The linebacker is usually the heart and soul of a defense, and for USC last years it was no different. Which made the losses of seniors Porter Gustin and Cameron Smith such a blow to the Trojans, who have some big holes to fill at linebacker entering 2019.
Here’s a breakdown of where USC stands at linebacker:
Key returnees: Hunter Echols (So.), Juliano Falaniko (So.), Palaie Gaoteote IV (So.), Spencer Gilbert (Fr.), John Houston Jr. (Sr.), Jordan Iosefa (Sr.), Kana’i Mauga (So.), Abdul-Malik McClain (Fr.), Solomon Tuliaupupu (Fr.), Eli’jah Winston (Fr.)
Key losses: Porter Gustin, Cameron Smith
Newcomers: Ralen Goforth, Clyde Moore, Tuasivi Nomura, Maninoa Tufono
Biggest unanswered question: Is Houston ready to lead the defense? The Trojans need someone to step up in the absence of Smith at inside linebacker and be, as the cliché goes, the quarterback of the defense. With Iosefa out the next 4-6 weeks after dislocating his patella, the responsibility will firmly land with Houston.
The fifth-year player has the experience to take over the role. Head coach Clay Helton feels like Houston has begun to live up to the expectations that come with being the leader of a defense.
Why 2019 production could be better: Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has made a concerted effort to simplify the USC defense. One of the big changes is having more down linemen than a year ago. Occupying blockers before they can get to the second level could help the Trojans linebackers in the run game.
With defensive linemen doing the dirty work up front, the linebackers should be free to make plays. And despite the loss of talent to graduation, this is still a talented position for USC. Behind Houston, there’s Palaie Gaoteote, a true sophomore who got five starts last season and recorded 38 tackles. If injury befalls either, true freshman Ralen Goforth has been a standout since he enrolled for spring ball.
Why 2019 production could be worse: Frankly, USC lost a lot of production with the graduations of Smith and Gustin. Smith was the team’s leading tackler last season and had 7.5 tackles for loss and four passes defended. The Trojan defense suffered when Gustin went down for the season with an ankle injury, losing five of the next six games to end the year.
With these losses to the starting lineup, the absence of Iosefa for 4-6 weeks just heightens how tough it will be for the Trojans to replicate last season’s production at linebacker.