputed quarterback of the Trojan defense in 2017. The Trojans’ leading tackler last season (83), Smith will maintain middle linebacking duties for Troy this fall.
Smith was named to the Butkus Award (top linebacker) preseason watch list, and he will be expected to act as the hammer and leader of the defense after the graduation of linebacker and team captain Michael Hutchings.
“I’m just so excited to be back out [at practice] preparing for the upcoming season,” Smith said. “All of the [preseason hype] really doesn’t mean much to us … we’re just focused on Western Michigan first.”
Smith is one critical piece of a Trojan linebacker corps that includes a pair of other selectees for the Butkus Award watch list: senior Uchenna Nwosu and junior Porter Gustin.
Rasheem Green, junior defensive end
Last season, the Trojans dominated the line of scrimmage defensively largely thanks to nose tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, who now plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This year, the Trojans’ defensive line will be led by junior lineman Rasheem Green.
The junior led the team with six sacks last season. USC will again depend on a veteran like Green to establish a pass rush up front in 2017. He has also shown an ability to chase down the ball carrier, as he recorded 55 tackles in 2016.
Iman Marshall, junior cornerback
Marshall made his presence felt almost immediately in January’s Rose Bowl Game: On the first play from scrimmage, Marshall intercepted Penn State sophomore quarterback Trace McSorely to set the tone for a strong Trojan start.
In total, Marshall intercepted three passes as a sophomore in 2016, matching his three interceptions as a true freshman in 2015.
With the departure of Jim Thorpe Award-winner Adoree’ Jackson from USC’s secondary, Marshall is expected to take the reigns of the Trojan pass defense.
Expectations for Marshall’s 2017 campaign are generally high, as he was named to the preseason watch list for the Thorpe Award (top defensive back in nation). Whether Marshall matches these high expectations or not will greatly determine the effectiveness of USC’s defense in shutting down opposing passing attacks.
Fresh faces up front
Replacing the production of a Rose Bowl MVP like Stevie Tu’ikolovatu with one player is unreasonable. However, USC is hoping that one of its most-touted acquisitions from its 2017 recruiting class can someday mold into an elite defensive tackle, like Tu’ikolovatu was for the Trojans.
Freshman defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu has received a solid amount of reps with the first-string defense this fall. Many believe that Tuipulotu has the ability to instantly contribute to the Trojan defensive front. Listed at 6-foot-3 and 295 pounds, Tuipulotu brings a veteran, physical build as a true freshman.
Michael Brown, redshirt freshman placekicker
This offseason, USC dealt with the loss of placekicker and Rose Bowl hero Matt Boermeester due to a violation of the student code of conduct. Boermeester is no longer on the team and is no longer enrolled at the University.
That leaves placekicking duties this season to the leg of Brown.
Brown, a former five-star kicking prospect, redshirted last season. During his career at Linfield Christian High School in Temecula, Calif., Brown hit a career-long field goal from 57 yards out.
Brown’s performance in replacing Boermeester may be a vital component to USC’s success in 2017, especially if his number is called in late-game situations.
Chris Tilbey, redshirt junior punter
Head coach Clay Helton constantly stresses the importance of winning the battle for field position. At the center of that mantra is the left leg of Tilbey, who is now entering his second season as the Trojans’ punter.
As a sophomore in 2016, Tilbey averaged 38.3 yards per punt. He recorded three punts of 50-plus yards and pinned opponents within their own 20-yard line on 18 occasions. The former Aussie Rules player will look to continue setting his defense up for success this fall.
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USC Village and its eight new residential colleges will open its doors to about 2,700 undergraduate residents on Aug. 17. The $650 million project is currently undergoing final touches before its debut this fall.
The introduction of eight new residential colleges will increase university housing options and expand the development of the University’s residential education system. The Bohnett, Cale, Cowlings, Irani, Nemirovsky and Priam residential colleges will house continuing undergraduate students, while the McCarthy Honors College will be home to more than 500 freshmen for the 2017-18 school year.
“There are spaces for roughly 560 students [in each building] so [McCarthy Honors College] will be the largest freshmen residential college,” said Emily Sandoval, the director of the Office for Residential Education. “There are 18 RAs here. New North Residential College is really large but there are 16 RAs there. This is slightly larger than [New North].”
Professors Laura Baker, Ruth Chung, Broderick Leaks, John Pascarella, Neelesh Tiruviluamala and Trisha Tucker will serve as the six new residential faculty members to reside in USC Village. After a thorough selection process, the six faculty members are set to move in in early August. Residential college coordinators will live in the residential colleges and host dinners and different workshops for students.
“The residential college coordinators are full-time professionals,” Sandoval said. “They got their master’s [degrees] and they work with college students. There’s five of them, so they supervise the 50 RAs and work directly with six faculty [members].”
Most of the buildings will be suites or apartments, similar to current housing options available in the Parkside area. USC Village will also include a Harry Potter-inspired dining hall adjacent to McCarthy Honors College, featuring stained glass windows and banners of the 14 residential colleges.
The new dining hall will replace Café 84 and serve students at USC Village as well as West Residential College. With the opening of USC Village, existing undergraduate housing options such as the Troy complex will be repurposed to house graduate students.
USC Village was intentionally designed as a space for both students and the local community. A space in Building 1 (located on the corner of Hoover and 30th) will be open to the community to use, serving as a center for residents to gather. There will be a large welcome event for the public on Aug. 19.
USC Village will include approximately 115,000 square feet of ground-floor commercial space. Some tenants at the newly built retail-residential complex include Target, Trader Joe’s, Starbucks, Bank of America, Trejo’s Tacos and Village Cobbler.
Target was the first retailer open to the public on July 23, and Trader Joe’s consequently opened on Aug. 4. Cava, a Mediterranean restaurant, was the first dining destination to open on Aug. 8.
An underground parking structure and the new Shrine Parking Structure will provide additional parking spaces for visitors, students and faculty.
Other notable highlights of USC Village include a 30-foot statue of Hecuba, a queen of Troy during the Trojan War, which will be mounted at the center of the main piazza; a 60-foot rectangular fountain and a new gym facility for all USC students.
Brittany Hoang, a rising sophomore majoring in business administration, was one of the few students to snag a four-person apartment in Building 6. Hoang appreciated USC Village’s convenient location and security measures.
“As a sophomore, I’m excited to be living in a community setting again, especially with the nicer renovations,” Hoang said. “I’m hoping this will make the commute easier for a lot of students, while providing them with the same feeling of safety like the dorms did on campus.”
Kelly Pascual, a sophomore majoring in business administration, will also be living in Building 6 and looks forward to the new additions.
“I expect that it’s going to be good because of how much time was spent reconstructing the Village and making sure that it will be the best for students,” Pascual said. “The new gym and the new Target will make things more convenient for the students.”
Kitty Guo and Terry Nguyen contributed to this report.
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