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O/NSO: A spring prospectus of words edition

The Obvious: As the USC Trojans complete their first week of spring ball on Saturday morning in pads without benefit of a viewing cardinal and gold general public, an insightful and informative resource for USC football followers is the Trojans’ spring football media guide (click on the following words in red), which is now available free to the general public for downloading.

The Not So Obvious: One of the most informative aspects of the Trojans’ spring guide is the analytical words from USC head coach Clay Helton, regarding his general thoughts and assessments of his offense, defense, special teams, and the 2021 schedule. So, without any further ado, let’s take a look at the coach’s direct quotes, and allow the O/NSO to give you our reactions and analysis.

The Obvious: In the spring prospectus, Clay Helton says, “We were very proud of our team last season, winning five games in a row, getting to the Pac-12 Championship Game and being a win away from the College Football Playoff while navigating through the pandemic.”

The Not So Obvious: One could say all the coach’s comments were mostly true. The Trojans were 5-0 during the 2020 regular season, although two of those games, Arizona State (28-27) and Arizona (34-30), could be best described as a miracle and a heartstopper, respectively. And remember, the Trojans did not play undefeated Colorado (undefeated at the time) in the Coli due to COVID.

However, getting to the Pac-12 Championship Game and losing to Oregon, 34-31, in the Coliseum was a reality check on the 2020 Trojans. The Trojans final record, of course, was 6-1. Close but no cigar and no Pac-12 title. The Trojans now have not won a conference title since 2017.

The Trojans finished the 2020 season 6-1, losing to Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game, and later declining to accept a bowl invitation. (Photo by Dennis Hammond/Long Photography)

As for one win away from the College Football Playoffs, the O/NSO knows of no evidence to suggest that the Trojans were literally one win away from automatically advancing into a CFP semi-final game, do you? Where did it say that had the Trojans won the Pac-12 they were included in the CFP post-season? Sure, if the Men of Troy had finished the regular season undefeated and had won the Pac-12 they would have been in consideration.

However, the CFP committee would have also remembered those games against the Arizona schools and not playing undefeated Colorado. The point, again, is that there is nothing to suggest that if the Trojans had won the Pac-12 they were “in” the CFP. And think about this: How excited would you have been to see the Trojans play Alabama in one of those semi-final games without Kedon Slovis?  

Clay Helton (photo above) says the Trojans were one win from being in the College Football Playoffs, but there is no public evidence to suggest that had the Men of Troy won the Pac-12 title that they would have been automatically selected to be in one of the CFP semi-final games.

The Obvious: In the spring prospectus, Coach Clay Helton says, “We were sick with the way it (the season) ended in that Pac-12 Championship Game. What that did, however, was create a very hungry team and coaching staff for 2021.”

The Not So Obvious: The O/NSO would agree with the coach, staff, and team about being “sick” the way the season ended. However, it’s questionable whether the loss to Oregon in 2020 makes the 2021 Trojans anymore hungry than say the 2020 team which was trying to erase the memory of the 2019 season, a season which the Trojans didn’t win the Pac-12 South Division, finished 8-5, and we won’t discuss being dominated by Iowa in the Holiday Bowl. Wouldn’t that have created a very hungry team, too?

Trojans head coach Clay Helton (photo above) gave it his all in the Pac-12 Championship game, but the loss left the coach, his staff, and his players feeling “sick” after the loss to Oregon.

The Obvious: In the spring prospectus, Coach Clay Helton says, “We saw what kind of team we were able to build last season and then in the off-season we saw the results of our recruiting and the staff additions we made. That should lead to a very dynamic 2021 season. It is an exciting time for Trojan football.”

The Not So Obvious: First, let’s start with the coach’s comments regarding the recent recruiting class of 2021. It was undeniably a success, deserving of a top 10 ranking, and credit should go to the coach and his staff. Then again, based on the colossal recruiting disaster of 2020, there was no place to go but up, like way up, and they did just that. Kudos again to the staff.

There is every reason for Clay Helton and his staff to revel in the recruiting Class of 2021, which was ranked as one of the best in the country. The signing included the No. 1 player in the country, DL Korey Foreman (photo above).

In terms of the team that Helton built in 2020, you can’t honestly say offensively that when your running attack was last in the Pac-12 last season you are building toward a dominating team. We’re in agreement that the defense was improved and the effort impressive, but there are defensive holes for 2021 that will hopefully be filled through the hard work and evaluation during spring ball.

In summation, unless the Trojans do something with that running attack, having a “very dynamic season” would be very much in question. Championship teams run the ball effectively, so we shall see what spring can produce.

The Obvious: In the spring prospectus, Coach Clay Helton says, “I feel really good about our team in all phases of the games.”

The Not So Obvious: Sorry for again belaboring the point, but the O/NSO is trying to wrap our head around the fact that the coach feels good about all aspects of his team when his running attack was ranked last in 2020 in Pac-12 team rushing statistics. Let’s remember that in 2020 the Trojans also avoided having to play the physical defenses of Alabama and Notre Dame.

Trojans head football coach Clay Helton says he feels really good about all phases of his team, although the 2020 Trojans ranked last in Pac-12 team rushing (Photo above by Dennis Hammond/Long Photography).

The rushing game aside, there are offensive things to feel really good about (quarterback/wide receivers), but there are concerns that obviously need major improvement (O-line/run game philosophy and production). If the Trojans are going to win future conference titles and return to being a serious national championship contender on an annual basis, they have to be good at all phases of the game and not just talk about being it. That’s just telling it as it is, but we understand that Gentleman Clay is trying his best to drum up excitement, optimism, and season ticket sales.

The Obvious: In the spring prospectus, Coach Clay Helton says, “Our offense is hard to defend and features one of the nation’s premier quarterbacks, an outstanding receiver corps, some veteran running backs who are now healthy and most of the line coming back.”

After many questions regarding the health of his right arm, Trojans All-Pac-12 quarterback Kedon Slovis (photo above) is again back on the practice field for spring ball and appears to be healthy. (Photo by Alex Verdugo/USC Football)

The Not So Obvious: Okay, let’s have some perspective here. This offense isn’t always hard to defend; it’s the talent in certain positions that is hard to defend. Yes, the Trojans have a premier quarterback, and, yes, some of the very best receivers in America, and, yes, some hardworking, veteran running backs, who have had to make their own holes too many times. However, what good are veteran running backs if the Trojans don’t run the ball enough, aren’t provided holes, and no longer have a All-Pac-12 tackle, who has left for the NFL?

To be sure, the offensive line currently and dramatically lacks quantity of overall elite individual talent and hasn’t shown ability to impose its dominance over opponents. The fact that a mediocre offensive line at best – without All -Pac-12 tackle and likely first-round draft pick Alijah Vera-Tucker – returns should not be an initial adrenaline rush of optimism. However, first-year O-line coach Clay McGuire deserves his chance to mold together a unit of unproven talent into a championship unit. The jury is out on this unit.    

The Trojans are hoping that the return of senior right offensive tackle Jalen McKenzie (photo above) will be emblematic of improvement along the entire offensive line for 2021. (Photo above by Alex Verdugo/USC Football)

The truth is that the Trojans’ offense can out-talent some teams with Graham Harrell’s passing offense, but against good teams and good defensive coordinators, this offense can be and has been controlled within reason. Just ask Pac-12 champion Oregon, which held the Trojans to 24 points in the title game.

The Trojans are hoping for a rebirth of their running game, and USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell (photo above) will have a huge say if there is dedication to a run game in 2021. (Photo by John McGillen via USC Athletics)

The success of most opponents against the Trojans offense was to drop eight back on defense, play zone with a droplet of occasional man-to-man, disguise blitzes, and have little concerns with a Trojans’ running game that seems by attitude and choice to be either deemphasized or ignored. You not only get the picture, but you’ve seen the picture. Perhaps spring ball will be the first step to reestablishing some run credibility, especially in short yardage and goal line situations. Might we see some quarterback snaps under center in the spring?

The Obvious: In the spring prospectus, Coach Clay Helton says, “Our defense improved tremendously last year and should continue that way in 2021, with one of the country’s best secondaries, some fierce edge rushers and some solid play up front and at linebacker.”

Trojans defensive coordinator Todd Orlando (photo above) is credited along with his defensive staff in making a major upgrade of the 2020 defense and recruiting. (Photo by John McGillen via USC Athletics)

The Not So Obvious: This is one area that we did see dramatic improvement in spirit, hustle, and aggression. It was a far cry from the vanilla and at times unemotional and inconsistent defenses of the Clancy Pendergast era. While defending against the run still needs to be more regimented against elite, physical teams, the new defensive staff was both a coaching and recruiting upgrade – not to mention a philosophical scheme change – from the season before.

It’s hoped that with a real spring practice, Todd Orlando’s defensive schemes will be fine-tuned, adequate replacements can be found for the defensive front, the manufacturing of more depth at linebacker attained, and the most daunting of challenges – finding a replacement for All-America safety and 2020 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Talanoa Hufanga.   

Clay Helton believes that the 2021 USC defense will have one of the best secondaries in the country, but if they do, they have to figure a way to replace All-America safety Talanoa Hufanga (photo above by Jose / MarinMedia.org Pool for USC Athletics).

The Obvious: In the spring prospectus, Coach Clay Helton says, “Our special teams were terrific last year, and we expect more of that this season; the punter crushes the ball and our kicker performed very well as a true freshman.”

The Not So Obvious: The Coach is correct about his punting game and placekicking, especially having used a true freshman kicker. However, Gentleman Clay certainly knows the 2020 kickoff and punt returners left a lot to be desired when it came to return yardage. However, the punt and kickoff coverage teams were very good last season. It was not a completely “terrific” USC special teams season but a very good one.  

The Obvious: In the spring prospectus, Coach Clay Helton says, “Between the always-tough Pac-12 opponents and 3 outstanding non-conference teams, this schedule gives us an opportunity to create an unbelievable resume.”

Clay Helton believes if his team can do well against non-conference teams like Notre Dame, which will have to replace QB Ian Book (photo above), it could “create an unbelievable resume.”

The Not So Obvious: Some would argue that the 2021 schedule is an advantageous one to win a conference title and make a national championship run. The O/NSO believes that the schedule is much more challenging than it appears. San Jose St., BYU, and Notre Dame are all coming off outstanding seasons, but they, too, have their issues, especially replacing their quarterbacks. In terms of the Pac-12, the Trojans have to travel to ASU, which may be for the South title, and Utah – even in the Coli – should be quite formidable.

We might get a preview of what is to come not by the San Jose St opener but the following week when hosting a physical, talented, and well-coached Stanford team. Whether the Trojans can “create an unbelievable resume” remains to be seen, but it begins with building a foundation in the spring.

The Obvious: In the spring prospectus, Coach Clay Helton says, “Each week will be a challenge. We’ll need to bring our ‘A’ game every time we take the field.”

Clay Helton (photo above) believes that to be successful in 2021, the Trojans will need to bring their “A” game every time his team takes the field.

The Not So Obvious: Amen to that, coach. No disagreement here. The question is…will they?

The Obvious: And finally, a coach’s job is to raise the positivity meter in the spring to not only generate enthusiasm for the upcoming season but to encourage season ticket renewals and appealing to potential season ticket buyers.  

The Not So Obvious: So, give Clay Helton credit for trying to unite the masses through his words. When you haven’t won the conference since 2017, it’s truly a credibility challenge. Hopefully for the coach, his positive spring prospectus words will either be a harbinger of things to come, or words that will come back later to haunt him.  

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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