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Fall Camp Preview: Offense

With the USC Trojans set to hit the field this Friday to kick off 2019 fall camp, today we take a look at what we know, and what we think, position by position on, the offensive side of the ball.

Quarterback

What we know: The Trojans head into the spring with four scholarship quarterbacks on the roster, after Matt Fink removed himself the transfer portal after entering and announcing an intended transfer to Illinois. Fink is coming off a minor knee surgery this offseason but head coach Clay Helton said he should be ready to go by camp, or at least toward the beginning of it.

The competition to be named starting quarterback will continue into the fall, as the coaches have yet to declare a starter. Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said a decision could be made on a starter as soon as it’s obvious who the starter could be, but that decision could also come a full two weeks into fall camp.

Daniels returns with the most experience, having started 11 games as a true freshman, completing 59.5% of his passes for 2,672 yards and 14 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. He showed promise with some terrific throws at times, but he also looked like a true freshman on occasion. Certainly in gauging his performance last season, it must be taken into account that the offensive system as a whole felt completely broken at times, the offensive line struggled through chunks of time, and snapping issues were persistent throughout the season.

Jack Sears returns with one start under his belt, having completed 71.4% of his passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns in a loss to Arizona State last year. And Fink also received some time, appearing in four games in 2018, completing 7-of-9 passes for 46 yards and a touchdown.

Kedon Slovis will also take reps at quarterback after enrolling early and showing promise this past spring.

What we think: Harrell won’t let the uncertain quarterback situation linger. He stressed all spring that taking as many reps as possible is the best way to achieve success in this offense and he understands the importance of a quick decision at this position.

Ultimately, it’ll be Harrell’s call as to the starting quarterback, and the guess here is that Daniels will be lining up under center in 2019. It’s a tough situation for the coaches in terms of perception because there is so much support for Sears among a vocal percent of the USC fanbase that selecting Sears will be seen by many as the only outcome that proves there was a true competition for a position that was really open.

But ultimately, Daniels has been the most consistent practice player of the group. There were times this spring that Sears and Fink were better, but neither seemed to be able to put it together for stretches and separate from the pack quite like Daniels can when he is on.

This likely won’t be a slam dunk decision and that’s actually good news for USC and Trojan fans, as it sure feels like all three of the returning quarterbacks could have success in this offense.

Running Backs

What we know: This might be an Air Raid offense, but the running backs aren’t afterthoughts for Harrell. North Texas ran the ball 48% of the time and running backs caught 49 passes last year.

USC brings back two experienced veterans in Stephen Carr and Vavae Malepeai. Both took a back seat to Aca’Cedric Ware in 2018, but both looked ready to go this past spring despite each missing a bit of time. Carr played in nine games last year before spraining his ankle against Oregon State. He ran for 384 yards and two touchdowns, but never appeared to be all the way back to his true freshman form following off-season back surgery.

Malepeai ran for 501 yards and eight touchdowns last season while playing in all 12 games.

They are joined in the backfield by redshirt freshman Markese Stepp, who took a leading role this spring and was phenomenal. At 6-foot and all of 235 pounds, with a running style that presents all knees and pads to opposing defenders, Stepp is a nightmare to tackle in the hole or the open field. He was eased into things last year, appearing in just four games to maintain his redshirt, but he is ready for a much bigger role in 2019.

They are joined by true freshman Kenan Christon and Quincy Jountti. Christon has speed that few others on the team possess, while Jountti is a walk-on who showed this spring that he is capable of helping out the rotation and not just serving as an end-of-game option to run out the clock.

What we think: If healthy, the two veterans are going to best their career numbers (Carr with 757 yards and five touchdowns, Malepeai with 762 yards and eight touchdowns) this year. It was tough to tell if Carr had regained every bit of that straight-line speed that made him so dangerous as a true freshman, but the ability to cut hard and accelerate was evident this spring.

Harrell won’t hesitate to feed the hot hand, but there will be a rotation and we’ll continue to see formations with two backs on the field together. Malepeai and Carr will both make runs at 1,000-yard seasons and one of them will get there, but Stepp will be the guy creating the most buzz early in the season.

Wide Receivers

What we know: If you wanted to pick the standout offensive player of the spring, you could have chosen one of three guys from this unit and had a great argument. Michael Pittman looks poised for a massive season as a potential captain of the 2019 team. Tyler Vaughns will take a step forward following a 58-catch, six-touchdown season in 2018. And Amon-Ra St. Brown is the guy who might benefit the most from this new offensive system, with his ability to move all over the field and beat defenders with quick routes or deep down the field.

Sophomore Devon Williams showed flashes of brilliance this spring. There were some lapses where he still wasn’t using his full frame and athleticism to dominate smaller defensive backs on every rep, but the improvement from last fall to this past spring was evident, and he could be ready to explode this season.

The position depth took a hit this past winter with the announced transfers of Josh Imatorbhebhe and Trevon Sidney. It also looked as though Velus Jones could be heading elsewhere after he entered his name in the transfer portal. Since then, the position has grown in numbers tremendously, as Jones returned to USC and should be another weapon in the slot. The Trojans also saw terrific production from freshman John Jackson III this past spring.

With Bru McCoy’s decision to transfer back to USC, the Trojans will roll out four additional true freshmen this fall, as McCoy is joined by Munir McClain, Drake London, and Kyle Ford. This is a physically imposing group of receivers, as they check in respectively at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, 6-foot-5 and 205 pounds, and 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds.

What we think: This receiver group has everything you could ask for. There is size, speed, strength, veteran leaders, hungry young guys, athleticism, great hands, solid route runners, and everything in between. If it doesn’t come together for this unit in 2019, something has gone terribly wrong. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a couple 60, 70, or 80-catch seasons and multiple guys named to the first and second All-Conference teams.

Ford will be a guy to watch during camp, as he continues to recover from an ACL injury. If he is given the all clear before or during camp, he has the ability to make a run at significant playing time as a true freshman. McCoy’s status will remain up in the air until the NCAA rules on his eligibility for this season, but the safe bet at this point is that he’ll need to sit out the season due to transfer rules.

Expectations should be high for this group, despite likely needing to rely on some youth and inexperience for depth.

Tight Ends

What we know: The Trojans have four scholarship tight ends on the roster, in Erik Krommenhoek, Josh Falo, Jude Wolfe, and Ethan Rae.

Krommenhoek hasn’t been much of a receiver during his USC career, with just four catches for 17 yards, but he’s looked more dependable there during the spring and summer. Falo has 14 receptios for 223 yards and two touchdowns in his career, but missed some time this past spring with a shoulder injury.

Wolfe saw some action as an early enrollee this spring, but sat out the final stretch with a back injury. We’ll see where his health is when camp starts. Rae will also be someone to monitor, as he suffered an ACL injury in early November. If Wolfe and Rae are fully ready to go, they’ll be thrown into the mix right away, as they both have the size and ability to excel as blockers and pass catchers.

What we think: The tight end will be asked to do a lot of things in this offense. At North Texas, tight end Kelvin Smith caught 29 passes for 269 yards and a touchdown last year, lining up as a traditional tight end, in the slot, and a few places behind the line of scrimmage.

This group gives Harrell some position versatility as well, though certainly Krommenhoek will be seen as the blocker and Falo the receiver. If healthy, it doesn’t feel as though it will take too long for the true freshmen to assert themselves in the rotation. Wolfe already showed this spring that he is ready for this level of football, and Rae, if healthy, should be able to make an impact as well.

I wouldn’t anticipate the tight ends stealing a ton of receptions from the wide receivers or running backs, but the position does have a consistent presence in this offense and should be more routinely visible than it has at times over the past few seasons.

Offensive Line

What we know: The Trojans needed to replace starters at right tackle, center, and left guard this past spring, and despite running out the same five starters for virtually every snap during spring ball, there are still a few questions that need answers this fall.

It starts with the health of left tackle Austin Jackson, who recently underwent surgery to donate bone marrow to his younger sister. Helton said the Trojans will need to ease Jackson back into things this fall, so we will get a sense of where things are with Austin when camp opens on Friday.

Alijah Vera-Tucker took over the vacated left guard spot and appears to have that position locked down. Same with Andrew Vorhees, who returns at right guard and didn’t appear to be truly pushed by anybody this spring.

At center, what figured to be a competition between Brett Neilon and Justin Dedich didn’t seem to play out, as Neilon took over as the starter and went with the first team almost exclusively. We’ll see how things play out this fall, but the Trojans appear to have two terrific options in the middle of the line.

At right tackle, Jalen McKenzie stepped in for NFL-bound Chuma Edoga and performed well overall this past spring, despite some ups and downs. Experienced depth does not exist across the line, but USC did add a big piece via the transfer portal with the arrival of former Tennessee offensive tackle Drew Richmond. The 6-foot-5, 315-pound Richmond brings 25 games worth of starting experience and should push hard for time at right tackle, or perhaps even left tackle if Jackson is out for long.

Behind the starting tackles, Liam Jimmons looked to adjust well to his move from defensive tackle to the offensive line this spring, while Bernard Schirmer and Clayton Bradley provide veteran depth. There is veteran depth at both guard spots as well, in Jacob Daniel and Frank Martin, though redshirt freshman Liam Douglass showed some real signs of progress this past spring, and all eyes will be on true freshman Jason Rodriguez this spring. USC signed just two offensive linemen in the 2019 class, so hitting on Rodriguez is a must.

What we think: Whenever Jackson gets back, the left side of the line looks set. Neilon has done nothing to show that he shouldn’t be the starting center, despite Dedich looking for long stretches like he is one of the best five linemen on the roster.

What Richmond brings to the table might be the biggest question of fall camp, as the ability to plug in a sure thing at right tackle would be a very welcome thing for the USC offense. On the other hand, if questions remain on the right side of the line throughout camp, it will dampen some of the excitement as to what this offense is capable of achieving.

Ultimately, no position on the roster will need to prove itself more than the offensive line. Opponents smelled blood and went after this group in a big way last season. If this group can’t solidify and provide both running lanes and at least a little time for the quarterback to throw, there might not be much improvement from last year.

The guess here is that we do see that improvement, and while this offensive line doesn’t bring back memories of some of the more dominant groups in USC history, they do enough to allow this offense to operate as it should. We’ll certainly see the starting five come together during fall camp, but they won’t be able to prove themselves until they’re faced with a few third-and-short, or goal line situations in early games against Fresno State and Stanford.



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Erik McKinney

Erik McKinney began writing for WeAreSC in 2004, during his junior year at USC, covering the Trojans football team and recruiting. He then moved on to ESPN.com in 2011, where he served as the West Region recruiting reporter and then the Pac-12 recruiting reporter. He took over as publisher of WeAreSC in January, 2019.


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