The final piece of USC’s preseason puzzle was revealed Friday morning, as head coach Clay Helton released the first depth chart of the 2019 season. In a new policy for this season, the Trojans’ depth chart for the upcoming game will be released each Friday. Helton said it is in an effort to keep competition strong throughout the week, with no starting positions locked up.
The only guarantee heading into the release was at the quarterback position, where Helton previously announced that sophomore JT Daniels would be the starter for Fresno State, following in line by true freshman Kedon Slovis and redshirt junior Matt Fink. Redshirt sophomore Jack Sears was fourth in line, but Sears announced this week that he would enter the transfer portal, withdraw from team participation to concentrate on academics, and seek a new school at the end of this semester.
There were only a few positions that seemed to be real question marks heading into Friday’s release. The left side of the offensive line was a sure thing, with Austin Jackson at left tackle, Alijah Vera-Tucker at left guard, and Brett Neilon at center. The right side, however, saw two primary formations. Andrew Vorhees lined up at right guard with Jalen McKenzie at right tackle throughout spring ball and the beginning of fall camp. But graduate transfer Drew Richmond also saw time with the first unit at right tackle, moving McKenzie inside to guard. Against Fresno State, the Trojans will go with McKenzie at right guard and Richmond at right tackle.
The other intriguing spot was in the defensive secondary, where three cornerbacks battled for the two outside spots, and two nickelbacks went at it for a starting position. Friday’s depth chart features sophomore Olaijah Griffin at one corner spot and redshirt freshman Isaac Taylor-Stuart or true freshman Chris Steele manning the other corner position. Sophomore Greg Johnson was chosen as the starting nickelback. But expect to see redshirt freshman nickelback Chase Williams quite a bit on Saturday. Johnson and Williams also give defensive backs coach Greg Burns some flexibility, with Johnson’s ability to move to outside cornerback and Williams’ ability to play safety. Sophomores Talanoa Hufanga and Isaiah Pola-Mao were sure-thing starters at safety, and junior CJ Pollard, listed behind Pola-Mao, will likely be a valuable reserve there.
Along the starting defensive line, Trojans lining up against Fresno State will feature defensive ends Christian Rector, a senior captain, and true freshman Drake Jackson, both of whom will be joined by inside sophomore tackle Jay Tufele, who will backed up by JC transfer Nick Figueroa, while anchoring the nose tackle position will be either sophomore Marlon Tuipulotu or junior Brandon Pili.
Taking the first snaps with Daniels in the backfield will be either junior Vavae Malepeai or junior Stephen Carr. Malepeai missed a number of practices this fall while dealing with a knee injury, but slotted back into the starting lineup once he was healthy. New offensive coordinator Graham Harrell raved about Malepeai from his first meeting with the media all the way back before spring ball while it appears that Carr has returned to his standout freshman form. The Trojans have three outstanding running backs in Malepeai, Carr and redshirt freshman Markese Stepp, who is third in the pecking order behind Malepeai and Carr. It won’t be surprising, however, to see all three record a number of touches against the Bulldogs.
The wide receiver position will see plenty of rotation, but the starters will be senior captain Michael Pittman Jr., juniors Tyler Vaughns and Velus Jones, and sophomore Amon-Ra St. Brown were no-brainers in a four-receiver set listed in the opening depth chart. Super sophomore Devon Williams is listed behind Pittman. In terms of the standout freshmen receivers, John Jackson backs Jones, Drake London backs St. Brown, and Munir McClain backs Vaughns. Tight end/H-back is another position where multiple guys will see action. The depth chart this week features juniors Erik Krommenhoek at No. 1, and Josh Falo at No. 2. But this is a spot that could flip throughout the season depending on production in the passing and running games.
The linebacker spot saw some injuries this fall, as senior captain middle linebacker Jordan Iosefa went down with a dislocated kneecap and will miss several weeks. Senior captain John Houston Jr. will start in the middle, but true freshman Ralen Goforth is now No. 2, and he will be one to watch if he is called upon. He was an early enrollee and looks like a good one moving forward. Beside Houston, sophomore Palaie Gaoteote was a sure-thing starter at Will linebacker, and with sophomore Kana’i Mauga behind him, that is as strong of a 1-2 punch as maybe any position on the roster.
As anticipated, redshirt freshman punter Ben Griffiths is the Trojans’ punter with freshman Will Rose in reserve. Getting the nod as the starting kicker is sophomore Chase McGrath, who is coming off of 2018 knee surgery and will be backed by junior Michael Brown. The Trojans will use Velus Jones and Stephen Carr as their men for kickoff returns, while the punt return job went to Tyler Vaughns, who is backed up by Amon-Ra St. Brown.
Again a reminder, Helton will release his next depth chart next Friday, Sept. 6, in preparation for Saturday night’s game with Stanford in the Coliseum.
Complete Depth Chart
QB: JT Daniels, Kedon Slovis, Matt Fink, Trevor Scully, Scott Harris
RB: Vavae Malepeai or Stephen Carr, Markese Stepp, Quincy Jountti, Kenan Christon, Chris Edmondson, Ben Easington (injured)
X receiver: Michael Pittman Jr., Devon Williams, Matthew Hocum
A receiver: Velus Jones, John Jackson, Dominic Davis, Jack Webster, Chris Caulk
Y receiver: Amon-Ra St. Brown, Drake London, Zack Wilson, Kyle Ford (injured)
Z receiver: Tyler Vaughns, Munior McClain, Chase Locke, Bru McCoy (injured)
TE/Y/H: Erik Krommenhoek, Josh Falo, Jude Wolfe, Sean Mahoney, Scott Voigt, Ethan Rae (injured)
LT: Austin Jackson, Frank Martin, Bernard Schirmer
LG: Alijah Vera-Tucker, Jacob Daniel, AJ Mageo
C: Brett Neilon, Justin Dedich, Gino Quinones
RG: Jalen McKenzie, Andrew Vorhees, Liam Douglass, Mark Zuvich
Rt: Drew Richmond, Liam Jimmons, Clayton Bradley, Jason Rodriguez
DE: Christian Rector, Connor Murphy
DE: Drake Jackson, Caleb Tremblay
DT: Jay Tufele, Nick Figueroa, Stanley Ta’ufo’ou, Jacob Lichtenstein (injured)
NT: Marlon Tuipulotu or Brandon Pili, De’jon Benton, Trevor Trout
Sam LB: Hunter Echols, Juliano Falaniko, Peter Esparza, Abdul-Malik McClain (injured), Bryce Matthews (injured)
Will LB: Palaie Gaoteote, Kana’i Mauga, Raymond Scott or Tuasivi Nomura, Matt Bayle, Grant Jones, clyde Moore (injured)
Mike LB: John Houston Jr., Ralen Goforth, Maninoa Tufono, Spencer Gilbert, Jordon Iosefa (injured), Eli’jah Winston (injured), Solomon Tuliaupupu (injured)
CB: Olaijah Griffin, Jayden Williams, Max Williams (injured)
CB: Isaac Taylor-Stuart or Chris Steele, Adonis Otey
FS: Isaiah Pola-Mao, C.J. Pollard, Jordan McMillan, Brandon Perdue
SS: Talanoa Hufanga, Chase Williams, Briton Allen, Richard Hagestad
NK: Greg Johnson, Chase Williams, Dorian Hewett, Kaulana Makaula, Max Williams (injured)
Kicker: Chase McGrath, Michael Brown, Thomas Fitts, Alex Stadthaus (KO)
Punter: Ben Griffiths, Will Rose
Snapper: Damon Johnson, Jac Casasante
Holder: Ben Griffiths, Matt Fink
Punt Returner: Tyler Vaughns, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Olaijah Griffin
KOR: Velus Jones, Stephen Carr, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Vavae Malepeai
Note: Publisher Erik McKinney contributed to this story.