This week, the mailbag features questions about USC spring ball, transfers, the Air Raid, and incoming and upcoming recruits.
Q: Last year we weren’t able to do much with all the 4/5 stars we had, how about this year with a load of three stars? Is there a lot of upside for these players? What should the casual fan look for in spring practice that will tell us the direction of the 2019 squad?
A: It’s still a little early to shift to the narrative that USC is working “with a load of three stars,” since I don’t anticipate that this 2019 class will have much impact on the field this fall. It’s true that the 2019 class was loaded with three-star prospects, but the entire starting offense and much of the defense could be four/five star recruits from past classes. There is still talent on this roster.
As far as what to watch this spring, here’s one item offensively and defensively I’ll be watching.
On defense, I want to see the defensive front develop reliable depth and an overall attitude. Some kind of consistent pass rush (from more than just one guy) needs to develop and I’d like to have a sense that there is a personal agenda from each of them that there won’t be any rivalry rushing yardage records set against them this year.
Offensively, I’ll be curious to see how quickly the new system clicks for the quarterbacks and wide receivers. If this is going to be a pass-first offense, it’d be great to see the skill position guys on the same page as quickly as possible and looking dangerous. I fully expect some growing pains at every position as everybody adjusts, but if we’re finishing up spring ball and there’s still zero sense of whether this thing is going to work, that will have a few alarm bells ringing.
Q: Do the transfers via portal count against the recruiting class limit (25 scholarships), or only against total (85 scholarships)?
A: Yes, transfers via the transfer portal (and grad transfers) count against both the class limit (25) and the total limit (85). That’s why losing guys to transfer hurts, because you’re effectively using that scholarship twice (once in the 25 where you brought that guy in, and again in the new 25 when you’re trying to replace him).
Q: How long do you think it will take the QBs to learn the Air Raid system? Especially the part on reading defenses on the fly.
A: I think the reading the defense aspect of it will be one of the easier aspects for the quarterbacks to pick up. Sitting in the pocket and making the right read against an overmatched defense is why they became quarterbacks and what they’ve been doing in 7-on-7 settings for years. I fully expect there to be a few plays this year where the quarterback lets the ball go and immediately realizes it’s the wrong read. But this whole system is designed to give the quarterback an obvious answer of where the ball should go as soon as the defense reacts to the snap (and sometimes sooner). I would anticipate some issues with terminology, or getting everybody consistently lined up correctly, or figuring out exactly where the rush is coming from with different line splits, or things like that. But I’d be surprised if USC’s starting quarterback is struggling into the season with making the right reads.
Q: Our OC brought an assistant from NT. What is his duties?
A: There is still nothing official from USC on the hiring, but there are multiple reports stating that John David Baker will follow Graham Harrell from North Texas to USC, as a quality control coach for the Trojans. Baker is a former quarterback and will likely focus on that position at USC. A quality control coach is generally responsible for film study and statistical analysis of upcoming opponents, basically preparing in advance, a cheat sheet (things like down and distance, personnel, and any other tendencies) for the coordinator on that side of the ball to begin drawing up a game plan.
Q: Saw a very in-depth story about Livai, our OL recruit from Narbonne. Basically it said he was a total unknown 16-17-year-old from a tiny school on the Big Island, and he left his family and came to the mainland with his father to show the big colleges he was a worthy talent. Then his father died and he was left with an uncle in L.A. who was never around. Obviously, he had a very tough time just dealing with life issues rather than focusing on football. He ended up with only 4 mostly low-level offers besides SC. However, the article talks about his size (300+), his nasty streak, his natural strength/athleticism, and his new focus on supporting his family back home through a college education/football. Very intriguing story because he’s the type of recruit USC would never even take a look at in past years but was given a chance because of all the decommits and misses. What do you think of his chance to succeed at the D1 level?
A: I said in our signing day wrap that offensive lineman Tilini Livai (photo above) is the most intriguing player in this class to me. I think attitude can carry you pretty far as an offensive guard early in your career, and Livai plays with plenty of that. Offensive line is always said to be the most difficult position to project high school prospects to the college level, but he definitely has a number of tools you look for in an interior lineman and I won’t be surprised if he develops into a solid starter in a few years.
Q: What do you think about Drake London as both a football and basketball player? I don’t know anything about his basketball playing, but last week I watched some football highlights. He was a man among boys. Either he was playing against weak competition or he has some serious talent. Thanks.
A: London is a USC-level recruit in both football and would be at USC for either sport if he only wanted to play one. He is a legitimate talent. I always assume that two-sport guys will eventually need to pick one, but I think London has the ability to put off that decision for at least a few years.
Q: On the Garry P Trojan Huddle, there has been some talk about getting O linemen from the transfer portal. But I wonder if the coaches see a need. I read Helton say he has enough for 3 deep.Do you think the coaches think they need another O lineman, or are they happy with the number they currently have?
Q: What’s the prognosis on Grad Transfers for the lines? Any hopefuls? Portal Transfers won’t be any help next year unless there are special circumstances, right?
A: I can’t imagine that the USC coaches would turn down a transfer along the offensive line if there is mutual interest. I think the secondary could be another spot that would benefit from the addition of someone with some veteran experience.
Q: In light of the trend in the transfer process being more accepted and available, do you expect that programs in general will need to be run cleaner? If players are able to transfer before their high school class even graduates there seems to be a greater threat to those programs with PED, buying player commitments, or other violations.
A: I don’t anticipate transfers forcing any changes as far as how programs are run. There seems to be a pretty shatterproof cone of silence around the more unseemly side of college football and the ability to break it has always been present.
Q: Is Mario Cristobal going to take Clay Helton’s milk money again next recruiting class?
A: If nothing changes between now and December’s early signing period, yes. Local recruits have significant questions and some apprehension about USC right now because they hear the chatter about Helton and his job security. It’s tough for USC to be more clear about his future with the program, but between other schools, 7-on-7 coaches, message boards, and media, it’s tougher for recruits to avoid seeing USC in a negative light right now. The issue USC could face with this 2020 class is that many elite prospects want to see proof of improvement and a real sense that there will be some stability with the coaching staff. And that can’t happen until games start in the fall, which is months after many programs will use the spring and summer to host recruiting visits and build momentum with this class.
The positive for USC is that they’re still going to be in the conversation for prospects in a way that other Pac-12 programs aren’t, and a successful season featuring a high-powered offense will give USC enough time to close on a number of targets provided they continue to keep in touch throughout the year. But Oregon is definitely a thorn in the side of USC right now, because they’re perfecting the formula for creating early momentum and were finally able to capitalize on that in this last class by holding onto it through the early signing period.