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O/NSO: Mid-term edition

By Greg Katz – WeAreSC.com

The Obvious: The USC Trojans have officially completed the first half of the 2016 season, and the overall and Pac-12 record is 4-3 and 3-2, respectively.

The Not So Obvious: At this point in the season, everybody has their “report card” regarding the first half of the Trojans season, and the O/NSO is no exception. Rather, however than give the traditional “letter grade,” we’ll leave it to just some just plain talk and commentary.

The Obvious: Prior to the 2016 season, the general consensus was that the Trojans would be playing the toughest schedule in the country.  

The Not So Obvious: Reviewing the current status of the Trojans first 6 opponents this season, Alabama (7-0) which crushed the Trojans, 52-6, in the Trojans season opener, is still crushing everybody else and the near unanimous No. 1 team in the country. Stanford (4-2), Utah (6-1), Colorado (5-2), and Arizona State (5-2) all have winning records at the halfway point. Only hapless Utah State (2-4) and miserable Arizona (2-5) are suffering in the loser’s column. Of those teams with winning records, the Trojans have defeated Colorado (21-17) and ASU (41-20). If the Trojans could get one back, it would be the loss to No. 19 Utah, which manufactured a late, game-winning 93-yard scoring drive against the cardinal and gold defense.

The Obvious: The combined record of the Trojans opponents is 32-16.

The Not So Obvious: For the record, in a preseason O/NSO predictions column, the O/NSO had the Trojans at 5-2 at this midway point of the season. So in terms of numbers, we were close, incorrectly predicting a 27-24 win at Utah, which as mentioned, turned out to be a 31-27 loss in a rainy Salt Lake City.

The Obvious: Clay Helton is in his first full season as the head coach of the storied USC Trojans.

The Not So Obvious: It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that at times Helton has looked like an apprentice running a legendary football program. For the record, most would agree that USC job is not a learning-on-the-job training expedition. However, Helton, like his team, seemingly have overcome a 1-3 horrendous start and seems to be finding their way at the midpoint of the season. On a personal level, Helton is a wonderful guy that even his most ardent critic would agree, but the reality is that there has been legitimate concern regarding areas of the Trojans offensive identity, clock management, timeouts, fourth down decision-making, team discipline issues, penalties, and general team conduct. That being said, Helton was adept and courageous enough to make a dramatic change of quarterback after the third game from veteran grad student Max Browne to redshirt freshman Sam Darnold, which has transformed the Trojans once moribund team into one of excitement and hope.

The answers to some of the future questions regarding Helton long term status can only come after the results of the final five games. If things don’t go well, how many Trojans fans will ask “how much is Helton’s buyout?” If things go well: Doesn’t Helton deserve another season and beyond to grow his program through recruiting and game results?

The Obvious: Wide receiver coach Tee Martin is in his first season as an offensive coordinator.

The Not So Obvious: Unlike vastly experienced defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, Martin is learning on the job, which can be quite a challenge at a school like USC, which demands excellence. It was a rough beginning and brought out questions of offensive identity. There were early rumors that Helton was taking a more active hand in calling the plans than originally planned. Again, with Darnold, there is now the perception that things have settled down,  but in the second half of the season will come greater pressure and scrutiny against the defensive likes of Washington, UCLA, and Notre Dame. Because of  those games, Martin, as well as Helton, will be under the microscope on a play-by-play basis. Their chess matches against experienced defensive coordinators will be telling.

The Obvious: Since being named the Trojans starting quarterback, redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold has not only turned his team around on both sides of the ball, but he’s taken extreme heat off his head coach.

The Not So Obvious: Let’s face it, who wouldn’t be a better head coach and offensive coordinator if you had Darnold at quarterback? While most Trojans had a great deal of sympathy for Max Browne’s demotion, there’s no question that making Darnold the starting quarterback has changed the entire complexion of the offense and appears to have even had a positive effect on the defense’s energy. It’s hard to find much disagreement that Darnold may not only be a future All-America and Heisman Trophy candidate, and perhaps a NFL first-round draft pick as early as after the 2017 season. The Men of Troy really haven’t a quarterback style like Darnold in recent memory that can beat you with his arm or legs. He could finish the season being in the conversation as the best quarterback in the Pac-12.

The Obvious: Prior to his recent injury, Trojans starting senior running back Justin Davis has played as well as any Pac-12 running back outside of the name of Christian McCaffrey.   

The Not So Obvious: Through his first 5 games, there is no argument that senior running back Justin Davis has raised his game. Unfortunately, Davis incurred a high ankle spring against Colorado and it may take the Trojans some time to return. One thing for sure, Davis has worked himself into a very productive runner and receiver, and the Trojans recent success can also be traced back to him. A total team player, Davis brings an infectious, positive attitude to the offense and in his first half of the season has turned heads of NFL scouts. As far as the depth at tailback up to this point, sophomore Ronald Jones ll has not achieved the production of his standout freshman season, but fellow sophomore Aca’Cedric Ware made a big statement in the latest victory over Arizona with a 100-yard game. In the first half of the season, the Trojans have to be well satisfied with the running back production.

The Obvious: At the beginning of the season, the Trojans veteran offensive line received a lot of preseason publicity as perhaps the best in the country.

The Not So Obvious: Although far from living up to the preseason hype as perhaps the nation’s top offense line, there’s also no question that the offensive line appears to be improving game-by-game. Of course the threat of Sam Darnold to get out of the pocket and run or pass certainly helps the line look better than maybe it really is. Playing less talented defensive lines recently is also a legitimate factor. Given the fact that the Trojans lost original starting center Toa Lobendahn early, junior center Nico Falah has again been a very reliable replacement, and he might be the poster boy for a workmanlike player. Some may argue the Trojans don’t schematically present a true power rushing attack, but they have been getting the job done in recent weeks. The key will be whether they can do that to future opponents like the University of Washington.

The Obvious: Since the arrival of Sam Darnold, Trojans receivers have gradually become more of a factor.  

The Not So Obvious: Since the insertion of Darnold as quarterback, it appears the Trojans receiving unit, including the tight ends, has become more diversified and more than just JuJu Smith-Schuster. Yes, the Trojans tight ends seem to have come out of hibernation, as all three touchdowns against Colorado came by way of TD passes from Darnold to the tight ends. The end result seems to have benefited Smith-Schuster, who has again become a major factor after a slow start to the season. However, not all is rosy, as explosive wide receiver Steve Mitchell Jr. was recently lost for the season (ACL) during the Arizona game.       

The Obvious: When Clay Helton hired the return of defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, it was expected the 2016 Trojans defense would make a dramatic improvement after being frustrated in 2015 by former DC Justin Wilcox, who has surprised many with his current success at the University of Wisconsin.

The Not So Obvious: Like the team in its entirety, the defense has come on in recent weeks. The 2016 season didn’t start gloriously for Pendergast and his crew. First, Alabama hung 52 points against the Trojans, although some of the points came off of offensive turnovers. Then there was the 93-yard nightmare last minute scoring drive by Utah to defeat the Trojans 31-27. Recently, Pendergast has become more creative and comfortable in new blitzes and schemes, but the final five games will attest to how the increased creativity affects the outcome of opposing offenses. If you’re looking for a real positive, the defense has cut down on mental and technical mistakes and miscommunication, and it has been noticeable.

The Obvious: From the beginning of the season, it was a given that the defensive line depth and talent would be an issue.

The Not So Obvious: Surprisingly and despite some key losses before and during the season, the Trojans D-line has held its own. Nose tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu has plugged holes and taken on double-team blocks and his back-up, Josh Fatu, has become a factor recently in getting up field. Defensive end Rasheem Green has increasingly flashed and is becoming a more dominant player. You hate to use the word “overachiever,” but considering the lack of depth, this group has nothing to hold its head down. 

The Obvious: As a group,many were unsure about the Trojans linebackers before the season.

The Not So Obvious: For the most part, the linebacking has been a pleasant surprise. Headed by future All-Pac-12 linebacker Cameron Smith, the Trojans depth at linebacker has been productive. Senior inside linebacker and captain Michael Hutchings is getting the most out of his ability and has been a steady force on and off the field. On the outside, junior Uchenna Nwosu has really made his presence known. He is quick, fast, and studious, and as the first half of the season has ended, more and more teams have stayed away from his side of the field. Because of Nwoso’s performance, no question that sophomore outside linebacker Porter Gustin has been a focal point of the opposition. Extremely talented, Porter has been learning to adjust to the speed and quickness of his side of the field. Late in the first half of the season saw the appearance of true freshman Oluwole Betiku and the Trojans hope the former Gardena (Calif.) Serra stud will be a pass rushing force in the second half of the schedule. Credit should also be given to coach Johnny Nansen, who is now coaching his natural linebacking position after mentoring the Trojans running backs last season. FYI, Nansen is a former Washington State linebacker and his comfort zone in coaching the position is evident.

The Obvious: There was a general consensus that the Trojans secondary would be a strength of the 2016 defense.

The Not So Obvious: Honestly, it certainly didn’t start out that way. There were blown coverages and miscommunications that lead to disaster, starting with Alabama. However, in recent weeks many of those earlier errors appear to have been corrected. Junior All-Pac-12 corner Adoree’ Jackson has more than lived up to his reputation as one of the best corners in the country. Jackson’s counterpart, sophomore corner Iman “Biggie” Marshall, thanks to Jackson’s standout play, has been in the crosshairs of offensive coordinators and has had his good and bad outings. Despite the attention, “Biggie” has kept a positive attitude and although he may be more of a natural strong safety than corner, he has accepted the challenge. Junior backup corner Jonathan Lockett has also been a pleasant surprise.  As for the Trojans safeties, they have gotten better with increased communication. Marvel Tell, when not injured, has held his own and the duo of senior Leon McQuay lll and Chris Hawkins have gotten better. McQuay has reinforced that a change in defensive coordinator and familiarity with Pendergast’s system has given his Trojan career a rebirth.

The Obvious: One of the brightest spots of the season through six games has been the play of the Trojans special teams.

The Not So Obvious: Although never satisfied, special teams coach John Baxter has to have a hidden smile behind the scowl. In placekicker Matt Boermeester and kick returner Adoree’ Jackson, the Trojans special teams have bordered on near excellent. With a cannon-like left leg, Boermeester has repeatedly boomed touchback after touchback and has been impressive with field goal accuracy. Jackson has been an absolute terror on kickoff and punt returns. The Trojans kick coverage has been near flawless, and this could be a harbinger of good things to come in the final five games. 

The Obvious: And finally, so what kind of production can Trojans fans expect in the final five games against Cal, Oregon, at Washington, at UCLA, and Notre Dame?

The Not So Obvious: With three of the final five games at home and UCLA considered more a home rather than a road game, there is every reason to be encouraged…if the Trojans continue to improve from game to game. However, a key game of measurement will probably come on Nov. 12 against No. 5 Washington in Seattle. Stay tuned.

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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