With Notre Dame on the horizon, reader questions this week focused on the athletic director search, the future of the coaching staff, recruiting and whether the Trojans can pull off the upset in South Bend.
Q: Unless I missed the injury update, will Slovis and Talanoa be released to play this Saturday?
A: Quarterback Kedon Slovis and safety Talanoa Hufanga are both out of concussion protocol and medically cleared to play against Notre Dame. Both will start and should be keys on both sides of the ball if USC is going to pull off the upset.
Q: I think I read the coaching staff was going to use the bye week to take care of some recruiting. Have you heard of any new offers or developments from their efforts?
A: Yes, head coach Clay Helton mentioned several times that the coaches would be out on the road recruiting this past weekend. But boy, there is just extremely little shaking out right now in terms of any kind of positive momentum for USC in this recruiting class. There are a few local prospects that USC could close with, and I’d expect that Graham Harrell and Mike Jinks have some ins in Texas, but at this point it doesn’t appear that USC is going to get in on or flip a lot of top prospects if things continue the way they’re going.
Q: Has there been any breakthroughs in the AD search? Is there a list of possible candidates?
A: Nothing yet, and USC has said that they would like this to be a very quiet search in terms of outside leaks. Patrick Chun at Washington State continues to be a name tossed out by those listing candidates, and I think he makes a lot of sense, as long as those big-time names are comfortable remaining where they are.
Q: Erik, do you think if Helton keeps his job at the end of the season that he will replace Clancy and/or Baxter? I used to think very highly of both of them but now I think they are holding Helton and the Trojans back. How do you see this playing out, assuming Helton stays? Thanks and Fight On!
A: If Helton keeps his job at the end of the season, I think it’s likely because USC goes on a nine-game winning streak and finishes the season as Rose Bowl champions. And if that happens, I think he’d have every reason he’d need to keep Pendergast and Baxter, because obviously a lot of things went right with the defense and special teams over the second half of the season.
Q: How does the new AD sell a better coach than Urban Meyer, especially if USC wants to win sooner rather than later?
I can understand scenarios where a younger coach with more long term, staying power who is in better health and has less baggage is the next hire, but the Urban elephant would still be in the room.
A: I think if USC does wind up looking for a new coach at the end of the season, it would probably have to defend the hiring of Meyer just as much as it would have to defend not hiring Meyer. And that all depends on the huge ‘if’ of if he even wants to return to coaching.
I think the only way a USC athletic director, in your hypothetical situation, would have to explain not hiring Meyer, is if he winds up coaching for another program sometime in the next few years. If he stays in the booth and doesn’t want to return, there’s really nothing to explain.
Q: Is Raymond Scott the odd man out on this Clancy Pendergast defense? He seems to have been bypassed by some true freshman DB’s who are playing well. He’s not really mentioned in the LB rotation? Is he a LB or DB? We’ve seen this routine before.
A: I was curious about moving Scott to nickelback this past spring. It seemed like an interesting idea if you could use him as an extra linebacker. But then he moved back to the inside linebackers and just hasn’t made much of a push there. I still think he’s a guy we could see down the line, but there just doesn’t seem to be a spot for him on defense right now. This is just his second year in the program though, so I wouldn’t read much into it in terms of him deserving more of a chance and not getting it.
Q: Do you see any way Helton is retained? Even if we go 5-2 the rest of the way it appears Helton is done. He had the chance to coach for his job, and he failed. Recruits obviously see what the program has become, and at all his points of emphasis (penalties, etc.) the team is performing poorly. Not to mention the animosity of alums and fans. Last year I was 100% certain he would be gone and I don’t think I can handle another disappointment and another season of Helton as HC. A new AD has to want to bring in their own head coach, right?
A: I think if Helton wins the Pac-12, he’d have a strong argument to stay. That’s a pretty significant and quick bounce back from a 5-7 record. I think if he wins out (including Notre Dame), it’d be really tough for a new athletic director to let him go. But ultimately, if this team is what it’s shown itself to be through five games, it will be extremely difficult to win out.
Q: In one of your recent articles, you wrote the team does not complete a walk-through the day before an away game. I vividly recall videos of the Carroll era where walk-throughs were light and fun and often consisted of field goal contests between the lineman. It was a way for the players to get comfortable with the surroundings and to take away the mystique of a stadium such as Notre Dame.
Has Helton given an explanation why USC does not do a walk-through the day before a game? Given the team’s relative poor performances at away games, one would think Helton would revisit this decision.
A: I believe it was one of Greg Katz’ articles that mentioned the lack of a walk through in the visiting stadium the day before a game. I’ve not heard anything specifically from Helton about why they don’t do a walk through at the opponents’ stadium. It just doesn’t appear to be part of his travel routine. I certainly think at this point that I would shake something up when it comes to that routine though, because there hasn’t been a lot of success away from the Coliseum.
Q: Early signing day is two months away and a lot of pieces would have to fall into place quickly to bring a close to the Helton era (if that is the direction taken) and persuade current recruits that Trojan football is going down a new and more promising path. In your eyes, how damaging to our current-year recruiting efforts would it be if USC blows through ESD without having a new HC in place? If we made a big-name hire subsequent to ESD, is there enough quality talent available, either still uncommitted or flippable, that could make a decent recruiting class of it?
Also, if the AD and/or HC hires aren’t made by mid-December, do you see that as maybe a statement by the President or BoT (whoever is actually in charge) that the football program is no longer an important component of the USC brand?
A: I don’t think USC can afford to go through the early signing period without a head coach in place. Although, I also am not as concerned as most seem to be about this signing class. I think it’s far more important to get the coaching situation settled, whether that means Helton continues or someone else is brought in. The transfer portal has made it so that there’s really no telling what your complete class could wind up looking like once next season begins. Is it completely out of the realm of possibilities that a program could not sign anybody on signing day and use all their scholarships on transfer portal guys? That’s far from likely, but the possibility exists, certainly, that a program could hold back a bunch of scholarships and use them once a coaching situation is more settled and players around the country see an opportunity.
I don’t think football at USC is ever going to be seen as an unimportant aspect of the USC brand. President Folt has made it clear that she understands the importance of USC football, and I have a lot of faith that she’s going to get decisions, as it pertains to that, correct in the coming months.
Q: Turnkey Search has placed AD’s at several high level programs. Is there any information available regarding their typical timetable? If it’s anything like retained searches for senior executives in the corporate world, it’s hard to imagine that an AD could be in place to make a coaching hire in time to impact recruiting for the early signing date (assuming current head coach will be replaced).
A: As a sidenote, I haven’t yet been able to read the name of the search firm as anything other than Turkey Search, and I hope that’s just a product of next month’s holiday and not a portent of the result.
Here is a guideline to the timeframe, taken from Turnkey’s website: “We’re called Turnkey for a reason: our industry experience, tenure and technology enable us to work deeper, smarter and faster. We prioritize diversity & inclusion – always. Our process takes less than four weeks to deliver a slate; and less than four more weeks to make a hire. We stay hands-on to conclusion.”
So that would seem to be a maximum of eight weeks, which would put them within the timeframe where an AD could make a decision on the football coach before the early signing period. I believe that the AD search will take much longer than the decision on Helton’s future.
Q: Erik, we’ve seen Helton can recruit when winning but why haven’t those 4 and 5 star players showed up on the playing field?
A: I think we’re seeing some of those guys show up on the field right now. Tough to knock what the top three wide receivers have done this year. A lot of the young members of the secondary look like they’re destined for big things. Jay Tufele, Marlon Tuipulotu and Drake Jackson up front have been terrific. I would agree that purely based on recruiting rankings, the results haven’t matched up in a one-for-one sense, the way they seem to at places like Alabama, Ohio State and Oklahoma — where a high recruiting ranking results in a high poll ranking, because there are seemingly future first-round picks scattered all over both sides of the ball. I think it’s safe to say that the development on and off the field, leading into last season was lacking. I think we’re starting to see that turn the corner a little bit, with some guys who look like they could have a claim as the top player in the conference at their position either this year or next. But I would agree that there has been a disconnect when it comes to bringing in highly-ranked guys and sending them out as highly-ranked future pros. I think part of the issue is that they aren’t regularly getting (or producing) players that have the clear size or speed (or both) advantage that other programs seem to bring in (or produce). There have been a lot of good football players, but very few have been the kind of guy who defenses knew could blow past everybody if given an extra yard, or offenses knew could beat a one-on-one block and get to the quarterback on any snap.
Q: Big question: Will we win?
A: The easy answer to this question is “no.” And that’s simply because what we’ve seen from Notre Dame this year is that they take care of the ball and take away the ball better than just about any team in the country. And USC is pretty much at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. It’s tough to assume that those trends will reverse themselves in the same game.
That being said, if the question is: “Can we win?”
USC is as talented as Notre Dame in more than a few positions where it matters, and if the USC defensive line can win the battle against the Notre Dame offensive line, I would expect the overall defensive performance to be a positive. And I think the USC offense can throw the ball against this Notre Dame secondary, especially if Notre Dame consistently brings a four man rush and the USC offensive line can protect. If USC can avoid costly penalties and finish plus-two in turnovers, I think they can win. But until they prove they can do that, betting on it happening feels like a longshot.