By Greg Katz – WeAreSC.com
The Obvious: As USC Trojans head coach Clay Helton (photo above) concludes training camp on Friday with one final “solidify things” scrimmage, the Trojans eager fan base readies for Sunday’s announcement of not only the Trojans starting quarterback but subsequent depth chart.
The Not So Obvious: With the Sept. 3 season opener with Alabama just two weeks away, questions loom regarding the 2016 Trojans. Never one to shy away from taking a stand or from an opinion, the O/NSO presents 15 questions and answers regarding the Men of Troy.
The Obvious Question No. 1: Since spring ball, there has been a battle royal for the Trojans starting quarterback position between junior Max Browne and redshirt freshman Sam Darnold. Which QB will be announced on Sunday as the starter against Alabama?
The Not So Obvious: The O/NSO will be happy to bet your paycheck that Max Browne will be named the starting quarterback on Sunday. We’ve said that for forever and a day. However, that being said, the O/NSO will bet our limited funds that while Darnold may not start the season, he’ll eventually get his shot – maybe sooner rather than later – either by Browne’s lack of production and efficiency or through the misfortune of injury.
The Obvious Question No. 2: Will the 2016 Trojans be a physical football team?
The Not So Obvious: The Trojans will look physical against weaker opponents and less talented opponents. However, how physical will the Trojans look against proven physical adversaries such as Alabama, Stanford, and Notre Dame? The intriguing answer should come quickly against the Crimson Tide. Being physical is as much a mindset as it is work in the weight room. At this point, the coaching staff has done what it can make to cultivate a renewed attention to being aggressive.
The Obvious Question No. 3: Will the Trojans execute a punishing ground game in 2016?
The Not So Obvious: The O/NSO will let you in on a little unkempt secret. The Trojans have worked very hard in the spring and in training camp to control the ball on the ground to compliment the aerial attack. Everything is in place to at least attempt to be dominant on the ground. The true answer will come in short yardage and goal line situations. It will all get down to the physicality of the offensive line.
The Obvious Question No. 4: Will the Trojans offensive line live up to its billing as one of the nation’s finest?
The Not So Obvious: It’s still a work in progress, and first-year O-line coach Neil Callaway will tell you the same thing. Callaway says the Trojans offensive line’s physicality still has a long way to go, but believes it can get there with hard work in practice. As of this weekend, the offensive line is still unsettled due to injury (OT Chad Wheeler’s foot) and competition at left guard and center. The O-line will be severely tested immediately against an Alabama defensive front that many believe is the most talented in the country.
The Obvious Question No. 5: How much of an effect will new offensive coordinator Tee Martin have on the offense?
The Not So Obvious: Having never called a game as an offensive coordinator, Martin is a former quarterback and quarterbacks tend to want to pass the ball. Remember, head coach Clay Helton is also a former quarterback and the same rule normally applies. However, both Martin and Helton roots come from states where physical football on the ground is a religion. In Tennessee and Texas, they play big boys football and that was how both Martin and Helton were raised. In the end, however, offense players are mere puppets for the puppeteers (the offensive coordinator and head coach). The players are the pieces and the coaches the chess masters in charge of the pieces was the identity of the offense rests at the feet of Martin and Helton.
The Obvious Question No. 6: Is first-year defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast the savior to the Trojans past defensive woes?
The Not So Obvious: Most Trojans fans would tell you that anybody has to be better than former DC Justin Wilcox, now in the same position at Wisconsin. As for Pendergast, his attacking style and press corner defense should make everybody happy until the Trojans play an opponent that is considered well coached with equal or superior talent. Pendergast is working with an unproven defensive line and while his 2013 USC defense did looked good most of the time (national Top 25 in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense, pass efficiency defense, sacks, interceptions, red zone scoring defense, third down conversion defense, and fourth down conversion defense), that same 2013 defense did give up big points to ASU (62), Arizona (31), and UCLA (34).
The Obvious Question No. 7: Are the Trojans running backs that good?
The Not So Obvious: Yes!” In senior Justin Davis, the Trojans have a tough grinder who has added some wiggle and speed. Sophomore Ronald “Breeze” Jones ll is lightening in a bottle and now physically bigger. Fellow sophomore Aca’Cedric Ware is a tough-churning, between-the tackles runner, and sophomore Dominic Davis presents blurring speed. Justin Davis will start and will be nicely complimented by Jones. Too many good backs? Not a problem if you remember the great job that running backs coach Tommie Robinson did in 2013 rotating running backs.
The Obvious Question No. 8: Is junior All-Pac-12 wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster the Trojans biggest threat on offense?
The Not So Obvious: The short answer is affirmative, but let’s hope there is more than just JuJu. JuJu figures to be double-teamed and bracketed, so the Trojans need other options. But first, let’s see if JuJu can stay away from nagging or serious injuries. Helping take pressure off Smith-Schuster will be junior receiver Steve Mitchell, who has looked every bit as explosive in training camp as when he was a superstar prep receiver at Bishop Alemany. And here’s a little secret, watch out for sophomore Deontay Burnett, who once again reminded us during training camp that he, too, is pretty darn good.
The Obvious Question No. 9: Will the Trojans finally show more interest in throwing the ball to the tight ends?
The Not So Obvious: It will depend how opponent defenses defend the Trojans wide receivers. There is tight end talent, but an overall key will be who will be the blocker(s) that Clay Helton and Tee Martin can depend on from that position? The O/NSO hunch is that the tight ends will catch more passes than in previous seasons.
The Obvious Question No. 11: Will the 2016 defensive line be the team’s biggest question mark as advertised?
The Not So Obvious: Not if first-year D-line coach Kenechi Udeze has anything to do about it. Yes, the Trojans are young, but the additions of 25-year-old Utah transfer Steve “Mr. T” Tu’ikolovatu, JC D-lineman transfer Josh Fotu, and the addition of former center Khaliel Rodgers have relieved some of the depth anxiety. No shock here if “Mr. T” opens at nose tackle against Alabama. However, it still remains to be seen whether this defensive line talent can counterpoint those naysayers that predict doom along the Trojans defensive front. We should get definitive answers in the first four games if this unit can withstand the early physical assaults from Alabama, Stanford, and Utah.
The Obvious Question No. 12: Will junior Matt Boermeester be the starting placekicker?
The Not So Obvious: Yes he will…unless there is a change of the wind. There are novelties of Boermeester being a left-footed kicker and his dad, Peter, a former placekicker at UCLA. Boermeester gained valuable experience last season when former kicker Alex Wood went down with a concussion during the season and Matt finished the season in good standing.
The Obvious Question No. 13: Will sophomore superstar middle linebacker Cameron Smith start against Alabama?
The Not So Obvious: Yes, unless there is some medical issue we’re not seeing in practice. The bigger question is who starts next to Smith? No surprise if senior Michael Hutchings gets the opening nod.
The Obvious Question No. 14: So what will be the Trojans final regular record after hosting Notre Dame on Nov. 26?
The Not So Obvious: In an earlier O/NSO predictions column, we predicted a best-case scenario of 9-3 and a worst-case scenario of 6-6. So, we’re willing to call it 8-4 after the final regular season game against the Irish. Because of the lethal schedule, this could be one of the most unpredictable seasons in memory.
The Obvious Question No. 15: And finally, given that Clay Helton’s team is straddled with the nation’s toughest schedule, how much patience will Trojan fans have in terms of winning and losing?
The Not So Obvious: It’s going to take a great of patience and understanding from Trojans fans for Helton and his team. The schedule is such that this could appear by season’s end not to be a very good team in terms of record, but in reality a good team. In this era of instant gridiron gratification, CFP madness, and the high level of Trojan fans yearly expectations, patience will truly be a virtue.