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Cameron Smith's return to USC keeps Trojans' culture intact

The decision was easy, though it wasn’t the choice he expected to make.

Cameron Smith once dreamed of leaving school early for the NFL, but he realized last season that he’d be better served returning to USC for his senior year.

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“I just wasn’t really finished here,” Smith said after practice Thursday. “I think I have some areas where I want to keep getting better at.”

Smith determined before a victory at Colorado last November that he would return, but waited two months to reveal the decision as teammates Sam Darnold, Ronald Jones II, Rasheem Green and Deontay Burnett announced that they would forgo their final season of eligibility to turn pro.

“I kind of just want to take my knowledge of the game to the next level and be really confident,” Smith said.

An All-Pac-12 selection and team captain, Smith has led USC in tackles the last two seasons despite a position switch that moved him to middle linebacker as a junior. In the Cotton Bowl loss against Ohio State, he made 10 tackles.

Perhaps no one was as pleased about Smith’s return as Clay Helton.

Smith has developed into the quarterback of the defense, the head coach said, and has become a leader Helton can depend on, on and off the field.

“He keeps our culture intact,” Helton said.

Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who has held the same position in the NFL, encouraged Smith to return so that he could perfect his craft and prepare physically to compete against more mature players.

“The people in the trenches, you might be going up against a guy 10 or 12 years older than you,” Pendergast said. “And as most physically fit and ready as you can be when you go to the NFL, in my opinion, that’s when you should go.”

Smith, listed at 6 feet 2 and 250 pounds, has spent the offseason and spring working with Pendergast as he learns how to read offenses and make defensive play calls.

“I can help myself with just my knowledge and understanding what offenses are trying to do,” Smith said. “Especially at the next level.”

Buzzing about Darnold

As a steady rain fell throughout Thursday’s practice on Cromwell Field, USC coaches and players still buzzed about Darnold’s rain-soaked pro-day workout Wednesday.

“Just to see his demeanor, it was like him throwing when he was in seventh grade,” Helton said. “It was so easy for him.”

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Representatives from all 32 NFL organizations attended the workout, including owners, general mangers, coaches and scouts.

Darnold is projected as a top-five pick.

“It looked like he felt like he was a kid out there, just doing what he loves to do,” said Smith, who is also Darnold’s roommate — at least on paper. Smith laughed when he revealed that Darnold is continuing to pay rent despite moving out four months ago to prepare for the draft.

“He’s still on the lease!” Smith said.

Etc.

USC will hold a modified scrimmage Friday on Brian Kennedy-Howard Jones Field… There will be no practice Saturday because of a track meet on campus…linebackers coach Johnny Nansen was not at practice Thursday after undergoing knee-replacement surgery… Helton hired three quality-control assistants: Lenny Vandermade, Joe DeForest and Andy LaRussa… DeForest will coach linebackers while Nansen recovers.

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