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John Houston Jr. has inside track on weakside linebacker job at USC

John Houston Jr. is the leading candidate to start at weak-side linebacker for the Trojans.
(Shotgun Spratling / Los Angeles Times)

Cary Angeline caught a pass during seven-on-seven drills Thursday and turned upfield — 6 feet 7 inches and 240 pounds of tight end rumbling down the sideline.

Angeline and USC wore helmets and shoulder pads, not full pads, meaning defensive players were supposed to “thud” only, instead of wrapping offensive players and taking them to the ground. But John Houston Jr. was sweeping across the field like a stiff wind. He did indeed “thud” Angeline. He hit him so hard that he left his feet and came crashing down out of bounds. Players on offense and defense whooped.

“That was all right,” Houston assessed the next day. But that and another de-cleater along the sideline hardly even registered for him. “We haven’t been in full pads so I’m not even counting the two hits I had,” he said.

Houston, the favorite to start at weak-side linebacker, considers himself “a head-hunter, a get-to-the-ball, sideline-to-sideline player.” He is, in other words, USC’s answer to the ever-spreading, ever-quickening offenses of the Pac-12 Conference.

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Last season, Cameron Smith played at weak-side linebacker and Michael Hutchings played in the middle. The two were smart, experienced and strong. But “we obviously weren’t running 4.5s like him,” Smith said, referring to Houston’s 40-yard dash time.

So USC has shifted Smith to middle linebacker and put Houston at the weak side, the position responsible for playing in space more often.

“Cam’s probably better tackle-to-tackle, and John’s probably a little bit better out in the open field,” defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said.

On obvious passing downs last season, USC sometimes pulled Smith in favor of a speedier linebacker. USC’s coaching staff doesn’t expect Houston to require similar treatment.

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Such a setup has always been the goal. Houston just wasn’t always ready. In high school, few linebackers were graded as highly by the major scouting services. But a lingering back issue made Houston’s first season a wash. Last season, most of his playing time came on special teams.

Houston said he doesn’t consider himself a starter yet, but he has taken the starter’s repetitions during training camp. And he would make USC better able to face most offenses in the conference.

“We play so many three- and four-wide teams in this league that that athleticism to be able to walk out of the box at any time and to be able to wall a slot receiver off as well as play in space is valuable in our league,” Coach Clay Helton said.

An important understudy

Smith will be suspended from the first half of USC’s season-opening game against Western Michigan because he was ejected for a targeting penalty in the second half of USC’s Rose Bowl victory against Penn State.

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It is an unusual suspension that spans parts of two seasons, but it leaves USC with plenty of time to find a replacement. That’s welcomed. Helton said interior linebacker was USC’s thinnest position on defense.

To compensate, Jordan Iosefa and freshman Levi Jones have trained at two positions: Dime linebacker and inside linebacker.

Haden out

Former athletic director Pat Haden no longer works at USC in an official capacity. Haden, who retired as athletic director a little over a year ago, had remained at USC to help guide the $270-million renovation of the Coliseum.

Haden was working under a one-year contract, which expired June 30, according to an athletic department spokesman. The spokesman said most of the luxury suites at the Coliseum have been sold.

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Quick hits

USC will have referees at its first live-action practice on Saturday. ... Tight end Josh Falo sustained a knee injury and will undergo an MRI exam. “I don’t think it’s major, but we’re going to check it out,” Helton said.

zach.helfand@latimes.com

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand


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