In my humble opinion, cardinal and gold thoughts on what I see, what I hear, and what I think from Los Angeles.
The chickens come home to roost: Leaving aside for the moment the anticipated departures of Trojans offensive line coach Tim Drevno, strength coach Aaron Ausmus and possibly more personnel moves, the dreadful trend of California’s No. 1 best-of-the-best heading elsewhere besides USC specifically has at the very least come to a temporary halt with Saturday’s nationally welcomed televised announcement by Corona, Calif./Centennial HS defensive end Korey Foreman (photo above), the nation’s No. 1 recruit, that he will indeed be a USC Trojan.
The chickens come home to roost – Part 2: Korey Foreman’s revelation on Saturday was preceded by the announcement by 4-star corner Ceyair Wright (Los Angeles Loyola) that he, too, will also wear the cardinal and gold. No question, if the Trojans can manage to secure the signature of Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei linebacker Raesjon Davis in early February, it would be a resounding defensive cardinal and gold recruiting coup and the Trojans could advance higher in the Top 10 national recruiting class. Currently, the Trojans are No. 8 nationally, according to 247 Sports.
The chickens come home to roost – Part 3: One of the major goals of a USC head football coach is to put a wall around California and avoid our best-of-the-best from leaving the state. Things go bad when the SoCal wall for USC is penetrated and the Trojans are forced to go to Plan B in local and state recruiting. So, the USC announcement by Korey Foreman, who reportedly will enroll in the fall, can’t be underestimated, especially in the Los Angeles area. Korey is the first California overall No. 1 recruit to sign with the Trojans since quarterback Matt Barkley (Santa Ana, Calif./Mater Dei) did it in 2009. Folks, that’s way too long a time for a program of USC’s history in Cali.
The chickens come home to roost – Part 4: As Clay Helton was yet again redoing his offensive and strength staff and while more expected and unexpected Trojans were departing to the NFL draft or the NCAA Transfer Portal, watching No.1 Alabama with former California 5-star Trojans running back recruit Najee Harris crush Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl followed by Ohio State’s dominance of Clemson in the Sugar Bowl were stark reminders how much these four powerhouse schools relied on California’s premier prep talent to help pave their way into the 2021 College Football Playoffs semi-finals.
The chickens come home to roost – Part 5: If you were watching the College Football Playoffs semi-finals games with the Crimson Tide, Buckeyes, Tigers, and the Irish, you couldn’t help but become melancholy knowing that each one of these four teams had a former blue chip California recruit – and as mentioned in most cases – a lost USC recruit. Two of those stars from Friday’s semi-final games, Alabama running back Najee Harris and Ohio State offensive guard Justin Wyatt, will help lead their respective teams in the CFP National Championship Game on Monday night, Jan. 11, from Miami. And did we mention Buckeyes junior standout wide receiver Chris Olave from Mission Hills High in San Diego County, who was ranked the No. 54 receiver in the country his senior high school season?
The Harris poll: If you saw this past week’s released AP All-America team, Alabama senior running back Najee Harris (6-2, 235), the new Crimson Tide all-time rushing leader, made the first team. If you are a reasonable follower of USC recruiting, you know that Harris is from Antioch (Calif.) High in Northern California and selected the Tide over Michigan, Ohio State, Texas, UCLA, and USC. I remember seeing Najee on the USC campus for the spring game of 2016 and remarking that he looked physically like former Trojans legendary fullback Sam “Bam” Cunningham. And let’s remember that the Trojans recruitment of Harris was pre-Air Raid offense, an offense that didn’t arrive until 2019 with Graham Harrell.
The Harris poll – Part 2: The Trojans had a slim outside chance in 2016 of landing Najee Harris, but Nick Saban’s program was too powerful, much like Pete Carroll’s Trojans era, of getting the nation’s No.1 prep player to sign with the cardinal and gold. Harris signed with what he saw as a proven national championship program and not one that hadn’t yet climbed to that mountain top.
The reality: Although the Trojans had a slight chance of signing Najee Harris back in 2016, if Harris was a senior in 2020, they would have stood no chance the way the last two seasons have unfolded with the Air Raid and its neglect of a rushing game. The fact of the matter is what 5-star running back, a Parade All-American like Najee Harris, would even give the Trojans more than a sniff the way the USC running game has been neutered. As you may be aware, the Trojans 2020 running game finished last among all Pac-12 teams.
The reality – Part 2: The truth is that Trojans head coach Clay Helton, by his program’s radical change in offensive philosophy due to past recruiting failures in scheme, physicality and athleticism of offensive linemen, was forced to transition from a grab-bag, balanced offense to a pass-happy, token running attack of the Air Raid. In other words, Helton sold his offensive soul for his own coaching survival and was stuck with what he recruited offensively. Let’s not forget that in his early years of being the Trojans head coach, Helton was loud and clear he wanted a physical running attack that would dominate in the fourth quarter. After all, the head coach has repeatedly told us he is the son of an offensive line coach.
The reality – Part 3: Don’t think for a moment that the departure of O-line coach Tim Drevno is the answer because it isn’t nor is the release of strength and conditioning coach Aaron Ausmus. No, if fingers are to be pointed, they should be pointed in the direction of the head coach and the offensive coordinator. Athletic director Mike Bohn knows it or should know it. The AD is simply avoiding the inevitable changes; it’s as transparent as a clear window. Logic would say a change is simply a case of when not if.
Then there’s Davis: As if the recruiting failure of Northern California prospect Najee Harris wasn’t enough, nothing illustrates the Trojans lack of recruiting quality offensive linemen in their own backyard than the loss of former Bellflower (Calif.) St. John Bosco All-America prep lineman Wyatt Davis to Ohio State, who was recently named a 2020 first-team AP All-American. Davis, now a junior, is expected to declare for the NFL after the Buckeyes national championship meeting with Alabama.
Then there’s Davis – Part 2: Living in the heart of Southern California, Wyatt Davis (6-4, 315) was the type of offensive line recruit that Pete Carroll would have relentlessly pursued until he got Davis to stay in SoCal. Sign with Ohio State? Not over Carroll’s dead body. Wyatt Davis, who was the Los Angeles Times Southern California Player of the Year in 2015, is now considered a prime contender for the prestigious 2020 Outland Trophy, which is given to the nation’s top lineman. It didn’t help in the USC recruiting of Wyatt Davis that the Trojans were constantly turning over one offensive line coach after another, which they continue to do today.
The book of Ian: Then there is current Notre Dame senior quarterback Ian Book, who played at Oak Ridge HS in Northern California. Book has become one of Notre Dame’s all-time great quarterbacks. The fact is that only Washington State (he had originally given a commitment to Mike Leach) and Boise State were pushing for him. When former Boise State coach Mike Sanford Jr. left Boise for Notre Dame, Sanford offered on behalf of the Irish. Book said he selected the Irish not because they were Notre Dame, but he wanted to be coached by Sanford. Don’t blame Book for his team’s lopsided loss to Alabama on New Year’s Day, the Irish were simply overmatched.
The book of Ian – Part 2: Would Ian Book have fit into USC? Certainly not in today’s Trojans offense. Book is a dual-threat quarterback who thrived in the ND system. The Air Raid of Washington State or USC probably didn’t fit his skill level. The Trojans can’t complain about missing the boat on Book when you consider that All-Pac-12 first team quarterback Kedon Slovis has worked out pretty well for the Men of Troy.
A DJ is waiting: No question the future of Clemson football is true freshman quarterback DJ Uiagalelei, the former Bellflower (Calif.) St. John Bosco prep All-American. You could say that DJ didn’t just forgo the Trojans because of Kedon Slovis, but the opportunity to play for and be on a national championship team. Would he have fit in today’s USC Air Raid? Absolutely. DJ is big and strong (6-4, 250) and has NFL written all over him. He gave a glimpse into his potential when he subbed for then injured Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence at Notre Dame, although the Tigers lost to the Irish at the time. And while we’re at it, let’s not forget DJ’s former St. John teammate, receiver Beaux Collins, who recently signed with Clemson during the early December signing period.
The bottom line: The Trojans aren’t going to get every California prospect. They didn’t even in the John McKay and Pete Carroll eras. However, that doesn’t take away from the fact that losing national California recruits can come back to haunt you on the national stage at some point. Ya think that Clay Helton would love to have had the aforementioned Californians wearing Cardinal and Gold?
The bottom line – Part 2: Again, perhaps the announcement by 5-star Korey Foreman signals a USC billboard change of recruiting California’s No. 1 prospects. However, the next change of recruiting and philosophy has to be on the offensive side of the ball. Being first in the conference in passing and last in running in the Pac-12 for 2020 is a major issue and problem. What will Mike Bohn do because something has to be done; it’s more than just changing an offensive line coach and strength guru.
From the press box…
The advancement: Donte Williams, Trojans cornerbacks coach/defensive pass game coordinator, has been named associate head coach, Trojan head coach Clay Helton announced on Thursday. Not saying that Donte didn’t deserve the title, but is there a message about the future of OC Graham Harrell or even DC Todd Orlando for that matter if the head coaching job opens? Furthermore, if something happens to Gentleman Clay in 2021, are we to assume that Donte will be in charge? And was this advancement a suggestion by athletic director Mike Bohn to Helton or the coach’s idea?
Making it official: To the surprise of nobody, Trojans junior wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown announced on Saturday he is heading to the NFL. He’s ready, and there is nothing left for him to prove at Troy. Best of luck to a player that played his heart out for the Men of Troy.
Making it official – Part 2: No shock that Trojans junior All-Pac-12 offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker has elected to forgo his senior season and enter the NFL draft. Some say AVT could be selected as high as the first round, and it would make a great selling point for USC offensive line recruits in the future.
It’s fact: Say what you want about departing Trojans offensive line coach Tim Drevno, but if Alijah Vera-Tucker does get drafted in the first round, that would be two years in a row for one of Drevno’s protégé to be drafted in the first round – offensive tackle Austin Jackson, now with the Miami Dolphins, being the other. In all honesty, Drevno, a veteran of power offenses, was asked to coach a whole different concept in the Air Raid through no fault of his own.
Stepping into the NFL: And the draft declaration parade just keeps on marching, and this time courtesy of Trojans junior corner Olaijah Griffin, who announced on Friday afternoon he was turning pro by entering into this spring’s draft. I am not sure he is as ready as he could have been had he returned for some more seasoning, but obviously Olaijah thought he was ready, so best of luck to him. Just hours later, the anticipated announcement that DL Marlon Tuipulotu would be joining some of his teammates in the spring’s NFL draft came to fruition.
Stepp into the Transfer Portal: Seriously, do you blame running back Markese Stepp for entering the Transfer Portal? It will be shocking if more backs don’t join him after this past season’s rushing attack – which for the lack of a better word – was a disgrace, last in the Pac-12. IMHO, it won’t shock me if Stepp ends up at Notre Dame if they will accept him. Markese certainly fits their physical, balanced brand of offense. Since Stepp is from Indianapolis, he might want in with the Big Ten like his home state Indiana Hoosiers or the run-happy Wisconsin Badgers.
Stepp into the Transfer Portal – Part 2: Although I wasn’t shocked at all, the Garry P. Message Board was completely supportive of Markese Stepp transferring to a school that will let him run the ball and play in a balanced offense. There was no booing or catcalls against Markese on the board, but a total understanding of why he would leave. A majority of the posters also expressed their feelings regarding the Air Raid offense, and it wouldn’t be described as positive.
The conversion: Trojans defensive lineman Conner Murphy has entered the Transfer Portal. I always thought Murphy would have been better suited to be an offensive tackle, but maybe that was at one time discussed, but he didn’t want to play there.
Taken to the Matt: In case you didn’t notice, Iowa State pounded Pac-12 champion Oregon, 34-17, in the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday. Ya think that Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell is somebody the Trojans might want to pursue if there eventually becomes a head coach opening at Troy?
The post-game show…
The Slovis question: Excuse me for asking, but are we ever going to find out the status of the Kedon Slovis right arm or shoulder injury, or will the Trojans have an announcement before the start of spring practice, which figures to be closed to the media?
Talanoa and the wall: Congrats to Trojans junior strong safety Talanoa Hufanga, who declared for the NFL draft this past week, on being named to the prestigious AP All-America first team as well as a number of other AA teams. It means down the line that Talanoa, the 2020 Pat Tillman Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, will receive a USC legendary AA plaque on the Trojans Walk of Fame, which leads from the John McKay Center up the ramp to the Howard Jones/Brian Kennedy Fields.
Sarks a winner: Well, they say that truth is stranger than fiction and this applies to former USC head coach Steve Sarkisian. Another Nick Saban rehabilitation project, Sark is now the head coach at Texas after the Longhorns, fresh off an Alamo Bowl trashing of Colorado, fired Tom Herman. As for Sark, the Crimson Tide’s offensive coordinator/QB coach was recently named the winner of the 25th Frank Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach. Maybe Sark’s best strength is as an assistant coach and not as a head coach, but give Texas credit for not fooling around if they knew there was no future with Herman as their top guy in Austin.
The impossible: In a strange daydream, would Clay Helton, if USC OC Graham Harrell left for greener pastures, hire Tom Herman as his new OC? I’d have no problem with that, but Gentleman Clay probably wouldn’t do it unless Mike Bohn forced him to do it. And haven’t we heard that before?
The good Samaritan: Former Trojans star receiver and current Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and the JuJu Foundation paid off over $25,000 worth of layaway gifts earlier this week for families in need. JuJu and his family united with “Pay Away the Layaway” volunteers and Burlington Stores in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Compton, California to pay off Christmas gifts and essential products for over 170 families in need.
The good Samaritan – Part 2: JuJu Smith-Schuster and his family visited Burlington Stores in the communities around Pittsburgh and Compton. He surprised the families, letting them know via a drive-through event that their layaway balances had been paid off through the JuJu Foundation.
In memory: Although he wasn’t a Trojan, so sad to learn of the passing of running back Ty Jordan, Utah’s 2020 Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year, who died from an accidental gunshot wound. Jordan was really going to be a star in the Pac-12 in 2021, no doubt.
The call-in show…
Caller No. 1: Greg, do you ever concern yourself that you are writing too many “negative” stories as it pertains to the Clay Helton era?
Caller No. 1, let me first say that I have a great deal of respect for Clay Helton as a gentleman. That being said, it is the duty and responsibility in covering USC football to be truth-tellers and speak truth to power based on facts and informed opinions. I don’t see my responsibility as being a shrill, publicist, or house man for the football program, but I do want it to succeed at the highest level, a level that I have covered many times before.
I didn’t set the high bar for USC football; former administrations, coaches, and players did. Only a select few college football programs have the resources to play at a national championship level, and USC is one of them. As a veteran columnist of USC football, I take it as a sacred responsibility to inform the Trojans extremely loyal following when things are good and when they are not – or even just mediocre. Believe me, it’s much easier to write a positive story than one of informed and responsible criticism.
Right now, the current USC football program is searching for success and the administration is praying they find it. The results of games, especially the past three seasons, are true indications that adjustments need to be made, and quite frankly not enough have been. Some of the changes have been what I call cosmetic changes and don’t address the real problems, which are leadership at the top and the very top. Until that is corrected, all that’s being done, IMHO, is rearranging the deck chairs on the cardinal and gold Titanic. Hopefully, things will get better sooner rather than later.
Caller No. 2: Grego, do you see a real difference in the personalities of USC coaches on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball?
Caller No. 2, yes, there is a dramatic difference in personalities on offense and defense. Defensively, the coaches are intense, gregarious, and highly energetic. Offensively, the coaching staff is much more reserved and restrained in their emotions. It shows in games. Sometimes it’s good to have intense coaches and sometimes it can be counterproductive. I will say this, the public sees a very measured and somewhat even-tempered Clay Helton, but when the media was allowed in practice, the head coach could be seen getting really fired up and his language became quite colorful at times. However, don’t take that as criticism.
Caller No. 3: Katzer, how would you compare former offensive coordinator Norm Chow and current offensive coordinator Graham Harrell?
Caller No. 3, I see you like loaded questions, but I will answer, IMHO. First, we can all pretty much agree that Norm Chow is a legendary OC and QB coach. He called games like few can do. No question Norn was part of the early success of the Pete Carroll era. Chow is able to make adjustments on the fly, and he was brilliant in matching wits with the opposition’s defensive coordinators and took what the defense gave him. He adjusted to the situation. There are chess masters and there are chess players. Chow, IMHO, was a football chess master.
As for current OC Graham Harrell, he believes in the Air Raid but doesn’t appear to be flexible in his approach to attacking a defense as shown with the almost complete disregard for a running attack. IMHO, he’s still a very young coach, who is set in his ways because of his youth and is content to do what he does. Some could call it supreme confidence and others could call it supreme arrogance. Harrell believes it’s just a matter of doing what he wants done no matter what the defense is doing. Even if the opposition defense is begging for his offense to run the ball, he will only do it sporadically but will revert to throwing the ball – his comfort zone. I am certainly not saying he won’t be a great coach or even an outstanding one in the future, but using the same Norm Chow analogy, there are chess masters and chess players, and right now I see Harrell as a chess player.
Caller No. 4: G-Kat, I don’t understand why you think the Trojans cannot win championships with the Air Raid. Isn’t that a little narrow-minded?
Caller No. 4, can you name me one – just one – Air Raid offense that has won a national championship? Okay, I will make it easier. Can you name me one Air Raid style offense that has won the Pac-12 Championship when even a Mike Leach Washington State team couldn’t? Or can you name me one Air Raid offense that has played in the CFP? To win football games at the championship level, you need to be able to run the ball physically and with authority and be able to pass the ball with superior schemes. So far, as mentioned, I have not seen an Air Raid offense that can both pound the rock and pass the ball. At this point, I find teams with equal to better talent than the Trojans defensing the Air Raid no longer a challenging task.
To continue, if all you do is pass, pass, pass, you are playing defense on yourself by not making the opposition respect the run. That’s why so many defenses drop eight into coverage and ignore the running game. I don’t think this is all that difficult to understand. Yes, talent makes a difference, but schools like Washington State have had future pro quarterbacks but have not won the conference. Let me put it to you bluntly, the Trojans had the Pac-12’s best passing team and first-team quarterback in Kedon Slovis, and they still lost to Oregon in the conference title game, and what was that total net yards rushing for the Trojans against the Ducks? Yeah, the Trojans finished last in the Pac-12 in rushing. I rest my case.
Caller No. 5: Sir, what did you do for New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day?
Caller No. 5, On New Year’s Eve, my girlfriend Sharon came over and we cooked some PF Chang’s pre-made dinners. The menu consisted of sweet and sour chicken, orange chicken, beef and broccoli, and fried rice. We later watched the ball drop with the live cable feed from Times Square in New York City and then waited for the Pacific Time Zone celebration. As for New Year’s Day, we sat in front of my 75-inch TV with the 5.0 surround sound (it’s a guy thing) and watched the two CFP semi-final playoff games. Is there anything more romantic than that?
The last word: Although our columns are mainly devoted to USC football, we pause to pay our respects to former Trojans legendary basketball guard Paul Westphal, who passed away on Saturday at the age of 70 after battling brain cancer.
I saw him play at Redondo Beach (Calif.) Aviation High and got to know him in summer leagues at Cal St. Los Angeles during his USC and NBA days. He was so gifted and an incredibly smart player. Paul went on to a great career in the NBA – both as a player and as a coach. The Basketball Hall of Fame guard will be missed.