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Five players who could decide the fate of USC’s football season

USC wide receiver Amon-ra St. Brown makes a catch against Fresno State in September 2019.
USC’s Amon-ra St. Brown, shown making a catch against Fresno State last season, is the undisputed leader of the receiving corp.
(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)
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All summer, they waited patiently, with little idea what the fall might hold. They trained in parks and backyards and garages, ate pre-packaged meals sent by team nutritionists, and spent hours learning schemes over Zoom, all for the slim hope of seizing the top spot atop a rebuilding Pac-12.

That long wait will finally end for the USC Trojans on Friday, when training camp kicks off, full-contact practices are restored, and a pandemic-shortened football season begins.

A long offseason — the longest in program history — has a way of washing away the bitter taste from last season’s frustrating 8-5 finish. While players have anxiously awaited a chance to start anew, the Trojans hype train has already left the station ahead of this season. Along with Oregon, many view them as the class of the Pac-12.

It’s not hard to see why with a Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback, a fleet of playmakers surrounding him, and a revamped defense. There’s still plenty left to prove, especially on defense, where the Trojans haven’t seen coordinator Todd Orlando’s new scheme in full swing since the spring. But the talent is there to pave a path to the Pac-12 title game.

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Here are five players who could decide the fate of USC’s season as the Trojans prepare for their season opener against Arizona State on Nov. 7:

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Kedon Slovis

USC quarterback Kedon Slovis takes a snap.
USC quarterback Kedon Slovis
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

For the first time in four seasons, there is no doubt ahead of camp who will be under center for USC.

The former three-star quarterback now holds the keys to the kingdom. The Trojans’ high-powered offense will go as Slovis goes, and considering his sparkling efficiency as a freshman, expectations should be sky high.

Slovis completed 71.9% of his passes in his first season at USC, the highest percentage for any freshman in NCAA history, and threw for 30 touchdowns, despite not playing most of two games and all of another. All along, offensive coordinator Graham Harrell promised that he’d look even better in Year 2.

That second season has finally arrived, and Harrell’s promise will soon be tested. Slovis said that he’s significantly strengthened his arm in the offseason, but the most noticeable difference in his game should stem from his comfort in Harrell’s offense.

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It’s reasonable to think that Slovis could find himself in contention for the Heisman Trophy, if the conference’s smaller slate of games doesn’t deter voters. Regardless of awards, keeping him upright throughout that schedule will be a top priority for the Trojans, considering the dearth of options behind him.

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Alijah Vera-Tucker

USC guard Alijah Vera-Tucker adjusts his helmet.
USC guard Alijah Vera-Tucker
(Katherine Lotze / Getty Images)

When Vera-Tucker first explained to Clay Helton his reasons for opting back in to play this season, the USC coach said it gave him goosebumps.

Offensive line coach Tim Drevno probably had a more visceral reaction. With Vera-Tucker back to anchor the line at left tackle, Drevno can breathe much easier. He now only has two starting spots to fill over the next month.

The prospect of replacing one of the Pac-12’s top linemen from last season with either an inexperienced backup or a freshman might’ve been enough to keep Drevno up at night. Instead, Vera-Tucker returns with the chance to cement his stock as one of the top available linemen in the upcoming draft.

Vera-Tucker hasn’t seen any game action at left tackle, after playing every game at left guard last season. But compared to the alternative, the Trojans will take it.

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Amon-ra St. Brown

USC wide receiver Amon-ra St. Brown makes a touchdown catch.
USC wide receiver Amon-ra St. Brown
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The Trojans’ top wideout briefly weighed opting out of this season. But after a 1,000-yard campaign as a sophomore, St. Brown apparently didn’t wait on the Pac-12’s decision to push himself this offseason.

Helton was effusive in his praise of the junior wideout earlier this week, reiterating that St. Brown was now “in by far the best shape I have ever seen him in.”

“He put himself in a great position, I think, to have a great third season,” Helton said.

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St. Brown may have more competition than ever in that regard. While the offense lost its No. 1 wideout in Michael Pittman Jr., it returns every other receiving weapon, including senior Tyler Vaughns and sophomore Drake London. Redshirt freshmen Bru McCoy and Munir McClain are primed for breakouts, and speedy freshman Gary Bryant Jr. had coaches buzzing in the spring.

But St. Brown will enter the season as the undisputed leader of the pack, and it’s not a stretch to think he could finish as the best in the Pac-12 too.

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Drake Jackson

USC defensive lineman Drake Jackson
(Paul Sancya / Associated Press)

It’s easy to forget that Jackson was just a freshman last season, considering how quickly he ascended as a force on USC’s defense. Among Pac-12 freshmen, only Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux had more sacks (nine) than Jackson (51/2).

A new scheme should manufacture even more opportunities for Jackson to wreak havoc as a sophomore. Jackson is expected to have his hands in the dirt on fewer plays this season, as he takes on more of an outside linebacker role on the edge. With defensive tackle Jay Tufele no longer rushing from the interior, it’ll be on Jackson to carry USC’s pass rush.

That fit should put Jackson’s athleticism on full display. It may also go a long way in convincing another top edge rusher from Corona Centennial, No. 1 overall recruit Korey Foreman, to join USC’s defense next season.

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Talanoa Hufanga

USC safety Talanoa Hufanga celebrates against Utah.
USC safety Talanoa Hufanga
(Kyusung Gong / Associated Press)

The box safety position is the hinge point in Orlando’s aggressive defensive scheme, and in Hufanga, the new coordinator may have found a perfect fit.

A potential first-round pick next spring, Hufanga missed three games last season and still led all Pac-12 defensive backs in tackles (90) while ranking in the top-10 regardless of position. Now in a scheme that places more responsibility on the safety, Hufanga should thrive in his third season.

How exactly he’ll be used remains a mystery, but there’s no mistaking that Hufanga will be the heart of the Trojans defense, assuming he can stay healthy this season.

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