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Three Longhorns to Watch: Who to watch vs. USC

September 16, 2017

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It’s time for Horns247’s “Three Longhorns to Watch” feature.

Before each Texas game of the season, we highlight three players who are likely to prove pivotal to the outcome on Saturday.

As the Longhorns prepare to face fourth-ranked USC at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (7:30 p.m., FOX), these are the players we feel will make the biggest difference when the dust settles.

Sam Darnold(Photo: Sean M. Haffey, Getty)

1. Anyone involved whenever a blitz is called

Todd Orlando explained the bind he’s entering this game earlier in the week. Either he sits back to play things on the safe side and risks USC quarterback Sam Darnold, the projected No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, picking his defense apart, or he brings pressure trying to force Darnold into mistakes and risks getting burned.

“If you let him sit back there and just pat the ball, he’ll just pick you apart,” Orlando said. “I don’t think he gets enough credit for being a good athlete. I think we’re all so used to, we want to see a 4.5 or a 4.6 guy. He’s got guts. He’s not afraid to put his shoulder down and try to run. He’s very very impressive. Some of the throws that he made last year, even the throw that he made vs. Stanford. Golly, he trusts his arm and in his opinion, he can put the ball wherever he wants to and most of the time he’s right.”

The issue facing the Longhorns is the defense hasn’t had any disruptors along the defensive line emerge through the first two games. A force hasn’t emerged at B-backer either. Those two spots make Orlando’s defense really go (it made a world of difference for Orlando to have Ed Oliver and Tyus Bowser in those roles at Houston).

It seems like the only way the Longhorns can get pressure on the quarterback right now is to blitz. While Darnold might indeed be able to process what the Longhorns are doing and adjust accordingly, throwing different looks and pressures at Darnold might be the only chance Texas has to try and force turnovers and get the USC offense off of the field.

(Photo: Tim Warner, Getty)

2. Gary Johnson, LB, Jr.

This isn’t a game where the physically or mentally immature members of the Texas roster will thrive. After showing off his speed and physicality against San Jose State, Johnson will find himself on the field a lot more against an opponent where Johnson can allow the Longhorns to fight the speed and explosiveness of USC running backs Ronald Jones II and Stephen Carr with a little of their own.

“Anytime you have more speed, if you do make a mistake or something busts loose, you have the ability to get it on the ground and play another play,” Orlando said. “That’s going to help you.”

The combination of Johnson (Rover) and Malik Jefferson (Mac) on the field together in the nickel package seems to give the Longhorns what they would ideally desire when it comes to athleticism and playmaking ability. The package worked against San Jose State and Johnson has the goods to help ensure it delivers against the Trojans.

If you’re counting on someone to step up in what’s sure to be a man’s game, go with the linebacker Nick Saban recruited and coveted before the two parties were forced to part ways due to SEC junior college transfer rules.

Collin Johnson(Photo: Icon Sportswire, Getty)

3. Texas wide receivers

Regardless of who’s playing quarterback for the Longhorns, the USC defensive game plan could be similar to how the Trojans attacked Stanford. Against the Cardinal, USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast loaded the box and played man coverage on the outside until Stanford was forced to throw the football in an effort to better stop the run.

The Trojans could have a similar plan of attack against the Longhorns. While Chris Warren III and Jerrod Heard will largely be in charge of getting the ground game going, Shane Buechele and/or Sam Ehlinger have to connect on the one-on-one opportunities when they present themselves.

Beck was asked earlier this week if he felt he was getting enough from Collin Johnson. Beck said he thought so, adding that San Jose State made an effort to take the 6-foot-6-inch playmaker out of the game.

“We not going to force it,” Beck said. “We’re going to take what they give us and try to take advantage of the holes in the defense, wherever those may be. We aren’t going to force throws to people all the time.”

USC has cornerbacks the defensive staff feels confident putting on an island. That said, Jack Jones struggled against Stanford’s bigger receivers while Iman Marshall has been battling an ankle issue.

Through two games the Longhorns have scored on only two of their 27 explosive plays (runs of 12 or more yards, pass completions of 15 yards or more). Getting chunk-yardage plays is something Texas has to do against USC with the likelihood being low that an offense that’s struggled to avoid drive-killing penalties and has played far from mistake-free football through two games can’t bank on living off of lengthy drives.

The bigger-bodied receivers on the roster like Johnson will have to make the most of their opportunities when they come around. With Herman having heaped a load of praise on the wideouts going back to the spring, this is a time when they need to come through.

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