In this week’s mailbag, we answer reader questions about underrated recruits, the quarterback competition, stopping the run, the offensive line’s performance, and more.
Q: Despite the exodus of top 2019 recruits last year and the poor overall recruiting ranking for USC, it looks like the staff did a credible job of uncovering some highly underrated players like QB Slovis, S Briton Allen, LB Goforth, WR McClain and WR John Jackson. Some other guys that so far look like they probably should have been rated higher include DT D. Benton, DE Figueroa, WR London and even DE Drake Jackson. Do you see any guys in our 2020 class that could be seriously underrated?
A: I like what I’ve seen so far from defensive tackle Kobe Pepe (Bellflower, Calif./St. John Bosco) and offensive tackle Andrew Milek (Phoenix/Brophy Prep). I don’t think either are guys you’d expect to come in and play right away, but there are no real size concerns about either and I think they have a chance to see their rankings increase this fall, or outplay them during their college careers. I think all the 2020 commits are intriguing enough at this point, but a lot of that comes with some faith in this staff’s evaluation ability. Outside of quarterback Bryce Young and kicker Parker Lewis, there is nobody yet that a year ago, you would have said is a slam dunk, no-brainer take in the 2020 class.
Q: One question I have that I haven’t seen addressed much less answered is what are the Trojans going to do in short yardage and goal line situations. It’s kind of important, don’t you think? Erik, please give us your take on how the Trojans intend to address this obviously critical area of offense, how big of an improvement you think we’ll see vs. last year’s pitiful performance, and why you expect us to be better (or not). Thanks and Fight On!
A: I expect goalline and red zone performance to improve pretty dramatically this year. We’ve seen the offense work pretty comfortably through the air and on the ground inside the five-yard line. Markese Stepp is a phenomenal short-yardage back, and Vavae Malepeai is strong there as well. You also have a ton of height outside if you choose to go that way, and the ability to spread things out gives the offense some extra room in a place on the field where space is difficult to find.
Q: What is a true breakdown of our running game? I’ve heard portions of info on Carr, Stepp, Malepeai, but I can’t seem to catch the vision of what the running game philosophy is.
A: It feels like the running game is based on taking what the defense gives you. I do think this offense has the ability to use the tight end position to help there and go with a more power look, but it really looks to take advantage of any time the defense decides to unload the box and drop guys into coverage. It can also be up to the quarterback to go ahead and hand it off to the running back or not, so some of the potential to get the ground game going is up to him.
Q: Which of the following is more true?
1) No one is stepping up as a clear leader at QB so we should be a bit concerned.
2) We have four great options at QB
A: I don’t think there are four great options at quarterback, at least to the point where there aren’t 11 Pac-12 programs thinking they’d take whoever winds up as the No. 4 guy and be happy to stick him in as their starter. So I think it’s more option 1 at this point, but I’d definitely stick to being “a bit” concerned, rather than full-blown concerned. It would have been great to see one guy dominate the competition and grab hold of the spot, making it clearly obvious who the starter would be. I don’t think that fully happened, as all four guys had their ups and downs. I think Saturday could reveal a lot in terms of somebody doing that, but it’s also important to keep in mind that the guy putting up the best performance could be doing a majority of his best work against the second-team defense. I’m more interested in what happens after the decision is made, rather than the lead up to it. How does the starter respond once he is named? Does he take his game to another level? I do think all four guys are capable of that, and maybe getting into a better rhythm by taking more reps does that for them.
Q: Has GH discussed if he’s going to be on the field calling plays or up in the booth during games.
A: Harrell spends team sessions calling plays from the roof of Dedeaux Field, so I’m betting that he’ll be up in the booth. Running backs coach Mike Jinks appears to act as Harrell’s stand-in down on the field, as he has a grasp of this offense and brings some gravitas as a former head coach.
Q: I guess we would only have a few practices and the scrimmage from this past Saturday as the only sample size, but does it seem that the personnel is consistent on a drive basis? I’m more specifically referring to the RB’s, and whether they stay in for several plays at a time or for entire drives. One thing that always frustrated me in the previous years, was to see a RB have a great run, get back to the huddle excited, and the next thing one would see, was him looking to the sideline and put his head down and start to run to the sideline as he was called off the field and replaced by another player. That would seem to demoralize the player who just made a great play.
A: I think if Harrell could grant his starting 11 guys infinite cardio, he’d never make a substitution. He wants the 11 best guys on the field at all times (obviously changing based on formations). There was so much emphasis on conditioning this spring/summer, especially for the wide receivers, so that they are able to run play after play without substituting. In this offense, having a guy come off the field and giving the defense an opportunity to substitute is probably viewed almost like losing a few yards on a play, where you are letting the defense get an advantage. We saw a little bit of that on Thursday, where Clay Helton said they let offensive players stay on the field for longer drives, giving them an idea of what it feels like to be out there for 8-10 plays at a time.
Q: Regardless of coaching changes and recruiting classes, my feeling is that if SC continues to have extremely soft practices, we will continue to get romped against tier one programs (ND, Texas, Bama, Ohio State, etc). We will do just fine to compete against a sadly inferior Pac-12, but we’ll take a beating when we get out of our west coast lane. That said, how physical are the practices so far? Are we still playing patty-cake? Or is it possible that when we see ND this year we may look like we’ve hit someone before?
A: I think the practices overall might be a little lacking in terms of hitting for extended periods of time. That said, we’ve seen a few very physical practices and I have a hunch that Saturday’s showcase could qualify for one of those as well. I think the improvement is coming in the intensity of those full contact periods, where guys are really going hard. But we’re not really going to know until the first game. Has Helton found a way to bring an overall toughness into the program? The offseason strength and conditioning program felt like a great start, as the guys really bought into the competition aspect of it. We’ve seen some jawing back and forth this fall where the talk is being backed up by action.
Q: Are you seeing any 2 back sets? This is something Helton has, at times, said the O would employ. He even said it was part of Harrell’s modified air raid O, but I’ve not seen any reporting suggesting that it’s something they are actually working on/ employing.
Q: Seeing any 2 TEs on running plays?
A: We’re unable to go into any specific details about formations that might venture into reporting on strategy. But there are a lot of available wrinkles in this offense, that at times makes it anything other than just throwing out four or five wides over and over.
Q: I’ve always heard that the true test of a QB is how he handles the pressure when his line breaks down. Anyone can look like Tom Brady when their OL is giving them plenty of protection, but when the OL’s consistently getting beat, can you make the right decisions under fire? Are any of the QBs giving you a feeling of how they’d do when the protection breaks?
A: Jack Sears is the best at breaking the pocket and making something happen, but I’ve been impressed with JT Daniels’ ability in that way this fall. He’s not going to be a guy who looks to do that over and over, but he’s been good with his feet and able to keep plays alive.
Q: It seems Clancy dialing up more blitzes, particularly from the DB’s. What is your take?
A: Clancy Pendergast has the ability to bring pressure from a variety of angles and areas. I think it’s more about finding guys who can get the timing down and can get home when a blitz is called. I also think there are practices where the coaches want to really test the offensive line by giving them a ton of blitz looks.
Q: IF JT gets the start, do you see Sears pull out like what happened at Nrbraska and Clemson last year. The same for JT? Again, just looking for your thoughts?
A: I would be surprised if anybody left during the season. I think this team has a pretty tight bond right now, and the three quarterbacks have seen how quickly your number can be called and you’re in the game. That being said, the transfer portal is always open and it has to be pretty alluring for a guy who isn’t playing.
Q: Are you tired of reading ” fans” complain and complain and complain all day everyday? Also, has Kenan being showing out in pads? Haven’t heard much of him.
A: It can get a little tiring at times, but I completely understand the complaints from fans. It’s a long offseason and the team and coaches and fans have to live with last season’s results for nine months. Until another game happens, you’re a 5-7 team with no starting quarterback and losses to all three California schools and Notre Dame. Last year was just a trainwreck on the offensive side of the ball, and even though the team was close in those losses down the stretch, most of those shouldn’t have been close games anyway. But I do think there have been enough changes this offseason to head into these next few weeks with a little optimism. I think fans just want a sign that things are moving in the right direction, and we won’t get that sense until the first couple of games.
Q: How has Drew Richmond been fitting in? Can you assess his potential?
A: Taking a look at Richmond’s career at Tennessee, and the thoughts of Volunteers fans when he announced his transfer, it was safer to assume he would be arriving as added depth to the line, rather than a slam dunk answer at right tackle. In that way, I think he’s been fitting in as anticipated. He gives USC an experienced option along the line, and we’ve seen his ability at right tackle give offensive line coach Tim Drevno the ability to take a look at Jalen McKenzie at right guard. He’s also been able to back up Austin Jackson at left tackle. I think he’ll be a productive member of the offensive line this year.
Q: Not sure how to phrase this, but are our defensive and offensive lines challenging enough when working against each other to give us confidence that they will perform well once the season starts?
A: I think so? (And that’s with a question mark rather than a period). And that’s the true answer with just about every position. It all looks really positive this fall, and then you think about 5-7 and how they just haven’t proven it against anybody else yet. The biggest issue at this point for the offensive line feels like consistently picking up the blitz and line games. I’ve actually been pretty impressed with the push they can get in the run game (again, we’ll see how that translates to games). If this defensive line is bad this year, then something has gone wrong. Chad Kauha’aha’a seems like a great coach, and more than that, it feels like the guys up front have really clicked with him. There is size, depth, and the ability to get to the quarterback from every spot.
Q: First question for you. With what you have seen thus far from
our OL can you give your take on whether they are getting a lot of defensive
blitz looks from our D to help prepare for this season. If so are they
adjusting and making the correct calls and pick ups. Would you say that they
are able to read defensive alignment when they sense a blitz is coming. I would
think teams would want to test and confuse them because of their inexperience.
Second what is your opinion on this offense ability to strike (score) on a consistent basis. Teams like Stanford and Utah come to mind when I think about eating up the clock and controlling the score.
Last one if we have a great running game and a great running defense is that all we need to win majority of our games? Assuming that the passing game will also come alive having to defend the run first. Also do you feel this D is has that capability to stop the run game?
A: I answered a lot of that first part in the questions above. To recap, blitz pick up is the biggest concern right now, but it’s not as if every single blitz is getting to the quarterback.
I think this offense will score a lot of points this year, and I think a fair amount will come on big plays, either with a guy catching a short pass and making one guy miss, or taking advantage of coverages that leave a guy open. I want to see if this offense can control the ball and impose its will in wearing a defense down. I know it will be able to do it with tempo, but the biggest question is if can do it with the run game when they need to.
Run the ball and stop the run. It’s pretty much the golden rule of football. Washington State had the fewest first downs rushing in the Pac-12 last year, but USC only had 25 more than the Cougars (and 110 fewer passing). So even though Washington State is such a pass-happy team, the Cougars could still hit you on the ground for important conversions (not to mention 24 rushing touchdowns, which was No. 4 in the Pac-12). Defensively, I do think the Trojans will be more run-sound this year. Gap control has been a huge focal point since spring, and the players understand what it means at that first line of defense. I don’t think Palaie Gaoteote is ready to call a defense by himself in the middle, but I do think he is ready to lead this team in both tackles and tackles for loss.