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O/NSO: Springing ahead to a certain and uncertain offense edition

The Obvious: When USC spring practice begins in a little more than three weeks (Monday, March 29), there are two things for certain on offense. The Trojans will still be running the Air Raid Lollapalooza for the third consecutive season, and offensive coordinator Graham Harrell (photo above) remains its lead architect-in-chief.

The Not So Obvious: The offensive uncertainty is how head coach Clay Helton addresses his team’s woeful running attack. Just how badly does the the head coach want to recommit to a respectable running attack that is so obviously deficient? The other uncertainty is how much of a demand does Helton or (shhh) athletic director Mike Bohn, place on Harrell to reestablish some semblance of a running attack that was last in the Pac-12 in 2020?  

The Obvious: When USC spring practice begins. there are two things for certain on offense. Former offensive line coach Tim Drevno (fired) and tight ends coach John David Baker (now at Mississippi St.) are no longer on the coaching staff, and Clay McGuire and Seth Doege are the new O-line coach and tight ends coach, respectively.

Can former Texas State offensive line coach Clay McGuire (photo above) use spring ball to elevate the play of a USC offensive line that has been under the microscope the past several seasons?

The Not So Obvious: Nobody questions that coaching makes a difference even when you have elite talent and even if you don’t. However, to be honest, there is uncertainty of how much the recent assistant coaching changes will bring for offensive results in 2021. To be fair, USC defensive assistant coaching changes in 2020 did make a positive, visible difference, and the hope is that the offensive changes can also make a major impact. Naturally, there is uncertainty along the offensive line, and this seems to be a pattern no matter who’s the offensive line coach. To be honest, most USC fans are done with lip service about not only an impending physical running attack but productive tight end contributions, as well.

The Obvious: When USC spring practice begins, there are two things for certain on offense. Kedon Slovis will be the starting quarterback, and Matt Fink will be the backup.

It’s expected that the spring return of experienced and proven backup QB Matt Fink (photo above) will be an important insurance policy in the event of starter Kedon Slovis getting hurt either in spring or in the fall. (Photo by Jordon Kelly)

The Not So Obvious: One of the major quarterback uncertainties heading into spring practice is the health of Kedon Slovis since Clay Helton admitted recently that Kedon suffered a shoulder injury against Oregon in the Pac-12 title game. Helton revealed, however, that Kedon is now healthy. However, Helton gave no indication regarding the ability of Slovis to toss a football with authority during spring other than to say his prized QB “will be involved,” whatever that means.

Trojans head coach Clay Helton announced this week that his junior-to-be All-Pac-12 quarterback Kedon Slovis (photo above), who suffered a shoulder injury in the Pac-12 title game against Oregon, is healthy now and expected to be “involved” in spring practice. (Photo by Jose / MarinMedia.org Pool for USC Athletics)

As for the other uncertainty, it’s not the question of returner Matt Fink and what he provides in support of Slovis but the impending spring competition between incoming freshmen signal callers Miller Moss and Jaxson Dart. How fast and how well will they establish themselves this March? There’s uncertainty there. Will they live up to the hype, especially Dart, who was named the 2020 MaxPrep National Player of the Year? The battle between the gifted frosh should be a true highlight of spring.   

Will 2020 MaxPrep National Player of the Year Jaxson Dart (photo above) live up to the hype in spring ball? Dart will get strong competition from sensational freshman teammate Miller Moss.

The Obvious: When USC spring practice begins, there are two things for certain on offense. The Trojans have three returning running backs – Vavae Malepeai, Stephen Carr, and Kenan Christon –and that’s without counting the addition of Texas Longhorns transfer Keaontay Ingram.    

Texas running back transfer Keaontay Ingram (photo above) is expected to compete for a starting position when spring practice commences on Monday, March 29.

The Not So Obvious: The running back uncertainty begins and ends with a commitment to a running game. There is uncertainty in how much of an impact Texas transfer Keaontay Ingram will play in the competition. Can he wrestle the starting spot from Malapeai or Carr? And what about super speedster Kenan Christon, who is a true home run hitter? Following spring ball, will Christon still be a Trojan and headed to the NCAA Transfer Portal if he is listed behind Malepeai, Carr, and Ingram? Add incoming freshman Brandon Campbell, another Texan, to the mix this spring and the competition should be breathtaking.

Spring ball competition at running back should be fierce, and many eyes will be trained on Kenan Christon (photo above), the Trojans’ fastest ball carrier, to see how he fares on the depth chart. (Photo by Jose/MarinMedia.org Pool for USC Athletics)

The Obvious: When USC spring practice begins, there are two things for certain on offense. The Trojans have lost significant wide receiver talent to the NFL in Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns, but the Men of Troy have significant returning talent in Drake London, Bru McCoy, and Gary Bryant Jr

All spring practice eyes will be on the continuing rise of Trojans’ wide receiver Drake London (photo above – No. 15), who is now considered by many as one of the nation’s finest. (Photo by Jose Marin / MarinMedia Pool for USC Athletics)

The Not So Obvious: The wide receiver uncertainty is how grad transfer K.D. Nixon, a former Colorado Buffalo, plays into the rotation for 2021, and we should get some idea during the spring of Nixon’s impact. The other uncertainty is the physical health of Kyle Ford, who was once considered one of the nation’s most elite recruits coming out of high school. It figures that Gary Bryant Jr. should have a breakout spring and contend for a starting spot, so that will put more pressure of uncertainty on returner John Jackson lll and incoming freshman Michael Jackson lll. Both will need to produce in spring to find their way into the rotation.   

Colorado wide receiver grad transfer K.D. Nixon (photo above) is expected to strongly compete for a starting spot during spring ball.

The Obvious: When USC spring practice begins, there are two things for certain on offense. The Trojans have enough tight end talent in Erik Krommenhoek, Jude Wolfe, and Josh Falo, and that competition will increase with the spring arrival of incoming freshman tight end Lake McCree.

The Trojans return tight end Erik Krommenhoek (photo above), and if the Trojans are going to have a threat as both a receiver and a blocker, Krommenhoek figures to be a big part of the plan.

The Not So Obvious: The tight end uncertainty is compounded by having a new tight ends coach in Seth Doege and his impact on a unit that has either underperformed in the past or has been misused. That in itself presents uncertainty. Another spring and yet another cycle of tight ends anticipation being a factor in Graham Harrell’s offense. Thus far, the tight ends have been window dressing, so there’s uncertainty there. Then again, no matter what happens this spring, how does this unit change with the arrival in fall camp of heralded Michael Trigg, the super athlete from Florida who has all the tools to be outstanding? Well, spring practice is for those that can participate, so the Triggs factor won’t affect competition beginning in March.   

Although he won’t be participating in spring practice, the Trojans tight end position will receive added competition in summer camp with the arrival of freshman two-sport star Michael Trigg (photo above), whose athleticism is such that he could become an impact player like Drake London.

The Obvious: When USC spring practice begins, there are two things for certain on offense. The Trojans offensive line returns veterans like center Bret Neilon, tackle Jalen McKenzie, guards Andrew Vorhees and Liam Jimmons, and the offensive line has a new coach in Clay McGuire  

When spring ball returns in a little over three weeks, there will be intense scrutiny of the Trojans offensive line, which returns veteran starting center Bret Neilon (photo above).

The Not So Obvious: The offensive line uncertainty begins with the latest USC offensive line coach, Clay McGuire. Another Texas native who was also once a respected high school quarterback, there is uncertainty whether McGuire will be able to coach up an offensive line group that has yet to distinguish itself not on an individual basis but as a unit. There are enough bodies for McGuire to mix and match, but is the talent level high enough to make the Trojans offensive a championship unit? Now that’s uncertainty.

Naturally, there is extreme trepidation and uncertainty over who will be the Trojans’ starting left tackle, which is now a huge replacement consideration now that departed Morris Award winner Alijah Vera-Tucker – who many believe with be the second first round USC OL draft pick in consecutive years (Austin Jackson being the other) – will next be seen in April’s NFL draft.

One of the biggest offensive line challenges of spring will be finding a replacement for All-Pac-12 left offensive tackle Alijah Vera-Tucker (photo above), who is expected to be an another USC first round NFL draft pick in April.

The Obvious: And finally, it has been said that offense scores points, but defense wins championships.

The Not So Obvious: Next Friday’s O/NSO will explore the Trojans defense, which has both its own certainties and uncertainties.

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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