• John Skinner

Inside dirt heading into UCLA

Helton update and the Swann situation- Despite the poor optics of the Cal loss, I am still hearing Helton’s job status is safe. However, it was also stated that if Helton “loses the locker room” then Athletic Director Lynn Swann would reluctantly make a change. Ultimately, Swann has the authority to make whatever decision he feels is necessary and will have the full support of the board. Firing Helton would put the athletic department in a very difficult financial situation ($40M+ by the time you fire and hire the next staff) and a mistake in hiring the next coach would most likely cost Swann and other athletic administrators their jobs. Another factor impacting this situation is that Swann apparently has close ties to a current NFL coach that would have a high level of interest in the job, but he would not be a viable option until after the 2019 and most likely, 2020 campaigns.

Should Swann decide to make a move, they would need to move quickly with the decision in light of the early signing period. A quiet contingency plan has been developed but Swann is making it clear that he does not want to go in that direction yet. He believes Helton can right the ship with the young roster and new faces on the coaching staff.

Despite struggling at a high-level this season, the 2-9 Bruins with first-year coach Chip Kelly at the helm, have improved and will be fired up to show they are ready to take charge of the rivalry. If the Trojans play unified and inspired football, Helton will be in good shape. However, if they do not answer the Bruins energy, unfortunately for Helton, it will be sign his troops are no longer fighting for him. Coaches from two different Pac-12 schools stated the Trojans had the most individual talent of any Pac-12 team they played and will have a clear talent advantage vs. UCLA.

Wilner’s take on USC and UCLA from an administrative perspective- The godfather of Pac-12 writers Jon Wilner (a must-read for Pac-12 fans) stated earlier this week that “when UCLA made the difficult financial decision to move on from Jim Mora and pursue Chip Kelly with the aim of elevating the program, it also served as a dare the Trojans must accept. Do you care about winning as much as we do? If you retain Helton after mounting losses because he’s a good guy whose maturity has been vital to the program and point to his 2016 Rose Bowl and 2017 Pac-12 championship, with the excuse of a young QB and battered defense, are you telling fans, donors and future recruits that a program with seven AP/Coaches national titles, seven Heisman winners and 39 conference titles doesn’t have the same desire for success as the basketball school? Should or would the Trojans fire Helton aren’t the right questions. The right question, courtesy of UCLA, is- Do they even have a choice?”

Wilner Part II- “Once could reasonably argue the Trojans aren’t merely underachieving with a roster of 5- and 4- star recruits but that they would be underperforming for a roster of 4- and 3-star prospects, too.”

Despite the poor season, Helton is well-liked with top recruits- The Trojans are still in good shape with a lot of top ranked recruits who either have SC as a finalist or given a quiet verbal commitments to the coaches. The recently de-committed Chris Steele is still expected to eventually end up a Trojan. The highest ranked players in the class speak very highly of Clay Helton’s style of recruiting and they want to see him retained. This was one of the reasons why Helton received an extension last year and part of the reason he would retain his job despite this season’s poor performance. Assistant coaches Johnny Nansen, Kinechi Udeze, Bryan Ellis and recruiting staffer Gavin Morris are doing a phenomenal job with their recruits and should a coaching change be made, many of the top recruits would still come to SC as long as some of those coaches were retained. However, Helton is the captain of the ship so those SC fans rooting for a UCLA victory in hopes it would get Helton fired, be careful what you wish for as it could negatively impact this class while giving UCLA momentum heading into the off-season.

The attrition rate under Clay Helton is startling- According to an article by Alicia De Artola (twitter @penguinOfTroy), the Trojans have lost the equivalent of an entire recruiting class during the Clay Helton era due to conduct issues or transfers. When the school announced that LB Levi Jones had been removed from the roster on Tuesday, he became the 12th scholarship player to depart the program this calendar year. Overall, 23 players have left the team via transfer or conduct issues. As De Artola puts it, you could fill a whole recruiting class with the players they have lost since Helton took over ahead of the 2016 season. The talent of the lost players from a high school ranking standpoint would be about 200 points higher than Georgia’s #1 class in 2018. This definitely has had a major impact on the Trojans this year as only three of the players on her list would have been unable to play in 2018. Obviously circumstances surrounding each player is different and when dealing with college-aged adults, the coaches cannot shoulder all of the blame. However, some tweaks need to be made in terms of evaluating the character of recruits and the overall management of the program.

Has the demotion of Tee Martin hurt team chemistry? One of the concerns I had with Tee Martin’s demotion was what type of emotional impact it would have on the team. Tee Martin has been the Trojans best recruiter over the past five years and he has a very close relationship with many of the players. He is highly thought of and someone the players constantly communicate with. Some players have privately expressed that Martin’s demotion and Callaway’s firing was just masking bigger issues within the program.

JT has the mechanics but does he have the intangibles?- No one should dispute the decision to go with JT Daniels from a pure football perspective. Based on his performance in fall camp and his overall football acumen, he was the right choice. However, the quarterback position the most important when it comes to leadership and the ability to rally the team. It is a lot to ask a true freshman that didn’t play his senior of high school football to take on such a big leadership role. Daniels has also faced very little adversity in his football career and was coming into replace one of the best QB’s in SC football history. Hindsight is 20/20 but would both JT and the program have been better off giving him a year to acclimate? The only time the Trojans have come back from a significant deficit was against Arizona State (down 24-7), when then third-string QB Jack Sears shook off his early nerves and started making plays. As one offensive player put it, “Once Jack got going, he brought an infectious energy to the huddle that we haven’t really seen.”

Ultimately, the hope is the experience Daniels gains this year will pay off over the next two seasons. According to some within the program, he has the confidence to pull it off, but they have concerns as to whether he has the natural ability to “be the man” from a social/leader perspective.

Why the reluctance to change the Center?- Despite Toa Lobendahn’s continued struggles with snapping, Clay Helton starts him without any recourse. Helton’s reluctance to give redshirt freshman Brett Neilon a chance has frustrated the young offensive lineman Neilon’s only start of the year against UNLV graded out better than any game of Lobendahn’s this season.

Ware and the Trojan offense should have a big day in Pasadena- Against two of the worst rushing defenses in the Pac-12 (Arizona and Oregon State, SC running back Aca’Cedric Ware rushed for 173 yards and 205 yard. He also gained 103 yards last week against a stout Cal defense. The UCLA rush defense is the second-worst in the conference and 111th nationally, so the Trojans should have success on the ground which bodes well for the Trojans since they are undefeated when rushing for more than 200 yards this season. Success on the ground will open up the play-action pass for Daniels, which should quiet the Bruin pass rush. One of Daniels top targets, WR Michael Pittman Jr., will be back after missing the Cal game with an injury. The Bruins have a good secondary but the Trojans arguably possess the best trio of receivers they have faced this season. SC should score 30+ points if they avoid multiple turnovers and numerous false start penalties. The Bruin defense has allowed at least 30 points in eight of ten games this season.

UCLA Game Part II- Chip Kelly is getting the Bruin offense going as they are coming off two of their better offensive games, including a season-best 496 total yards at Oregon and gained 439 yards in a narrow 31-28 loss at ASU. Running Back Joshua Kelly has run for 1,078 yards and eight touchdowns. UCLA junior tight end Caleb Wilson, a former USC walk-on, has 718 yards receiving and is the Bruins’ leader in receptions with 47 while also averaging 15.3 yards per catch. The Trojans have struggled defending the top tight ends they have faced this season.

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

Betting Guide- The Trojans are currently a 2.5 point favorite after opening as a 3 point favorite earlier this week. The Over/Under is 54.5. The Trojans are 3-10 against the spread (ATS) in their last 13 while UCLA is just 1-6 ATS in their last seven home games. UCLA is 5-2 ATS in their past seven home games against SC. The total score has gone under in 10 of the last 12 meetings between the two schools. Last week, the under against Cal looked really good last and even though it is going against the past trend of this series, the over looks like a good play here with both defenses banged up.

SC Hoops will impress this year…Get to Galen! – While at the Vanderbilt game (SC lost 82-78 without two of its top players) I ran into long-time acquaintances that are executives with Western Conference NBA teams. Both of them were mainly watching Vanderbilt’s Darius Garland (projected lottery pick who did not disappoint on Sunday), and the Trojans Kevin Porter Jr. who continues to climb up mock NBA draft boards with Gary Parrish of CBS Sportsline projecting him as the 9th overall pick in his latest mock draft. Both executives were disappointed that Trojan true freshman point guard Elijah Weaver was injured as they wanted to see how he matched up against Garland. It was not just Porter Jr. that opened up NBA eyes up this summer. Weaver’s court vision and defensive ability for his size (6’5) really impresses scouts. One of the executives at the games stated, “They (SC) got a steal landing Weaver out of the South and away from the ACC and SEC…Once he improves his scoring ability over the next few years, he will be a draft level player.”

SC hoops Part II- Each of the executives commented that SC had a talented/deep roster that should do well this year. [Paraphrasing] from one- “NCAA tournament level team that could do damage once all the pieces come together. UCLA and Oregon have the most top-tier guys in the PAC but SC has is no slouch with the freshman they brought it. Rackocevic, Boatwright, Aaron and Matthews don’t project to be NBA guys but they all will make money overseas and can compete at a high level.” Depth at the forward position is the only concerning issue.

SC hoops Part III- The Trojans signed the #1 men’s basketball recruiting class in the country for the early signing period. Yes, you read that correctly…the Men’s basketball team, not the football team, signed the #1 class. 26 of the top 100 players have yet to sign so this class will most likely finish around 5th nationally once the spring announcements are made.

The class is headlined by 6”10 Isaiah Mobley (#15 nationally), a projected 2020 1st round pick and 6”10 Onyeka Okongwu (#17 nationally) who has a relentless motor and diverse skill set. Max Agbonkpolo, #51 nationally, and Kyle Sturdivant #120 nationally round out the signees. Mobley (Rancho Christian School), Okongwu (Chino Hills High School) and Agbonkpolo (Santa Margarita HS) make up three of the state’s Top 5 recruits. Drake London, ranked #106 nationally, also a top football recruit, will join the basketball team after football season next year.

This is an amazing accomplishment for the coaching staff considering the FBI investigation last season and SC being considered a football first school. Andy Enfield has now recruited six straight classes ranked in the national top 30. The Trojans could be a legitimate final four contender next season.

Carol Skinner Memorial Tid-bits-

*SC and UCLA have a combined 13 losses entering the game…the most ever in the 88 year history of the game.

*Porter Gustin has not played in a month and still leads the Pac-12 with seven sacks.

*UCLA ranks 11th in the conference in total defense but ranks third in the conference in takeaways (+15), which would be a key factor if the Bruins are victorious.

*SC is tied for last in the country in terms of total interceptions (2) but are one of the top teams in the nation when it comes to deflected passes.

*The Trojans only gained 41 yards on 31 plays in the second half against Cal. Cal’s defense gave up less than 20 points in three straight games against Washington, Washington State and USC. Yet, they gave up 37 in a blow-out loss to UCLA.

*Clay Helton has a 32-15 overall record as SC’s head coach. When facing opponents who were ranked in the top 25 at the time, he is 9-10. He is undefeated against UCLA.

*RB Stephen Carr is most likely out for the remainder of the season with a high ankle sprain.

*The Men’s basketball team plays Texas Tech at 6:30 pm on Monday in the NABC Hall of Fame classic and it will be televised on ESPN2.