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IMHO Sunday: “We’re so much closer than people think.”

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

The prognosticator: “We’re so much closer than people think.” Did that quote come from (A) Trojans’ quarterback Kedon Slovis (B) USC Athletic Director Mike Bohn (C) USC President Dr. Carol Folt (D) Trojans’ head coach Clay Helton (cover photo above)? If you answered Clay Helton, give yourself a cardinal and gold pat on the back. The aforementioned quote was taken from a national column written last week by cbssports.com’s national columnist Dennis Dodd, who wrote what can be objectively considered a very charitable piece regarding the state of Clay Helton, the USC football program, the outlook heading into Spring Practice, and a glimpse into the 2020 regular season.  

The prognosticator – Part 2:
Head coaches are paid not only to coach their teams to victory but to put a big smiley face on the upcoming season and their program in general. It sells tickets and normally generates all sorts of enthusiasm and optimism. Therefore, it certainly was in Clay Helton’s right to prop up his prospective of the 2020 season and provide that enthusiasm and optimism to overcome any current skepticism that has manifested itself the past two seasons. Objectively, the 2020 Trojans should be in the hunt for a Pac-12 title, so one can understand Helton’s giddy enthusiasm. However, a vast majority of USC fans understandably remain extremely cautious in getting worked up into a lather regarding Gentleman Clay’s I-know-better-than-you comments. Those loyal cardinal and gold fans have heard it all before from Helton, especially as it has pertained to his teams the past two seasons.

The prognosticator – Part 3:
Ever the optimist and looking towards the 2020 season, Clay Helton also told Dennis Dodd, “You have these moments that you just feel (the future). I remember being here in 2011. We had a good football team going in. We finished, like, fifth in the country. I remember the Rose Bowl year in 2016 finishing third. … Wow, we have something here. I feel that same way. I feel like we’re a great kept secret (for next season).” A pretty optimistic viewpoint from a coach whose record the past two seasons is 13-12 and is currently riding a two-game bowl losing streak. However, who can blame Helton for trying to paint a positive picture for 2020? 

The prognosticator – Part 4: All of which brings us back again to the credibility and integrity issue of what Clay Helton says today and what he has said in the past – like in 2018 and 2019. In both years, he predicted in early parts of each season that USC fans would be excited by what they would be seeing come November – not to mention those yearly “physicality” improvement comments that have failed to materialize. In 2018, that November prediction was a total flop with a 5-7 season, losing five of the last six games.

In 2019, Helton’s team finished the regular season 8-4 by winning their last 5 of 6 games. Again, to be objective, the Pac-12 teams they defeated in the second half of the season were not on the same talent level as the Men of Troy, and remember the lone Trojans loss in that second half of last season was to highly ranked Oregon, 56-24, in the Coliseum. Yet, following the conclusion of the last season, Helton seized the opportunity to boast, “Right now, I wouldn’t want to play us. We have a lot of confidence in the second half of the season.” Those words of conviction, however, were obliterated when his team was shellacked, 49-24, in late December by the Iowa Hawkeyes in the SDCCU Holiday Bowl.  

Before the humiliating 49-24 loss to Iowa in the SDCCU Holiday Bowl, Clay Helton (photo above) was confident enough after a successful second half of the regular season to say, “Right now, I wouldn’t want to play us. We have a lot of confidence in the second half of the season.” (Photo by Jordon Kelly)

The prognosticator– Part 5: Clay Helton will always see the cup at least half full because it’s in his DNA. However, he has undercut his credibility by manufacturing quotes the past couple of seasons that have hurt his believability. That being said, maybe Gentlemen Clay is caught between a rock and a hard place, but it reminds us of former President Theodore Roosevelt’s famous foreign policy quote: “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.” Staying positive is one thing, but it wouldn’t hurt to tone down the hyperbole a bit and let things play out. In other words, win games and let the scoreboard do the talking.

Prognosticator – Part 6: In the 2020 season opener against powerful Alabama, it would be a major upset if the Trojans somehow come away with an upset victory. However, if the Crimson Tide take it to USC again, you can bet – “We’re so much closer than people think” – will come crashing down from the national and local media and not to mention the national perspective. It just makes sense to be guarded with what you say right up until kickoff in Arlington, Texas.          

Clay Helton’s preseason words of confidence leading into the 2020 season will be tested in the opening game against Nick Saban’s powerhouse Alabama Crimson Tide. In Helton’s fulltime head coaching debut in 2016, Alabama came away with a resounding 52-6 victory (photo above).

From the press box…

Preseason optimism: ESPN’s national college football columnist Mark Schlabach, he of the “Way-Too-Early Top 25 rankings, gave the Trojans some love this week by pre-ranking the 2020 Men of Troy No. 21 in the country.

Preseason optimism – Part 2: Schlabach wrote, “It was a surprise to many USC fans that coach Clay Helton wasn’t fired after this past season, but there’s reason for optimism heading into 2020. The Trojans bring back 17 starters on offense and defense, perhaps the best receiver corps in the FBS and two very highly regarded quarterbacks. USC was downright awful on defense last season, but youth and injuries were legitimate reasons for some of the struggles. Nine freshmen or sophomores started on that side of the ball in a 49-24 loss to Iowa in the San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl. Former Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando was hired after another major shake-up to Helton’s staff. He was able to retain offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, who was contacted by Texas. Quarterback Kedon Slovis ranked third in the FBS in completion percentage (71.9%), 11th in total QBR (76.2) and ninth in yards per game (291.8) as a freshman. JT Daniels, who is coming back from a torn ACL, is sticking around to compete with him this spring.” Ya sold on the ranking and analysis?

There is reason for optimism for the 2020 Trojans because decorated freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis (photo above) returns.

Colorado Rocky Mountain High: Colorado, which was jolted like nobody’s business by former head coach Mel Tucker who took the money and ran to Michigan State after just one season in Boulder, is expected to officially name former UCLA head coach and current Miami Dolphins’ receiver coach Karl Dorrell as it’s new head coach. Seriously? Not that Karl Dorrell. Are you sure? FYI, Dorrell was CU’s offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach from 1995 to ’98 and receivers coach from 1992 to ’93, according to ESPN.com.

It appears that former UCLA head coach and Miami Dolphins wide receivers coach Karl Dorrell (photo above) will be the new head coach at Colorado, which plays the Trojans in the Coliseum on Oct. 31.

Colorado Rocky Mountain High – Part 2: To refresh your memory, Dorrell led the Westwooders to five bowl appearances and recorded a 35-27 record. He was fired at the end of the ’07 season although the Bruins participated in a bowl game. The last time the Trojans faced Karl Dorrell’s Bruins, Pete Carroll’s Trojans defeated the Blue and Gold, 24-7, in the Coliseum in front of 91,553. In case you’ve forgotten, the current Coliseum capacity is 77,500. Any predictions what attendance will be when Dorrell brings his Buffaloes into the Coli?

The drop line: I am still trying to get my head around the fact in the Dennis Dodd national story on cbssports.com, “a source” said the Trojans were right there to hire former LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and even financially matched the LSU offer in the battle for the coach’s services. As we now know, Aranda left LSU to become the head coach at Baylor. My question: Why would you – if true – put that out that information out on Aranda when you already had hired Todd Orlando as your defensive coordinator?

For whatever reason, word leaked out this week in a column by Dennis Dodd that the Trojans were close to hiring former LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda (photo above) as defensive coordinator…until Aranda accepted the head coaching position at Baylor.

More Aranda: Dave Aranda has been on the rise as a coach for a number of seasons, and he is a name that Trojans fans should keep an eye if and when there is a head football coach opening. It’s not a secret that Aranda is from local Redlands, California, and his family would like to eventually return to California. The future Aranda question: Will he end up at USC or UCLA first? Sure, Dave is just in his first season at Baylor, but it would be foolish given the state of things at both local schools that Aranda wouldn’t be at the top or near the top as head coaching material.

Spring thought:
It will be fascinating how celebrated new Trojans special teams coach Sean Snyder, who was an All-American punter at Kansas State, tutors Trojans’ gifted punter Ben Griffiths both in the spring and in the fall. There was a lot of noise that former special teams coach John Baxter overcoached and retarded Griffiths progress during last season. Ben looked terrific last spring and into fall training camp, but when the regular season began, it seemed like Baxter neutralized Griffiths natural abilities. 

Nationally acclaimed special teams coach Sean Snyder (photo above), a former All-America punter at Kansas State, will have a chance to work with talented Trojans’ punter Ben Griffiths. Synder’s father, Bill Snyder, former legendary head coach at Kansas St, was a grad assistant for the Trojans’ John McKay back in 1966.

The post-game show…

Transfer-mania: The NCAA Transfer Portal continues to be a hot topic. The NCAA is fast tracking new legislation that would allow a first-time transfer immediate eligibility as long as the transfer is in good academic standing, has not gotten in trouble, and is given permission from the school of departure. If this legislation passes, can you imagine the potential chaos down the road?

The Trojans received the benefits of the NCAA Transfer Portal ast season when they were able to obtain the services of Tennessee grad transfer Drew Richmond (photo above) to fill the offensive right tackle position.

Transfer-mania – Part 2:
If the new proposed NCAA transfer legislation goes through, spring practice and early freshmen admissions might never be the same. Imagine a high school senior who arrives at his college school of choice – either by enrolling early or in August training camp – and finds out that he doesn’t like what he sees (think Chris Steele)? And just think how that will affect recruiting and redshirting. It’s scary. Suddenly, the final depth charts of Spring Practice could turn into a major cluster.

Meet and Greet:
A reminder for those Trojans Athletic Fund (TAF) members wanting to know more about USC football, Spring Practice, and recruiting heading into spring ball are invited to the “2020 Trojan Football Spring Preview and to welcome the recruiting Class to the Trojan Family.” The football evening includes special guests such as the new spring signees and current players, and, of course, Clay Helton and staff. The event will take place on Wednesday, March 4, in the Scholarship Club Tower of the Lou Galen Club in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The Scholarship Club Tower of the Lou Galen Club inside the Coliseum (photo above) will be the location for a TAF “2020 Trojan Football Spring Preview and to welcome the recruiting Class to the Trojan Family” on Wednesday, March 4,

Meet and Greet – Part 2: The aforementioned event will begin at 5:30 p.m. with hors d’oeuvres and cocktails followed by a 6:30 p.m. “chalk talk.” Attire for the evening is listed as “smart and casual.” For more information, call 213-740-4155.

Last add Meet and Greet:
Oh, dear, we forget to give you the financial donation for the above event. Cost for a Patron Reservation is $1,500, which includes reserved program seating for four (4), one reserved parking spot in Lot 4, and video recognition. For TAF Fund Member Reservations, the cost is $150 per person.

The call-in show…

Caller No. 1: Katz, what intrigues you most regarding spring ball? I am anxious to see how much more physical practices are supposed to be, and I am looking forward to seeing Todd Orlando’s defensive schemes and philosophies and potential position changes on both sides of the ball.

There should be a lot of spring practice fan interest in new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s system and instillation. The Trojans defense (photo above) will need to improve if the cardinal and gold are going to be a serious Pac-12 title contender in 2020.

Caller No. 2: Sir, do you think that quarterback Matt Fink should transfer to another school to get a chance at being a starter? No, I think Matt will have his USC moments again in 2020. Current Trojans starter Kedon Slovis has proven to be susceptible to injury, and sophomore JT Daniels (ACL) still is an unknown in his drive to return by August training camp. So, no, I think Matt would be better off staying put, and I predict that he will at least through spring ball. 

Caller No. 3: Gregor, where do you think the Trojans will hold their Spring Showcase Game on Saturday, April 11, at noon? Now that the renovation of the Coliseum is history, it seems that the event should be played in the Coli. However, maybe due to fear of lack of attendance, holding the Spring Showcase on Loker Field is a better idea if there are concerns of low crowd numbers. The showcase figures to be televised by the Pac-12 Networks, hence the noon start. A note: The Spring Showcase is being conducted one week prior to the actual ending of spring ball.  

Will the Coliseum (photo above) be the site for the annual Spring Showcase Game on Saturday, April 11, or will the event return to the Loker Track Stadium on campus?

Caller No. 4: Mr. Katz, offensively, who do you want to keep an eye on? For me, I have a great interest in seeing who and how the replacements for the two starting tackles shakes down. I know there is talk about moving right guard Jalen McKenzie to right tackle and maybe giving backup center Justin Dedich a shot at right guard. I am also intrigued to see young wide receivers Bru McCoy and a Kyle Ford. Both were so great in high school, but only Ford got on the Coliseum field late in the 2019 season as McCoy was redshirted.   

Starting offensive right guard Jalen McKenzie (photo above) could be moved to right tackle in spring ball.

Caller No. 5: Coach, who is the most awesome athlete you have ever met? Well, it’s really a no-brainer. I once met Muhammad Ali at the Century Plaza Hotel while he was still boxing. He was so much larger than life, and when he turned to me while I was standing next to him, he gave me a pulled one-two combination punch and said, “I am the greatest!” It was everything you would have wanted to see him say and do in a public setting outside the ring.  If only selfies had been invented at that time.  

There was nothing more thrilling and breathtaking than meeting the great Muhammad Ali (photo above).

The Final Word: So, how many of you are still debating for the obvious reasons whether to renew your season tickets?

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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