USC lost a lot of players from the 2017 draft but this class will be stronger – a lot stronger – with four potential first rounders going into the 2018 NFL Draft. While we are still early in the process there are just a couple of guys to keep your eyes on for the 2017-18 season:

Sam Darnold | Quarterback

To me, Darnold is the total package as he’s been heavily projected to be the #1 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Standing at 6’4”/225 pounds, as a RS Freshman he completed 246 of his 366 attempts (67.2%) while throwing for 31 TDs and 3,086 yards as he started in 10 games (winning 9 of them) and revived USC’s season. Darnold can sit in the pocket going through his progression while throwing passes with anticipation. You saw him a lot last year make some very tight window throws and he makes it looks easy.

The thing that will impress teams the most about Darnold is his accuracy and ball placement at all 3 levels on the field. Darnold shows the ability to avoid pass rush whether he is breaking out of the pocket or stepping up. Darnold always keeps his eyes downfield looking for that open WR. He can make things happen with his feet and he isn’t scared to deliver the ball and take a lick. TD on the play:

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Burnett over the middle:

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Darnold has such great pocket awareness:

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In 2017 I hope to see Darnold take that step forward as he lives up to the #1 pick hype. Ball security is key in order for that to happen. Yes, he had 31 TDs in 10 games and threw only 9 INTs. A lot of people will talk about the “long delivery”, but I don’t see it as a problem with it since his release is still quick and the ball just pops off his hand. With his size he should get some solid NFL Comparisons, but if he repeats what he did last season he will be the 1st QB off the board come draft time.

Iman Marshall | Cornerback

The big, physical 6’1”/200 pound up-in-your-face man-to-man corner started his SC career starting in 12 games (appearing in all 14). During his freshman year he had 3 interceptions and 9 pass deflections earning himself 1st Team Freshman All-American Team honors. After a great freshman year, Marshall returned as a starting corner opposite of future 1st round pick Adoree Jackson. While starting in all 13 games Marshall had 3 interceptions and 8 pass break ups. He was named an All Pac-12 Honorable Mention. USC is hoping Marshall can take that next step and be that elite one-on-one outside corner. In the last two years Marshall has been targeted quite a bit. This year QBs will be looking the other way and targeting sophomore and the coveted recruit Jack Jones.

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Good job of getting hands on receiver – makes another good play on the ball:

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Does a good job not falling for double move – again, makes a good play on the ball:

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He might not give you the game changing plays Adoree Jackson gave you, but he will end up being a better overall, more reliable defender.

Cameron Smith | Linebacker

The 6’2”/245 pound linebacker who has great instincts and is quick for his size bursted onto the college scene as a freshman and has been heavily talked about since. As a freshman he had 78 total tackles to go with 3 INTs in 10 games. Smith just lurking Wilson – 3 INT in same game (1 went for a TD):

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As a sophomore, Smith led USC with 83 tackles and 7 tackles for a loss as he earned PAC-12 2nd team honors. When you watch the tape, Smith is all over the place, constantly making a play or just around the ball.

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Smith is capable of blitzing, but in 2 years at SC he only has 2 sacks but always finds a way to disrupt the QB.

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I’m really excited to watch the development of Smith this season. If he can replicate his freshman and sophomore production he will be in the mix for the best ILB in the nation.

Porter Gustin | EDGE

USC used Gustin as a pass rushing OLB. The 6’5”/260 pound Gustin can rush the passer and step to the edge on run plays. Gustin is another defensive guy that has seen playing time since his freshman year as he appeared in all 14 games, albeit starting in only two, but still made an impact. He had 25 total tackles, 7 for a loss to go with a whopping 5.5 sacks. In his sophomore season Gustin started every game making a dominant impact totalling 68 tackles – second behind Smith, 13 tackles for loss and another 5.5 sacks. He earned himself All Pac-12 Honorable Mention. Gustin is very physical with his hands and he can play on either side of a defensive front:

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Here he does a good job of keeping the edge, not biting on the play fake while getting into Browning’s face:

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Gustin went up against one of the best tackles in this upcoming draft class (Mike McGlinchey) and had a solid game where he racked up some hurries. Gustin is another USC player that can find himself getting drafted Day 1. His look and play will draw comparisons to Clay Matthews.

Ronald Jones | Running Back

No more Justin Davis and Tre Madden to split carries with, welcome to the Ronald Jones show ladies and gentleman. Jones racked up 177 carries last year while Davis received 110 rushes, They both rushed for over 1,000 yards, but the more touches Jones can get, the better. This guy is fast, when he gets to the second level forget about it. He has runs were he is untouched as he just breezes his way into the endzone. Speed in space and the ability to catch screens or running out of the backfield. Nice jump cut and yeah, good luck safety:

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The USC track star has breakaway ability every time he touches the ball. Jones who is “listed” at 6’1”/195 pounds runs hard and breaks more tackles than you expect:

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As a true freshman, Jones racked up 153 carries for 987 yards (6.5 ypc) and 8 TDs while sharing time in the backfield. His sophomore year Jones put on some weight (which he can still afford to) he carried the ball 177 times for 1,082 and 12 touchdowns. I expect Jones to easily get 200 touches since he is now the go-to-guy in that backfield. Jones rushed for over 100 yards 4 times this season and a high of 223 against CAL on only 18 carries. When you have speed like Jones, when you get moving an arm tackle is a challenge for any defender to bring you down:

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Obviously with such speed he has no problem getting to the edge. I would like to see Jones get better in between the tackles and become a better pass blocker. At times blitzing LBs take advantage of Jones’ poor blocking. USC looks to junior Aca’Cedric Ware to be the spell back and I think USC is due for another solid RB duo in 2017. USC sure does have a lot of star power coming back this year and Jones won’t be a under the radar type of guy this year, count of that.

Deontay Burnett | Wide Receiver

Burnett will be getting a heavy workload this season, whether it’s bubble screens or working over the middle. Burnett is poised to step up as the top target for Darnold in that WR corps.

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Here he does a great job of making the LB thinking he’s going outside and runs a good seam route. Darnold hits him in the hole of the D. Big time catch in a big time game. Send it!

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The Junior is coming off a solid sophomore campaign finishing with a splash in the Rose Bowl. Burnett stepped in when Steven Mitchell Jr suffered a knee injury in mid October. 32 of his 56 receptions came in the last 5 games of the season where he emerged in the slot. All spring long Darnold and Burnett looked crisp and on point on almost every pass. I wouldn’t be surprised if Burnett returned to USC for his senior year, but he is certainly a guy worth monitoring in this year’s class. This year I would like to see him win more on the outside and maybe we can see him in space on punt returns. With no JuJu Smith-Schuster or Darreus Rodgers, Burnett will need to step up for the USC WRs core. For the Trojans to boast a productive WR corps, it all starts with him.

Love this play call – Burnett comes in zip motion holds for a moment turns on the jets and it’s an easy touchdown:

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Rasheem Green | Defensive Line

Green is a former 5-star recruit from the 2015 recruiting class and is a versatile 6’5”/280 pound lineman that can play inside or rush from the outside. Green appeared in every game of his freshman year, but didn’t have a big impact and failed to live up to expectations. He turned it around in 2016 and led USC in sacks with 6 along with 55 tackles and 6.5 for loss. USC returns a lot of defensive players, but Green might have the biggest impact because if he can be a force in the middle, he will free up opportunities for guys like Porter Gustin. Expectations will be high as he moves into an expanded role.

About The Author Chris Gragnani

Chris is from NY, he is a big time New York Giants and USC Trojans fan. Chris played quarterback for Suffern High School and was given the opportunity to play football in college at Stonehill College. He transferred to LIU Post where he played for one season. Chris, a new writer is looking forward to gaining experience and sharing his college football/NFL Draft work. Follow Chris on Twitter @GragnaniReport for any college football or NFL talk.