Delivering some musings on post-spring practice questions and offering Part II of the Pacific Northwest opponent previews.
In how many games will USC start a true freshman QB?
I’d put the over/under at 3, and that’s a scary figure. Kedon Slovis’ health is probably the single most important factor this season. With a pass first, pass second, pass third offense, the Trojans must have strong quarterback play every week. When they don’t get that, they lose. A freshman quarterback can play well – Slovis did most of the time – but you definitely don’t want to count on that.
Is USC going to do anything to protect Slovis? In years past, they don’t use screens or draws effectively. They don’t move the pocket very often. They put the quarterback about eight yards back and have him throw 50 times a game. That means everybody knows exactly where he’s going to be, and they can let loose the pash rush specialists without fear that USC will mix it up and make them pay. If you haven’t already, it’s time to start praying for Kedon’s health.
Is Drake Jackson really a linebacker, and is that where he’s going to stay?
I’m not sure he is, but I suspect that’s where he’ll be. Drake Jackson is a big guy who can move. He’s had some great plays as a Trojan, and I expect he’ll have a big season. But I wonder if the USC coaches have really maximized his contribution. He can make plays in space, but he doesn’t have great speed or athleticism for a linebacker. He has great speed and athleticism for a defensive end. Why, then, move him off the line, where he goes from being a great athlete to a good one? I wonder if it was a mistake to have Jackson slim down and play in space. I’m hoping we’ll see more of a 4-3 look from the Trojans this year with Jackson on the line of scrimmage, maybe opposite Korey Foreman.
Can USC defend the A gap?
I’d like to think so, but I wouldn’t bet the mortgage payment on it. Marlon T is gone. Jay Tufele is gone. Brandon Pili is out. Those are the guys USC has relied on in the middle for the last few years. And the Alabama transfer, Ishmael Sopsher, who we hope can fill the shoes of at least one of those guys, missed spring practice with an injury. There is a giant hole in the middle of that defense. The USC coaches seem excited about some of the younger inside guys. Maybe they’ll be great; we’ll see. But so far the only offensive line they’ve played against is USC’s, and I’m not sure that tells us very much.
It’s almost impossible to play good defense if you can’t control the A gap, and right now, USC has nobody who has proven they can do that on Saturdays. This is a huge question mark.
What can we expect from the linebacking corps?
Not a lot, I suspect, unless the Solomon Tuliaupupu gets healthy or the freshmen shine early. When the Trojans signed Tuliaupupu and Palaie Gaoteote in 2018, the future of the USC linebacking corps looked bright. But after some early flashes, Gaoteote never developed, and Tuliaupupu has spent all his time hurt. The linebacking corps has been mediocre for years now. Where is the high draft choice on this roster? Where is the guy who will consistently run downhill and blow up running backs in the hole? Is Julien Simon or will Raesjon Davis be ready to do that? Will Kana’i Mauga become consistent? I don’t know. But I’m looking at a defense with no proven A gap defenders and a questionable
linebacking corps. In the SEC, that would be a death sentence. But even in the Pac 12, where you see a lot more finesse football, it’s still a huge potential problem.
I think this defense will play well in the secondary, and if Korey Foreman is close to the beast he is expected to be, this team could have some good edge rushers. But I’m really worried about USC’s ability to stop the inside run game.
Will Drake London be the most dominant Trojan receiver since Mike Williams?
I’m not saying Drake London will be Mike Williams. That’s a tall order. Williams may have been more dominant than Reggie Bush. He was that good. But I’m not saying London won’t be Mike Williams, either. London has great size, excellent quickness, great body control. He is a monster. His size creates matchup problems that recent greats like Robert Woods and Marqise Lee did not create. He’s similar to Michael Pittman in that regard, but better. He’s
big and powerful like Williams. He’s big and smooth like Keyshawn. He’s a stud, and if anybody is foolish enough to try to cover him in man – I’m looking at you Kyle Whittingham – they will be embarrassed. He’ll dominate this year, and he’ll play for a decade or more on Sundays.
What do we make of guys leaving early and not getting drafted?
It bothers me when guys leave school early and don’t get drafted. It’s tough to make a team as a free agent, and leaving school to get cut or to spend a couple of years on a practice squad doesn’t make a ton of sense.
At the same time, this is because I believe the guy who leaves early is giving up something important. But maybe in some cases they’re not. It would be nice to get a degree, of course, but not everybody is going to graduate, and USC will still keep a desk open for these former athletes if they want to come back and graduate later. Leaving early doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t get a degree.
Part of what bothers a lot of us is giving up a chance to play another season for USC. For people like me, that seems like a major loss. Growing up, I didn’t dream about playing in the NFL; I dreamed about running out of the Coliseum tunnel against the Irish. It’s hard to imagine somebody choosing to give up an opportunity like that so they can try to make a roster as a free agent a year earlier.
But we don’t know the individual circumstances that lead people to make that decision. Maybe they’ve had enough of college. Maybe they need to make money now to support their families. I’ve decided not to judge these decisions about which I have very little information.
Pete Carroll used to say guys should come back for their senior years unless they are first-round picks. I’m not sure that’s true. Some guys are great college players with physical limitations that will always be a drag on their draft status. An extra year in college probably doesn’t help a guy like that. Some guys, like Talanoa Hufanga, have played brilliantly when healthy but because of injury concerns probably need to go now before the injury big strikes again.
But when you see guys leave early who you know cannot possibly be high NFL draft choices – guys who don’t have the size, speed, or game tape to justify it – it makes you nervous. I’ll just say this: I hope these guys are making their decisions based on good information. I’m always nervous that ignorant or dishonest and self-serving people may be providing bad information and inflating players’ expectations beyond what is reasonable. I hope they truly understood the risks and understood what they were giving up when they decided to make that jump.
Is San Jose State a threat in the opener?
Clay Helton’s USC teams have been lousy in openers. Last year’s miracle win against ASU is probably USC’s best performance in opening games in his tenure. That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, does it? USC beat a terrible Fresno State team by one score in 2019. A horrible UNLV team gashed USC for about 6 miles on the ground in 2018. A weak Western Michigan team gashed USC for almost 6 miles on the ground in 2017 and was actually tied with 34 seconds left in the third quarter. We don’t even need to talk about 2016 in Arlington.
So by my calculations, the best opener of Clay Helton’s tenure is last year’s game against Arizona State, where the Trojans needed a series of miracle plays to beat an okay ASU team.
And don’t let the name fool you: San Jose State isn’t bad. The Spartans won the Mountain West last year. They bring back their second-team all-conference quarterback. USC will be favored, and the Trojans should clearly win the game. But it’s okay to be nervous. If this one is tight late in the game, I won’t be surprised.
What can we expect from the USC running game thi
Sorry. I couldn’t even finish the question. Let’s just move on.
Will the USC special teams be excellent?
Yes. We saw improvement last year in Sean Snyder’s first year. That guy is a good coach, and we’ll see an even bigger jump in year two. The giant Aussie will turn in the best punting performance since Tom Malone, and the Trojans will even know how and when to squib kick if necessary.
Should USC and UCLA jump to the Big 12?
Yes. The Pac 12 is a sinking ship.
The scene has been filmed a thousand times in action movies by now. A scene of destruction, usually an explosion or a blazing inferno, in the background, and the perpetrator walking slowly towards the camera, not even looking back. That’s Tennis Larry right now.
Having spent years pouring gasoline on the Pac 12 conference, he’s lit the match and is now walking away from the scene of his crime, not even looking back, as the next person looks to inherit a crater and some embers. Only in this scene, there were apparently some Pac 12 presidents who still wanted to keep Larry on the job. This is an aside, but I really do wonder what it takes to get to the top of the food chain in the academic world these days. What a remarkable crew of clueless dolts we have running many of the biggest, most important universities in the world. Not Carol Folt, of course. She’s doing a remarkable job continuing her predecessor’s plan of dismantling USC’s unique traditions while making the university accessible to the progeny of the Chinese Communist Party’s elite. But the other guys, the ones who wanted to keep Larry “Fine” Scott as the captain of the Pac 12 Titanic? Those people shouldn’t be entrusted with a lemonade stand.
The rumor is that finding a replacement has not been easy. I think the Pac 12 presidents are looking to hire Heath Ledger’s Joker, the only person who could cause more destruction than the last guy.
Whatever. The LA schools should just leave. They’ll make more money, and it’s not that big a deal to fly to Texas to play some games. By the way, just in case the Joker isn’t available, what if I could find somebody who would be a good face for the organization, somebody the school presidents would like, somebody who won’t embarrass the conference with his personal behavior? And what if I told you that person is an eternal optimist and simply won’t be dispirited in the slightest by the fact that the organization is a mess and is second-rate compared to its competitors? In fact, what if I told you the candidate already has significant experience in just that scenario and never seems bothered by it? And what if I told you that person has already committed to staying in their current position for 15 years, which means it’s somebody who will hang in there for the long-term and won’t be jumping to a new position at the first opportunity? (Indeed, he probably won’t be considered for any other position ever.) Because if the conference is interested in somebody like that, I have just the guy in mind.
It’s cold in Ohio in the winter; would Luke Fickell be interested in moving to Southern California in December?
Geez, I hope so.
Help me, Luke Fickell. You’re my only hope.
Who will be the biggest surprise on the USC roster?
Stephen Carr. I know he hasn’t been the same guy since that freshman season, and he’s not exactly playing in a running-back friendly offense. But I just have a feeling on this one. I think Carr will be as good physically as he’s been in a long time, he’s a good pass catcher, and he’ll be motivated to make his mark this year. When he signed, I thought he was USC’s best running back recruit since Reggie. He won’t be Reggie, but I think he’ll surprise, and I think there’s a chance he’ll look a lot like the guy who seemed just as explosive as Ronald Jones during the first half of his first season.
Will the USC-UCLA game determine which LA school replaces its head coach after this season?
I think so. Two coaches go in; only one comes out. Chip has been a disaster at UCLA. But that game is not gimme. The Bruins are getting better (cue John Lennon: “It can’t get no worse”), three of the last four games have been very competitive, and UCLA’s strength (running the ball) might be a problem for USC’s defense. That’s a toss-up game, and with both fan bases down on their coaches, the loser might not survive. I think Drake London’s 240 yards and three touchdowns helps USC win a close one, and Chip gets the axe. USC fans get a five-year extension for Mr. Set Jaw and Bruins fans can get ready for Rick Neuheisel The Sequel!
Pacific Northwest, Part II
Record Against USC: 30-54-1
Defining Program Moment: 1991 co-national champion team.
Washington is one of two contenders for the second-best program in the history of the Pac-12, with UCLA being the other. I’m giving the nod to the Huskies. I’m going to spend a lot of time analyzing UCLA in a later Musings, so let me give just a couple of reasons for now. The big one being that Washington is less soft. UCLA has a bear as a mascot. But they don’t use a tough bear. They have two teddy bears running around on the sideline. Embarrassing. Washington has a tough dog. A husky. If Washington were UCLA, it’s mascot would be a French poodle in a skirt. Point for Washington.
And Washington rolls with the toughest possible shade of its school color – a dark purple. UCLA goes with the softest possible shade of blue. Another point for Washington.
Third, while both schools hired Skippy, Washington did it first, when you still might have had an excuse for doing so. By the time UCLA did it, there was no excuse. It’s the difference between being a communist in 1917 and 2017.
Finally, Washington had that 1991 team led by Steve Emtman. UCLA hasn’t had anything like that in my lifetime. They’ve had good teams. Aikman’s last team was good. (But not good enough – ha!) They won a lot of games with Cade McNown. But they haven’t put anything on the field like that 1991 Huskies team. That team was a juggernaut. In 1990 that squad gave Todd M and USC one of the worst beatings I’ve ever seen from a USC team not coached by Clay Helton. That team alone vaults Washington into the second spot.
So there you have it: UW is the second-best program in the history of the conference. What’s the long-term prognosis? Washington is a solid program. Unlike some other Pac 12 powers (cough, cough), they have not abandoned their tradition of physicality. But I think their ceiling at this point is below elite status. Chris Petersen took them to heights not seen since Don James, but he didn’t turn them into a monster. Jimmy Lake (no relation to Lloyd – I think) won’t either. Washington will remain a tough venue, and the Huskies will be physical and disciplined. As long as USC doesn’t have its act together, that game will remain one of the biggest challenges on the schedule.
Washington State Cougars
Record Against USC: 10-60-4
Defining Program Moment: Beating Troy Aikman and #1 UCLA in 1988
Program Motto: Cougin’s It
Look, there’s no reason for Washington State to be any good, and for most of their history, they haven’t been. There’s no tradition, no recruiting base. They play in a stadium that would be a quality high school football stadium in Texas. Their motto is most often understood as a way to describe choking away an opportunity for a win. There’s just nothing there that suggests a program that can compete.
But Wazzu has punched above its weight for some time now. And the reason is simple: they do a really good job of hiring football coaches. The current guy is too new to judge, so let’s look at the five hires before him. Three of them – Dennis Erickson, Mike Price, and Mike Leach – were excellent coaches. Even Bill Doba had a winning record. Do you think Ted Tollner, Paul Hackett, Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian, or Clay Helton would have a winning record at Wazzu? No chance.
College football is relatively simple: each school has a floor and a ceiling based on history, resources, and recruiting territory. A doormat can be competitive with a great coach in place. (Bill Snyder at K State.) A juggernaut can be garbage with a horrible coach in place. (John Blake at Oklahoma.) Wazzu has a low floor and ceiling. It has to hire very well to be competitive. I don’t know if the new guy is great yet. If he’s not, then the only thing USC needs to worry about with Wazzu is the possibility of bad weather late in the season. But if USC had a bad coach and was hovering close to its floor – this is just theoretical, mind you – and if Wazzu had a really good coach in place, those games can be interesting. We’ve seen it before.
Carthago delenda est.