LOS ANGELES — Linebacker Cameron Smith is considered one of the best players at USC. But he will not play the first half of the season opener against Western Michigan because he was ejected from last season’s Rose Bowl.
The linebackers were a mostly unfamiliar group outside of Smith. Without him, even for a half, fans might have trouble naming the likely candidates for playing time.
That is not comforting for a fourth-ranked USC team favored to win every game this season. However, it makes the first three home games interesting in some good and potentially troubling ways.
Sophomore John Houston is expected to start opposite Smith. But during training camp this week, sophomore Jordan Iosefa and freshman Levi Jones are practicing both interior linebacker spots so they can fill in for Smith against Western Michigan.
“It’s going to be the next guy up (without me),” Smith said. “You have to grow them up fast.”
Two years ago, Smith started as a true freshman in the season’s first game against Arkansas State, so it is not implausible for Jones to start and play well.
But Houston, a redshirt sophomore, will also start his first game. That means two linebackers making their first college starts. Imagine if that happened last season against Alabama?
Maybe it’s stressful enough for USC coach Clay Helton that it happens this season, when the Trojans are projected to be a top-four team.
“I wouldn’t say I’m a starter yet,” Houston said Friday.
But his big hits in practices make it look like he going to start. He bowled through tight end Cary Angeline on Thursday and tailback Dominic Davis on Friday.
“I feel like I’m a head hunter,” Houston said. “It feels good to be a bigger part of the team. The hardest part was being patient.”
Even though Houston was a five-star prospect from the Class of 2015, it was four-star rated Smith who has been the mainstay the past two years. Houston also watched fellow Serra High teammates like cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, wide receiver Deontay Burnett and defensive tackle Rasheem Green enjoy more prominent roles.
“It’s one of the tests I’ve had in my life,” Houston said. “I learned how to be patient.”
Part of the problem for Houston was a back injury that caused him to redshirt his freshman year. But he is fully recovered now and should be easy to spot this season.
“He makes some crazy plays,” Smith said. “He’s really long and really, really rangy.”
That makes Houston and Smith…