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WeAreSC Mailbag

In this edition of the mailbag, we answer plenty of reader questions about the newly-released quarterback depth chart, as well as players who stood out during fall camp, thoughts about the recent Fall Showcase scrimmage, and more.


Q: Much has been made of JT Daniels’ leadership skills, or the lack thereof. What have you seen this fall? Is he coming on as a leader? Does he get his teammates excited and ready to go to war? Or is this still a work area for him? Finally, compare his leadership skills with the other QB’s.

A: He has the stamp of approval from head coach Clay Helton, who said about Daniels following Thursday’s practice: “I really like where he’s at, and commended him for it. I think he’s doing a wonderful job leading our team.”

Daniels is never going to be Baker Mayfield in terms of being that fiery leader who slams helmets and plants flags. He’s a quiet, serious guy by nature. I think it was important that he showed an understanding of the leadership issue this past offseason and put in the effort to correct it. During fall camp, we saw guys like John Houston and Christian Rector consistently at the front of their position groups as they would move to different spots on the field. Recently, Daniels has been doing that as the offense moves around. It’s admittedly a very small thing in a much bigger picture, but things like that show some signs of taking that step.

Honestly, the best thing Daniels can do is play well and win. People stop talking about leadership qualities if they can simply tag you as a “winner.” If things start to unravel, I don’t know if he has the ability to rally the troops, because we just haven’t seen it yet. What’s interesting is that Kedon Slovis seems to have that same quiet, even-keeled, reserved personality, and he’s taken a similar approach to what Daniels did last year, coming in as a true freshman and choosing to put his head down and work hard, rather than announce a presence or try to outwardly be a leader.

I actually think Matt Fink is the guy, out of all four quarterbacks, if you’re looking for that passionate leader. He gets fired up with the best of them.


Q: Trying to get more insight about the last scrimmage and where you see the O and D. Much has been made of the ineffective or lack of an emphasis of the run game in the last scrimmage. What is your take?

Is it a good sign because the defense is focused on stopping the run or was it the O lone failure/execution? 

It also sounded like the defense got beat deep many times in the last scrimmage. 

Again is that because the defense sold out against the run and left the secondary vulnerable? 

Also does that mean the O line gave the QB enough time to go deep?

Does that mean the front 7 wasn’t getting enough consistent pressure on the QB?

A: I wish we had seen more of the running game, but I’d like to see more running game in every practice. The truth is that this year is going to rest on how consistent the passing game can be, because we just don’t know yet if the offense can turn to the line in order to pick up first downs consistently. I understand this is a tough defense to run against (I do think that’s a truth that was evident during the scrimmage), but it would have been nice to see a little sustained success there.

The offense has hit a ton of deep balls during fall camp. I think that’s a product of having four quarterbacks who throw the deep ball well, having six or seven wide receivers who can get downfield and make acrobatic catches against coverage, and having a really young, inexperienced secondary. There were also a few plays that continued through what would likely have been sacks in a real game situation.

I think it’s tough to read too much into a scrimmage situation, especially because it’s really just one practice, and both sides were holding plenty back. But I do think it’s safe to come away from that thinking that the run game isn’t/wasn’t at a point where it is going to scare opponents and be a primary weapon for this offense.


Q: Should we be concerned about our running game this year and the effectiveness of the O-line in opening holes for our backs? The last scrimmage certainly didn’t inspire much confidence in this area.

A: Good timing for this question, as it hits on my answer to the previous one. The offensive line has been up and down with the running game this fall. We’ve seen some days where they get it going, and then other days like the scrimmage. Is that because they’re inconsistent, or is that because they ran really vanilla looks at a very good defensive front during the scrimmage? I do know that this offensive line isn’t going to get the benefit of the doubt heading into the season, and any red flag against Fresno State will be magnified because of the production last year. I do think this is a better offensive line than last year, but I’m still not sure if it ranks in the upper quarter of the Pac-12. There is talent though, and a couple pieces to build around. I’d be surprised if this group doesn’t get noticeably better during the season.


Q: I would like to know how many practices in full pads the NCAA regulations have allowed up until this point in fall camp and I would like to know if USC has used every single one of them? Of course, you guys can’t watch practice so we don’t really know if they took full advantage of the physical contact in those practices or if they were just putting on appearances.

A: In January of 2017, new practice recommendations were instituted by the NCAA. These are for fall camp:

  1. Recommendation to discontinue two-a-day practices.
  2. Recommendation to allow an extension of the preseason by one week. This requires a legislative change if the pre-season begins one week earlier.
  3. Recommendation to reduce weekly live contact practices from four to three.
  4. Non-contact/minimal contact practice recommendations have been added.
  5. Non-contact/minimal contact practice recommendation the day following a scrimmage has been added.
  6. One day of no football practice recommendation has been added.

And these are for in-season:

  • Three days of practice should be non-contact/minimal contact.
  • One day of live contact/tackling should be allowed.
  • One day of live contact/thud should be allowed.

The Trojans aren’t leaving any practices on the table. I think where outspoken USC fans in favor of more hitting during practice would have an issue is that when the Trojans go with a practice that features full tackling, it is usually limited to a shorter period. Now, we’ve seen some really extended full tackling practices, but it usually gets pulled back to thud at some point.


Q: What current college offensive system(pass and run) most closely resembles the type of system we will run this year? So far,do you see any major differences in our current system and what GH ran last year in Texas?

A: There’s a lot of Washington State to it. I think the hope is that it will look like what Oklahoma runs, but USC doesn’t have the kind of mobile quarterback that Oklahoma has been able to rely on recently, and the Sooners just had three guys run for at least 945 yards and 12 touchdowns. I’m really curious to see how much the run game will come into play for USC in 2019. The backs are really good, but there is so much talent at wide receiver, it could be tempting for an offensive coordinator and head coach who are both former quarterbacks to lean heavily on the passing game. I’m guessing opponents will watch 2018 USC film to get an idea of personnel, but they’re going to be watching a lot of North Texas film to get an idea of the system.


Q: Two questions

1. Based on what you’ve seen, which QB would you name as the starter?

2. At what point in time in terms of days/weeks from opening day, does it become a detriment to the overall potential team success delaying naming a game 1 starting QB?

A: Daniels would have been my starter based on what we saw during practice and what the coaches wanted the quarterback to do in this offensive system. I think this is probably early enough in naming him the starter that you aren’t worried about him getting enough reps with the first team. But I still probably would have made the call earlier, especially when it seems to have been obvious for a while that nobody was going to jump over Daniels. Clay Helton said today that Daniels will now get somewhere around 12 reps in a 20-play session, where before you could assume that he was taking a quarter of the reps. So from when he potentially could have been named until now, he took less than half of the reps he could have been taking. I think waiting until game week would have been way too long, so this gives him an extra week, but I very much would have liked to have seen the starter go out with the first team a number of times in a row during last Saturday’s scrimmage.


Q: With all the recent penalties that go on in practice not to mention the 9 or so that occurred during this past Saturday, what is your take on this and the fact that this is one of HCCH main responsibility from a focused standpoint this year. Does this detail any good or bad vibe for a team that is trying to move on from last years undisciplined ways.

Second question is in regards to the new offense and the quick moving snaps. If I am not mistaken the idea (Air Raid offense) was to play as many players and switching them in and out to have fresh bodies in order to move and stay efficient while attacking. If this is correct. How does that work from a fast moving offense if the rule of the game is to also allow defenses to substitute their player personal? Are we allowing that as well for our defense during our practices and how is that looking/working from your view.

A: As far as the penalties, we’ll see. I do think we’ll see fewer holding calls against the offensive line because of the nature of the offense. I also think that simplifying things offensively will result in fewer procedural calls for things like false starts and formation issues. I’m curious about pass interference and holding against the cornerbacks. They are going against really good receivers during fall camp, but sometimes a lack of experience can make you panic and start holding instead of trusting your technique. We’ll see how that goes this year.

As for the second part, that’s actually the opposite of what this offense is trying to do. Strength and conditioning coach Aaron Ausmus mentioned last spring that he had some direct orders from Graham Harrell in terms of what he wanted from his offensive players, and as for wide receivers, the idea was to boost their conditioning so they could run as many plays in a row as possible without substituting. The goal of this offense is to get plays off as quickly as possible and run them as efficiently as possible, and any substitution on offense for a play that ends in bounds feels almost like a sack, because the defense will absolutely make a substitution to slow things down. The defense got plenty of practice at that, and it’s almost an automatic call now, when the offense subs, somebody on the defense rotates as well just to have it work like a mini timeout.

As for rotating guys on offense, that’s just a byproduct of the receivers running so many routes and getting tired. If they were all marathon runners and never had to sub out, the best 3/4/5 would be on the field the whole game.


Q: Are there going to be any changes to the offensive line starting lineup?
Which players stood out during fall camp?

A: I think we’ve seen the starting lineup throughout fall camp, with Austin Jackson, Alijah Vera-Tucker, Brett Neilon, Andrew Vorhees, and Jalen McKenzie, from left to right. The only thing at this point that could throw a wrinkle in that is if Drew Richmond goes in at right tackle, with McKenzie sliding to right guard.

As far as guys who stood out, there were quite a few. Talanoa Hufanga is at the top of my list. This guy is just a joy to watch play football. I liked what we saw from Olaijah Griffin, and Palaie Gaoteote is ready to go. Christian Rector and Drake Jackson were very good. I thought we’d see a little more production from Jay Tufele, but he and Marlon Tuipulotu are so solid in the middle. Offensively, you could pick any receiver you want and he had a great camp. I thought Josh Falo really stood out at tight end. Markese Stepp was really good, continuing his strong spring. And I thought Brett Neilon was impressive at center. Obviously those are just a few guys who could be mentioned here.


Q: It sounds like we are leaning toward a lot more 4-3 for our front 7, I guess to get Drake Jackson on the field a lot. If that’s the case, I understand why they are doing it if you’ve got the second coming of Leonard Williams on your roster. The problem comes when we’ve been recruiting a bunch of LBs for years for 4 linebacker positions. That means we’re 4-5-deep at the LB positions and 2-deep at the 2 DE positions. Do you think this is an issue now and in the future, especially how poorly our DL recruiting has gone the last couple years?

A: I do think it’s an issue. I don’t think it’s a big issue right now, because I think they can go four deep at defensive end this year, with Christian Rector and Jackson, but also with what we’ve seen this fall from Caleb Tremblay and Connor Murphy. They’re also not tied to that four-down front, and if someone from that Hunter Echols/Juliano Falaniko/Malik McClain group steps up, we still might see a lot of them at outside linebacker as well. It becomes an issue if they want to transition to a 4-3 with two true defensive ends full time moving forward, because you’re right, they haven’t built up those DE spots (outside of Jackson) for a few years.


Q: Erik-what’s your take on Drevno’s philosophy of cross-training linemen to learn other positions along the line? I’d like to think it’s because there might not be much drop-off between certain starters and backups, but it could just be simply planning for inevitable future injuries.

A: I think it has more to do with injuries than having backups capable of stepping in. I think it’s about finding the least amount of drop off, where it might make more sense for, say for instance, the second-team right guard to come in at that spot when the right tackle goes down, because pairing him with the starting right guard moving out to tackle, makes you better than bringing in the backup right tackle.


Q: What’s your take on Helton naming Jack Sears as the number four QB on the depth chart? Quite the surprise to many I would expect. Also, how quick a hook on JT will there be with Slovis number two? I could see a scenario with Sears number two where there might be a quicker hook if something starts to go off the rails, not so much with Slovis.

A: I was surprised that Sears was fourth, just because I figured you’d want to go with a guy who has game experience if you were forced to go to the bench. But we’ve seen a clear statement from the coaches that right now, Sears doesn’t fit what they want from the quarterback position. I think Daniels will have a fairly long leash this year, unless he’s single-handedly losing a game, which I don’t expect from him. It certainly sounds as though the coaches aren’t going to treat the idea of bringing in a backup any differently, no matter who the No. 2 guy was.


Q: I know he’s not a on the field game day coach, but was Dave Campo on the staff last year? He has tons of experience with defense and DBs, it can only help having him around working with the D.

A: Yes, Campo was with USC last season.


Q: Last year USC was leading in the first half for most of the games. Then for some reason fell apart and the other team made smart adjustments. If USC could make halftime adjustments, the story would have been much different last year.

Does Helton have a plan for halftime adjustments?

A: I’d certainly hope so. USC scored seven points or fewer in the second half in six games last season. That’s not going to get it done. I think the biggest change is that Graham Harrell gives this offense an identity where they understand what they’re doing in any given situation, and they’ll have things they can go to, rather than seemingly just trying some of anything.


Q: How does it make sense that Slovis would be #2 QB? Does the head coach [can’t bring myself to type that name anymore] expect Sear to transfer out now? I just have the feeling we are going from frying pan to fire for some reason – in spite of collecting some really good athletes and staff finally. I too am shocked by this and it seems we’ve been lied to if there is any merit to this rotation.

A: I think everybody expects Sears to transfer if things hold. I don’t think anybody has been lied to by the coaching staff. I think fans saw Sears in a game last year and liked how he ran that offense compared to what they saw from Daniels. The issue is that USC isn’t running that offense, and both Harrell and Helton were adamant this week that Daniels gives the team the best chance to win by running this system. If it’s a game where you throw 22 guys out in a field somewhere and quarterbacks are drawing up their own plays, I’ll go with Sears and be fine with it. But he doesn’t work in this offense as well as Daniels does, and we saw that all spring and fall. If he continues as the No. 4 quarterback and this system remains in place, I do think he will wind up elsewhere, and I’ll be very interested in following his career.

Gold Trojan

Q: Two questions:

1. Will the OL be able to Pass Pro Long enough to get our TE’s involved in the pass game?

2. Will we truly see a hurry up style of play? (No rushing up to the line, then looking for directions from the sideline)

A: The tight end works a lot like a wide receiver at times in this offense, so there isn’t much more needed from the offensive line to get them involved. I do think we’ll see improved performance from the offensive line in the passing game this year, but I’m interested to see how they handle various pressures that are sure to come from opponents.

There is definitely an emphasis on the hurry up, and they’re looking to get things moving as quickly as possible. I don’t think you’ll see a lot of times where they hurry to the line and then stand around looking at the sideline.


Q: I really don’t care who the QB is just as long as he doesn’t throw to many picks. I hate that. Especially in the red zone. It’s a momentum killer. There is no better way to motivate and fire up an opposing team then to turn the ball over. 

My question is does JT have to clean up his TD to Int ratio this season to keep the job? 

14 Td’s to 10 Int’s will not get it done this year. 

Especially when the competition looks like this: 

Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama) 43 Td’s 6 Int’s

Trevor Lawrence ( Clemson) 30 Td’s 4 Int’s 

Gardner Minshew (WSU) 38 Td’s 9 Int’s 

Dwayne Haskins (OSU) 50 td’s 8 Int’s 

Kyler Murray (Oklahoma) 54 Td’s 7 Int’s

A: Yes. I think if Daniels’ final stat line is 14 touchdowns to 10 interceptions, it means he didn’t play the final handful of games. I think he could get to double digit interceptions, but if he’s left in that long, it’ll be up against those 38 touchdowns that you see from Gardner Minshew on that list. Harrell is not going to stand for a ton of interceptions.


Q: We have some new guys at safety. Have you seen any guys emerge into that position through fall practices that are going to add quality depth this season?

A: I think they’ll rely heavily on that three-man rotation of Hufanga, Isaiah Pola-Mao and CJ Pollard, with Chase Williams moving back there if needed. I think Briton Allen would be the first guy up of the newcomers, and I think he would be fine. But with Williams seeing so much time at safety, I get the sense that he would move there before Allen or another young guy would go in.


Q: Can someone confirm if Jack Sears has graduated already or not? There has been a picture of him in a cap and gown since after the spring semester with Swann and Haden flanking him.

A: Sears will graduate after this semester.


Q: Late question, but you mentioned in another thread that Helton will release the depth chart on Friday before each game. Does that mean barring injury the QB depth chart can change from week to week? For example if JT gets hurts and we are playing a very physical team, where it may require a more mobile quarterback would you see Helton/Graham changing the order. Or is that pretty much the depth chart barring injury for the entire season. I was just wondering as there had been much discussion pertaining to the QB depth chart since it was announced and that might give more incentive to Fink and Sears. Just asking?

A: Yes, Helton has said repeatedly that all positions are up for grabs throughout the season, so theoretically the order of the quarterbacks could shuffle week to week. I’m curious to see how/if Helton uses the depth chart as a motivational tool. Just because a guy is listed somewhere on a depth chart doesn’t mean he has to play a certain number of snaps. But I would be surprised if there was much shuffling when it comes to the quarterbacks.

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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