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WeAreSC Mailbag

Readers had plenty of concerns even after a 1-0 start to the season for USC. This week, we tackle questions ranging from the status of the athletic director and head coach, to substitution patterns, to offensive philosophy, and, as always, whether the Trojans will win this weekend.


Q: What happens first? Swann fires Helton to try and save his job or the new president fires Swann and lets the new athletic director hire their own coach?

A: I would be surprised if Lynn Swann is allowed make any massive unilateral decisions like the firing of the head football coach. I would imagine that new president Carol Folt will want a say in anything that goes on at that level. So in that case, I would say the latter of these two options, just because I don’t think Swann being able to make a decision like firing Helton solely to save his job is an option. I’d actually think that Swann firing Helton would make it easier for Folt to let Swann go. But we’ve certainly seen that higher ups at USC have a way of digging in their heels and sticking around longer than you’d think possible.

Gold Trojan

Q: Let’s be honest, Slovis looked lost out there. Was the reason to put him #2 a long term gamble? He didn’t look game ready (especially reading the defense or scrambling/improvising) at all.

A: I actually thought Kedon looked okay against Fresno State. There was obviously a dip from JT Daniels, but all-in-all it wasn’t bad. Now, getting Stanford this weekend will tell a lot about his readiness, because the Cardinal have the combination of scheme and athletes on that side of the ball that can make life miserable for an unprepared quarterback.

As far as putting him at No. 2, I do think there might have been some thinking that if Matt Fink and Jack Sears aren’t the longterm answer, then getting Slovis a ton of practice reps and maybe even a few game reps throughout the season makes some sense. But Helton isn’t going to go with the third or fourth best option when he knows his job is on the line, and ultimately, I think it’s simpler than that. I think the coaches just really like his skill set and his fit in this offense.

Helen of Troy

Q: Erik…are we going to win?

A: Yes.

I think the Trojans will have some challenges, and Kedon Slovis will absolutely need to avoid making freshman mistakes. But I don’t think this Stanford team presents the kind of challenges that we’ve seen from some of their teams in the past. Stanford head coach David Shaw can make some questionable decisions when it comes to the redzone and going conservative to help teams keep it close. Losing their best offensive lineman is a blow, and I think what we saw from the USC offensive line was promising. That being said, the margin of error for USC is razor thin, because Stanford can take advantage of mistakes in a way that Fresno State couldn’t.


Q: While I’m ready to move on and see what Slovis and/or any other quarterback can do, I’m bummed for JT and the team that he’s gone down. I’m one of those who, because of the ineptitude surrounding him, was willing to give him a complete pass on last year. Before he got hurt, I thought he more than validated my viewpoint, and gave me great hope for the season. I thought he looked really good (a couple mistakes aside), and I think only the SC coaches taking the foot off the gas could have prevented the Trojans from blowing Fresno out. 

Two questions re: JT:

1) What is your assessment of Daniels’ outing prior to the injury?
2) I know it’s early, but you may have ideas about this already. What do you think the future holds for JT Daniels?

Thanks and Fight On!

A: I thought JT Daniels was going to have a huge year. He was really excited to play in this offense and I thought he was really getting a feel for it. Such a bummer to see things play out the way they did.

There are so many variables when it comes to Daniels’ future at this point. Transfers at the quarterback position are so common that at this point, it’s just as valuable for fans to keep an eye on the transfer portal as the recruiting class for potential starters. But there are guys who want to be the starting quarterback/running back/safety at USC, and you can only do that if you are at USC. I think Daniels falls into that category. I would put absolutely any scenario on the table at this point — even Daniels redshirting this year with Slovis as the starter, then Daniels starting next year with Slovis taking a redshirt.

I think a lot of USC fans allowed the focus of their frustration of a 5-7 season to center on Daniels, and I think they might be surprised to find out how many coaching staffs would be perfectly happy to let Daniels quarterback their team as the starter. That’s why I think he could wind up the starter next year no matter who the coach is. Of course, the biggest variable is recovery time. If it’s truly a 12-month road back and Daniels can’t really get going again until the end of fall camp or beginning of the season, that will obviously make things that much more difficult. But we’ve seen how determined he is to get something done when he sets his mind to it, and I think he’ll have that same mindset with the rehab process.


Q: Just wondering why CP continues to have his LB’s do nothing but guard the grass several yards behind the LOS? This is an on-going thing that continues to see the LB’s have no impact on the play despite their tackle totals as they are basically getting tackles after it’s too late for them to be effective, sort of like Moses Malone padding his rebound stats by following up on his missed layups over and over.

A: I didn’t have a huge problem with the linebackers on Saturday, especially for Game 1 of the season. If the defensive linemen could have gotten the quarterback to the ground when they seemingly had him in their grasp, I don’t think we’re talking about the defense much at all. The Fresno State running back had 14 carries and his longest one went for seven yards. If those numbers continue throughout the season, I’d be very pleased with them. I do think USC is going to have to figure out that outside contain quickly, because teams are going to go to that often if there isn’t an answer. But there’s nothing more frustrating that linebackers not filling the right gaps and allowing runs straight up the middle for 12-15 yards. That didn’t happen against Fresno State, though Stanford will be a tougher test in that regard.


Q: Is OT Drew Richmond injured? He looked very athletic and effective in the first half, then he no longer played. The OL played worse in the second half without him. What’s going on?

A: Richmond said he was dehydrated and should be good to go for Saturday. He was back working with the first unit this week.


Q: Which short yardage situations will cause USC QB to go under center?

A: None. Clay Helton specifically addressed this, saying they are a shotgun team and will operate exclusively out of the shotgun. I don’t love it, because it feels like you could find five minutes a day for your quarterback and center to work on that exchange, and you’re completely eliminating the quarterback sneak, which is responsible for countless first downs and touchdowns. But that’s the direction they’re going and Helton has specifically said they’ll only work out of the shotgun.

Yup All Right

Q: The Air Raid offense seeks to execute as many plays as possible. Do you think OC Graham Harrell will slow things down and burn more clock when holding on to leads near the end of games (e.g., the Fresno State situation)?

A: I would hope so, but we just don’t know until we see it. If you think your biggest advantage offensively is playing fast, then I’m a little more understanding of staying up tempo. But if your biggest post game talking point is simply getting the win, then at some point you’ve got to be able to run a four-minute offense and burn the clock. There were enough Game 1-type mistakes that I’m willing to believe that might have been another one, and clock management definitely goes on the list of things to watch out for in the coming games.


Q: Defense’s poor tackling gave FSU several opportunities to extend drives – an issue that’s caused this team many games in the past few years. In your opinion, how much of it is on the coaches and the way they run tackling drills? Also, did the OLine play surprise you considering it was the first game? Finally, who will be the next QB in line if both of our remaining QBs – God forbid – get hurt?

A: As for the tackling, I — and just about everybody else — will be watching that closely against Stanford. One of the things we heard during the week from Christian Rector when talking about the rushing performances they’ve allowed in the first game of the season over the past few years is that tackling isn’t easy in the first game of the season because it’s the first true live contact you’re experiencing. That’s true of every game across the country. I don’t think there’s a coach in American who is able to run tackling drills as hard or as often as they want to with the NCAA rules. That being said, I think it’s probably fair to say that there are other schools that tackle more in practice.

I really liked the play of the offensive line, considering both that the defensive line was the strength of the Fresno State defense, and the Trojans were forced to play without Drew Richmond for the second half. But there were two plays — the one that knocked Daniels out, and the final fourth down — that I’m sure the line would love to have a chance at again. I expect the line will get better as the season goes along, and that was a good start, considering the apprehension coming into the year.

Helton said on Tuesday that the three walk-ons are battling for the No. 3 spot. That’s Scott Harris, Trevor Scully, and Brandon Purdue, who had been playing safety all spring and fall.


Q: How about your grade on Harrell after one game? I know that he is not a new offensive coordinator overall, but certainly one with a Power 5 school. Lincoln Riley wasn’t great in his first year at ECU, but he developed skills, became a great coordinator at OU and now a great head coach. Does Harrell have that kind of future?

A: I think that was probably a B for Harrell after the first game. You saw some flashes of what the offense could do early, and I don’t think we saw nearly everything it has. I think they could have done better to get more guys rotated in, and ultimately, that’s on him as the leader of the offense.

I do think Harrell has a bright future because he doesn’t complicate things and he makes it easy to have a plug-and-play offense. Guys can play early in it (or so we’ve been told) and the players really love the system he runs and the kind of coach he is.


Q: Is this a common pattern with a Clay Helton team?

Guy’s like Markese Stepp and Devon Williams get tons of reps in camp and look like they could be a match-up problem. Then end up a scratch on game day. Just like they did to Michael Pittman earlier in his career and Sam Darnold. Turns out they were wrong about both and each made an immediate impact when they got a chance.

A: Stepp is the one that got me on Saturday, especially because there were a few short-yardage situations and he’d proven all spring and fall how adept he was at picking those up. The issue for Stepp is that he has two really good backs ahead of him, and this offense doesn’t demand a rotation. I do think we’ll see more of a rotation against Stanford, but like we said before the season started, Harrell wants the best 11 guys out there on every play and there’s a reason the starters are the starters. He and the coaches will work to get more guys in if they’re running 85-90 plays a game, but if they’re constantly putting together 28-play halves like they had in the second half, I don’t know if they’ll rotate just to rotate.

Situational Mastery

Q: How many games does Helton have to win this year for you to be comfortable bringing him back for another go around?

A: I don’t think he can lose to every team that is perceived to be better than the Trojans this year. That means Stanford, Utah, Washington, Notre Dame, Oregon. And then I don’t think he can lose to every team perceived to be worse than the Trojans this year. That means Fresno State, BYU, Arizona, Colorado, Arizona State, Cal, and UCLA. So I guess that means eight games, but it’s tough to just say eight games, because there are a lot of variables in how the team looks in these games.


Q: Do you think Falaniko and Drake should be our starters on the outside? To me they looked the best.

A: I really liked how Drake Jackson looked in his first outing, and I think Juliano Falaniko has turned the corner in his development. I still think Jackson and Christian Rector at the defensive end spots are probably the best lineup, and I think Hunter Echols deserves some time as well. I like that there is some rotation up front, because I think USC has the guys to do that and provide some different looks.


Q: Who’s calling the plays, Graham Harrell or Clay Helton, because Saturday’s play calling looked eerily similar to last year’s play calling? How come M. Stepp did not play in Saturday’s game?

A: Graham Harrell is calling plays on offense. I mentioned Stepp not playing earlier. Harrell said the backs ahead of him just never needed to come off the field. If Stepp doesn’t play against Stanford, I’ll be really surprised. He’s ready to go.


Q: I have concern with Kedon Slovis, as a true freshman, leading our team. He is not a Matt Barkley or JT Daniels. I can’t understand why he wasn’t redshirted this year like so many other quality freshman QBs over the years. Now that the coaches have, in my opinion and many others, made the mistake of making Slovis #2. Is there any scenario that you can see for them to correct the situation? I always favored Jack Sears as the best QB. But assuming he isn’t coming back, I would actually prefer Matt Fink to be the starter against Stanford. Both Jack and Matt have demonstrated leadership in their performances replacing JT last year.

A: I don’t think the coaches feel as though there is anything that needs to be corrected. They’re excited to go with Kedon (although they certainly wish that Daniels was healthy and starting). I don’t think we know what Kedon is yet in relation to being Barkley or Daniels — though I think we’ll find out plenty against Stanford. If you think “correcting the situation,” means starting somebody else ahead of Slovis, Helton said his starting quarterback will only be removed due to injury or a lack of production.


Q: Erik,

What’s the reasoning of having our TE’s line up in the slot during the game against FSU? I see that as a gimmie to the opposing defense as we haven’t utilized the TEs at all really. Might as well put in a 4th WR instead.

A: The tight end lines up in a lot of spots in Harrell’s offense. Sometimes it works just as a big receiver, sometimes as a true tight end, and sometimes as an H-back. I do think you need to throw to the tight end at times to keep teams honest, but sometimes having a better blocker out there is an advantage in the quick passing game or running game.


Q: Seeing us perform the victory formation from the shotgun was even more bizarre than having two number 7’s on the kickoff return unit.

Do these jokers have the kids practice the VF — with the QB under center — at all? How about 15 minutes per week? Had they started in the spring, they’d have 8 weeks or so of getting used to it by now.

A: As mentioned earlier, no snaps under center.


Q: During Tuesday evening’s media scrum when Coach Harrell was asked about the lack of a WR rotation against Fresno, he said the “players police themselves” and didn’t sub out. Typically, whose responsibility is it to set the rotation? Since Harrell is up in the box I imagine this falls to Keary Colbert? Also, have you ever heard of any program allowing players to determine if their playing roation (or lack thereof)?

A: Typically, the position coach will handle the rotation of players, although some coordinators will make that call. I haven’t specifically heard of a coach saying they solely allow players to decide when they come out of a game, though I think the soundbite is probably worse than the thought in reality. You see guys tap their helmet to send in a sub all the time. I think this might have been something where guys were amped up for the first game of the season, and then they ran so few plays in the second half that fatigue never really set in. I will say that I like when backups can rotate in, but if the starting wide receivers and running backs are really totally fresh and operating at 100% effectiveness, I would have a hard time pulling any of them off the field.


Q: Which aspect of Stanford’s offense do you think will be most difficult for our defense to contain? I’m thinking our DB’s will face the biggest challenge against the ‘furds tall receivers.

A: The tight ends are always a challenge, and Stanford has three of them again this year. I don’t think the power run game is what it has been over the past decade or so, and missing their best offensive lineman won’t make it better. I’m going to concentrate on the tight ends up the middle and the skill guys in the quick game on the outside, forcing defensive backs to tackle surely and quickly.


Q: Excluding exceptions for field position, If your team is leading by 10 pts. + in the fourth quarter why not decline to snap the ball until there are five seconds left on the play clock?

A: Because either you feel like your biggest asset as an offense is to get the play off quickly to take advantage of your up-tempo offense, or because you aren’t aware of the clock.


Q: Based on what you saw in Fall camp,how would you compare Slovis with Fink? In which areas do you think Fink has improved in the last year?

A: Slovis is more accurate with the short and medium stuff. I think Fink has improved in the pocket and with his accuracy, but he can still let a ball go at times that just doesn’t get close to where it needs to be. Fink feels like a safer bet in terms of running a generic offense, but Slovis just seems to really click with Harrell in terms of the offense he wants to run.


Q: What’s up with the new Aussie punter, Ben Griffiths, averaging 37 or 38 yards a punt? Everything written about him said he’s the punter equivalent to the second coming of Jesus… It wasn’t like he was rushed at all. The returner had to run forward 20+ yards each time to field the punt…I guess he had read all the same articles I did as well! …or, did the coaches tell him to do that to cause a fair catch and keep the returner from making a play because they didn’t trust our special teams’ speedsters’ tackling abilities? Field position is everything in a game like this coming Saturday’s against the Trees!

A: Griffiths was celebrating after forcing the fair catches and the coaches had no issues with his performance, which means he’s doing exactly what the coaches ask him to do. I would love to see him let loose against Stanford, but we’ve seen and heard how important posting that zero punt return yards allowed stat is to the USC coaches. So until we see differently in a game, you might just have to take our word for it with what we’ve seen in practice.


Q: For the record, please note USC had subpar records when Barkley and Daniels were freshmen. HCCH’s decision-making skills are once again in question as he decided to risk the success of a top 5 blueblood program on the arm of a freshman. Do you believe the new President will hold the AD and coach responsible?

A: I think Carol Folt knows exactly what is going on with the football program and its importance to the university. I also think it ranks lower on the university’s list of issues than many USC football fans would like it to. If a decision is made to go in a different direction with the athletic director and head coach, it won’t be solely because Helton started a true freshman at quarterback.

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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