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WeAreSC Mailbag

This week we tackle questions from reachers about the defensive secondary, improved teaching by assistant coaches, recruiting strategies, record predictions, and what Clay Helton is now doing right.


Q: Will the Defensive Secondary be better this coming season? The easy answer is ‘yes’ as they probably couldn’t be any worse than last year. I’m not asking your opinion about minimal improvement, but, will they be significantly better as they should be because talent isn’t the issue?

A: This is sort of a two-part answer. I don’t think they’ll be individually much better than the secondary last year. There is a lot of talent among the starters, but at the end of the year, if everyone was eligible for the draft, I don’t know if you’d have two guys taken higher than Iman Marshall and Marvell Tell were drafted this past spring (even though I do think that down the line, guys in this secondary could go earlier). I do, however, think the production will be better, with a huge tip of the cap to improved play from the defensive line and simply the pure odds against another season with so few interceptions.

With so much youth and inexperience, there will be some growing pains early in the season and it isn’t fair to these guys to say they’ll be better right out of the gate than a very veteran secondary in 2018. I do think we’ll see marked improvement throughout the season. USC fans just need to hope that starts with Game 1, rather than Game 7.


Q: Is Solomon T. on the path to becoming another Daniel I.?

When can we expect to see him on the field or at least cleared to play?

A: I think it’s way too early to have those kinds of concerns about Solomon Tuliaupupu. He looked great in limited action this spring and then was shut down for precautionary reasons. I’d be surprised if he isn’t ready to go for the season. He’s a little bit of a forgotten man among the linebackers, but there’s no reason to think he can’t make a fairly sizable impact this year.


Q: How do we do against these 7 teams that Athlon has ranked above us?

Notre Dame (No. 9)
Washington (12)
Utah (13)
Oregon (15)
Washington State (27)
Stanford (34)
UCLA (42)

A: It’s so difficult to make game predictions right now, without seeing fall camp or even knowing for certain who the starting quarterback will be. I can say I’m fairly certain that USC won’t go 0-7 or 7-0 against that group. Something like 4-3 sounds reasonable against those teams at this point, until we figure out what some of the remaining question marks look like. A 5-2 record there would probably mean a pretty nice season. Anything worse than 3-4 would likely mean there wasn’t enough changed from last season.


Q: Have you noticed many differences in the way this staff is recruiting as opposed to recent staffs? It seems like we are offering highly ranked local kids earlier and establishing a relationship before the out of state poachers get their claws in too deep.. It seems this was a criticism that was brought up in losing some good ones recently. Drevno seems to be hand picking his guys, understanding his pool of players to pick from is limited while recovering from the Callaway hangover, but getting the guys he feels comfortable with. Basically owning it. If the OL doesn’t become a strength , it’s all him. Are the other coaches also able to have this much freedom in their offers and investing more time in finding their guys? Is the early signing period going to hurt us this year in recruiting due to a wait and see attitude that is happening this year? And is the early signing day, becoming signing day. Is the recruiting staff larger or just working harder and any unsung heroes on the staff you see shining?.when are we going to hire a coach from Florida or the South so we can start filling those states with offers like TX, after CA gets locked down again? Trojans are going to own CA again, right?

A: Lots of stuff to unpack here.

I don’t think this staff is reinventing the wheel when it comes to the recruiting process, though they do seem to be more in control of the process than occasionally in the past (checking in regularly, getting guys on campus, generating commitments or significant interest after in-person offers). This staff is filled with guys who are terrific evaluators, so I do think you’re going to get the occasional highly-recruited local guy who winds up elsewhere because these coaches trust their evaluation of him compared to someone else. The position coaches definitely have a major say in who they want to go after at their position. There are also a few more analysts on staff, who can assist with recruiting.

As for the early signing period, that’s already become the regular signing period. Once that comes and goes, you’d better only need a couple finishing touches to your class, because guys are signed. That shows no sign of slowing down. That will impact USC in a huge way if the Trojans turn in a poor season. If they win the Pac-12 or have double-digit wins, they shouldn’t have much of a problem with timing running up against the early period.

I don’t think the staff necessarily needs a guy from Florida or the deep south in order to recruit well down there. It helps, but what helps more is wearing the logo of the team that just won the national championship. Alabama and Clemson aren’t solely getting guys from out west because they have a coach or staffer who was born in California. When USC is good, there’s a buzz on any high school campus in America when a Trojan coach shows up.


Q: Helton seems to be doing the right things as a HC now. 
But why does he need something to go wrong before making the
right decision?

A: I think it comes down to the fact that he’d never been a head coach before. And while he was an assistant at USC, he wasn’t exactly coaching under Bear Bryant and Vince Lombardi.

If you look at Pete Carroll’s career history as a coach, it runs from 1973 through the present, with just one year unaccounted for. That was 2000, when he did some consulting work between getting fired from the New England Patriots and hired by USC. But he was also able to take some time and really cement his philosophies and his gameplan for what he would do if given another shot as a head coach.

I think this offseason might have served as Helton’s step-back moment, where he developed what he wants his program to be, rather than just running with the one he inherited. There is a lot of speculation there, and obviously no proof that it’s worked at this point. But that’s why I’ve said repeatedly this offseason that it does feel a bit like the Trojans hired a new coach, because Helton is coming at things a little differently. We’ll see how things go, but he definitely seemed more confident this spring when talking about what he implemented and what he expects from his program.

Touchdown for USC

Q: Please describe the football player’s drug monitoring process. Are there independent 3rd parties involved? How often do they test the players? Are the test random? What drugs are illegal?

A: Here are a couple of resources that should answer just about any question related to NCAA drug testing protocols.


Q: Thanks to the great work of our recruiting coordinator Johnny Nansen and others, USC seemed like the hottest place to go a few years ago for Polynesian recruits, especially the elite recruits. Then things fell off quickly the last couple years. We lost the interest of a lot of top Poly recruits who scouting services originally had as “locks” for SC. Do you think SC is well-positioned to turn this situation around in the near future?

A: I think USC is always going to be a strong contender for Polynesian prospects, but they aren’t alone in going after them. Oregon and Washington have done well recruiting Poly players and turning them into household names. Johnny Nansen is a major asset there, but Clay Helton’s Faith, Family, Football philosophy really resonates in that community.

Gold Trojan

Q: What is up with the seats next to the press box???? You have a view of 20 yards of the whole field. How was that allowed to pass?

A: Those seats will not be sold for USC football games.


Q: My mantra has been the same for years, “stars suck and so do our coaches” and by that I mean there are just too many examples to point to where recruiting stars do not equate to be NFL draft picks. In fact the vast majority of NFL stars were three stars, not four, and not five. Ok.. that is not question… it is a peeve. But my question is, “are we finally building a teaching corps?”… we have not been developing our kids. Do you think that changes now? Do we have teachers?

A: I think there are four spots where the teaching ability of the coaches is vastly improved. Tim Drevno drew rave reviews from his linemen for his teaching ability and his attention to detail this spring. Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell has an easy way about him where he can take a truly complicated question and dumb it down into a three-word answer that sticks with you. After watching an offense last year where the guys in charge didn’t really have a 100% idea of what they were trying to accomplish, it was a stark change to watch Harrell install an offense where there is a clear plan and an answer to everything, taught in a way where every play basically become an open book test.

On defense, I think Chad Kauha’aha’a is terrific when it comes to teaching, and that was made fairly clear by the play of the defensive line this spring. And it’s a little unfair because the defensive backs were positioned close to where the media watches practice, so he was amplified for us most days, but Greg Burns seemed to have something important or constructive to say to just about every defensive back following just about every rep. There’s improved teaching going on all over the field, but those are a few spots that really stand out.


Q: With the significant drop off in season tickets and lack of support in general if 2019 starts badly your thoughts on what might happen
If there is to be a coaching change for 2020 do you think it will be directed by President Folt as AD Swann seems unable to do anything

A: The potential way President Carol Folt plans to handle athletics at USC is fascinating at this point, because there are so many things with the University that will need her immediate attention. But it would surprise me if a poor start to the season (1-5, 2-4 with a few blowouts) did not result in a coaching change. And it would surprise me more if she allowed Swann to make that decision on his own.

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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