• John Skinner

Inside dirt heading into Fresno State

Updated: Sep 14, 2019

Here is a handy link to the USC ROSTER.

Helton “All-In” with Harrell- Clay Helton does not plan on tinkering with the “Air-Raid” offense and is letting new Offensive Coordinator Graham Harrell run the show. Harrell’s enthusiasm, ability to communicate with players and strong belief in the Air-Raid offense has fully converted Helton to the system…so much so that he feels the loss of Kingsbury to the Arizona Cardinals may have been a blessing in disguise. Though the offense should improve quite a bit, you typically do not see it operating at full capacity until year two.

Why Sears never really had a shot- When Jack Sears arrived as a fairly decorated recruit, he struggled mightily picking up the offense and reading defenses. The early first impressions negatively stuck with the offensive coaching staff, specifically Helton. The recruitment of JT Daniels and supposed promises of leading the team as a true freshman put Jack in a real tough spot and finally, the move to the Air-Raid offense, with a system specific coach in Harrell, nailed the coffin shut on Jack’s chances.

Though the Air-Raid is easier to grasp compared to the previous offense, it is extremely reliant on base read/react principles and throughout the spring and fall it was apparent to most observers that Jack was a step behind. However, in fairness to Jack, he was the best improvisational/playmaker of the quarterbacks when the pocket broke down. In the end, Harrell is all about who can run the system in the most efficient manner.

Sears Part II- After overcoming some serious nerves in his lone start against Arizona State, the USC offense had one of its most productive second half offensive performance of the season with him under center. He was one perfectly thrown dropped deep ball away from obtaining victory. He is the epitome of a true student-athlete who will graduate from USC in 2.5 years with a great GPA and has the rare ability to light up a room when he walks in. Hopefully he finds a good fit in the transfer portal and apparently five Pac-12 schools have already reached out to him.

Daniels shouldn’t feel too comfortable- JT has worked hard in the off-season and should put up big-time numbers with one of the best receiving units in the nation. Typically a quarterback in his second campaign shows significant improvement as they have adjusted to the speed and physicality of the game. It would be a huge spark for the program if JT lives up to the hype of his Gatorade National High School Player of the year billing.

However, Graham Harrell did not recruit JT, and he is not shy when it comes to his praise of true freshman Keldon Solvis (tutored by Super Bowl champion Kurt Warner in high school) and how “he can make all the throws”. Some scouts wonder if JT is the type of player that “maxed” out at an early age and won’t make the progression expected in college. If he shows signs of that in the first few games, the unheralded three-star recruit from Arizona may very well lead the Trojan offense.

Trojans will run more than you think – Though the Trojans rarely ran the ball in the fall scrimmage and didn’t look good doing it, Harrell’s offense does preach a fair amount of balance as North Texas rushed for nearly 2,000 yards last season.

The fall scrimmage was open to the public and the coaching staff probably didn’t want to show their cards with such a daunting early schedule.

The offensive line is not a great run blocking unit, but with most defenses concerned with the explosive wide receivers, plenty of run opportunities will present themselves, especially against Fresno State and BYU.

Finally, junior RB #7 Stephen Carr, is fully healed from his back surgery and has the talent and athleticism to have a breakout season on a national level. He was never 100% last season.

Embarrassment of riches at receiver: One could make the argument that SC has the best receiving core in the nation and will put up some huge numbers in the Air-Raid system. Sophomore #8 Amon-Ra St. Brown looks phenomenal and could challenge for All-American honors. Senior #6 Michael Pittman Jr. is not far behind and seems to be a fantastic fit with the Air-Raid. Redshirt junior #24 Tyler Vaughns would be considered the #1 receiver for most Pac-12 teams and is the #3 receiver. The depth of talent with 6’4 athlete sophomore #4 Devon Williams, redshirt junior speedster #1 Velus Jones, Jr, and a trio of freshman who have looked great in fall camp (6’4 #13 Munir McClain, 6’5 #15 Drake London- ridiculous athlete who could get minutes on the trojan hoops team- and 6’2 #80 John Jackson III). In case you didn’t notice, this list does not include five-star recruits Bru McCoy and Kyle Ford.

Biggest concern unit for the offense: The O-line: The USC offensive line graded out as one of the worst in the Pac-12 and one of the worst for the Trojans in the past two decades. They will need to bounce back in a major way and if that happens, look for it to be behind junior left tackle #73 Austin Jackson, who is an NFL type talent that both teammates and scouts highly respect. Left guard redshirt sophomore #75 Alijah Vera-Tucker has had a great off-season with Trojan defensive lineman stating he is under-rated and ready for a break-out season. The consistency of the snapping of redshirt sophomore center #62 Brett Neilon will be a welcome sight after so many botched snaps by Toa Lobendahn last year.

On the negative side, quite a few practice observers, including former lineman that played the position at the highest level, still see a lack of grit. New offensive line coach Tim Drevno appears to be addressing this but it takes time to change a culture and recruit that mindset. Drevno has been on record as stating this is one of the more talented groups he has ever worked with…yet, they seem to lack quality depth. Starters staying healthy will be extremely important. The move to the Air-Raid offense should help them keep the pocket cleaner. FYI- The lineman will be spaced further apart and it will take a minute to get used to.

Top players defensively- The defensive line will showcase most of the top players and that makes sense with the Trojans returning most of the group that finished second in the Pac-12 in tackles for loss at 6.9. True freshman defensive lineman #99 Drake Jackson has All-American potential and will be a treat to watch. Fellow defensive lineman Redshirt Sophomore #78 Jay Tufele is rounding into form and should be an All-Pac-12 player if he goes hard every down. Redshirt senior #89 Christian Rector has sixth sense for finding the quarterback and will be a leader of the defense. Look for sophomore #1 Palaie Gaoteote to have a break-out year after being moved to the weakside linebacker position. As a true freshman that started five games, he showed flashes of big-time potential and made some wonder why he wasn’t wearing #55. Though the cornerbacks are the weakness of the defense, the safeties in sophomore #15 Taylor Hufanga and redshirt sophomore #21 Isiah Pola-Mao have really impressed NFL scouts and should help minimize the problems with the secondary.

Biggest concern unit for the defense: cornerback- Two seasons ago it was apparent the Trojans were not recruiting enough depth at cornerback and that is making its presence felt. There is very little experience with redshirt sophomore #9 Greg Johnson having only started four games being the veteran of the group. They have had “rough” spring and fall camps trying to keep up with the receivers. However, they do have some young talent that should show quite a bit of growth throughout the season. Sophomore #2 Olijah Griffin leads the way with redshirt freshman #6 Isaac Taylor- Stuart and true freshman #8 Chris Steele both showing flashes of solid play and continually improving. This is another area where the Trojans must avoid injury issues.

Second half offensive production must increase dramatically- In six games last season, SC scored seven points or fewer in the second half. In the last four games, the Trojans were outscored 52-27 in the second half. Graham Harrell can run a great offensive system but if the lack of halftime adjustments continue, mediocrity will persist.

Trojans have improved but will it be enough?- Based on the off-season progress of the players, better leadership (lack of leadership within the team was a big issue in talking to multiple players) and upgrades in the coaching staff, the Trojans should play more disciplined and show solid improvement on the field. However, the schedule is daunting and making a run at a 9-win type season or a successful run at a Pac-12 championship will be a tall task. The Trojans first three Pac-12 games are against #25 Stanford , #14 Utah, and #13 Washington before traveling to play at #9 Notre Dame. One thing to remember…Despite the undisciplined play and reliance on a true freshman QB, the Trojans last four losses were by seven points or less while only averaging 6.75 points of second half production during that stretch.

Extensive game preview- Here is a link to Tom Haire’s in-depth extensive game preview via uscfootball.com

Betting guide- This game opened at USC -9 1/2 and its now -13 1/2. It is the third largest line spread move of all college football games this weekend. Though USC was an anemic 4-8 against the spread last season, quite a few gambling aficionados expect SC to cover and feel the over on the total score of 52.5 is a solid bet as well. Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford is highly respected and is familiar with USC but they have lost the majority of the productive players from last year’s 12-2 Mountain West Conference championship team. Fresno State is 15-4 against the spread in their last 19 while SC is 4-11 in their last 15. SC has won its last ten games against Mountain West opponents.

Carol Skinner Memorial Tib-Bits-

*New punter, freshman #24 Ben Griffiths, a former Australian rules football professional has already been named to the Ray Guy watch list and should be the best Trojan punter since Tom Malone. Griffiths, who turn 28 years old during this season, has the ability punt high and deep, as well as place punts consistently inside the 10-yard line. Life must be good for a 28 year-old freshman athlete at a place like USC…

*The godfather of those who cover the Pac-12, Jon Wilner, has the Trojans finishing 7-5 with a strong 4-0 start to the season before limping to the finish line.

*Fresno State has some red zone magic. In 57 appearances inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, the Bulldogs scored 41 touchdowns and 10 field goals. Defensively, they were one of the best in the nation, allowing opponents to score only 65.4 percent of the time inside the 20.

*On the injury front, Redshirt freshman inside linebacker Solomon Tuliaupupu will lose another season to recovering from a surgery on his foot he had prior to coming to USC. Junior offensive lineman #72 Andrew Voorhees has had some back issues flare up which probably contributed to him not starting this week.

*This is the first time USC enters the season unranked in 18 years after coming off their first losing season in 19 years.

* Former NFL head coach and SC Hall of Famer Jack Del Rio attended practice this fall and was not shy in telling the media he would be interested in the job if it becomes available.

*247Sports ranks SC 4th in the nations in their newly-updated Team Talent Composite. Alabama, Ohio State and Georgia outpace USC on the talent front, though not by much. The Trojans are ahead of LSU, Texas, Oklahoma, Florida State, Clemson and Michigan.