If the Buffs hope to repeat as Pac-12 South champions this season, they’ll have to do something they’ve never done in program history.
The Buffs are 0-11 all-time vs. the Trojans, who were picked to win the conference in the preseason media poll. I had a chance recently to catch up with Conquest Chronicles site editor Brendan Kearney to learn more about what makes Heisman Trophy frontrunner Sam Darnold and USC the team to beat this season. You can see my answers to his questions here.
Anthony Kazmierczak: What team is USC’s biggest threat in the Pac-12 South this season and why?
Brendan Kearney: I was asked this in my last article and I said Colorado. Since then my pick has not changed, Colorado. Returning nine starters on offense is always great news and RB Phillip Lindsay is just flat out good. He’s the type of guy I love watching play. Their QB play shouldn’t even skip a beat with Steven Montez taking control of the reigns. The defense does take a hit but they look ready to reload and while they won’t be as lights out as last year they will still be an above average unit. Plus, the Trojans have to go into Boulder to try to pull out the win and you just know that place will be rocking.
AK: Sam Darnold is considered by many a Heisman Trophy frontrunner. Yes, he led the Trojans to the Rose Bowl after taking over the starting QB duties last season, but are we over-hyping the sophomore signal caller?
BK: It is an interesting question. The USC in me wants to say, “no Darnold is God, he will never have enough hype” but to some extent the national media is starting to get ahead of themselves. I don’t think anyone doubts Darnold’s talent and based on his performances he should be in consideration for the Heisman. However, he’s still only played nine games. Players have tanked after previous successful seasons. Defenses will have had an entire offseason to try to adjust to him and with his hype he will now be getting every defenses “best shot” so to say. For what it’s worth I believe he will live up to the expectations, but maybe we should all slow the hype train down just a little bit until we see him have continuos success.
AK: With receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers gone, what are expectations for USC’s receiving core?
BK: The most experienced wideout returning for USC is junior slot receiver Deontay Burnett who caught 56 catches for 622 yards and 7 touchdowns. He’s looking to build off his incredible Rose Bowl performance against Penn State. He is someone Darnold will turn to in big moments. Aside from Burnett, the rest of the receiving core is young and talented. Sophomore wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr plans to be WR1, coming in at 6’4, 210 lbs. He showed flashes in his brief playing time as a freshman last year, catching 6 passes for 82 yards. Redshirt Junior Jalen Greene is expected to fill WR2. Greene is loved for his versatility and knowledge of the offense. Their inexperience is a bit worrisome however a QB like Darnold takes a ton of pressure of them because he can “throw a guy open” with ease. Losing Smith-Schuster and Rogers hurt, but given the talent and production from Darnold and Burnett, USC’s passing attack should be just fine.
AK: What are the expectations for USC’s defense in year two for DC Clancy Pendergast?
BK: I think this year we’re gonna see a much more comfortable defense out there. After mastering the scheme two years into the program, players can just react and trust instincts on the field rather than thinking about everything they’re doing. Coach Clay Helton already noted in camp just how faster they looked this year as compared to last season. Three key players enter their junior years in LB’s Cameron Smith and Porter Gustin and CB Iman Marshall, expect them to have great years. While they lose a great playmaker in Adoree Jackson expect this years defense to improve on last years.
AK: USC’s Special teams unit took a big hit with returner Adoree Jackson leaving early for the NFL and placekicker Matt Boermeester suspended. Could Special Teams be the Trojans Achilles heel?
BK: While its very unlikely the Trojans special team unit will duplicate the success they had the previous season, I wouldn’t necessarily call it their Achilles heel. Trojan wide receiver Velus Jones expects to be a big playmaker in the return game this season. Another popular name brought up is cornerback Jack Jones. Both players have exceptional speed and should be due for a big play or two this year. While Boermeester is gone, Michael Brown looks to fill his shoes (literally). Special teams coach John Baxter has a knack for developing solid kickers everywhere he coaches, so in Baxter we trust. There will be no Adoree Jackson dazzling us all, but this unit should be more than serviceable in this upcoming campaign.