USC’s long winter is about over. Spring practice starts next week.
The events of the past three months have been consuming around Heritage Hall, starting with athletic director Lynn Swann’s decision to retain Clay Helton after a 5-7 season, the dismissal of about a third of the coaching staff, the hiring followed by quick exit of Kliff Kingsbury as offensive coordinator, the departure of top recruit Bru McCoy and the arrival of Graham Harrell to replace Kingsbury. I think that covers the bulk of it.
Following the wave of personnel moves, the Trojans will be back on the field, helmets and all, come Tuesday, the first window into how they will attempt to recover from their first losing season in nearly two decades. This is unfamiliar territory for the program. So let’s chat about a few of the big storylines. If you’d like to ask a question for future editions of this mailbag, which will run midweek throughout the end of spring practice in mid-April, don’t be shy. Send them by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or preferably by Twitter @joeyrkaufman.
What % chance do you put on an actual QB competition taking place during spring/summer camps?
— Nick Selbe (@NickSelbe) February 21, 2019
Few on-field-related topics have generated as much interest on social media and fan message boards than the possibility of another offseason quarterback competition at USC this spring. Life after Sam Darnold ain’t easy.
The intrigue began, in part, with Jack Sears’ cameo in late October against Arizona State, when the reserve quarterback filled in for JT Daniels, who was sidelined due to a concussion, and he looked the part. The Trojans lost to the Sun Devils, 38-35, but Sears gave excitement and spark to a woeful offense. His passer rating of 165.50 in the game also compared favorably to Daniels’ pass efficiency mark (128.55) for the season, albeit in a much smaller sample size. Sears threw 28 passes in 2018, Daniels attempted 363.
But the chance for a competition really took off in December, when Kingsbury said as much in an interview with ESPN’s Shelley Smith, noting he was “excited to have a competition this spring and see who kind of emerges” among the quarterbacks.
After a follow-up question, Kingsbury reiterated the competition was open behind center. Though he since left for the NFL, both Helton and Harrell have offered similar stances: Every position on offense will be open, they say.
The latest pronouncement came Monday when Harrell spoke with reporters.
“Every position’s open,” he said, “because I don’t have any preconceived notions about any of them.”
Harrell added, “I’m excited about JT, he’s done a lot of great things on tape and I’m excited about all of them. I think Jack has a different skill set as far as athleticism. He’s big, he can run well. To me, Jack, from what I can see in three weeks, is a great leader, he works his tail off so we’re excited about him. (Matt) Fink’s as competitive as anyone I’ve been around — that’s his biggest strength. Again, this is all from a three-week evaluation. But he competes every day, in the weight room, no matter where it is. And (incoming freshman) Kedon (Slovis) is a really fluid thrower. So with those four guys in there, I’m excited about getting to watch all of them play and see what they can do. And again, we’re going to try to let their talents be free, go have fun with it and see which one fits us best.”
The best gauge of the realness of the quarterback competition will be tied to how they ultimately divide repetitions in practice. Will Sears and Fink also get to run the first-team offense? Or will Daniels get the lion’s share of the work?
For the most part, I’d pump the breaks on this matter. It’s fairly customary for new coaches or coordinators to talk up an open competition. When Lane Kiffin was hired to replace Pete Carroll in 2010, he held a “competition” between incumbent Matt Barkley, who had just finished his freshman season, and senior Mitch Mustain, and on the eve of spring practice went as far to say that the two would split reps. But Barkley retained the starting job without much issue.
There are always preconceived notions among coaches when evaluating players, as much as Harrell indicated he would like to avoid them and as sincere as he may be. So it’s difficult not to view Daniels as the favorite. Helton will have a say in this too. He’s the head coach. I’m sure they’ll try to keep an open mind, because it’s not worth boxing yourself into a corner with any of these passers. But ultimately, first impressions can be tough to shake. That leaves the burden on Sears to impress, if not overdeliver, over the next month, and for Daniels to underwhelm. If that happens, maybe it becomes a real competition.
Love the mailbag! Seems like new OC Graham Harrell could turn out to be a good hire if he’s allowed to do what he wants without meddling from above. Is CH going to let him have total control of the Trojan offense?
— Kent Hollenback (@kentura82) February 26, 2019
One of the biggest issues for USC coaches post-Pete Carroll has been the micromanaging of the offense. Both Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian called plays before giving up some duties to Helton, then an assistant. When he was promoted to interim coach in 2015, Helton remained the play-caller before Tee Martin become the primary play-caller with help from Tyson Helton, hired as the passing-game coordinator. In all instances, Kiffin, Sarkisian and Helton had a hand in offensive play-calling, and Helton took an even larger role for the final month of last season.
I do expect Helton to “meddle” less this season. He’s mentioned several times this offseason that he plans to take on a more CEO-like approach with the team and focus on game management rather than play selection, citing the team’s issues with turnovers, penalties and other costly execution errors in 2018. But most importantly, Harrell brings an offense that Helton has little experience running. He has no Air Raid background. It wasn’t run by Tommy West at Memphis, where he previously served 10 seasons as an assistant, including the final three as offensive coordinator. While the offense of Kiffin and Sarkisian had some spread elements, the 2011 Trojans under Kiffin even threw the ball 66 percent of the time, they were considered mostly pro-style schemes. Helton is still the head coach and will have a big say in personnel matters, but his unfamiliarity should allow Harrell to mostly run the show, as is the case with Clancy Pendergast on the defensive side.
With Gram H coming in and the new offense……who is / will be the biggest beneficiaries of the scheme changes? Positions or players……
— LA Fred (@USCfred) February 26, 2019
Is it cheating to just say the quarterbacks? There’s a reason Air Raid quarterbacks put up video game numbers, and Mason Fine, Harrell’s previous pupil at North Texas, ranked in the top-10 in passing yards last season as a junior. Fine was an under-recruited quarterback from small-town Oklahoma whose sole scholarship offer from a Football Bowl Subdivision school came from the Mean Green program, as detailed in this New York Times feature from December by Mike Piellucci, a friend of the mailbag. Now Harrell will coach Daniels, a former Gatorade national player of the year, plus Sears, another blue-chip recruit. He is the first USC offensive coordinator since Jeremy Bates in 2009 to also coach the quarterbacks, a potential benefit. The previous offensive coordinators for the Trojans included Martin, who coached wide receivers, and Kiffin and Sarkisian who were head coaches while in effect serving as offensive coordinator. It should simplify things for USC’s current group of quarterbacks to have one main voice in their ears.
What does a projected back 7 depth chart look like at this point? We lost and added a lot since last year.
— Tom T (@TTolman) February 25, 2019
As often as USC has lined up with two down linemen on defense in previous seasons under Pendergast, you could conceivably call it the back nine. Let’s adjust this question. USC largely ran a 3-3-5 last season, which means they should start three linebackers and five defensive backs, including two safeties, two cornerbacks and a nickel corner.
The likely linebacker trio includes incoming sophomore Palaie Gaoteote as the middle linebacker, replacing Cameron Smith, with John Houston returning at inside linebacker and Jordan Iosefa at outside linebacker. Gaoteote flashed quite a bit of potential when he started in place of Smith for several games last October, and it’ll be interesting to see what he can do on a game-by-game basis.
The secondary is the real concern for the Trojans, and new defensive backs coach Greg Burns will have his hands full. The lone returning starter is safety Talanoa Hufanga, who missed the final month of the previous season because of a broken collarbone. His availability for spring practice is unclear. Hufanga shined and was the team’s second leading tackler as a freshman before he was sidelined. The other starting safety could be either Chase Williams, who started against Notre Dame as a freshman and played well in his first start, or Isaiah Pola-Mao, who missed most of the season following shoulder surgery. Williams, who arrived at USC as a cornerback, could also slide over and play nickel corner if Pola-Mao recovers, but a history of shoulder injuries leaves some cause for concern. At the main cornerback spots, anticipate Olaijah Griffin and Isaac Taylor-Stuart, top recruits from last offseason’s recruiting class, to get the first crack. Third-year sophomore Greg Johnson factors in as well, but he had shoulder surgery in late November and the initial timeframe pegged him to be out for spring practice. Depth is thin, which is why the Trojans signed eight scholarship defensive backs in the incoming recruiting class. They might need someone from that group to vie for early playing time.
SC lost a few to the transfer policy. How about the reverse – is SC pursuing anyone in the transfer portal. Are you surprised J. Phillips went to Miami – was SC in the running or is it really getting bad where stars don’t consider SC? Thanks.
— go_msl (@go_msl) February 25, 2019
There’s hasn’t been indication USC is pursuing anyone in particular in the NCAA transfer portal. Though if they’re looking for immediate help by way of a grad transfer who can play immediately in 2019, that might not come until later in the spring, closer to graduation. It wasn’t until after spring practice last year when they were courting Wake Forest grad transfer receiver Tabari Hines, who ultimately ended up at Oregon. During his press conference on signing day in February, Helton did leave open the possibility of adding some transfers and said that a member of the support staff monitors the portal. There is room, too, since USC is a few scholarships shy of the 85-man limit.
Was there any push-back against Lynn Swann at his Trojan Club OC appearance on Wednesday? Broader question: have alumni and fans just accepted the current state of affairs as the new norm? I remember the backlash against Larry Smith in 1992 as being more harsh.
— Charles R. Smith (@cskc_us) February 21, 2019
From what I was told by people in attendance, Swann faced some tough questions from boosters when he spoke at their event in Costa Mesa last week. “Tough” is relative. He was basically asked about retaining Helton. Did boosters wield pitchforks? Perhaps not. But some displeasure was made clear. How could it not?
I don’t agree with the premise that the fanbase has accepted the current state of the program. It was only three months ago that they financed an airplane banner calling for Helton to be fired. That doesn’t suggest indifference. When Helton was doing an interview for USC’s TrojansLive radio show at an on-campus restaurant, he was heckled by some fans who passed by. There’s been online vitriol too. All of this comes with the territory in major college football, to be clear, but it doesn’t strike me as a fanbase being content.
On the other hand, as a younger observer for the program, I cannot speak to the mood around the program during the final days of Larry Smith’s tenure in the early 1990s. So I’ll concede the point that folks were more up in arms then. A contributing factor to the present state is undoubtedly the ongoing search for a university president and other scandals at the school beyond athletics, as documented recently by the LAist. Other issues at the school have frustrated and preoccupied alumni, though that doesn’t mean anyone is satisfied with the football team.