This week’s mailbag includes questions about USC’s FCS addition to its future schedule, potential team captains, what to do with the No. 5 jersey, and what to expect from the USC Trojans return game this fall.
Q: Erik, do you think that the Trojans scheduling UC Davis is a good move? Given how the SEC games the system and Pac 12 teams play 9 Conference games, scheduling a cupcake FCS team is not a bad thing.
Second question: What are your thoughts on recent commit Kobe Pepe? In my mind, this kid could turn out to be Helton’s best D Line commit in awhile and is underrated by the Internet ratings services.
I see JoJuan Collins as a must get in this recruiting cycle. What say you?
A: Starting with the first question. I don’t really see it as a good move or a bad move, because I can’t get past the fact that I find it such a disappointing move. I completely understand the reasons for scheduling UC Davis. Playing Alabama (or Texas, or any other true blue blood) and Notre Dame every year is not a recipe for a national championship. Getting seven home games a year is something that USC feels is important to its fans and chances of overall success. It also offers a competitive advantage in the years where USC has to play five conference away games. I’m not going to touch the argument as to UC Davis actually being a pretty good team (they are) because you don’t look to the FCS when looking for a good team to schedule. The two things that stand out to me are the fact that you are just one of three programs to never play an FCS program, and the fact that you’re coming off a 5-7 season. If either of those weren’t true, I think the outrage directed at the decision would have been far more muted. But the timing of the announcement and the circumstances surrounding USC making the decision ultimately make this something that is both easy to understand and difficult to hear.
As for your second question, I really like the addition of Kobe Pepe to this class. I think he’s that prototypical fire hydrant nose tackle that can be the heart of a defense without putting up impressive numbers. Just like how I’d always toss in an extra offensive lineman in every class, I also think it’s important to grab a guy like this in just about every class. I’m not going to put him in the same class as Jay Tufele and Marlon Tuipulotu from the 2017 class in terms of potential, but he has a chance to make a real impact at USC.
I’m hesitant to call any offensive skill player a “must get” since usually there isn’t much of a drop between that guy and the next guy on the list. Looking at the preseason Pac-12 All-Conference team, first-team guys Eno Benjamin and Zack Moss were big recruiting wins for Arizona State and Utah, but it’s not as if Oregon State and Arizona were fighting off dozens of programs to sign Jermar Jefferson and J.J. Taylor, the conference’s second-team backs. That being said, barring massive late changes, USC is already going to miss out on the top two backs in the region, in Kendall Milton and Bijan Robinson. So when I say there isn’t much of a drop, that’s when you’re going from 1A to 1B, or even 1C. When you’re talking about dropping out of the entire top tier at a position locally (as you would be if you lose out on Collins), that can change things when it comes to the discussion of a “must get.” Getting two running backs was on the table in the 2019 class, so it’s likely that the USC coaches will absolutely want a back in this class, and right now, in this region, there just aren’t any names that jump out at you after Collins.
Q: As a Punahou and SC Alum, I like to follow those players’ careers (Mosi Tatupu!).
I think you’re one of the first to mention Tufono as an early contributor at the otherwise loaded MLB position; it also seemed like some on the recruiting board weren’t thrilled when he committed.
Could you elaborate on his chances to see the field sooner rather than later?
A: I didn’t want to make it sound like Maninoa Tufono is going to come in and truly compete for a starting linebacker spot, because I don’t expect him to be able to unseat any of the top four guys in the middle, in John Houston, Jordan Iosefa, Palaie Gaoteote, and Kana’i Mauga. But he has the size and ability to be an asset on special teams right out of the gate. He was ESPN’s No. 3 inside linebacker in the country. We’ve seen that USC coaches like to have a veteran in the middle calling the defense, so there’s a chance that someone like Gaoteote could move back to the middle when Houston and Iosefa are gone this year. But it also wouldn’t surprise me if Tufono is groomed to take over that spot, and does so successfully. He’s already all of his listed 6-foot-3, 235 pounds.
Q: Erik, what are your thoughts on the #5 jersey? Do you think it will ever be issued to an incoming player again ? And do you think it should?
A: I think it’s probably about time that something happens with the No. 5 jersey, and it sure seems like the ball is in USC’s court regarding that. The party line is that the NCAA mandated that USC permanently disassociate from Reggie Bush, but that was something that USC imposed on itself and the NCAA accepted during his punishment ruling. Further, the NCAA included language that says, “the institution shall show cause why it should not be penalized further if it fails to permanently disassociate student-athlete 1 and 2 and representative B from the institution’s athletics program based on their involvement in the violations set forth in this report.” That reads as though USC could open communication about at least retiring the jersey (though I don’t know for certain that hasn’t been attempted already).
USC is in a tough spot because it can’t really comment on Bush directly. But it feels like USC should decide how much they value the No. 5, because right now it feels like it’s important enough to retire, but not important enough to fight to do it publicly. And with how strictly USC has followed the punishments handed out by the NCAA, I wouldn’t be surprised if the No. 5 doesn’t get handed out again, since the language in the ruling:
“These disassociations shall include:
a. Refraining from accepting any assistance from the individuals that would aid in the recruitment of prospective student-athletes or the support of enrolled student-athletes;
d. Implementing other actions that the institution determines to be within its authority to eliminate the involvement of the individuals in the institution’s athletics program,” could certainly be interpreted to say that you can’t use Bush’s iconic No. 5 to recruit prospects or reward players.
Touchdown for USC
Q: Who in the athletic department is in charge of scheduling for the football and basketball teams?
A: Senior Associate Athletic Director Steve Lopes is the point man for scheduling, and he was very up front about the fact that an FCS program would appear on the schedule, which it did shortly after he announced that publicly.
Q: Looks like over half of the 2020 top 300 national recruits have already committed, and USC has interest from just a handful of the remaining top 300. Will there be little left in the cupboard for us to pursue by the time the early signing period rolls around, even if we turn things around on the field?
A: Yes. This is a very real possibility with this recruiting class. The prevailing thought is that if things go well this fall, recruits will jump on board. I think that is true to an extent—recruits will remain very interest in USC as long as they are winning—but that mid-December signing period could make things very tricky for the Trojans. USC doing well doesn’t mean prospects will bail on Washington, or Oregon, or Stanford, or Ohio State, or Texas, or any of the other national programs who have come in and gotten their hooks into Southern California. Recruits want to see how USC will perform this fall, but it’s not as if other programs were going to wait for that. They recruited hard, and had way more momentum than USC. And you can see how that paid off this summer, as California has been picked apart, and USC right now has a legitimate shot with probably only five of the top 20 recruits in the state.
It’s going to be asking a lot for Helton and staff to regroup and wipe out the huge head start that a lot of programs have right now, but I don’t think it will be impossible (again, we’re talking about if things go really well this year).
Q: Recently, Aaron Ausmus called out his “team leaders” for a one-on-one personal discussion and challenged them to lead. Ausmus doubted that the perceived “team leaders” were the real deal. He then said he believed that there are other players who he and his staff believe are the real deal.
My question: If you had to predict then who in your opinion are this year’s Team Captains, how many will be Seniors, and how many captains will be picked?
A: I think there will be the usual four captains. Michael Pittman (photo above) is a virtual guarantee as an offensive guy. I think Christian Rector is a good bet as a defensive guy. I would love it if a big lineman and a middle linebacker were obviously choices as team leaders, and I think Austin Jackson and John Houston will get some recognition there. I like making seniors and redshirt juniors the captains of the team, but with the idea of maybe needing to shake things up with the program, and with what they’ve done already, and how their teammates have talked about them this spring and summer, I might go with a couple of sophomores in Amon-Ra St. Brown and Talanoa Hufanga. I don’t think either of them are shy about saying something when it needs to be said and I think they understand the work it’s going to take on and off the field to get things back on track.
Q: Is Kyle Ford going full speed in PRPs? Have you seen Bru at PRPs?
I can’t imagine another D1 program having the size SC has at the WR position.
A: Ford looks like he’s running well. I can’t say what percent he’s at in terms of health, but he doesn’t appear to be holding back at all. I have not seen Bru at PRPs, but there are a handful of guys in addition to him who haven’t been there either. The size at wide receiver is incredible right now. I’m curious to see how that plays out in this offense, because a majority of the time, the guys who really find success in this (and the ones that made big plays at North Texas) are those shifty quick guys who can catch a short pass and turn it into a long gain. The three best receivers at North Texas last year were 6-2, 190, 6-1, 202, and 5-9, 165. I have no doubt that the big receivers at USC are incredibly talented and will be tough covers for opposing cornerbacks. We’re going to see how well they can perform in this offense that seems to rely on quick adjustments and speed after the catch.
Q: With all the discussion about who the best returners have been for the Trojans, I was reminded about how incredibly weak the SC return game has been since Adoree left. Harris was a disaster as a PR, and other than zigging and zagging a lot Velus has never inspired hope for a return touchdown either, at least not for me. As we all know, cheap quick-strike touchdowns from special teams are gold.
Who will be the return men in 2019? Will any of them have the explosiveness to inspire hope that a return touchdown is about to happen? Thanks Erik.
A: We saw a lot of offensive standouts back returning kicks and punts this past spring, including Amon-Ra St. Brown, Michael Pittman, Stephen Carr, and Tyler Vaughns. They were joined towards the end by Olaijah Griffin. I think Tyler Vaughns did enough last season to put him out there first on punt returns, and my guess is that Velus Jones will slot back in as kick returner. I like Carr on kickoff returns as well.
I’m with you in expecting the special teams level of play to rise just a bit. It seems like special teams coordinator John Baxter has the ability to dial up some special stuff in terms of returns or rushes that result in blocked kicks. But the consistency where you feel that USC will get the better of every special teams play just hasn’t been there. They spent a ton of times on special teams work this spring, so we’ll see how that plays out this fall.