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O/NSO: Listening and learning…sort of – edition

The Obvious: When first-year USC Trojans athletic director Mike Bohn (photo above) gave his opening comments during his introductory press conference back in early November, he said he first needed to “listen and learn and lead.”

The Not So Obvious: Bohn used those past remarks about “listening and learning” to come to the recent conclusion that the Trojans needed to cancel their 2021 season opener with a first-ever FCS opponent, namely the Aggies of UC Davis. Fast forward to Wednesday when Bohn “was pleased” to announce on a 247Sports podcast that the Trojans were in the final stages of cancelling the game with Davis and replacing the Aggies with an FBS opponent. Said Bohn, “I have to give our donors and fans a lot of the credit. When I arrived, I committed to listening and learning, and the feedback from our fans was clear. Preserving our history is critically important to us and to our fans, so we worked to make that happen.”

The Obvious: Following Wednesday’s 247Sports podcast, Trojans’ athletic director Mike Bohn officially announced on Thursday the Trojans would open the 2021 season against San Jose State of the Mountain West Conference.

The Not So Obvious: Regarding the official San Jose State announcement, Bohn reiterated his listening to the USC fan base by saying, “We recognize the long-standing tradition that USC has only played FBS schools and we heard passionately from our fans about how important that is to them, so when this opportunity to schedule San Jose State arose, we listened and made it happen.”

The Trojans will open the 2021 season with San Jose State (photo above) on Saturday, Sept. 4.

The Obvious: When AD Mike Bohn announced that beleaguered head football coach Clay Helton would be retained for the 2020 season, the fan feedback was a tsunami of anger that hasn’t subsided.

The Not So Obvious: Had not only Bohn but USC President Dr. Carol Folt listened and learned from fan feedback regarding the job status of Clay Helton? First, hats off to Mike Bohn for cancelling the game against UC Davis after listening and learning to the sentiments of the Trojans fan base against playing an FCS school. However, did Bohn listen and learn from the feedback from the USC football community as it pertained to retaining head football coach Clay Helton? The listen and learn decision to retain Helton for the 2020 season disregarded the feedback not only from fans but former legendary players and media, as well. All that listen and learn and feedback regarding the Trojans’ head football coach was dramatically loud and clear. They all wanted change, and they wanted it last November before the Holiday Bowl disaster. In fairness to Bohn, a former collegiate quarterback at Kansas, he probably did listen to the near unanimous feedback that Helton should go but was likely told by Dr. Folt that the head coach is staying no matter what he listened to and learned from. As we all have come to the conclusion, it is likely that Folt told Bohn that Helton was staying.

Trojans fans are relieved and grateful to USC athletic director Mike Bohn for cancelling the scheduled 2021 season opener against UC Davis (photo above) and replacing the Aggies with San Jose State.

The Obvious: The O/NSO question is this: If Mike Bohn “listened and learned” from fan feedback about cancelling the game against UC Davis, why couldn’t he persuade Dr. Folt – if this was actually the case – to listen and learn from the cries of the Trojans nation until there was an almost complete rebellion?

The Not So Obvious: The quick answer is that Clay Helton had already swept Dr. Folt off her feet much like the head coach does in the recruiting game. Give Helton credit. Through his charming Southern drawl and non-threatening, folksy personality, Folt’s decision to keep the coach was probably a personality decision (they clicked) as opposed to a business decision despite overwhelming evidence for the coach’s removal. However, what both Bohn and Folt have probably learned for the future is that they’d better listen and learn and respect feedback from the fans because the cardinal and gold masses aren’t going to put up with “listen and learn” if it appears that the USC admin isn’t really listening and learning from their passionate constituents.

Did Trojans President Dr. Carol Folt (photo above) “listen and learn” from her Clay Helton retention experience?

The Obvious: The USC Trojans have announced that spring practice, all 15 days of activities, will commence on March 9 and run through April 18 with a gridiron recess for academic spring vacation the week of March 16.

The Not So Obvious: According to Mike Bohn, all spring practices will be open to the public. Many Trojans fans weren’t all that excited about spring ball until the great purge of defensive coaches and the announcement of their well-received replacements. For the old O/NSO, the addition of new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando and a flush of new assistants does bring an air of intrigue and curiosity. With Orlando, no question that there is going to be more of a Marine corps attitude to the defense, which hopefully will also translate to the offense, as well. Whether the defense runs a 3-3-5 or a 4-3-4, it will be interesting to see how the scheme changes affect different players. No matter how you look at it, Orlando appears to be the complete opposite of former Trojans DC Clancy Pendergast, who was more lowkey and less Marine corps sergeant in attitude. Clancy was a true professional, but he would never be confused with a rah-rah approach. Will Orlando demand of Clay Helton that Trojans’ practices both in spring and fall become vastly more physical?   

New Trojans’ defensive coordinator Todd Orlando (photo above) is expected to bring discipline and physicality to the 2020 cardinal and gold defense.

The Obvious: Former Texas defensive lineman Malcolm Roach claims that he is glad that Todd Orlando is gone from the Longhorns program and thinks that will allow the returning UT D-linemen to better exhibit their skills for the next level (NFL).

The Not So Obvious: Roach, who is now preparing for the NFL combine, believes that Orlando didn’t allow he and his fellow linemen to display their talents. Roach claims that he wishes he could play for new Longhorns DC Chris Ash, formerly head coach at Rutgers, who runs a 4-3 system. Ash worked with Texas head coach Tom Hermann on Urban Meyers staff at Ohio State.  However, in fairness to Orlando, the 2019 Texas defense was banged up last season, and that took its toll. One thing the O/NSO knows is that if Orlando is the disciplined, hardnosed coach that many think he is, he could be the right fit at the right time for this USC program. Whether his new scheme is the gamechanger remains to be seen, but the new coach deserves the opportunity to showcase to the fullest what he is selling.

The Trojans defense (photo above) will have a whole new look for the 2020 season, and it will all begin to take shape in Spring Practice, which begins on March 10.

The Obvious: One of the big question marks regarding Todd Orlando’s reported base 3-3-5 defense is how that will affect Trojans freshman standout D-lineman Drake Jackson?

The Not So Obvious: Watching how Orlando inserts Jackson into his defense will be one of the great storylines of spring ball. As a true freshman, Jackson had an outstanding season for the most part, but the jury is out whether Orlando’s new scheme will be an advantage or disadvantage to Jackson’s skillset. It should be fascinating how the new DC deals with this situation. Because of his size (6-4 ,275), some insiders think that Jackson is more of a tweener than a pure inside down lineman. That may be yet to be seen because Drake was just a freshman and has room to get much larger.  

How will Trojans new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s schemes affect returning defensive linemen like freshman Drake Jackson (photo above – No. 99)?

The Obvious: In Todd Orlando’s 3-3-5 scheme, another defensive player to keep an eye on will be sophomore inside linebacker Palaie Gaoteote lV.  

The Not So Obvious: Nobody questions the manhood of Gaoteote, but there are questions whether he should play inside or outside linebacker. Sometimes it seemed last season that Palaie was looking for the TKO type of big hit instead of the good, solid tackle. The junior-to-be will be a key player in terms of where he plays and how well he adjusts to where he plays. Some believe that Gaoteote would make a good outside linebacker if is he is disciplined as it pertains to quarterbacks that run a true RPO type of game.  

With a new, aggressive defense, will sophomore linebacker Palaie Gaoteote lV (photo above – No. 1) remain in the middle or moved to the outside?

The Obvious: The Todd Orlando defensive schemes are said to highlight linebackers and safeties.

The Not So Obvious: In term of the safeties – the Trojans have two really physical returning safeties in sophomores Talanoa Hufanga and Isaiah Pola-Mao. Both of these physical studs can rearrange your molecules if they hold of you. However, they tend to hit so hard, they also rearrange their own molecules. Both have had major shoulder issues. The question confronting both players and new DC Orlando is the durability of these potential all-stars. If both can stay healthy, Orlando’s defense could flourish. It should be a bonus for the safeties that they will have their own secondary safety coach, Craig Naivar, who worked with Orlando at Texas.

It is said that new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s schemes will be benefit safeties like sophomore Isaiah Pola-Mao (photo above – No. 21).

The Obvious: With a new defensive scheme coming in, how will the new designs affect the play of the Trojans’ All-Pac-12 defensive tackle Jay Tufele?

The Not So Obvious: Perhaps the whole issue of the 3-3-5 defense is more about down and distance because Todd Orlando has other schemes to highlight various offensive situations. Tufele is the best pass rusher of the returning Trojans down linemen. It would be hard to fathom that Tufele’s lone responsibility would be to just tie up offensive linemen so that the linebackers and safeties could attack practically unmolested.    

What kind of effect will the new Trojans’ defensive schemes have on the play of returning All-Pac-12 defensive lineman Jay Tufele (photo above)?

The Obvious:  Former LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is the new head coach at Baylor University.

The Not So Obvious: In the Trojans column by cbssports.com’s Dennis Dodd, Dodd said USC was on the verge of hiring the highly respected Aranda as DC before the former LSU DC was named the head coach at Baylor. According to Dodd’s column, a USC source said, “We were all set to have him. We matched LSU’s deal.” Wouldn’t you like to know that source, and isn’t it possible that Aranda was using the Trojans to get a better deal with LSU until the Baylor offer came along? It seems a stretch that Aranda would make a lateral DC move from National Champion LSU to a USC team still searching for program answers. Of course, Aranda is from SoCal as is his wife, and maybe they really wanted to return to the Southland that badly.       

In an article by Dennis Dodd, the columnist wrote that the Trojans were ready to hire Dave Aranda (photo above) before he was hired as the Baylor Bears new head coach.

The Obvious: There is a number of Trojans who believe that USC athletic director Mike Bohn was the major instrument in not only firing the departed defensive assistants but was also instrumental in hiring the new defensive side of the football.

The Not So Obvious: In the Dennis Dodd article, Bohn attempted to deflect his role in the firing and hiring process of the recent defensive changes, placing the authority of staff changes on Clay Helton. Bohn said, “Clay’s trying like a son of a gun. I think he has to get some validation for recruiting these coaches.” However, what else did you expect Bohn to say, “I told Clay here is your list of coaches, so make a choice?”

Trojans’ athletic director Mike Bohn credits head coach Clay Helton (photo above) for “recruiting” the new staff personnel.

The Obvious: In his article on Clay Helton, Dennis Dodd also wrote, “In the last four seasons since Helton took over USC in a full-time capacity, Alabama has won 52 games, been to three college football playoffs, won two SEC titles and one national championships. USC has a Pac-12 title and Rose Bowl win. It hasn’t quite won two-thirds of its games (34-18). The Trojans are still looking for their first playoff appearance.”

The Not So Obvious: Following the above-mentioned paragraph, Dodd quotes Clay Helton as saying, “I’ve already started watching Alabama film.” Well, that’s good to know, so you can draw your own conclusions. The bigger question: When you look at the Trojans opening against Alabama in 2016 and look at the Trojans getting ready to open against the Crimson Tide in 2020, has the program gotten better or worse? Or is that simply a rhetorical question?

The Trojans will open the 2020 season on Sept. 5 against the Alabama Crimson Tide in Arlington, Texas.

The Obvious: And finally, the Trojans have officially announced the hiring of new defensive line coach Vic So’oto.

The Not So Obvious: So’oto will be the third defensive line coach in three seasons for the returning Trojans’ defensive linemen. After earning his bachelor’s degree in geography from BYU in 2010, Vic played linebacker in the NFL with the Green Bay Packers (2011-12), Oakland Raiders (2012), Washington Redskins (2012) and Arizona Cardinals (2013).  He also was picked up briefly by the New Orleans Saints in 2013 and Pittsburgh Steelers in 2014 but did not make the regular season roster. It will be intriguing to see what kind of recruiting and coaching effect So’oto has in just his first season with the Trojans.    

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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