The Pac 12 Preview Series continues as we make our way down the Pac 12 South. Next stop, USC. Check out what USC has in store in 2019.
Head Coach: Clay Helton (4th Season HC, 10th overall on staff)
OC: Graham Harrell (1st Season)
DC: Clancy Pendergast (4th Season) - Second Stint (’13)
Overall: 5-7 (4-5)
ESPN Football Power Index: 46
Offensive Efficiency Rank: 67
Defensive Efficiency Rank: 50
Special Teams Efficiency Rank: 73
The Air Raid Comes to Troy
It still baffles me Clay Helton is returning as USC’s head coach. Last season was a nightmare for Trojans fans and a far cry from the results they should reasonably expect year-to-year. In 2018, the culture felt poor, the player buy-in appeared questionable, and there had to be some indictment of the strength and conditioning program. Instead of starting from scratch, Athletic Director Lynn Swann opted to retain Helton and retool the coaching staff beneath him. The move was similar to what Cal did this offseason with its offensive staff under OC Beau Baldwin. While I still think it is foolish to retain Helton, I like some of the moves USC made. Following the Kliff Kingsbury fiasco, the Trojans remained true to their Air Raid aspirations and hired North Texas’ OC Graham Harrell. Though Harrell does not have the impressive resume Kingsbury has, he will bring his version of the Air Raid offense to Southern Cal. It is an exciting hire because it fits the arsenal the Trojans currently have on their roster.
The Trojans may have the best and most explosive WR corps in the country with proven talents Amon-Ra St. Brown, Michael Pittman Jr., and Tyler Vaughns all returning. Supplementing them are the spring emergences of young talents Devon Williams and John Jackson III completing a cast that can torment any defensive secondary. Much of their significance, however, will depend on how the quarterback and offensive line adjust to Harrell’s offense. QB J.T. Daniels started all but one game as a true freshman in 2018. He made a lot of great throws but was not quite ready for the heavy burden of starting behind an offensive line that failed to establish a run game. The Trojans became a pass-heavy team and were too dependent on the development of their eighteen year old signal caller. Daniels has some competition if he wants to retain his starting spot in 2019. Jack Sears and Matt Fink were called upon after his injury at Utah last season and Sears impressed the following week in his start vs ASU. Regardless of who starts at QB, it will be intriguing to see what the OL looks like after what may have been the worst season by a USC OL in the last decade. The Trojans inexplicably refused to move former All-Conference Guard/Tackle Toa Lobendahn out of the center position where he struggled immensely snapping the football. In 2019 the Trojans lose, perhaps, their top two linemen. The unit could improve, however, as they slide into the wide splits required for the Air Raid offense with a heightened emphasis on pass protection. They feel good about Austin Jackson at LT and Brett Neilon has taken reigns of the center spot. Alijah Vera-Tucker is expected to earn a spot at guard joining RG Andrew Vorhees and RT Jalen McKenzie who both struggled a year ago. Overall, the starting lineup may be an improvement from last year but quality depth may a concern if injuries occur. Though USC shifts to a pass-first offense, it will be fascinating to watch how they utilize their dynamic RBs. Vavae Malpeai and Stephen Carr are very talented backs that can also be used as receivers while Markese Stepp provides a forceful skillset that should also be featured. Overall, this offense will be fun to watch and you can expect a ton of explosive plays. They want to play fast and keep it simple, but there are still some question marks about their execution.
Defensive Line Anchors The Defense
2018 was a lackluster season for USC in every phase of the game and the defense was no exeption. Injuries certainly played a part and their level of play became unpredictable game-to-game. Former Cal DC Clancy Pendergast returns for year four of his second tenure at USC and wants to simplify his defensive scheme under the program’s new mantra of playing fast. The strength of the Trojans’ defense will be up front on the defensive line. Jay Tufele had a stellar season at DT in his redshirt freshman campaign and will team up with fellow sophomore Marlon Tuipulotu for what should be a rugged interior with quality depth behind them. Christian Rector has been a disruptive force the last two seasons on the end and he will be joined by the freakishly athletic true freshman Drake Jackson rounding out one of the top DL’s in the conference. The LB corps loses a pair of studs in MLB Cameron Smith and edge rusher Porter Gustin but returns some promise with the ubertalented sophomore Palaie Gaoteote. He will team up with seasoned veterans John Houston and Jordan Iosefa with some young talent behind them. The greatest question with the defense is their young secondary. The injury bug took a heavy toll on the safety position in 2018 and the Trojans struggled to find another strong CB to play alongside the departed Iman Marshall. They have very little experience returning in 2019 and it will be up to a cast of young, but very highly recruited players to make the leap to covering Pac 12 WRs. While CB and nickel are in flux, the Trojans feel good about talented sophomore safety Talanoa Hufanga. Hufanga had a break out season as a true freshman before a season ending injury in week nine and will likely team up with Isaiah Pola-Mao who also missed much of 2018 to injury. It will also be interesting to see how the faster tempo of the offense affects the play of the defense. More quality depth may be required which could potentially pose problems for their inexperienced back seven.
It is hard to get too excited about USC when you remember Clay Helton is somehow still the head coach. That said, it is easy to forget Helton did win a Rose Bowl and a Pac 12 Championship during his tenure. Last season was a disaster and there still may be some problems with the program’s management, but there is plenty of talent on this roster. While I do not expect them to win the South, they are very much a contender as they attempt to maneuver one of the nation’s most challenging schedules.