In my humble opinion, cardinal and gold thoughts on what I see, what I hear, and what I think.
The no-brainer: In your heart, you were hoping it wouldn’t happen, but in your head, you knew it had to happen, so when Sam Darnold made his leaving-for-the-NFL video announcement last week, there was no shock and no fiery. Sam had to go. Aside from the money, almost all arguments pointed for him to go. Is he ready? Does it matter at this point? Would another season at Troy make that big a difference in Darnold’s ball security that couldn’t be accomplished by getting paid a ton on Sundays? Rhetorical question. A tremendous player and even a better person, thank you, Sam, and may you be the NFL’s next “Captain Clutch.”
The future: For Trojan fans, the obvious question: “Now what?” Well, if you watched Saturday’s 2018 U.S. Army All-America Bowl from San Antonio, your mindset transitioned from “what now” to “can’t wait.” You saw the USC future in quarterback JT Daniels (photo above), the celebrated Mater Dei phenom, and his pass receiving wunderkind, Mater Dei teammate Amon-Ra St. Brown, who committed to Troy on national television at the U.S. Army All-America Bowl. Both players talked the talk but walked the walk.
BTW: In case you didn’t see it, Amon-Ra St. Brown’s older Notre Dame brother, wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, who led the Irish in receiving yards the last two seasons, declared for the NFL draft on Thursday.
Daniels to St. Brown: JT Daniels may not initially start the 2018 season as the Trojans’ signal caller, but that doesn’t mean he won’t see action when the Trojans open with UNLV on Sept. 1. It’s really hard to see a redshirt season for this special player. It figures that Amon-Ra St. Brown will see extensive action in the fall. And in Saturday’s 2018 U.S. Army All-America Bowl, these gifted incoming Trojans are arguably the greatest high school passing combination in Southern California to enter USC since QB Pat Haden and WR JK McKay arrived from La Puente (Calif.) Bishop Amat in the early 1970s.
Learning experience: There is nothing not to like about incoming freshman JT Daniels’ game from both a physical and leadership aspect. The kid has the brains (4.0 GPA) and the confidence to made a serious depth chart move and the end of August training camp. He will suck up the USC offensive playbook like a sponge. Will he make some mistakes along the way during training camp? Of course, but so will the two returning Trojan quarterbacks, sophomore-to-be Matt Fink and redshirt freshman Jack Sears. It should be said, however, Fink and Sears have shown significant improvement since last spring. Both are competitive, and they will make every effort to fend off Daniels’ arrival. Fink and Sears will hope to build up enough cache during spring ball to establish an early August pecking order.
The Helton factor: Perhaps nobody will be under more immense pressure regarding JT Daniels arrival at Troy than Trojans’ head coach Clay Helton. Folks haven’t forgotten how he handled the Max Browne-Sam Darnold situation two seasons ago. In training camp after Darnold’s sensational scout team season, there was no question that Sam was the better quarterback. While I still agree with Helton’s decision to start the 2016 season with Browne at quarterback – he had paid his dues, waited patiently, and was beloved by his teammates – it took two early consecutive losses for Helton to open the panic button and replace Browne with Darnold. Helton will not have the same variables this time around. Neither Fink or Sears is a Max Browne situation. Quite the contrary.
The diversion: While Matt Fink and Jack Sears will fight it out for the starting position during spring ball, it will not at all be surprising that after the last spring pass and tackle, Clay Helton doesn’t name a starting quarterback heading into fall camp, thus allowing JT Daniels to have a real opportunity to show what he can do.
No breathing room: Look at the Trojans early games in 2018 and you immediately see after hosting cupcake UNLV to open the season, the next two games are on the road against Stanford and Texas. It’s conceivable the Trojans could be 1-2 heading into their fourth game with Washington State in the Coliseum. Don’t expect a Max Browne moment from Clay Helton upon entering the WSU game on Sept. 21. The key, IMHO, is the result of the game at Stanford. The Trojans can ill-afford another conference loss early in the season. If Helton is going to make a change, it will be before the Trojans play Washington State. And nobody will monitor the situation more than athletic director Lynn Swann.
Critical staff decision: As it stands now, perhaps no open staff position will be as important as who becomes the Trojans’ new quarterback coach. Will it be a current staff member or will Helton look outside for the best candidate possible? Either way, it will affect how future USC quarterbacks in the Helton program develop.
IMHO: For all that Clay Helton has done in bringing back USC stability and winning a Pac-12 title, there is the reality, using Helton’s own words, “college football is a production business.” At the moment, the reality is that winning the Pac-12 is obviously not like winning the SEC or even the Big Ten. With the controversial Coliseum renovation set to be completed at the start of the 2019 season, it would be hard to conceive that Trojans’ athletic director Lynn Swann would want the Cardinal and Gold coming off a mediocre 2018 season with controversy swirling on two fronts – the Coliseum renovation and a coach on the hot seat.
The big question: It will also be intriguing what Lynn Swann considers a successful 2018 season with the offensive turnover of personnel, especially if the Trojans have a mediocre season and are placed in a lower tier bowl game. Will Swann give Helton the chance to reasonably rebuild his offense, which would handicap most teams given the same situation. Many argue that Sam Darnold bailed out Helton time after time, so we’re about to find out about just what is Helton’s offensive system, and, again, the play calling innuendos.
From the press box…
The questions: Given some of the above thoughts, attention now turns to the completion of the 2018 recruiting class – a class that appears to be on the verge of being another very strong Clay Helton assemblage – and thoughts of which Trojans will be foregoing their eligibility and proceeding into April’s NFL draft. We know about Sam Darnold and Ronald Jones ll, but will receiver Deontay Burnett also come out? And there might be some more surprises on or before the Jan. 15 deadline for declaring like junior All-Pac-12 DL Rasheem Green. There are a lot of rumors one way or the other for Green. One Trojan who declared he is not entering the draft is junior outside linebacker Porter Gustin, who spent a majority of the past season dealing with injuries. If healthy, Gustin is a force.
Secondary thoughts: Boy, there continues to be a lot of discussion and debate regarding the coaching future of secondary coach Ronnie Bradford. Maybe it’s just talk and maybe it isn’t, but it sure is a consistent talking point.
Getting a line: While folks seem to be discussing the secondary situation, not all that far behind is the offensive line situation. The Trojans have talent, but it’s been fairly obvious that when it comes to playing against a top flight defensive line, the USC O-line has had its issues. However, against a very poor UCLA run defense, the Trojans’ offensive line made their UCLA opponent look like the Ohio State unit against the rush. Speaking of Ohio State, one of the first Trojan coaches heading quickly back into the AT&T Stadium Trojans’ locker room after the disappointing Cotton Bowl loss was O-line coach Neil Callaway, but you really can’t blame him.
Tough call: It’s not exactly a secret that Clay Helton believes that Neil Callaway is the man to guide the offensive line. Check out what some of the departed Trojan linemen have done, and you could make a positive case for Callaway. Case in point would be the NFL performance of Chad Wheeler with the New York Giants. Even tackle Zach Banner is drawing a paycheck from the Cleveland Browns. Callaway is a close friend of Clay Helton’s father, Kim, and Clay sees and trusts Callaway with the O-line process, but the question becomes what does Lynn Swann think?
Recruiting thought: With the knowledge that JT Daniels and wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown will be Trojans in 2018, how much effect will that have on Mater Dei teammate and highly decorated senior linebacker Solomon Tuliaupupu? “Tui” was in attendance but did not participate in the U.S. Army All-America Bowl because of a foot injury. He remains vital to the recruiting needs of coach Johnny Nansen’s USC linebacking unit. Tuliaupupu will take his multi recruiting trips this month. This recruiting saga should be interesting considering the Trojans’ apparent main competition is…Ohio State.
The post-game show…
A legend retires: You could say without much debate that the recent NFL retirement announcement by former Trojans Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Carson Palmer, 38, is cause for serious reflection. With much discussion centered on what Sam Darnold has done for Clay Helton and his program, Palmer, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, was the linchpin in securing Pete Carroll’s USC program back in 2002.
More Palmer: If you don’t think coaching makes that big a difference with big-time talent, just remind yourself of what Norm Chow did for Carson Palmer’s career. It revitalized it. Would Clay Helton consider bringing back the former Trojans’ assistant, Norm Chow, to be his quarterback coach? Yeah, I know, this would disrupt the current flow chart, but if you’re going to attempt to have multiple play callers… might I suggest that Chow hasn’t forgotten his trade and would certainly add a tremendous amount of creditability.
Last add Palmer: In his retire announcement, Carson said that he will miss the relationships made in the game of football more than the games themselves. In all that he has done both athletically and off the field – and I have watched Palmer since his high school days as a multi-sport star at Santa Margarita Catholic – the best way to describe No. 3 is an elite athlete and absolutely pure class.
The last word: And as if many of you care, I’ll be rooting for Alabama to win the national title and the reason is that Nick Saban has created a program that reminds me of those glorious eras of USC football, a combination of dominance, coaching, and discipline. In other words, I appreciate the Tide is “old school” football in a “new school” era. Oh, and yes, he runs the darn football with violence. I do believe, however, the Trojans will one day return to their storied expectations because it has been done more than once.