If USC is going to improve on its 5-7 record from 2018, the Trojans will need marked improvement from both the offense and defense. But getting a few significant contributions from special teams could have gone a long way toward flipping some of those one-score games at the end of the year, and could set USC up for a little more success this year.
With an ongoing quarterback competition, new coaches at a number of positions, and players jumping in and out of the transfer portal, nobody figured that a punter would be one of the most interesting aspects of spring ball. But that’s how impressive new punter Ben Griffiths was.
After a long career in the AFL, Griffiths entered USC this fall and immediately grabbed the starting punter spot. He became a must-watch aspect of the early portion of practice, as he alternated between booming deep punts and hitting twisting kicks that were extremely difficult for the returners to catch.
Griffith will be a weapon in the punting game this year, and that is welcome news for a program that finished last in the Pac-12 in punting average last year, at just 38.7 yards per kick.
Kicking duties will likely be split once again, as Alex Stadthaus returns to handle kickoffs. In his first year, Stadthaus recorded touchbacks on 67 percent of his kicks, and his 64.3-yard average per kickoff ranked 11th nationally.
Both Chase McGrath and Michael Brown return to the Trojans, and both have experience. McGrath is the likely frontrunner, but he sat out all of spring ball as he continued to recover from knee surgery. McGrath began last season with a strong performance against UNLV, hitting five field goals and four PATs, earning Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week in the process. But McGrath tore a ligament in his knee against Texas and missed the rest of the season.
Brown stepped in and made 7-of-9 field goals over the last nine games of the season. If McGrath is fully healthy this fall, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him step back in as the starter. But Brown’s experience in the role should make him a valuable backup, or give the Trojans confidence if they need to go with him as the starter.
As for returners, the Trojans got a boost with the return of Velus Jones, who entered the transfer portal and missed the entirety of spring ball before announcing his return to USC.
Jones was the primary kickoff returner for the Trojans last year, returning 21 kicks for 483 yards (23 yards per return). In his absence this spring, USC ran out a number of offensive stars to return kicks, including running back Stephen Carr, and wide receivers Amon-Ra St. Brown and Michael Pittman.
Jones has plenty of experience returning kicks and feels like a real weapon there, but USC averaged fewer yards per return than their opponents last year, so finding more of an impact there could help kickstart the offense a bit.
At punt returner, Tyler Vaughns looks to be the obvious choice to be sent out there again, as he handled the position last year and averaged 10.5 yards per return, including an 82-yard touchdown return. Others will get a shot during fall camp, but it would be surprising if Vaughns isn’t the call, as the USC coaches obviously aren’t going to shy away from trotting starters out as returners if they’re the best option.