With Smith suspended, USC readies first-time starters at LB
LOS ANGELES (AP) Cam Smith has been dreaming his whole life of being a team captain at Southern California. However, the junior linebacker will have to wait one more week before overseeing the opening coin toss.
Smith will miss the first half of the No. 4 Trojans' season opener against Western Michigan on Saturday after being ejected for targeting in the third quarter of the Rose Bowl.
That means Smith can't be on the field after pregame warmups conclude. While quarterback Sam Darnold, outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu and safety Chris Hawkins meet their Broncos counterparts at midfield for the coin toss, Smith will be back in the locker room watching on the television in head coach Clay Helton's office.
''I'll probably pace around a little bit, stress out, and hopefully somebody will be in there to calm me down,'' Smith said. ''I'm not going to get my energy up too high until I'm about to go in because I don't want to waste it. Just calm down and relax and get a different point of view from the rest of the guys.''
Smith's absence means USC will have two first-time starters at inside linebacker against the defending MAC champions in sophomore Jordan Iosefa and redshirt sophomore John Houston Jr. Iosefa will replace Smith at middle linebacker, while Houston will be at weak-side linebacker.
The drop-off in experience from Smith to Iosefa and Houston is immense. Smith matched or exceeded Iosefa's nine career tackles in four different games last season. Smith has 22 career starts compared to Houston's 16 career tackles, but Houston doesn't foresee any issues for the young duo.
''I feel like we're going to make it work,'' Houston said. ''Me and Jordan are going to represent well, and when Cam comes back we're going to do good as well.''
Much of that confidence comes from Iosefa's understanding of the defense, which teammates and coaches say is comparable to Smith's.
''He's a real defensive mind, knows his stuff in and out,'' Houston said. ''That's the good aspect of having him as the Mike, just knowing the defense from the back of his hand.''
Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast believes that football intelligence shouldn't result in any issues going from Smith to Iosefa, who brings a different kind of athleticism to the position than the bruising 6-foot-2, 250-pound Smith.
''I think Jordan gives you a little bit more of a flexibility skill set to be able to rush off the edge as up inside, where maybe Cam is more of an in-between the hash mark type backer,'' Pendergast said.
While Smith won't be there to counsel Iosefa and Houston in the first half, he is already thinking about what to tell them before the game. Much as he will have to control his emotions before taking the field after halftime, Smith wants Iosefa and Houston to be relaxed heading into the first game of a season where USC shoulders championship expectations.
''It's their first start, both of them, so I think both of them are entirely capable of doing what they do well,'' Smith said. ''It's just football.''
Iosefa will appreciate the pep talk, but expects to be perfectly calm for his first start.
''If you watch me practice, I practice with that dog mentality,'' Iosefa said. ''If I just transition it well, and just be humble and be in control, then I'll be just fine.''
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