UNLV Non-Conference Preview: USC Trojans
Your UNLV Rebels get a college football behemoth in the USC Trojans. But they get them at the right time.
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The UNLV Rebels meet the USC Trojans in Southern California to kick off the 2018 college football season
It is entirely too early to make a UNLV at USC prediction. But we’re going to do it anyway.
There’s been progress in every year for the UNLV Rebels under head coach Tony Sanchez. Even if it’s not as much progress as fans would like. Season one yielded three wins, the next year that jumped to four, and last season the Rebels logged five wins despite a year in which it seemed so many opportunities existed to snatch bowl eligibility.
So while a win in Southern California may seem unrealistic to many, the Rebel faithful will be watching close to see if this is a team built for the postseason. UNLV doesn’t have to pick up a historic win. They just can’t have a repeat of Howard, 2017. Here’s what the Trojans look like.
Quarterback is the biggest question mark on the field in 2018 for SC. Out after two seasons is 2017 First-Team All Pac-12 honoree Sam Darnold. He was the number three pick in April’s NFL Draft and is the future under center for the New York Jets. He leaves USC having thrown for 7,229 yards and 57 touchdowns as a Trojan. So those are big shoes to fill. And they’re not the only shoes that need filling.
USC also lost leading rusher Ronald Jones and leading receiver Deontay Burnett. It is the first time in nearly forty years that the Trojans will be without their leading passer, rusher, and receiver from a season ago.
Presently there’s a three-way battle for SC QB honors. Matt Fink is the only one who’s thrown a pass for the Trojans, and he did that just nine times in 2017. Redshirt freshman Jack Sears and true freshman JT Daniels are also competing for the job. The buzz around Southern California is that neither Fink nor Sears did enough in the Spring to separate themselves from the trio and USC may start a true freshman at QB for just the 19th game in school history.
Running back is a more known commodity. While it will be by committee, sophomore Stephen Carr will likely get plenty of work. He returns after a season in which he carried the ball 65 times for 363 yards and three touchdowns. Senior Aca’Cedric Ware will also see his share of carries.
There are lots of promising options for the Trojans in the receiving corps. Sophomore Tyler Vaughns is back a season after catching 57 balls for 809 yards and five touchdowns. Michael Pittman Jr. will factor heavily into the SC aerial attack a year after missing a significant portion of the season due to injury, and five-star freshman Amon-Ra St. Brown gives USC a top three receiver unit in the Pac-12.
Which leaves the veteran group on the USC roster. The Trojan offensive line returns four of five starters. Sophomore left tackle Austin Jackson is the lone addition. Maybe that’s not a good thing. After giving up 12 sacks in 2016, the Trojan offensive line yielded 30 last season.
Defensively, the Trojans must contend with losing 2017 sack leader Rasheem Green, but still enter the season with all-conference talent on all three units.
Christian Rector logged 7.5 sacks last season for USC and was named to the All Pac-12 Second Team, this despite missing significant time courtesy of a hand injury. The departure of Green, as well as linebacker Uchenna Nwosu, means he’ll be a focal point of the USC defense. The rest of the country is going to get very familiar with the 6’4”, 275 pound pass rusher this season.
Cameron Smith headlines a veteran-laden linebacker group that boasts exclusively upperclassmen among probable starters. Smith was a First-Team All Pac-12 selection last season. His name would have been called in the NFL Draft had he not elected to return to USC for his senior year. Before returning to school Mel Kiper had the three-year starter as the number five ranked draft-eligible inside linebacker.
And perhaps the most intriguing name on the USC defense is safety Marvell Tell. Tell is a three-year starter in the Trojan secondary. Like Smith he was named First-Team All Pac-12 last season. He was third on the Trojans in tackles, and while you can bet that he’ll be playing on Sundays in 2019, expect him to climb up many draft boards during this college football season.
Good not great, by USC standards. If there’s a name that Rebels fans should know, it’s sophomore Velus Jones. As a slot receiver in the Trojan offense, he doesn’t have the best hands. Returning kicks though, he can showcase explosiveness that may have the Rebels defending short fields early.
Clay Helton has led USC to 10 wins in his first two seasons with the Trojan the first coach in program history to accomplish such a feat. Offensive coordinator Tee Martin is definitely going to have his hands full leading a green quarterback, whoever that may be, while defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has a better idea of what to expect from the personnel he’s working with.
Expect this one to be wildly entertaining. Things certainly couldn’t have lined up better for Sanchez given the caliber of opponent. Two years ago the Rebels put up a spirited fight before falling to UCLA at the Rose Bowl 42-21 in non-conference play. Last year UNLV fell at then #10 ranked Ohio State 54-21 in a game where the Rebels started to show some offensive traction despite falling behind big early.
Sanchez might not be able to boast more talent on his roster than the Trojans, but he certainly has more stability. Certainly there are question marks abound on defense for the Rebels, but there’s no doubt UNLV has enough offensive firepower to keep things interesting for the Trojans.
Last season the Rebels finished 18th in the nation in rushing. Between the dual-threat capability of quarterback Armani Rogers, the dependability of running back Lexington Thomas, who may be the leading rusher in school history when the season is through, and the depth of the receiving corps, there are lots of reasons to believe the Rebs can hang with the Trojans late in the game.
Let’s hope it takes USC more than a game to figure out how to use all of these new pieces on offense.