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IMHO Sunday: Season or not, it still gets down to O-line recruiting and coaching

In my humble opinion, cardinal and gold thoughts on what I see, what I hear, and what I think from Los Angeles.

O-line recruiting: For the moment, let’s try and forget if there’s going to be a 2020 USC football season, which looks more and more that if the schedule isn’t soon moved to the spring, it’s probably see’ya until 2021. Whether there is or there isn’t a 2020 USC football season, it doesn’t dismiss questions about the Trojans’ present and future offensive lines, which will have a lot to say as it pertains to the team’s and program’s success. Is there enough quality and quantity along the offensive line to make a championship impact?

O-line recruiting – Part 2: The foundation for the 2020’s offensive line’s production will be dictated by the past three recruiting classes of offensive linemen and coaching. The recruiting of offensive linemen and the coaching of this unit lays at the feet of head coach Clay Helton and his chosen offensive line coach – or should we say coaches. The Trojans have a proud and justified history of some of the greatest offensive linemen in college history, which has translated to national and conference championships. The past ten years, the Trojans have also had a parade of offensive line coaches.

O-line recruiting – Part 3: When it comes to great USC offensive lines and individual linemen, it all starts with recruiting. You know the legendary names: Mix, Yary, Adams, Brown, Munoz, Van Horne, Riley, Budde, Foster, Matthews, Boselli, Smith, and the Kalils. When it comes to recruiting of offensive linemen, the great USC coaches have made sure their teams have recruited some of the best high school and community college prospects from across the land.

Two of USC’s greatest offensive line recruits of the current generation were the Kalil brothers (photo above – center Ryan Kalil on left and tackle Matt Kalil on the right).

O-line recruiting -Part 4: The last decade, the Trojans’ offensive line recruiting has been uneven both in its recruiting and production results. Sure, last season there was All-America tackle Austin Jackson and this season – if there is one – will spotlight guard/tackle Alijah Vera-Tucker as the next great Trojan offensive lineman. Some evaluators say that Vera-Tucker was better last season than Jackson, who was a recent first-round draft pick (18th) by the Miami Dolphins. In order for the Trojans to win big now and in the future, they need five players on the O-line that at some point will eventually be quality NFL draftees, and it all starts with recruiting. 

O-line recruiting -Part 5:
In its glory periods, the Trojans used to collect 5-star offensive linemen – and at the very least 4-star lineman – like seashells at the beach. In the vicious cycle of recruiting, when the Trojans were churning out NFL-bound offensive linemen, they were also turning out NFL running backs. The recruiting of big-time offensive linemen and running backs (AKA tailbacks) seem to go hand-in-hand. USC could and always will be able to recruit elite skill players who will someday play in the NFL, but it’s the offensive linemen they recruit and develop that stir the championship drink.

When the Trojans have challenged for a national championship, they usually have a great offensive line. In the photo above, former Trojans All-America guard Brad Budde (No. 71) leads the sweep followed by fullback Marcus Allen (No. 33) and ball-carrying tailback Charles White (No. 12).

O-line recruiting -Part 6: As you are probably aware in the previous decade, it seemed like the Trojans changed offensive line coaches as many times as routinely as my girlfriend makes product returns to Target. In fact, one of the great USC trivia questions of the past decade is: Can you name all the offensive line coaches in the past ten seasons (I dare you)? Some Trojans players from the previous decade had four coaches in four seasons. Needless to say, that affects both offensive success and future recruiting of O-linemen.   

O-line recruiting -Part 7:
Tradition can be both good and bad. If you have been producing great teams and great offensive lines, that’s good tradition. If you are not, it becomes bad tradition. Check the last two offensive line recruiting classes and with no disrespect to those young players that are part of it, it foreshadows the potential for greatness or mediocrity. The last couple of seasons, it appears the Trojans have settled for 3-star recruits because inking 5-star or 4-star recruits has been harder than finding any positive results from the athletic directorships of Pat Haden or Lynn Swann. And by the way, when was the last time the Trojans signed a 5-star offensive line recruit either locally or nationally and it all worked out?

O-line recruiting -Part 8: So, what causes the Trojans to have such consistently inconsistent offensive line recruiting success? One could argue successfully that one of the main issues is perception and reality going hand-in-hand. It begins with past team success – especially in four-year cycles. Then there is the type of USC offensive system in place, which many recruits translate to “putting guys into The League (NFL).”

O-line recruiting – Part 9: And lastly, of course, there is the offensive line coach. There will be no success if a USC offensive line coach is just a good technician but an average recruiter. You could argue that current Trojans offensive line coach Tim Drevno, who happens to be a very nice person and beloved by Clay Helton, has been hampered by the uncertainty of Helton’s tenuous situation, general team success, or Drevno just hasn’t been able to sell Helton’s vision of USC well enough to ink those 5 and 4-star recruits. It could also be the offensive system the Trojans are currently selling – namely Graham Harrell’s version of the Air Raid – a radical departure from the Trojans heritage of power football and a pro passing game. This was also a radical change of offensive philosophy by Helton, who deviated from his own belief in power football to an offense that was somewhat foreign to him.

Let’s not forget, however, that Drevno made his mark as a power running system O-line coach under Jim Harbaugh and now has been asked by Clay Helton to learn the relatively new Air Raid. To his credit, Drevno did so without complaint, but it surely had its challenges for the coach. And let’s not forget that when Drevno returned from Michigan for his second tour of Trojan duty, Clay Helton had the coach in charge of running backs.  

Many Trojans fans are putting current offensive line coach Tim Drevno (photo above) under scrutiny for the Trojans’ inability to recruit 5-star linemen. However, Drevno did coach former Trojans offensive tackle Austin Jackson, who left early for the NFL and was drafted in the mid first round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

O-line recruiting -Part 10: When USC had legendary offensive line coach Hudson Houck, the Trojans were among the few consistently elite teams where 5-star linemen were lining up for an opportunity to be coached by a legend and learn how to block for a powerful ground game and protect for a highly proficient passing attack. Chalk up that original philosophy to coaches John McKay, John Robinson (the first time around), and Pete Carroll, all of whom had a similar philosophy and belief in physical football.

The success of McKay, Robinson, and Carroll relied on talented, physical, emotional, and well-coached offensive lines. All three of the aforementioned head coaches – for the most part – clearly had elite offensive line coaches. Pete Carroll had belief in popular Tim Davis, who came along at the right place and the right time and is currently the offensive line coach at Southern Oregon in Ashland.  

Many USC fans remember the offensive line success during the early Pete Carroll era of former O-line coach Tim Davis (photo above), who is now the offensive line coach at Southern Oregon.

O-line recruiting -Part 11: If you have followed local, regional, and national recruiting, you probably compare how the Trojans are doing both within the Pac-12 and nationally. If have followed recent national recruiting, the Trojans have been challenged with national offensive line recruiting.

If you look at Alabama’s current Class of 2021, its offensive line commits are off the charts – 5-star recruits from everywhere – much like USC when the Trojans have their mojo. Within the Pac-12, the Trojans have been challenged in offensive line recruiting by Oregon, whose head coach, Mario Cristobal, just happens to be a former offensive line coach with a resume that includes being the former O-line coach at Alabama. Offensive line recruits know that when they are being recruited by the Ducks, their head coach has the O-line cachet. Call it credibility. If you look at the past couple of recruiting classes, the Trojans have gone head-to-head with the Ducks for elite O-line recruits on the West Coast.

O-line recruiting -Part 12: To be frank, it’s no coincidence that Oregon has had recent championship success – thanks to their offensive lines. Remember, one of the Ducks’ offensive linemen that the Trojans lost out in a major recruiting battle a few seasons back is Oregon’s returning Outland Trophy Award-winning tackle Penei Sewell.

Trojans fans are still disappointed that current Oregon Outland Trophy Award-winning tackle Penei Sewell (photo above) signed with the Ducks and not the Trojans. Sewell was from Desert Hills, Utah.

Players like Sewell recruit and sell offensive line success to future recruits just like the Trojans used to do it when consistently successful. And BTW, Oregon runs a physical and balanced offensive attack compared to the Trojans mostly one-dimensional air-raid offense, which almost exclusively relies on the passing game and has given no indication that it incorporates a physical running game with any real commitment.

O-line recruiting -Part 13: So, what’s the answer to recruiting better quality linemen? Well, winning certainly helps but style of play also plays a big part. And then there is the O-line coach, who must sell blue-chip recruits on not only that he can send players to the NFL, but win championships, as well. The good USC news is that it has a legendary tradition of producing great offensive linemen. The question, however, is can the current USC style of play and recent recruiting bring in quality offensive linemen…so help me Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, Notre Dame, and -like it or not – Oregon?     

From the press box…

Feeling ranked: In case you missed it, the Trojans are ranked No. 17 in the preseason Coaches Poll. Upon further review, Pac-12 rivals Oregon (No. 9) and Utah (No. 20) sandwich the Men of Troy. However, now think about this: Both Oregon and Utah must replace their quarterbacks, and the Trojans return their heralded starter Kedon Slovis. In fact, Oregon must replace its former starter Justin Herbert, who was drafted in the first round (No. 6 overall selection) by the Los Angeles Chargers while Utah must replace its entire offensive backfield. FYI, former 2020 Trojans opening season opponent Alabama was ranked No. 3 in the country behind No. 1 Clemson and No. 2 Ohio State.

Clay Helton (photo above) and his Trojans are ranked No. 17 in the preseason Coaches Poll.

Feeling ranked – Part 2: You probably will be thrilled to know that Notre Dame, who was to be the Trojans final regular 2020 season game, is ranked No. 10 in the Coaches Preseason Poll. So, the Trojans will be missing the No. 3 and No. 10 teams in the country but will play the No. 9 Ducks and No. 20 Utes. 

The College Football Playoff (CFP) selection update: If there is a college football season, there was very disappointing news from the CFP committee. This past week, the CFP announced it remains a four-team tournament even with many of the major conferences playing only conference games. How do you select four teams when basically there are no out-of-conference games of meaning? It sure sounds like another SEC advantage and a Pac-12 disadvantage. Strength of conference may really play a major part in the selection process. IMHO, this is a very poor (AKA stupid) way of deciding the four teams. Just widen the tournament field and take all conference championship winners in an 8-team tournament. Stop with the “opinion of the committee” BS,  and let it all play out on the field.   

The College Football Playoff (CFP) selection update – Part 2: The CFP said, “The committee will release its final rankings of the 2020-21 season Sunday, December 20, executive director Bill Hancock announced. The top four teams will participate in the Playoff Semifinals Friday, January 1, in the Rose Bowl Game and Sugar Bowl. The national championship game will be played Monday, January 11, at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla.”

It was announced this past week that the College Football Playoffs remain currently a four-team tournament despite the fact that many conferences are going to a conference-only schedule format. Above is a picture of the CFP Championship Game Trophy for the winners.

The College Football Playoff (CFP) selection update – Part 3: The CFP said, “The final rankings were originally scheduled to be released Sunday, December 6. The CFP Management Committee made the change as a result of several conferences having moved their championship games to December 12, 18 or 19.”

The College Football Playoff (CFP) selection update – Part 4: CFP spokesman Bill Hancock said,“With recent schedule changes for the regular season, it makes sense for the committee to make its final rankings after the conference championship games, when it can get a complete picture of the season. The selection committee members understand the need to be flexible as we all navigate uncharted waters this season, and this move will allow them to evaluate all the available information.”

The College Football Playoff (CFP) selection update – Part 5: The Management Committee also shortened the post-season travel time for teams.  The two teams participating in the CFP National Championship will arrive in Miami on Saturday afternoon, January 9, 2021 instead of the usual Friday evening arrival. With this change, media day, typically held on Saturday morning in the host city, will not take place this year. Details on virtual media availabilities will be announced at a later date. The Rose Bowl Game, Sugar Bowl, Cotton Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, Orange Bowl and Peach Bowl will follow a similar three-day schedule.

If there is a 2020 post-season, the Trojans are hoping to play in one of the CFP semi-final games in which one of those semi-finals will be played on New Years Day in the Rose Bowl (photo above) in Pasadena, Calif.

Last add CFP: Bill Hancock added,“In this unprecedented time, the Management Committee believes it is in the best interest for the health and safety of the student-athletes, coaches and staffs to complete their game-week preparation on campus, under the familiar protocols they will have used all season. This is an unfortunate consequence of the pandemic, but it is the right thing to do.”

The post-game show…

The transfer game: And we learned this past week that four-star quarterback and USC commitment Jake Garcia (La Habra (Calif.) High appears set to play his senior season at Valdosta (Ga.) High. Originally slated to play his senior season at local La Habra (Calif.) High, but due to the pandemic, California high school football has been moved to January, which is when Jake is scheduled to enroll at USC. If your eyebrows are raised, yes, this will be Jake’s fourth high school, although he never played at La Habra and apparently will compete at Valdosta because of the California prep football delay. And keep an eye on the Miami Hurricanes, who continue to push hard for Jake and now are geographically closer to their prized recruit.

Class of 2021 USC QB verbal Jake Garcia (photo above) will apparently play his senior high school season for Valdosta (Ga.) High because there is optimism in parts of Georgia that there will be a prep season – unlike California, which has announced that football games will be moved to January. Garcia is expected to enroll at USC in January.

No choice: The Pac-12 had little choice but to hold its 2020 championship game – if there is a championship game – on the home campus of the team with the best record or head-to-head competition of the North and South Divisions of the Pac-12. A home field advantage will be basically non-existent if there are no fans in the stands, which one would expect.

Given the situation with the coronavirus, recruiting for the Classes of 2021 and possibly 2022 will be like no other, and the amount of prep players staying within their conference of local city school could be one of a kind.  

The broadcast:
One of the many changes or adjustments of covering  college football games could be the Trojans radio broadcasting team with social distancing in mind. Will Trojans play-by-play voice Pete Arbogast be calling the action from a television monitor from home or in a local radio studio for both home and/or away games?  

Longtime USC radio voice Pete Arbogast (photo above on right) is hoping to cover the Trojans’ home and away games in person for the 2020 season. However, nothing has been confirmed as yet.

The broadcast – Part 2:
If there is a season, it should be interesting to see how the away Trojan football games are broadcasted. For example, the Dodgers games have radio broadcaster Charley Steiner calling the action from his home by watching monitors in his living room while from the TV end, Joe Davis and Orel Hersheiser are in their broadcast vantage point at Dodgers games at home but are in a studio for away games. National broadcasts of major league baseball are also calling games from a studio away from the stadium. What a world, what a world!

It’s only money: Former USC head football coach and current Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian received a new Crimson Tide contract, which included a raise to $2.5 million per year. According to a USA Today database, that sum of money is more than nine Power 5 head coaches (including Brian Kelly of Notre Dame) were paid in 2019.

Former USC head coach Steve Sarkisian (photo above) recently signed a contract extension with the Alabama Crimson Tide, a reported raise to $2.5 million dollars per season.

Schedule update: Now that the Pac-12 has released its revised 2020 schedule, the Mountain West announced this past Wednesday it plans to have its football teams play an eight-game conference schedule and up to two non-conference games, starting Sept. 26.

Heart of the matter: After learning he tested positive for the coronavirus, former Trojans linebacking standout Cameron Smith learned through further examination he has an enlarged heart, which will require open heart surgery and force him to miss the 2020 season with the Minnesota Vikings. We wish this noble Trojan the best.

Former Trojans linebacker Cameron Smith (photo above) will soon be having open heart surgery due to an enlarged heart.

The call-in show…

Caller No. 1: Greg, The Big Ten is not releasing a conference schedule and has halted any thoughts in the future of pads and contact, UConn has cancelled football for the 2020 season as has the MAC Conference, eight UCLA football players tested positive for the coronavirus, and NCAA Divisions ll and lll have cancelled fall sports, so where do you think we’re headed for college football in the fall of 2020?

Caller No. 1, I remain steadfast that the 2020 season should at the minimum be rescheduled until sometime after the new year. That being said, put me in charge and I would cancel the 2020 college football season, allowing players to retain this season’s eligibility and putting efforts into the 2021 season. The writing is on the wall. The powers that be are just delaying the inevitable; there is no logic to playing this 2020 season in a pandemic except for the money at stake, which is a poor excuse – IMHO – to risk non-professional athletes their health and safety. 

Caller No. 2: Sir, what’s going on with Ron Yary, who came down with the coronavirus?

As you may be aware, the Trojans offensive lineman legend started with what he believed at the time was the flu, but it was later  evaluated as the coronavirus. There has been a lot of mix messaging regarding Ron’s condition. The latest I’ve heard is that he’s recovering nicely at home.   

Due to the coronavirus, legendary USC offensive tackle Ron Yary (photo above) was recently released from the hospital, doing well at home, and is expected to recover.

Caller No. 3: Mr. K, do you know of any other former Trojans that have had the coronavirus?

Another name that has been made public is former USC offensive tackle great and current San Juan Capistrano (Calif.) JSerra head coach Pat Harlow, who is recovering from a bout with the coronavirus. BTW, JSerra is also the home for current Trojans Class of 2021 offensive line verbal Mason Murphy, considered by many the best O-line prospect in the state.  

Caller No. 4: Gregorio, did you hear the rumor that if there was no coronavirus and things were normal for the 2020 season, the USC Marching Band would no longer be sitting behind the end zone in the “Sun Deck” and would be returning to sitting and playing behind the Trojans’ bench?

Yes, I have heard that rumor, and I think it’s a great idea to return the TMB to “its” playing roots behind the USC bench. I understand selling those seats to boosters and public season ticket holders, but I could never figure out how the band could be as effective sitting in the worst area of the field. I also heard that those thinking of that potential change were also aware and sensitive that another change of seating location would probably cause more anger from fans who would be displaced again. It seems to me that this idea for the 2020 season would be the best time to make a change of there’s going to be a change. I can’t even imagine social distancing with 300 marching band members. Would that stretch from end zone to end zone.    

In the future, will the Trojans Marching Band (photo above) be seated behind the USC bench?

Caller No. 5: Katzman, in all your USC games that you have covered on the road for WeAreSC, which “underrated” city and stadium would surprise us?

I like this question. Most media I know really dislike covering games at Washington State because of its proximity to nowhere. However, I really like going to WSU and Pullman because it’s in the middle of nowhere, and I find it very relaxing. Martin Stadium is like the Wrigley Field of the Pac-12 due to its size.

In the past, I have flown Friday into Spokane and then driven on Saturday to the game. As mentioned, the drive to Pullman, to me, is very relaxing and the area is simply beautiful. Driving through the little towns with their Main Streets is very cool, especially Colfax (population 2,900) with its cigar store Indians and infamous speed traps. On one trip, I did stay across the Washington border in Idaho for a couple of nights. The border is very close to the WSU campus. Speaking of the campus, it’s beautiful, safe, the air is so fresh and clean, and last time I was there, there was no charge for parking. However,  I could see the trip to WSU is not for everybody.    

There is nothing quite like Main Street in Colfax, Washington (photo above), on your way to Washington State.

The final word: If you’re really into the inner workings of USC athletics and Orange County sports, you knew the name John Hamilton. John, who was instrumental in forming the USC Athletic Hall of Fame, passed away this past week at the age of 78. If you ever had the pleasure of visiting John’s Newport Sports Museum as I did along with late WeAreSC publisher Garry Paskwietz, you saw some of the greatest USC sports memorabilia anywhere on display – not to mention unbelievable memorabilia from the other sports entities in Southern California from the Dodgers/Angels, to the Rams and Kings/Ducks, to the Lakers. Unfortunately, the Newport Sports Museum closed its doors some years back; it’s certainly gone but not forgotten. A 1964 SC grad, John will be greatly missed.


Greg Katz

Now entering his 59th season of either writing, broadcasting, or just plain watching USC football, WeAreSC columnist Greg Katz began his affiliation with the website back in 2001, introducing his well-received O/NSO (The Obvious/The Not So Obvious) column and later adding his respected IMHO Sunday opinion and tidbits column. Greg, a former ESPN.com college football columnist covering USC, is also a member of the Football Writer's Association of America. He is also known in Southern California as a professional public address announcer, having called the the 1996 Rose Bowl Game between USC and Northwestern. Greg also holds a master's degree in athletic administration and was a former varsity high school coach of 27 years.

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