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Maya Tenfold

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Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It's the return of the Tenfold, where I unleash 10 things from my membrane ...

1. NEW AND IMPROVED

I was asked recently who are some of USC’s most improved players and who’s on the cusp of a breakout this season. It’s a tough question, even though I’ve watched as much USC football as anyone over the past six months. That was all practice, of course, and I’ve been doing this long enough to know things from practice are not always what they appear to be. But what fun is it to watch these guys on a regular basis and not make some predictions? Here a dozen players whom I’d classify as the most improved since the beginning of spring:

WR Velus Jones, WR Tyler Vaughns, TE Cary Angeline, DL Christian Rector, LB John Houston, LB Connor Murphy, LB Wole Betiku, LB Jordan Iosefa, CB Jack Jones, DB Ajene Harris, DB Ykili Ross and DB C.J. Pollard.

2. CHAMPIONSHIP CORE

I think we can all identify who the top breakout candidates are. The harder part is deciding on who will actually break out. A year ago, USC benefited from a handful of surprise breakout seasons, including Sam Darnold, Darreus Rogers and Deontay Burnett on offense, and Michael Hutchings and Stevie Tu’ikolovatu on defense. I expect at least a handful of players from the list of most improved players to experience a career “breakout.” Equally (if not more) important, though, will be the growth of established starters. USC has seven on both sides of the ball with at least five starts (Darnold, TB Ronald Jones II, Burnett, TE Daniel Imatorbhebhe, LT Toa Lobendahn, C Nico Falah, RG Viane Talamaivao on offense; DE Rasheem Green, LB Uchenna Nwosu, LB Porter Gustin, LB Cam Smith, CB Biggie Marshall, S Marvell Tell, S Chris Hawkins on defense).

Not all of these players will make the All-Pac-12 team, but you could argue each of them should. Some should be All-Americans too. Notice that every unit on offense and defense is represented. The Trojans possess a strong blend of realized talent and potential, and they’re balanced. After years of being overrated by national media, calling them Pac-12 favorites finally seems fitting. But whether they are actual national title contenders will largely come down to these players — specifically, how many of them improve, and by how much.

3. THE LEAPERS

OK, here are my predictions for who will breakout this season even further than they’ve already broken out:

Darnold, RoJo, Imatorbhebhe, Nwosu and Marshall.

4. DOMINANCE BEGINS WITH D

If you were ranking the biggest factors for winning a national title, quarterback play and schedule would be high on the list. This is a good thing for the Trojans, who boast, in my opinion, their most talented quarterback in the program’s QB-rich history, and will face what looks to be their easiest slate of games since 2013 (and perhaps much longer). There’s a caveat for both, I suppose. Darnold is only a redshirt sophomore with just 10 career starts under his belt, and USC’s bye week doesn’t come until after 12 consecutive games. I’ve gone back and forth on whether the Trojans, featuring a healthy Darnold, will win 10 or 11 games in the regular season. (Though I might pick USC to beat each of its opponents during the respective week of the game, I just don’t see them going 12-0.)

A couple weeks back I predicted 10-2, which feels accurate but boring. The more I think about it, I want to say 11-1, and this is why: I believe in this defense. The three best USC teams I’ve covered (2003, 2004 and 2008) all featured excellent defenses that often proved to be the difference in tight games. (This was inexplicably ignored in ESPN’s 30 for 30, “Trojan War.”) USC’s 2017 team could fit that mold. However ...

5. GROWN MAN’S BUSINESS

I went back and looked up how many key contributors from last year's final four teams were fourth- or fifth-year guys. Whether or not these players happen to be stars, I think they are the backbone of a championship team. The difference in their leadership, maturity and experience, not to mention their strength and speed — we’re talking about 21 and 22-year-olds — can’t be overstated when compared to their underclassmen brethren.

While USC has more players on scholarship (and, in turn, more depth) than it’s had in at least six years, it’s missing several of these precious veterans. USC’s redshirt juniors, true seniors and redshirt seniors derive from the 2013 and 2014 signing classes that were restricted to 15 members each, the result of NCAA sanctions from more than seven years ago that seem more prejudiced and unjust with each passing infraction committed elsewhere.

The Trojans open the season with a mere 14 fourth- and fifth-year original scholarship players on offense and defense heading into the 2017 season. Moreover, I count only 10 that are projected to have a regular role. In 2016, Alabama and Clemson had 14 of these players in their rotations. Ohio State had 15 and Washington had 17. To be honest, I thought their totals would be a bit higher. But it’s still a tangible disadvantage that USC will have to overcome.

6. RED OR CARDINAL?

In an ideal world for USC, true freshman quarterback Jack Sears doesn’t touch the field this season. He gives his full attention to leading the scout team in practice and taking notes on his potential predecessor Sam Darnold, whose success and health would equate to great team success and, in all likelihood, his departure next winter. That is the earliest you’d want Sears in another competition after Matt Fink claimed the No. 2 job in training camp. None of this is to say Sears is approaching life as a redshirt as one without competition. Sears, who wasn’t made available to the media until last week despite enrolling in January — this is the new normal at USC — made it clear he wants to get on the field this year. I particularly loved his answer when asked if being behind Darnold makes redshirting any easier.

“I think accepting the role of the backup is just different,” he said. “Because all the guys that come here or any D-1 college, are used to being the guy at their high school. You come in here and you have to compete. If you get comfortable in the backup role, it’s not good for anybody. So you want to keep competing and playing as if you’re the starter and you’ll have to go in.”

Like Darnold two years ago, we might not hear much (or anything) from Sears this fall. But don’t forget about him. He might be USC’s most important player in 2018.

7. UNDERCLASSMAN TO WATCH

Jordan Iosefa will start at middle linebacker on Saturday because Cam Smith is suspended for the first half. Earlier this week I listed who I believe are the five most indispensable players on the team — the irreplaceables. The toughest choice was between RoJo and Cam Smith. I ultimately decided on the former because I think RoJo’s the more talented player and he plays a position of greater impact. (He’s in line to carry the ball 20-plus times a game, which would fall in the range of 20-25 percent of the offensive snaps. Comparatively, even if Smith made 10 tackles a game — he’s averaged exactly seven for his career — that would only be about 15 percent of total plays USC defended a year ago.)

But another big reason I went with RoJo is because I am really high on Iosefa, a sophomore who can play both inside linebacker spots for the Trojans. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, when asked about Iosefa filling in for Smith this week, said he doesn’t think “there’s any real dropoff there. He knows the defense as well as anybody." If Iosefa performs the way I think he will, we could see a dogfight for playing time between the primary inside linebackers.

8. UPPERCLASSMAN TO WATCH

Not sure if this has been forgotten after five weeks of fall practice but senior Josh Fatu entered training camp as an underdog in the nose tackle competition, having fallen behind true freshman Marlon Tuipulotu through five weeks of spring practice. Fatu is a natural pass rusher who’s put on some size to better meet the needs of a 0-technique. He sets out to fill the shoes of departed senior Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, a mammoth run-stopper who was arguably USC’s defensive MVP last season.

Fatu won’t carry the burden of playing as many snaps as Tu’ikolovatu did — he’ll be spelled by some combination of Tuipulotu, Kenny Bigelow and Brandon Pili. But his particular skill set could lend itself to more sacks for a USC defense that regularly got pressure on opposing quarterbacks but sometimes struggled bringing them down. Western Michigan and it’s run-first attack should also provide a decent test for Fatu and the rest of USC’s defensive front.

9. QUOTE OF THE WEEK

Just remember, despite whatever skepticism you might have of Coach Clay Helton, he wants what you want. There is still a lot to learn about him as a head coach, and a lot that he’s still eager to learn about coaching. Regardless of where you stand on him being USC’s head coach, and I say this because I know many still take exception to it, you have to appreciate his perspective.

"One of the things we learned from last year, hopefully, is every game matters. As successful as we were last season, everybody was patting us on the back, saying, You're a great team, maybe you're a playoff team. The fact of the matter is, we were a three-loss team.”

10. PREDICTION

I suspect USC will have to win at least 14 games this season to win the national championship. It’s more than it’s ever won before. The Trojans, of course, still have yet to win their first Pac-12 championship. I feel confident in saying they’ll play in Santa Clara this December. After that, who knows? I don’t know that we’ll learn too much about them Saturday, other than they’ll be one win closer to their ultimate goal. USC 40, Western Michigan 10.

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