Linebacker was a tricky position for USC in 2019. Injuries ravaged the group and made finding a steady rotation around senior John Houston Jr. difficult to do.
But another year, and perhaps another set of circumstances, for USC linebackers entering 2020. The group is still young, with only one senior among the ranks, but even those young players have some level of experience after the opportunities created by injuries last year.
Here’s a look at where the Trojans stand at linebacker entering 2020:
On the roster
The leader at inside linebacker is junior Palaie Gaoteote IV. He started five times as a freshman and was the starter entering the 2019 season. He started the first six games before an injury derailed his season.
In his limited appearances, Gaoteote had 58 tackles and three for loss while making a name for himself as a hard hitter. He’s the steady presence at the position.
He’s complemented inside by junior Kana’i Mauga. Thrust into a starting role by USC’s long string of injuries last year, Mauga started eight games and showed off his all-around game with 61 tackles, three sacks, an interception and three passes defended.
Behind those two, the inside backer position is either inexperienced or coming off injury.
Senior Jordan Iosefa will be back after missing last season following surgery on a dislocated knee cap. Though he was a captain last year, Iosefa will have to win back the starting job he held in 2018. Former Mater Dei standout Solomon Tuliaupupu will try to come back after a foot injury kept him sidelined his first two years at USC.
Sophomore Ralen Goforth played in 12 games last year and recorded six tackles while playing a lot of special teams. He has developed a reputation for his work ethic and could be in line for a bigger role on defense. Eli’jah Winston played in seven games as a redshirt freshman, while Tuasivi Nomura and Maninoa Tufono are coming off redshirt years.
On the outside, USC has a trio of options looking for bigger roles.
Junior Hunter Echols showed flashes last year as a pass rusher before having season-ending shoulder surgery. Similarly, Abdul-Malik McClain appeared in five games as a redshirt freshman while being limited by knee surgery and a dislocated shoulder.
Redshirt junior Juliano Falaniko had 12 tackles in 11 games last year, including half a sack and a recovered fumble.
On the way
USC didn’t sign any linebackers in its 2020 recruiting class. But the Trojans have a pair of four-star backers committed for the 2021 class. The first is the first to commit to USC for this class, St. John Bosco outside backer Ma’a Gaoteote, who is Palaie’s younger brother. The other is Lincoln (Wash.) backer Julien Simon.