HOLLYWOOD – As reporters shuffled toward the stage inside the Ray Dolby Ballroom in Hollywood last month, positioning themselves to pepper USC football coach Clay Helton with questions, Helton put to bed at least one potential query in his opening remarks: No, the Trojans were not suffering from any kind of Rose Bowl hangover.
“When we started after that Rose Bowl game and making some great memories, we went to both the staff and our players and said, ‘Guys, wasn’t that awesome? Made some unbelievable memories,’” he recalled at Pac-12 Media Days in late July. “And every kid and every coach said, ‘Yeah, unbelievable, coach. To make history was something truly special.’”
“But then I asked the next question, ‘Are you satisfied?’ And to a man, not one hand rose.”
That’s because, Helton said, the expectations at USC are to win conference titles and national championships. Neither goal materialized for the Trojans last year, despite a nine-game winning streak to close the year, capped on Jan. 2 by an epic 52-49 win over Penn State in a Rose Bowl game that cemented quarterback Sam Darnold as a Heisman Trophy candidate entering this fall.
Expectations are equally as high for USC as a whole.
The Amway Coaches Poll, released last week, ranked the Trojans fourth in the country. USA Today picked USC to go 11-1 and win the Pac-12. The conference’s media poll also projected the Trojans as the conference’s best.
The key this offseason in preparing to meet the program’s lofty goals, Helton said, was three-fold.
The Trojans needed to retain their coaching staff (defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, offensive coordinator Tee Martin and special teams coordinator John Baxter are still on staff).
Second, USC needed to come to grips with a roster overhaul after 14 players moved on to the NFL (Helton believes the team addressed a lot of the talent issues with 24 newcomers, “freshmen that are going to help us,” and the development of role players and 2016 redshirts).
Third, the team needed to replace not just the talent but the leadership of the departed players (the Trojans moved junior Cameron Smith into the inside linebacker role to be the quarterback of the defense; Uchenna Nwosu and Porter Gustin are helping to fill the void left by defensive tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu; Darnold is “now capturing an offense (and) being able to lead our offense to even new heights,” Helton said).
“We know the expectations,” Helton said, “and we welcome them. We look at it as an opportunity, not an obligation. We came to USC to win championships, and that will always be our goal.”
Despite the NFL departures, the Trojans remain in an enviable position. They returns six starters on offense and seven on defense.
The highlight on offense, of course, is Darnold, who threw for 3,086 yards, 31 touchdowns and nine interceptions last year. In the run-up to 2017, nearly every major national publication has profiled the redshirt sophomore.
Some prognosticators have tabbed him as a candidate for the No. 1 overall pick in next year’s NFL Draft.
But neither that forecast nor the one heaped on USC this season appears to be weighing on the 6-foot-4, 220-pound passer.
“Right now we’re just focused on training camp and Western Michigan,” he said at Media Days. “But at the same time, I think expectations that anyone from the outside has of us, I think our expectations are always going to be higher. I think that’s something that’s special about our team.”
Another special feature is a defense that returns all but four starters, highlighted by the return of 2016’s team-leader in total tackles, Smith (83), and corner Iman Marshall (three interceptions).
As for weapons around Darnold, the Trojans lost receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers to the NFL. But the unit returns running back Ronald Jones II, who rushed for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2016.
Deontay Burnett is the leading returner at wideout. He caught 56 passes for 622 yards and seven scores a year ago.
USC returns two starting offensive linemen: guard Viane Talamaivao and center Nico Falah.
The Trojans open at home against Western Michigan on Sept. 2. The game will be broadcast on the Pac-12 Network.