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IMHO Sunday: The Air Raid=Championships?

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

Air Raid=Championships? If I am a USC quarterback or recruit, I want to play in offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s Air Raid offense because I love to throw, throw, throw. If I am a Trojan wide receiver or recruit, I want to play in the Air Raid because I love to catch, catch, catch.

Air Raid=Championships? – Part 2: If I am a USC running back or recruit, I want to play in the Air Raid because I love to pass protect, pick up blitzes, or run a stretch play when called upon. If I am a Trojan offensive lineman or recruit, I love to play in the Air Raid because I love to pass protect, pass protect, and pass protect with an occasional blocking opportunity for running a “stretch” play.  

Air Raid=Championships? – Part 3: And, last but not least, if I am a USC fan watching the Air Raid, I love to watch this passing extravaganza… only as long as the Trojans are winning championships, which has yet to be the case after two seasons of the pass-happy offense.

Air Raid=Championships? – Part 4: Where we stand today, the jury is still out whether it’s possible – and so far it hasn’t been proven – that the Trojans can win a Pac-12 title/national championship with the Air Raid offense. When USC head coach Clay Helton junked his own personal philosophy of offense after the 2018 season for the Air Raid, he eventually selected Graham Harrell – an Air Raid disciple of current Mississippi St coach Mike Leach – as his new offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach with the blessing of USC athletic director Mike Bohn.

Can Graham Harrell’s (photo above) Air Raid offense translate into a Pac-12 and/or national championship?

Air Raid=Championships? – Part 5: Clay Helton and Mike Bohn knowingly rolled the Air Raid dice, hoping that Harrell could – to be frank – help save Helton’s job and a lot of buyout money. It didn’t hurt Helton’s job security that his contract runs through 2023 and a buyout would have reportedly cost the Trojans athletic department double-digit millions. I am no mathematician, but that’s a lot of free money.  

Air Raid=Championships? – Part 6: In the recently concluded 2020 season, the Trojans finished first in Pac-12 passing offense (319.3 ypg.) while Pac-12 champion Oregon finished 4th in passing offense (246.1 ypg.), so you could truthfully say that one of Helton and Harrell’s passing objectives was accomplished. However, the success of the Trojans’ passing game came with a philosophical price, which was an anemic running attack that finished last in the Pac-12 (97.3 ypg.) while Pac-12 champs Oregon finished 7th in rushing (166.7 ypg.). The Trojans giant chasm between passing and running in conference rankings was breathtaking.

The Trojans Air Raid attack placed the Trojans’ passing attack as the best in the Pac-12, and it didn’t hurt that the Trojans receivers like Drake London (photo above) were outstanding. (Photo by Jose Marin / MarinMedia Pool for USC Athletics)

Air Raid=Championships? – Part 7: In the meantime, Clay Helton and Graham Harrell, hoping to rectify the 2020 run game and offensive line play, have reportedly hired Texas State offensive line coach Clay McGuire to coach Troy’s O-line. The McGuire connection? He’s a former coaching buddy of Graham Harrell at Washington State under Mike Leach, so McGuire reportedly knows the nuances of O-line blocking in the Air Raid. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have your first name, Clay, the same as the head coach. Will the McGuire hire translate to a better running attack? Not necessarily. McGuire may be a coaching upgrade, but Harrell is still the play-calling puppeteer of the Air Raid.

Air Raid=Championships? – Part 8: One main scrutinized area of Graham Harrell’s Air Raid that stands out and has drawn unanimous local and national criticism revolves Harrell’s absolute refusal for his quarterbacks to take snaps from under center in critical short yardage situations. Most knowledgeable USC fans can almost predict the negative results in 3rd-and-1, 4th-and-1, and goal line situations if the Trojans elect to run the ball. Will Clay Helton step in during spring ball and dictate a change of quarterback positioning snaps in short yardage?

Air Raid=Championships? – Part 9: Not so ironically in the same short yardage and goal line situations, elite teams like Alabama, Ohio State, and Notre Dame take snaps from under center – sometimes even adding a blocking fullback and extra tight end to provide extra punch and physicality – for a successful outcome. When asked why the Trojans don’t take snaps from under center in short yardage situations, Graham Harrell’s responded, “It’s not what we do.”   

The Trojans don’t take snaps from under center in short yardage situations (photo above). Asked why, Trojans OC Graham Harrell’s responded, “It’s not what we do.” (Photo by John McGillen via USC Athletics)

Air Raid=Championships? – Part 10: I am sure that Trojans first team All-Pac-12 quarterback Kedon Slovis, who has taken relentless nasty shots by opposition defensive lines, loves passing the ball, but I am sure he also wishes his offense had a functional running game to include some play-action passes to slow up the relentless attacks on his body. When you pass 50 or more times a game and basically stand in the pocket like a cardinal and gold mannequin until flushed out of the pocket, you can almost hear from the press box defensive linemen screaming “mealtime” as Slovis runs for his life.

Air Raid=Championships? – Part 11: The simple truth is that defensive coordinators have adjusted to defending Graham Harrell’s Air Raid by routinely dropping back eight in a zone and rushing three. Only Washington State was dumb enough to play the Trojans NFL-level wide receivers man-to-man, and it was a disaster. And best yet for the opposition, it certainly helps a defense if an offensive line – like the Trojans – is merely adequate. And, BTW, the Trojans were tied with Cal for 10th in the Pac-12 in giving up sacks (15 in six games). Only Arizona was worse, having given up 18 sacks in five games.  

Trojans quarterback Kedon Slovis (photo above) was a constant target of aggressive pass rushes and eventually was injured in the Pac-12 Championship against Oregon. (Photo by Dennis Hammond/Long Photography)

Air Raid=Championships? – Part 12: Looking ahead, no doubt Trojans fans will hear from Clay Helton during spring practice that his offensive staff is working hard on improving the running game and will give glowing assessments of the line’s progress. However, much of that improvement may actually come from how Graham Harrell elects to call games in 2021. Trojans fans will remain skeptical with Harrell’s offensive philosophy. So, for the present, like it or not Trojans fans, Mike Bohn and Clay Helton continue to hitch their wagon to Graham Harrell’s Air Raid attack in search of a Pac-12 and national championship.

From the press box…

Rumorsville: ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg says that current Trojans tight end coach John David Baker, who just completed his first season as a full-time USC assistant after spending the 2019 season as an offensive quality control assistant, is expected to be hired in the same position at Ole Miss under former Trojans head coach Lane Kiffin. If Baker goes as expected, that would open a coaching opening for (fill in the blank).

ESPN is reporting that Trojans tight end coach John David Baker (photo above) is headed for Ole Miss and former Trojans head coach Lane Kiffin.

IMHO: I wouldn’t be shocked of AD Mike Bohn directly told Clay Helton and OC Graham Harrell during a season review meeting to improve and place more emphasis on the running game. If “Coach Mike” hasn’t had that conversation yet, the time has come. You can bet Bohn and Helton know how last season’s rushing attack – and I use that term loosely – will affect recruiting. 

Will Trojans athletic director Mike Bohn (photo on right) discuss with Trojans head coach Clay Helton (photo above on left) and offensive coordinator Graham Harrell about upgrading the Trojans running attack?

Boomer Sooner: Wayna Morris, a former Tennessee offensive lineman who had the Trojans in his final three transfer choices, committed to Oklahoma. Obviously, it didn’t help that the Trojans didn’t have an officially announced offensive line coach.

IMHO: If John McKay saw the Trojans running the Air Raid and its use of running backs, he’d probably melt Clay Helton’s ears with words you wouldn’t say in a house of worship.

The deadline: Last Monday was the deadline to declare for the NFL draft, and it appears that the Trojans original announcements are the only declarations. It’s a good sign that Clay Helton’s roster didn’t lose any more players on offense or defense, but I suppose there is always the potential of an NCAA Transfer Portal applicant.

Safety Isaiah Pola-Mao (photo above) has announced he will be returning in 2021.

IMHO: While the 2021 Trojans will have some challenges on defense in replacing personnel like consensus All-America safety Talanoa Hufanga, the major challenge will be on offense not just in replacing personnel like All-Pac-12 left tackle Alijah Vera-Tucker and a host of NFL-bound receivers, but a meeting of minds of how to repair not just the running game but the human coaching element of the overall Air Raid offense.

Big Apple news: Best of luck to former Trojans linebacker and quality control assistant Hayes Pullard who is leaving his alma mater and heading to the NFL as a quality control assistant for new New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh, whom Hayes played for in the NFL with the Jacksonville Jaguars (2015 and 2016) when Saleh was the linebackers coach.

Former USC standout linebacker and Trojans defensive quality control assistant Hayes Pullard (photo above) is taking a similar position with the New York Jets.

The post-game show…

In memory: Last weekend in Lake Oswego, Oregon, one of USC’s greatest football legends, All-America running back Jon Arnett, passed away at 85 after suffering heart failure. “Jaguar” Jon was simply one of the all-time greats at every level of football that he played. A member of the USC Athletic Hall of Fame, College Football Hall of Fame, and a five-time Pro Bowl selection with the Los Angeles Rams, there’s no question he should already be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame when comparing his NFL accomplishments to those already in the PFHOF.

The Trojans family is mourning the pass of former All-Americas running back Jon Arnett (photo above).(Photo via USC Athletics)

In memory – Part 2: Those closest to him the last decade of his life said that he took great pride in the history of USC football and being a part of it, but Jon never had a problem expressing opinions, especially when it came to the current state of play regarding today’s Trojans football program. Jon had been very disappointed with USC football and hoped something could be done. A caring Trojan till the very end.  

In memory – Part 3:
For those too young to have seen Jon play in college, I would compare him favorably to former Stanford All-America and current NFL standout Christian McCaffrey. In case you didn’t get a chance to watch the Jon Arnett highlight video that accompanied WeAreSC’s original announcement of Jon’s passing, here is the highlights video:

In memory – Part 4: It’s been a difficult couple of weeks for USC football with the earlier passing of former USC placekicker Sam Tsagalakis and Jon Arnett, and comes word that former offensive tackle Derrell “Turk” Marshall, a starting offensive tackle on USC’s 1988 Rose Bowl, has also left us. When it rains, it also pours tears.

So long, Urban: Nobody could have been more relieved that former college coaching legend Urban Meyer is the new coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars than USC president Dr. Carol Folt, who knew there was a large segment of Trojan fans that wanted Meyer badly to be the next USC head football coach.So now that Urban Meyer is no longer a potential USC coaching candidate, who rises to the top of the wish list? Cincinnati’s Luke Fickle? Iowa State’s Matt Campbell? 

With Urban Meyer having taken the job with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, will attention turn to Iowa State standout head coach Matt Campbell (photo above)?

Almost MIA:
The Football Writers Association announced its 2020 FWAA Freshman All-America team and just one West Coast player, Oregon linebacker Noah Sewell, was named. One former West Coast prep star, LSU corner Elias Ricks, formerly of Santa Ana, Calif./Mater Dei, was also named. First-year Colorado coach Karl Dorrell was named as coach of the “freshman” team. 

The call-in show…

Caller No. 1: Greg, if you could again watch a former USC running back run again for the cardinal and gold, who would it be?  

Caller No. 1, hey, great question. I am not saying he was the best of USC’s tailback, but the late Ricky Bell, to me, had a style all his own. He was the proverbial bull in the China shop. A former linebacker-turned-fullback-turned tailback, Ricky, from LA Fremont HS, was a one-man wrecking crew. I’ll never forget when No. 42 set the USC single-game rushing record of 347 yards against Washington State in the “new” Seattle Kingdome.

One of the greatest running backs in USC history is former All-America tailback Ricky Bell (photo above), whose running style was like an Earl Campbell.

Many forget that Ricky, a two-time consensus All-American (1975-76), was the runner-up for the Heisman behind Pittsburgh Tony Dorsett (1976). He was also voted the player of the year in the old Pac-8 in 1976 as well as being awarded the 1976 W.J. Voit Memorial Trophy as the outstanding football player on the Pacific Coast. See if you agree with me: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J3Ws47GK91I&t=3s  

Caller No. 2: G-Katz, give me one USC football memory when you were just a kid.

Caller No. 2, I guess I’ll never forget the excitement when legendary Trojans defensive line coach Marv Goux would assemble the Trojans in the closed Coliseum end zone for one last moment before running on the field to their bench before kickoff. It really seemed to fire up the fans.

Nobody could fire the Trojans up before a game like the legendary Marv Goux (photo above). (Photo by University of Southern California/Collegiate Images via Getty Images)

Caller No. 3: Katzer, of all the things Pete Carroll said he was going to do at USC before he actually was coaching in a game, what comes to mind?

Caller No. 3, I’ll never forget when Pete said that he was going to fill the Coliseum with sellouts, and Coliseum tickets would be hard to get. Of course, the media thought he was being whimsical, and nobody took him seriously that 93,000 sellouts would one day become the norm. Well, as we all know, that whacko statement at the time came to reality. In fact, I can’t remember ever seeing USC fans sitting in their seats to watch the Trojans warm up on a regular basis. It was an incredible time to be a USC football fan.  

Nobody believed Pete Carroll when he said he was going to have Coliseum sellouts (photo above) as a normal Trojans home game, but the legendary USC coach lived up to his word.

Caller No. 4: Although it never affected me as a fan, but you always mentioned the pregame press box meals that you have partaken. Who served the best pregame media meal?    

Caller No. 4, a tasty question. I always found it fascinating just how much effort and pride each athletic department placed on feeding the media. I can tell you this, nobody does it better than Notre Dame that not only serves a good pregame meal but serves pizza after the game. Others that deserve high marks are Ohio State, Nebraska, Colorado, Washington, and Utah. Each of those schools have outstanding spreads and have provided menu items like chicken, ribs, and sandwiches assortments, soups, salads, and great desserts. I would add that the Cotton Bowl was an unbelievable meal at AT&T Stadium as were the free meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner) at the media hotel.     

Caller No. 5: Grego, do you like doing puzzles?

Caller No. 5, I don’t have a lot of patience for puzzles, but I do like “4D” puzzles of major cities like New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles. These puzzles include streets and buildings. The puzzles are normally 1,000 pieces. I haven’t built all the cities yet, but have completed NYC, LA, and Las Vegas. Those yet to be built are Chicago, Washington DC, Boston and San Francisco. The puzzles are from a company called “4D Cityscape.” Below is my completed Los Angeles. Can you see the Coliseum? Dodgers Stadium? Hollywood?  

There is a real enjoyment doing a 4D puzzle of Los Angeles (photo above). Can you see the Coliseum, Dodgers Stadium, and the Hollywood sign?
In case you couldn’t find the Coliseum in my 4D puzzle, here is the Grand Old Lady (photo above). If you look to the upper right, you can even see the Staples Center.

The last word: You always hear the word perseverance in many walks of life. Well, perseverance certainly applies to the former Trojans linebacker Porter Gustin, who has overcome injuries to find his niche with the Cleveland Browns, who recently lost in the NFL playoffs. With good health, it certainly appears that Porter will be spending future seasons in the NFL, and it is well earned and deserved.      

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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