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Five big things with one week left

After the longest offseason imaginable, the USC Trojans are now just one short week away from kicking off their 2020 football season. Here, we take a look at the five most significant issues that will determine whether this is a successful season for USC.

The early start

This is in regard to the schedule as a whole and the first game of the season. USC will have had three morning Coliseum scrimmages to try to simulate the 9 am kickoff of the season-opener against Arizona State. Head coach Clay Helton said the performance during the second scrimmage — the more physical outing to cap off Hell Week — was much better than the first one. The Trojans are going to hope that just three sessions acclimated them well enough for the early kickoff time against the Sun Devils, but starting early is a theme for the schedule as well.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, USC’s opening game changed from a likely can’t-win game against Alabama into a must-win game against Arizona State. With a Pac-12 championship as likely the biggest prize available this year, a loss to the Sun Devils would plunge USC into a hole that would be very difficult to crawl out. Beyond the Arizona State opener, USC’s only other game on the schedule that looks to bring with it anything more than below-average difficulty is the Week 3 trip to Utah. That means the fate of USC’s season could be set in stone following the third game of the year. It doesn’t leave much time for the USC defense to settle into defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s system or for the offense to work out any kinks in Year 2 under Graham Harrell.

There won’t be recruits in the stands next Saturday, but Arizona State is one of the Pac-12 programs always eager to take a swing at USC on the recruiting trail and coming into the Coliseum and leaving with a win — even in a season such as this one — would play well for ASU with Los Angeles recruits. More importantly, USC has a few top prospects left on their board and a successful season — maybe a perfect season — might be the difference between signing them and watching them head elsewhere. That starts with a game that will absolutely test how well these coaches can get the Trojans ready for likely the strangest game in which these players will ever take part.

Tackling

We’ve heard the defensive mantra from USC’s new defensive staff over and over at this point: Run and Hit. That’s what it comes down to for Orlando and his team. When in doubt, run and hit somebody. Of course, making the tackle is implied there, and this is a two-part topic. The first is actually making the tackle.

Virtually every coach who has spoken to the media this fall has mentioned how poor the tackling has been across the country, leading to huge offensive outputs. That’s something the Trojans can’t afford to replicate. USC coaches are aware of the challenges facing all teams this season — most of them working without having had a spring ball and having gone through an adjusted fall camp. USC won’t be caught by surprise in this regard, so how well USC does or doesn’t tackle against Arizona State will likely jump off the screen.

Beyond just wrapping up and bringing down the ballcarrier, this topic includes overwhelming defensive physicality as well. It’s been a while since a USC defense truly terrorized an opposing offense just by stepping on the field. The past few years, there have seemingly consistently been articles published with quotes from unnamed Pac-12 sources that mention the lack of physical play from USC. That’s not something that would sit well with this defensive staff.

The guy to watch here is likely Palaie Gaoteote, who, in Orlando’s defense and under his coaching, might just turn into that player everybody expected him to be coming out of high school. Helton has raved about Gaoteote’s play this fall and if the Trojans truly have a dominant physical presence at inside linebacker this season, that’s a huge checkmark on the list of what this team is looking for.

Turnovers

Turnovers were one of the things Helton specifically mentioned he wanted to fix heading into last season. There were glimpses of it working, as USC did intercept more passes than the year before. But when it went badly, it went very badly. In its five losses, USC lost the turnover battle 13-2. That can’t happen again this year. USC has a second-year quarterback leading a very veteran offense. Holding onto the ball and capitalizing on every offensive opportunity could be the difference between an undefeated season and one or two slip-ups.

Defensively, the team has talked about how varied the looks are from Orlando’s group and how difficult he makes life on a quarterback. The test will come early against Arizona State and Jayden Daniels. If the Trojans really can mix things up enough to create some interceptions and are physical enough to force some fumbles, this team has the ability to score points in bunches and run away from opponents.

Offensive line

Kedon Slovis is going to throw for a bunch of yards. Even with just a seven-game schedule, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Slovis set at least one or two USC passing records this year. But the five guys ahead of him will likely tell the story of just how successful this season becomes.

Alijah Vera-Tucker, Andrew Vorhees, Brett Neilon, Liam Jimmons and Jalen McKenzie have to keep Slovis upright and they have to make the running game a true threat for defenses. Last year, several teams were able to sit eight defenders back in coverage and keep USC’s offense in check. If the Trojans can turn to the run game and make defenses bring players into the box, this offense can take advantage. It’s also worth watching the fact that, while all five likely starters have plenty of experience, they’re almost all in new spots playing next to new players.

Neilon returns at center, but Vera-Tucker is sliding out to left tackle from left guard, where he played last year. Vorhees is now at left guard after having played right guard most of his career before missing much of last year due to injury. Jimmons and McKenzie do have some time together at right guard and right tackle, but that duo has the least experience of the group.

Helton spoke glowingly about running back Stephen Carr’s performance this fall and Markese Stepp’s eventual return from a mid-foot sprain gives USC the best big-back in the conference. Using the running game to take some pressure — and pass rush — away from Slovis will be critical. The coaches have talked about doing it. Now the offensive line has to show it can be done.

Special Teams

USC was penalized on the first play of the 2019 season for having two players with the same number on the field for a kickoff return. That pretty much set the tone for special teams for the year.

USC wasn’t bad in all phases, but there were few things truly special about it. The Trojans ranked dead last in kickoff coverage and didn’t get many explosive returns on kickoffs or punts outside of a touchdown in the opening game. There are too many athletes on the USC roster for the Trojans to not at least be above average in all units.

New special teams coach Sean Snyder did fantastic things with the special teams at Kansas State and he has plenty to work with at USC. All the specialists return, and Snyder has said very positive things about punter Ben Griffiths, kicker Chase McGrath and long snapper Damon Johnson. The Trojans are likely to find punt and kickoff return answers from a talented group that includes Amon-Ra St. Brown, Tyler Vaughns, Stephen Carr, Olaijah Griffin and others.

Snyder knows that special teams can not only set the tone for a game, but tip the scales significantly in either direction. If USC can consistently win that battle this year, this could be a very positive season.



Erik McKinney
Author
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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