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Cameron Smith will lead a USC defense that's now all about championships

USC went from a left-for-dead 1-3 to a resurrected No. 3 over the circuitous course of the 2016 season.

No team experienced such a humiliating start -- beginning with a 52-6 faceplant in the hyped opener against Alabama -- only to finish with such an emphatic statement. The Trojans' thrilling 52-49 win over Penn State in the Rose Bowl presented by Northwestern Mutual felt like it was as much about the 2017 season ahead as it was about the one they just finished.

And here we go again. The USC hype train is already beginning to chug out of the station, with quarterback Sam Darnold set as the engineer and designated Heisman Trophy candidate. Yet if defense wins championships, as they say, then attention evoked by Darnold's potential should at least trickle down to true sophomore linebacker Cameron Smith, the only Trojans defender returning with an All-Conference pedigree.

Smith and Darnold are seemingly cut from the same cloth. Neither is terribly flashy or boisterous off the field. Both seem a bit suspicious of the burgeoning hype.

"We've seen that before," Smith said. "All that outside noise really doesn't mean anything. It's what we do as a team."

That might seem a bit canned, but it possesses more relevance with USC for multiple reasons. For one, and most obviously, the last two times the Trojans were ranked in the preseason top-10 -- 2012 at No. 1 and 2015 at No. 8 -- they finished unranked and mired in tumult.

Second, it recalls the much-noted "It's all about ball" mantra of spring practices last year, a folksy, low-key reflection of then-new coach Clay Helton. The phrase was catchy and it was embraced all the way up until the Crimson Tide shoved said ball down the Trojans' collective throats. Then it became a touchstone for nationwide mockery.

"It was embarrassing," Smith said of the Alabama loss. "Sometimes you've got to get your ass whupped a little bit to define where you are at and to add that to your motivation."

At 1-3, some were already speculating on Helton's quick demise. Yet Smith is eager to point out that the ensuing run to No. 3 wound back to Helton's "All about ball" approach.

"Coach Helton has done such a great job of keeping us all together and being consistent and being who he is every day, adding that stability to our team," Smith said. "We learned how to attack every day from him, to come to the office as the same person every day."

While some are focused on USC's vacancies at offensive tackle and receiver this spring, Smith & Co. on defense will ultimately determine if the Trojans are College Football Playoff worthy. He leads seven returning starters from a crew that ranked fifth in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (24.2 points per game) and tied for fourth in yards per play (5.4).

USC's defense was solid in 2016, but it needs to get better for the Trojans to earn a spot in the CFP. Only one of the last six national champions didn't own a top-10 defense.

"I think two years in the system will help a lot," Smith said of year two under coordinator Clancy Pendergast. "Guys will know their responsibilities and will play faster and turnovers will just come."

Smith fingered forcing more turnovers as the area where the Trojans most need to improve. They forced 20 last year, which tied for 60th in the nation. USC also could benefit from putting more pressure on the opposing quarterback -- see just two sacks per game -- and being more rugged in the redzone, where their 65.79 percent touchdown percentage ranked 95th in the nation.

Smith, the Pac-12's Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2015, led the Trojans with 83 tackles and won the team's leadership award. He said his focus this spring is using his hands more effectively to get off blocks. He sees plenty of young talent ready to step up and contribute, including fellow linebackers John Houston and Jordan Iosefa. He called cornerback Jack Jones -- a potential replacement for All-American Adoree' Jackson -- "an athlete who can do just about everything."

He also points to the mental toughness developed last year. While USC annually will be filled with former four- and five-star recruits with A-list athletic ability, the great Trojans teams from the past showcased as much grit as flashy skill.

"That's something maybe USC fans haven't seen for a while -- a team that was nonstop, that had the will to win," Smith said. "A lot of that came from what Coach Helton has preached to us."

Perhaps it's notable then that Helton recently made an addendum to his "It's all about ball," mantra, telling reporters on national signing day that "... at the end of the day, USC is about winning championships here. We finished third in the country. But our ultimate goal is to finish No. 1."