We are officially in game week, as the USC Trojans are set to kick off the 2019 football season this Saturday night against the Fresno State Bulldogs. Here, we offer a big-picture look at where the Trojans stand entering the season.
Bouncing back from 2018
The last time the Trojans hit the field, they were putting the finishing touches on a 5-7 season, thanks in large part to losing five of their final six games. It was the first time USC finished under .500 since 2000, as the Trojans struggled offensively throughout the season. No USC player posted a 3,000-yard passing, 1,000-yard rushing, or 1,000-yard receiving season.
Athletic Director Lynn Swann made the decision to retain head coach Clay Helton despite the struggles last season, and Helton looked to redefine the program’s priorities over the offseason. He entered spring ball focused on three main areas: discipline in avoiding costly penalties, turnovers — both creating them defensively and avoiding them on offense — and promoting competition at every position throughout the entire season.
To that end, Helton made it a point of emphasis to have officials at every practice and encouraged them to throw flags whenever they spotted an infraction. He pushed the takeaway narrative to his team and with the media. And he has kept the depth chart private, and scheduled to be released only on the Friday before each game, in order to push players to compete hard at practice throughout the week.
Here Comes The Air Raid
As a result of last season’s offensive struggles, much of the staff on that side of the ball looks different in 2019. But getting to this point was not without its issues as well. Helton looked to have scored the hire of the offseason, when he brought former Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury on board as USC’s offensive coordinator. That lasted a little more than a month, with Kingsbury bolting for the Arizona Cardinals and their head coaching position. USC then targeted North Texas offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, another former Texas Tech quarterback and rising star with the Air Raid system.
Harrell’s immediate goal was to simplify the offense in order to allow the tempo, understanding, and overall efficiency of the offense to pick up dramatically. He’s been aided in that goal by new running backs coach Mike Jinks, a former head coach at Bowling Green who also coached at Texas Tech and is familiar with this offense. Offensive line coach Tim Drevno took over the position after former offensive line coach Neil Callaway was let go late last season, but now Drevno has had a full offseason to work with the big men up front. Similarly, Keary Colbert and John Baxter are familiar names in new spots, as Colbert moved from coaching tight ends in 2018 to wide receivers this year. Baxter is now coaching tight ends — a position he has coached at USC before — after serving as solely the special teams coach in 2018.
This season, the Trojans hope to play fast and attack defenses relentlessly by spreading the field and taking advantage of any space the defense allows. While this is definitely a pass-first offense, the run game does play a part, as Harrell’s North Texas offense rushed for nearly 2,000 yards last season.
Visually, the difference will be seen in the offensive line splits, as the linemen will be spaced farther apart. But USC fans have become accustomed to seeing a permanent shotgun snap and the absence of a fullback in the running game, which will continue.
New Faces Coaching The Defense
As with the offense, there are several new additions to the defensive staff. Up front, the Trojans brought in Chad Kauha’aha’a (Coach K, to make it easier) to coach the defensive line, and it felt like there was a very fast connection made between he and the players at that position. He pushes technique and playing across the line of scrimmage, which is likely music to Trojan fans’ ears, as they look for a talented defensive line to set the tempo.
Joe DeForest is the new outside linebackers coach, as he makes the move from USC Defensive Analyst last year to coaching a specific position in 2019.
The secondary is now led by Greg Burns, who coached previously as USC from 2002-2005, before stints at Arizona State, Cal, and other stops.
Back In The Pocket Again
Quarterback JT Daniels will again start for the Trojans, as he won a four-way quarterback competition that took place through spring ball and fall camp. As a true freshman in 2018, Daniels completed 59.5% of his passes for 2,672 yards and 14 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. Those numbers will need to improve this season if he is going to hold onto the No. 1 position throughout the year, but he showed enough through 30 practices that Helton and Harrell both tabbed him as their choice to start.
Daniels has the arm to make just about every throw on the field, but will the offensive line give him enough time to do so? This offense demands the ball be released quickly on just about every play, so that should help Daniels plenty, as there were many times last year that a rush straight through the line forced him to heave deep balls while falling away from the throw.
Daniels was the most steady of the four quarterbacks throughout the offseason, and with a concerted effort on increasing his leadership qualities, he’ll be the guy in the middle of the offense for the Trojans to start the 2019 season. He’ll be backed up by true freshman Kedon Slovis, with Matt Fink and Jack Sears checking in as the No. 3 and No. 4 quarterbacks.
Forming A Line
Brett Neilon will be one of the most watched players on this USC team, as bad snaps plagued the offense all last season. Neilon has been extremely accurate in that regard through spring ball and fall camp, so that issue should be a thing of the past. The offensive line looks as though it will be made up of five players from the 2017 recruiting class, with Austin Jackson, Alijah Vera-Tucker, Neilon, Andrew Vorhees, and Jalen McKenzie stretched left to right. How this group performs will go a long way toward how successful this season is overall. There is talent here to work with, but with the underwhelming performance of the line last season still in fans’ minds, questions will be asked of this group all the way until the opening kickoff.
While the offensive line is absolutely a question mark heading into the 2019 season, the offensive skill players serve as an exclamation point. This group of wide receivers is the most talented group in the conference and likely in the discussion for top handful in the country. Michael Pittman (41 catches for 758 yards and six touchdowns in 2018) and Tyler Vaughns (58 for 674 and 6) are the veteran returners, while sophomore Amon-Ra St. Brown led the team in receptions as a true freshman, with 60 catches for 750 yards and three touchdowns.
Fellow sophomore Devon Williams looks ready to make the leap this season, while Velus Jones Jr. looks comfortable in this offense and put together a tremendous fall camp.
Three freshmen are ones to watch outside, as John Jackson III, Drake London, and Munir McClain will all see the field this season and are capable of big plays.
In the backfield, Daniels will get help from a trio of backs, with Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr providing some do-it-all ability in the running and passing game, and Markese Stepp looking for some extended time after seeing some brief action at the end of the 2018 season. Carr looks healthy now after battling nagging injuries all last season, while Stepp is absolutely ready to burst onto the scene as an absolute load to bring down with the ball in his hands.
The Magnificent Front Seven
Magnificent is hyperbole until they prove it, but the potential is there. Senior defensive end Christian Rector leads a potentially dynamic group up front, joined by Jay Tufele, Marlon Tuipulotu, and Brandon Pili inside. But the wildcard for this group could be true freshman defensive end Drake Jackson, who burst onto the scene as a spring early enrollee and never stopped making plays. He will likely force the coaches’ hands a bit this season, as they’ll need to find ways to get him on the field.
Behind them, senior linebacker John Houston is the leader in the middle. But keep an eye on fellow linebacker Palaie Gaoteote, who was moved to the weakside linebacker position (but still lines up in the middle of the field) in order to take advantage of his playmaking ability. Gaoteote is one of those throwback linebackers who always seems to be around the ball, and he looks primed for a breakout season.
Young But Talented Secondary
There is absolutely no experience to speak of when it comes to the secondary for the Trojans, but like other positions, the potential is there with some real talent. Sophomore safety Talanoa Hufanga is the real deal, and a guy who could remind USC fans of Troy Polamalu (not a comparison thrown around lightly). At cornerback, the kids will need to grow up quickly, as redshirt sophomore Greg Johnson is the veteran of the group, with all of four starts to his name. Sophomore Olaijah Griffin could become a household name in Pac-12 circles this season, while redshirt freshman Isaac Taylor-Stuart turned in a very strong offseason. True freshman Chris Steele will see the field early and could face a learning curve as a talented young player, as he struggled at times with flags during camp, but also had a number of great practices and terrific battles against a talented group of receivers.
Special Special Teams
Trojan fans have had to watch Utah dominate the kicking game in the Pac-12 recently, but USC has a pair of weapons of its own in 2019. Chase McGrath returns from an ACL injury that cost him much of the 2018 season. But one of the most intriguing aspects of this entire roster is new punter Ben Griffiths, a former Australian rules football professional, who will turn 28 years old during this season. His ability to both punt high and deep, as well as place punts perfectly inside the 10-yard line will make him an additional weapon for the USC defense throughout the year.
A Daunting Schedule
The 2019 schedule sets up to test this USC team in a big way over the early weeks. Getting a Stanford team with a standout veteran quarterback, multiple NFL offensive linemen and one of the best cornerbacks in the country in Week 2 is a big hurdle. But the three-game stretch of hosting Utah on a Friday night, then trips to Washington and Notre Dame sandwiched around a bye week will likely tell the entire story of the season. Those are four top-25 teams (and three top-15 teams) within the first six games. After last season, a 2-2 mark against that group would likely be seen as enough to generate some momentum — and perhaps stay in the Pac-12 race — for the second half of the season.