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WeAreSC Mailbag

This week, we answer reader questions about edge rushers, the offensive scheme, and assistant coach reviews.

Gold Trojan

Q: If today was the day to choose the top two edge rushers on the team…

1. Who would they be

2. Are they developing/fair/good/ or elite level


3. Are opposing QB’s worried or nonchalant.

A: Right now I’d say the top two guys off the edge are Christian Rector (photo above) and Drake Jackson, and maybe not in that order. I think Hunter Echols is shooting to get his name in that mix, but I don’t think he’s quite there yet.

Rector looked a lot more comfortable this spring than he did during last season. I’m not ready to say he’s an elite level guy yet, but he has a chance to be one of the better defensive ends in the conference. We’ll see how things go with Jackson as a true freshman with a target on his back, but when Clancy Pendergast is throwing out Cam Jordan and Leonard Williams as comparisons, I’d say Jackson is developing nicely.

I don’t think opposing quarterbacks are going to be worried about the edge rush until USC gives them reason to be worried. The Trojans are going to need to find some production from that strongside linebacker spot, because it’ll be too easy for teams to slide everything toward Rector/Jackson and leave a tackle against the Echols/Eli’jah, Winston, Malik McClain trio.

All that being said, I think Jay Tufele is ready to put together a tremendous season as a pass rusher up the middle.


Q: Has there been any indication from what you see in regards to adjustments. One of the biggest issues that I watched in last season games, is the lack of adjustments on either side of the ball. Maybe it’s too early to see until game time but I was just wondering if the players are being coached up to look for things, or maybe being taught to make a different read, change a call to adjust even now…while implementing and simplifying O & D. Thank you for the response and have a great rest of the week.

A: Adjustments are definitely something we’ll have a better idea about once games get started. What I like about this offense is that it’s built on in-play adjustments, rather than waiting for a change of possession or halftime to figure out what the defense is doing. It’s up to the quarterback and wide receiver to find the right read. We obviously haven’t seen Harrell game plan for an opponent as a USC coach, so I’ll definitely be interested to see what wrinkles he has for the second halves this year, because like you mentioned, there were times that USC had absolutely no answers for adjustments that opponents made.

As for the defensive side, I think the big adjustment in simplifying the defense is that now that side of the ball appears to be more attacking rather than reacting. Defensive line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a spoke many times about playing across the line of scrimmage and being gap sound, where there aren’t so many reads that defenders have a chance to be wrong and create a massive hole. It’s spring ball and there is a lot of cautious optimism right now, so everything sounds good. We’ll see how it plays out this fall, but I think a lot of the adjustments for this spring will allow the coaches (and players) to react and adjust better on the fly during games.


Q: Does M. Stepp have a legitimate shot in starting at tailback this season? 

A: I think he does. That would have sounded crazy before spring ball, but that’s how good Stepp was. Now, it’s not like he went out and lapped Stephen Carr and Vavae Malepeai, because they were as good as you’d expect from them. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Stepp got the first carry at some point this year.


Q: Will your interview at SD Trojan Club with Graham be live or did SC want list of Qs submitted in advance? I’m driving down hoping to hear his candid remarks.

A: So far I haven’t had any indication that I’d need to submit a list of questions. I think Harrell has shown after spring practices that he can keep his answers entertaining and candid.


Q: Our offensive line depth looks like it is pretty thin, based on the reports from spring ball. Jimmons, F. Martin,, and L. Douglass look like they are not capable at this point of stepping in to replace a starter in the event of injury. That leaves J. Rodriguez, freshman Livai, C. Bradley and Schirmir… maybe Dedich. Any thoughts on how we can develop some better depth, especially if the guy from Tennessee doesn’t come to SC?

A: It’s all about reps and technique for the offense, and the same goes for the offensive line. I was actually really impressed with what Liam Jimmons was able to do at right tackle after flipping over from defensive end. He’s certainly not a first-round tackle prospect at this point in time, but he was better than I expected and he brings an aggressiveness to the position that helps him. I also thought Liam Douglass was pretty good this spring, and is another guy that plays with some fire. I’m really interested to see what happens with the incoming freshmen in Jason Rodriguez and Tilini Livai, but at this point you’re really seeing the effects of losing several offensive linemen to transfer and injuries, and not taking more bodies in the 2018 recruiting class.


Q: Clancy seems the more optimistic this year regarding the defense than years past. Do you get this sense as well? How are the new D assistant coaches working out? Should I be confident?

A: I do feel like he’s excited about the personnel he has to work with, especially in the front seven. I don’t think you could get anything more out of Greg Burns in the secondary and Chad Kauha’aha’a coaching the defensive linemen. But I also think it’s too early to be truly confident about anything. This was a unit that had plenty of things to fix and played without several potential starters all spring. Most coaches had some form of “we’re getting there” as an answer to how things progressed this spring. Like with the rest of the program right now, I’d say there’s some cautious optimism that this defense can put things together this year.


Q: Will Helton give Harrell enough leeway to be effective?

A: I honestly don’t get the sense that Helton is going to do anything to get in Harrell’s way this season. I think Helton has a lot of respect for the way Harrell goes about his business, and almost seems in awe of the way he runs the offensive side of the ball during practices. Could things change if there’s a two-point conversion call with the game on the line? Sure. But at this point I believe that Helton sees this as being Harrell’s offense.


Q: Could we get 9 or 10 more tough Aussies and New Zealanders built like Ben Griffiths, give the ball to Markese Stepp and let him run behind them and over the indians and the irish? 

Is it too late to change the offensive scheme?

A: While Griffiths is tall, he’s definitely on the skinny side, and I’m not sure how he would hold up along the offensive line. That power running game still might be the biggest question on either side of the ball as spring ball finishes. I don’t think you’re going to see much power from the Trojans this season in terms of lining up in a goalline formation and running teams over. Where I think this offense has a chance to be much better than we’ve seen in the recent past is that it seemed like USC ran up the middle a lot on third and two and got stuffed, and they did it because you’re supposed to be able to convert those plays when you’re the better team, even though picking up two yards up the middle on obvious running downs wasn’t a strength for the Trojans. This year, I think we might see more passes on third and short, but the success rate should be higher because they’re going to be running plays that they’ve run a million times and are confident they can execute.


Q: As a follow up to usc88.. who picks the starting QB
one other question if I may .. any idea on how many season tickets have been sold .. are luxury boxes sold out

A: Helton and Harrell haven’t said how a starting quarterback will be named, but Harrell is going to have a major say in who that guy is. I don’t think there is any way Helton overrules him if Harrell is set on somebody. I’m not sure about numbers for season tickets or luxury boxes, but I would be shocked if the numbers are at or above a level that USC was hoping they would be at this point in time.


Q: Why exactly did the Trojans decide to go all in on this ” Air Raid” offense? The Alabama & Clemsons seem to do great without it. Practice like them would help and use the Norm Chow/ Pete Carroll system.

A: I think USC went all in on the Air Raid because that’s what Helton is comfortable doing. It always seemed like he felt as though he needed to keep one eye focused on USC’s past—Tailback U and power football—but that was never something he really bought into. He’s a quarterback coach and I’m fine with him going all in on something he wants to do. I’d rather he swim with something he’s comfortable with than sink with something the fans want. The problem with trying to implement Norm Chow’s offense is that you don’t have Chow calling plays. I can buy all the same ingredients as a three-star Michelin chef, but if I’m cooking the food, it’s not going to taste as good. You don’t get more points for degree of difficulty in football, and that’s what Harrell hangs his hat on. Let’s keep things simple so that one pass play can always work because of the variations you can run with the same call. And I think the running game succeeds here because you’re almost never running at a stacked box.


Q: With regards to the QBs, during the 7v7 & 11v11 periods did the quarterbacks use the entire field? More specifically, did they throw from the hash to the far sidelines? Did they throw long much? These throws, especially the wide side out, are what stretches the defense and helps make this offense run, no? And until they start making these throws, can it really be called a true competition or just part of a thinning out process so the top two can go at each other in the fall??

A: It never felt like the quarterbacks were making the same throws over and over. I think a lot of what makes this offense go are the underneath crossing routes where guys can get the ball in space. But I was definitely impressed with some deep balls and throws to the far sideline. This offense asks for a little bit of everything from the quarterbacks, and we saw that this spring.


Q: Erik, can you give an update on how the new coaches did this spring. Seemed like all were impactful.

Any update from Clay on how we are positioned for recruiting for this year? Also, seemed like the strategy for recruiting did not change for us with the early signing date – other schools adjusted their strategy and we kept with one closing with kids in January. It is clear that the vast majority of quality kids signed early and we missed on them.

A: I really liked watching the coaches work this spring, and it absolutely looks like they are working well as a group. It’s a benefit when you have graduate assistants like Chris Hawkins and Michael Hutchings, where Greg Burns can go spend some time specifically with the cornerbacks and Hawkins can work with the safeties. There is some fire with these guys, and we were able to see that with Burns and Chad Kauha’aha’a specifically. But what I like is that most of it is directed toward teachable things, where they take time to explain what happened and how to correct it. I also liked that they split the SAM linebacker apart from the MIKE and WILL linebackers, as Joe DeForest got to spend extended time with that trio of Hunter Echols, Eli’jah Winston, and Malik McClain

With recruiting, Helton is never going to publicly give an update as to where things stand before the class is finalized. He did say this past signing day that the 2020 class would be a smaller one, due to the lack of seniors on this roster. I do think USC is going to start being more aggressive in the spring, and we saw a lot of recruits out at practices. But USC has its hands full with Oregon right now. The Ducks have figured out how to recruit in the spring, and when you don’t have to hold onto commitments for that extra two months, it makes it easier to lock guys in. USC also doesn’t have any on-field momentum right now. I think the combination of a few early season wins and having Bryce Young committed could get USC rolling in a big way with this 2020 class, but it’s an uphill battle right now to get the truly elite guys to fully buy in without seeing the product on the field, when they have options like Oregon and Washington in the Pac-12, and Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and Texas, nationally. USC is lucky in that it is one of those schools that always has the ability to go from 0-100 in a hurry when momentum starts building.

Erik McKinney

Erik McKinney began writing for WeAreSC in 2004, during his junior year at USC, covering the Trojans football team and recruiting. He then moved on to ESPN.com in 2011, where he served as the West Region recruiting reporter and then the Pac-12 recruiting reporter. He took over as publisher of WeAreSC in January, 2019.

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