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WeAreSC Mailbag

Answering user questions on the state of the USC Trojans. This week, questions about the secondary, strength and conditioning, the offensive line, and the status of transfer portal players.


Q: Do you think Steele will earn a starting job at some point this season?

A: If Chris Steele is eligible to play this fall, it’s almost a guarantee that he’ll see the field pretty regularly. As far as earning a starting spot, I’m not ready to go that far yet. Olaijah Griffin should have a pretty strong grip on one spot, and I really liked what we saw from Isaac Taylor-Stuart this past spring. I think Steele has a fighting chance to break into the starting lineup, but at this point, the safer bet is that he’ll be in the mix to be that first guy off the bench in the rotation.

Gold Trojan

Q: Do you foresee a decent improvement from our secondary? Last year, our pass coverage was very vanilla and not very good. Can we utilize or new CB speed to play more of a bump and run, rather than a 15 yard cushion?

A: I think the secondary will be much improved on an individual basis this fall, because defensive backs coach Greg Burns is a great teacher. I hesitate to say there will be improvement in terms of production, however, because former defensive backs coach Ronnie Bradford was hand-picked by Clancy Pendergast to coach that unit, so I have to assume Pendergast knew what he was getting with Bradford and they were coaching toward the same goal. I think there is plenty of talent among the starters in the secondary, but the lack of experience is glaring. I definitely want to wait and see how things look with everybody healthy this fall (Griffin sat out all of spring, Talanoa Hufanga was non-contact until he re-broke his collarbone, and Isaiah Pola-Mao was non/limited contact throughout spring) before projecting better or worse play from that group.


Q: Have you seen drastic improvements around the strength & conditioning program? Has the focus been on more explosive olympic lifts or more conditioning and up tempo?

A: In late April, I was able to have a sit-down with head strength and conditioning coach Aaron Ausmus and he went into detail about a lot of the program he would be installing. And here’s a little look at some of the offseason weight room work:

I think right now this is a collection of guys (Ausmus as well as the entire team) who feel like they have something to prove, and there has been serious buy in to the entire program. We probably won’t get much of a look at guys this summer, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see some real changes in a lot of players when they show up for fall camp.


Q: Is Katoa ever coming back? Do we have guys who can convert to fullbacks. Does GH use a fullback in his system ever? Who do we have for tight ends this year besides Falo and Yary coming in? I worry GH wont have enough tools.

A: Tayler Katoa left for his LDS mission in September of 2018, so he is on track to return in the fall of 2020. At this point, I have not heard of any adjustments to that plan.

Harrell doesn’t use a fullback specifically. He can use other players to mimic what a fullback does, but there isn’t really a role just for a fullback.

The tight ends will be Erik Krommenhoek, Josh Falo, Jude Wolfe, and Ethan Rae. Wolfe and Rae are true freshmen, but Wolfe really impressed this spring before being sidelined with a back injury. Jack Yary recently committed to USC, but is part of the 2020 recruiting class.


Q: What is the timeline on McCoy and Steele and whether or not they are actually coming to USC?

A: I don’t think there is any question as to whether or not they are coming to USC. I’d be surprised if it carried out much past the next few days.


Q: What are your thoughts on Ross being in the portal? Do you think the coaches have moved on from him and do you think any other schools will take a chance on him?

A: I don’t think there’s a spot for Ykili Ross at USC. I’m a little surprised there hasn’t been news of him finding a landing spot elsewhere, but he could wind up needing to drop down a level to find a place to play.


Q: I noticed that TE Daniel Imatorbhebhe is still listed on the roster. Since he hasn’t taken a medical retirement, I’m assuming he and the staff still are hopeful that he will play at some point. He’d be a great threat in the Air Raid if healthy. Have you heard any rumblings about Daniel I?

A: Imatorbhebhe would be a massive asset in the Air Raid, but until I see him on the field and participating in full contact, I’m working under the assumption that we’ve seen the last of him in a USC uniform.


Q: I know it’s a long way out, but do you think CCH is under pressure to have a real game like practice at the coliseum on 8-17 to get people excited about the year? Or another ” spring showcase”?

A: I don’t think Clay Helton feels any kind of pressure to change anything about his practice schedule. He was very specific about his goals in changing the team this spring, repeating “discipline,” “turnovers,” and “competition” a number of times. Those were his tweaks. We saw a little bit in the way of more physical practices, but it still wasn’t close to what a lot of USC fans would like to see. I tend to think it’ll be more along the lines of a spring showcase with some full contact elements. Because Helton knows that he’ll be judged by this fall far more than by that practice. So I don’t see him straying too far outside of his comfort zone just because fans would like to see something different at one practice per season.


Q: With Matt Fink’s return, I have to think that something Harrell said to Fink piqued his interest and ultimate decision to return. That likely being the ultimate Carrot dangling of playing time. What say you?

A: I think it might have more to do with that he’s on track to graduate this summer and he wants to be a part of the new energy in the program. It’s going to be a tough road for him to jump both JT Daniels and Jack Sears on the depth chart, but we saw last year that a third quarterback is necessary. And on top of that, I think the biggest selling point for someone who grew up a Trojan fan is that you can’t be the USC quarterback if you aren’t at USC.


Q: Do offensive and defensive coaches watch last season’s film of our opponents players and schemes during the off season to plan ahead for new ways to attack them?
Do they look at film of top teams to lean new schemes and plays?

A: There have been multiple quality control guys and both offensive and defensive analysts added to the staff this offseason, and those are the guys primarily involved in cutting together film and making sure their coaches are prepped with things like this. I don’t know the specific ins and outs of how this staff watched film and which coaching events they attend, but you always hear stories of coaches putting in specific plays in the spring or fall in order to run them against a particular team down the line, and I’d be surprised if USC coaches and their staff aren’t involved in at least a little bit of advanced scouting throughout the year.


Q: Is this the time to switch to a 6 DB base Defense?

A: I don’t know if I’d go fully to six defensive backs, but this is why the move of Raymond Scott to nickelback was so interesting this past spring. If he can continue to work on his coverage skills to the point where he’s basically a third safety, it gives you some versatility to play five defensive backs where you don’t have to give up as much size against the run.


Q: Regardless of one’s prejudices towards Swann, do you think the Great USC Admissions Scandal will get him fired? I am asking because it happens sometimes, “How was I to know?” and “it doesn’t matter I could have never known about Bush and all that”.

A: I don’t think the admissions scandal alone will be the thing that gets Swann. I do think that ultimate result will be the expectation from many USC fans when new president Carol Folt begins taking stock of her staff.


Q: If it is able to answer so soon, what differences have been made to the Strength & Conditioning program and developing “lesser” prospects that will allow USC to win and continue to win on a level that will at least have us consistent contenders for a PAC-12 Championship and Rose Bowl berth?

A: We’ve heard a lot about buy in from the players to this S&C program. Aaron Ausmus preaches the importance of eating a lot, and there’s a clear goal from him and his staff on how to get the most out of every player on the roster. I don’t think the idea is to constantly bring in “lesser” prospects and coach them up. I do think sometimes those guys just develop later, and when that finally kicks in at 19 or 20, strength coaches get a lot of credit for something genetics is doing.

I don’t think there’s a massive difference between strength programs across the country. With the amount of communication that goes on and how visible things are now, it’s not as if Alabama is running some secret program that nobody knows how to copy. I think Ausmus has been able to perfect this program so that nobody can teach it as well as he can, and that’s leading to positive results.


Q: Since the offensive line was the weakest unit year, and the transfer from Tennessee will most likely start at RT, will McKenzie be allowed to compete for the RG position?
Will SC property utilize their running backs, especially Stepp?

A: I’m not quite ready to hand Drew Richmond the starting right tackle spot. I don’t think Jalen McKenzie has it locked down, and he struggled at times this spring, but I’m willing to bet that he’ll put up a serious fight this fall.

As for letting guys move positions and compete at other spots, that’s just not something we saw this spring, so I’m not ready to say it’s going to happen this fall.

As for how offensive players will be utilized, I couldn’t find many complaints after what we saw this spring, especially with Markese Stepp’s performance. Again, these aren’t games, but right now that’s all we have to go on.


Q: Do you think Matt Fink may try another position? To me he may be able to transition like David Sills as Matt is such a superior athlete and has such a competitive vibe

A: I’d be very surprised to see Fink try a new position. I think Matt is a very good athlete, but moving to wide receiver and earning playing time would be asking to beat out a lot of guys more athletic than him who have been playing wide receiver for a long time. I think he’s a quarterback, and if it doesn’t happen for him this fall, he’ll be able to transfer as a graduate and compete for a starting spot somewhere else with immediate eligibility.

Erik McKinney
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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