No. 10 USC football boasts a long and proud tradition of outstanding linebackers leading conference championship teams.
Senior Uchenna Nwosu embarks on Friday's Pac-12 Championship Game matchup against Stanford with an opportunity to add his name to the distinguished list.
Nwosu has been key to the Trojans' first 10-win regular season since 2011 and their second championship game appearance in three seasons. He will be front and center when USC (10-2, 8-1 Pac-12) challenges No. 12 Stanford (9-3, 7-2) for the program's first conference title since 2008.
"Great, physical pass-rusher and run defender, and pass defender, also. So many pass deflections," Stanford head coach David Shaw said, raving in his assessment of Nwosu.
The statistics speak volumes: Nwosu is fourth on the team in tackles (68), fourth in tackles for loss (8.5), third in sacks (6.5), and first in quarterback hurries (eight) and passes broken up (14). He ranks tops in the nation for pass break-ups among linebackers.
As impressive as Nwosu's numbers are individually, the diversity stands out. He plays a central part to USC's defensive pursuits whether against the run or pass, settling into a position Trojans coach Clay Helton said Nwosu has played only two years.
"Coming out of high school, he was a stack linebacker at 205 pounds," Helton said.
"Through strength and conditioning, and basically being a master of his craft, he's worked this last two years at the outside linebacker position as a SAM, and then as a defensive end in our nickel package."
Stopping Stanford begins with slowing Heisman Trophy contender running back Bryce Love, and Nwosu is proving adept at aiding against the run. But with the recent emergence of Cardinal quarterback K.J. Costello, another and, according to Helton, perhaps the most impressive of Nwosu's proven abilities factors in.
"The biggest thing he's really progressed in is his pass-rush skill," Helton said.
"He's done an unbelievable job of creating havoc on passing plays. He's a nightmare for offensive tackles with his speed and explosion off the edge, and he just has a knack for diagnosing if he's going to be able to get to the quarterback."
Helton credited that ability to adjust when the sack is not available for Nwosu racking up so many pass deflections at the line of scrimmage. Against Stanford on Sept. 9, with Keller Chryst playing quarterback for the Cardinal, Nwosu had a remarkable five pass deflections.
Another stat-stuffing performance against Stanford this time around can put Nwosu in company with some of the greats to play the position before him at USC, like Junior Seau and Rey Maualuga and lots more: as a conference champion.