by Garry Paskwietz
Here’s an early look at who could fill the vacancies left by the departing seniors and early draft entrants.
Tailback (Justin Davis)
Ronald Jones is the presumptive starter coming off a 1,000-yard season, and it stands to reason Aca’Cedric Ware will get first shot at being the next in line for the rotation. We should also see Dominic Davis and Vavae Malepeai in the mix. This is really good depth, and the addition of Stephen Carr would make it even better.
Wide receiver (JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers)
Both outside spots are open and there is really good young talent waiting for their turn. Michael Pittman saw enough action last year to make Trojan fans excited about his future, and the expectations are just as high for Josh Imatorbhebhe and Tyler Vaughns to make immediate contributions as well. All three are the real deal based on what we’ve seen so far.
Tight end (Taylor McNamara)
Daniel Imatorbhebhe became a consistent target for Sam Darnold and he enters spring as the favorite to earn the starting job. Tyler Petite needs to be more dependable as a pass catching option because Cary Angeline showed some good things as a redshirt and could definitely be a candidate to get playing time right away.
Left tackle (Chad Wheeler)
There’s a good chance that Toa Lobendahn will be the left tackle next fall but Toa will not be available in spring as he continues with rehab from his knee injury so that means Clayton Johnston and Roy Hemsley should get long looks to show where they are at in their development. Could either player show enough to put themselves in legitimate position for the job?
Left guard (Damien Mama)
There was a lengthy competition between Mama and Chris Brown for the starting spot, and Brown even started the season opener before Mama took over and held the job for the rest of the year. Brown is the presumptive replacement and a guy who has played a lot of football for the Trojans. It’s also a spot where an elite true freshman could come in and compete right away in the fall.
Right tackle (Zach Banner)
Chuma Edoga figures to be the starter to replace Banner, and Chuma started two games at RT as a true freshman and two games at left tackle to open the 2016 season. There were discipline issues early in the year and Chuma will need to show that he can be counted on as the full-time guy. Nathan Smith figured to be an option as well but he suffered a knee injury during bowl practices that required surgery and he is out.
Nose tackle (Stevie Tu’ikolovatu)
There are still a lot of questions here at a critical spot. When will Kenny Bigelow be available coming back from knee surgery and what level will he be playing at? Kenny offers the most upside of any of the potential candidates if he is ready to go. Jacob Daniel got some reps in reserve last year, as did Josh Fatu, and they will get a lot of work in spring. Liam Jimmons could also see time here.
Inside linebacker (Michael Hutchings)
There are questions here too. John Houston served as the primary back-up to Hutchings and he should be ready to make a push for more time, but Jordan Iosefa is one who could end up sliding over one spot to get in the mix as well. Iosefa showed a lot in practice as a true freshman. There is also the possibility of Olajuwon Tucker depending on his academic status.
Strong safety (Leon McQuay)
Chris Hawkins (photo above) has started several games and certainly seen enough playing time (44 tackles) that it should be a real smooth transition for him into the starter role. Right now C.J. Pollard will be lined up behind him in spring and it will be interesting to see if other reserve safeties such as Jamel Cook, Ykili Ross or John Plattenburg get some snaps there.
Long snapper (Zach Smith)
John Baxter identified Damon Johnson as the heir apparent to Smith, and gave Johnson a scholarship beginning this spring.