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    USC football breakdown: How the Trojans look at linebacker
    • January 13, 2024

    LOS ANGELES — The migration of former top recruits at USC made perfect sense, and one could point to a clear and justifiable reason for each bird flying east in the winter.

    Raleek Brown never found the playing time or the role he quite wanted in Lincoln Riley’s offensive scheme. Domani Jackson never found consistency at cornerback, and his recruiter Donte Williams left for Georgia. Malachi Nelson’s departure was surprising, maybe, but it never felt like he was quite being groomed as the heir apparent at quarterback to Caleb Williams.

    But Tackett Curtis? That was a surprise.

    The freshman linebacker, dubbed “Captain America” by teammates in fall camp, was publicly revered by USC’s defensive staff – mainly by now-fired coordinator Alex Grinch, but Riley was especially high on Curtis. And sure, Curtis was often out of position and struggled in pass coverage in his freshman year at USC, but he also played too much too quickly and had a clearly-bright future in the middle of a defense. So when he was considering leaving the portal, USC had several meetings to try to convince him to stay, a source with knowledge of the situation told the Southern California News Group.

    It was of no avail. And Curtis’ eventual departure for Wisconsin, it can’t be sugarcoated, was a blow to USC’s future – particularly when looking at the Trojans’ depth at inside linebacker.

    Eric Gentry has two years of eligibility and was a consistent playmaker in 2023, but his ceiling is known. Mason Cobb is an effective defensive leader, but struggled at times with missed tackles in Grinch’s scheme and has one year left. This USC group was responsible as much as any other for an abysmal run defense in 2023, in the bottom 15 in yards-per-game allowed in the nation.

    Exit Curtis. Exit Brian Odom, in all likelihood, the linebackers coach who gamely stuck it out in the Holiday Bowl even as his replacement was announced weeks earlier. Enter Matt Entz, a former two-time FCS national champion head coach at North Dakota State and a killer hire at linebackers coach for USC. And enter Easton Mascarenas-Arnold, a former Oregon State Beaver who could be the best ILB USC has had on its roster since the Cameron Smith days of 2017-18.

    In comparison to a defensive overhaul in other rooms of the roster, though, this has the least personnel change and the largest margin for error. Entz’s ability to get the most out of Cobb and Gentry in the spring will be paramount, and Mascarenas-Arnold will have a hefty responsibility on his shoulders after a 107-tackle season in 2023.

    Here’s a full breakdown of USC’s inside-linebacker room entering spring practice, the first in a six-part series examining the post-portal outlook for every part of the roster. 

    Inside linebacker

    Returning: Jr. Raesjon Davis, Sr. Mason Cobb, Jr. Eric Gentry, Fr. Garrison Madden

    Arriving: Jr. Easton Mascarenas-Arnold, True Fr. Desman Stephens

    Departing: Fr. Tackett Curtis, Sr. Chris Thompson Jr., Sr. Shane Lee (eligibility)

    Top questions

    Who starts? Applicable to any position, really, but particularly key here. USC cycled through a variety of linebacker alignments in 2023, never quite finding the perfect shoe that fit. Gentry’s playing time, as the biggest playmaker of the bunch, was confounding. Davis didn’t find a fair shot, either. Mascarenas-Arnold will almost certainly fill the mike spot; most likely, Gentry will play opposite him with Cobb as Mascarenas-Arnold’s backup.

    Can Entz solve USC’s tackling issues? USC’s simple inability over the past two years to wrap up, or taking head-scratching angles on tackling ball-carriers, has been a major problem that led to Grinch’s late-season firing. The Trojans tied for first in the Pac-12 in missed tackles among linebacker groups in the conference, according to Pro Football Focus. Entz brings championship pedigree and a wealth of defensive-coordinator experience; establishing consistent technique with his linebacker group at USC will be paramount in the spring.

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    Group X-factor

    Stephens is the only ILB commit in USC’s 2024 recruiting class, but even he in himself is a bit of a mystery. He played in the secondary and at wide receiver at Clarkston High in Michigan, but has a nose for the ball and strength and quickness in tackling that’s led to USC tabbing him a member of their linebacker corps. Riley was particularly high on Stephens on national signing day, mentioning he believed the Michigan product was “undervalued,” and Stephens will have a chance to compete for snaps in the spring.

    ​ Orange County Register