This week, readers ask about the injury issues, potential early entrants into the NFL draft, the big high school football showdown and Clay Helton as potentially the coach of the year.
Q: I think all of us are concerned about the rash of injuries. Can anyone explain why SC is having such bad luck? Is it luck, or is it something else? They got a new trainer this year because they felt the previous one wasn’t addressing the injuries. Is it the lack of actual tackling in practice that makes the injury bug a factor? I’m sure there are several opinions, what’s yours Erik?
A: I don’t think it’s as simple as just saying it’s one thing. Everybody wants to prop Alabama up as the team to emulate in all facets (with good reason), but they’ve been hit hard by injuries this year as well. There’s absolutely some luck that goes into it. Stanford has long been held up as one of the most physical teams in the Pac-12, and they’re decimated along the offensive line and at quarterback. I believe USC is one of just two Pac-12 teams that has been able to use the same five starting offensive linemen all year.
I don’t think there has been enough time to make a sweeping statement about Aaron Ausmus and his program because I think it takes a little time to see the longterm results of a new program. He said this offseason that one of his specific goals was to build up the shoulders of the defensive backs because there have been a bunch of injuries to those guys in that area, but Talanoa Hufanga and Greg Johnson have both missed time with shoulder injuries. But no, I don’t think guys are getting hurt because they don’t tackle for entire practices. I think you have a few guys who are injury prone and I think you have a few guys where they’ve just planted or landed awkwardly, and those kinds of things are going to happen.
Q: Has CCH ever given a real explanation as to why our team practices lack physicality/tackling, during Spring/Fall camps and now regular season practices? It was understandable why Lane Kiffin implemented the soft practices when our depth was down during sanctions, and it seemed to carry over during the Sarkisian regime when numbers were still recovering. What’s the excuse, I mean EXPLANATION these days???? Status quo given CCH fell from the Kiffin/Sark coaching tree?
A: Clay Helton is going to coach practices the way he’s comfortable coaching practices, and that’s pretty much what it comes down to. The team does tackle during 9-on-7 drills. But Helton is simply comfortable with the tackling circuit the team does, going against bags and sleds. The defensive coaches have all talked about needing to improve tackling at various points throughout the season, and they’ve also said they’re comfortable with the amount of time and work they’re putting into that.
Q: Hopefully this season turns out well but I have my doubts .. if we do flounder I would like your take how a coach like Cristobal at Oregon with no head coaching experience can take a program that was cratering and turn them into a national contender in two years
What is the difference
1. Assistant hires
2. Evaluation of talent
3. Development of talent
A: In Clay Helton’s second season, USC finished ranked No. 3 in the country. We’ll see if Oregon gets there under Cristobal. Another similarity is that both inherited a potential top-5 NFL pick at quarterback. But we’ll see if Cristobal is able to sustain his success.
I do think there are some really positive signs for Oregon fans with Cristobal. Defensive coordinator Andy Avalos has been phenomenal as a defensive coordinator, and that side of the ball has carried the Ducks for much of the season. Cristobal is also a tremendous recruiter. They are going to come into the Coliseum next weekend with maybe double-digit players who probably should be wearing cardinal and gold. And the development of guys has been tremendous. What he’s been able to do with that offensive line is really impressive and he now has maybe three of the five best linemen in the conference.
[Editor’s note: Cristobal was head coach at FIU from 2007-2012.]
Q: I know it’s probably early but any thoughts on underclassmen leaving for the draft? I’m thinking Vaughns and Jackson are pretty likely to go on offense, probably Carr and possibly Falo. On defense I think it’s a given that we lose those two anchors in the middle, Tufele and Marlon T.
A: I’d be surprised if USC lost a lot of guys to the NFL draft. You’re seeing more and more players leave early and not get drafted and I’m curious if that’s a trend that continues, or if players start getting better advice. I don’t think any non-senior Trojans are going to get first-round grades and I’d be really surprised if anywhere close to all those guys you mentioned actually declare. A lot can change over the second half of the season, but all of those guys would need to test extremely well in order to justify leaving early, because there isn’t a ton of tape yet that proves they are consistently dominant enough to warrant a high draft pick.
Q: Big local high school showdown with national ranking implications with Mater Dei vs St John Bosco this Friday. Which players who are USC targets should we be watching and any under the radar guys we should be paying attention to?
A:You could pretty much grab 25 guys at random from this game and be happy with that recruiting class. Obviously the quarterbacks — Mater Dei’s Bryce Young and Bosco’s DJ Uiagalelei — are going to be players to watch simply from a high school football fan’s perspective. Not often you get the best two quarterbacks in the country in the same league. I don’t think it’s completely out of the question that USC could make a run at them again if there’s an eventual coaching change, but I think it’s a longshot that either would flip.
Other USC targets for Mater Dei: 2022 DB Domani Jackon, 2021 CB Jaylin Davis, 2021 WR Cristian Dixon, 2022 WR CJ Williams, 2021 LB Raesjon Davis, 2021 OL George Miki-Han.
Bosco: 2021 WR Jode McDuffie, 2022 CB Tayvion Beasley, 2021 LB Ma’a Gaoteote (USC commit), 2020 WR Logan Loya, 2023 DE Matayo Uiagalelei, 2020 DT Kobe Pepe (USC commit), 2022 OT Earnest Greene, 2021 WR Beaux Collins.
Q: Was the tackle by the Arizona defender which injured Stepp legal? I couldn’t find any rule either way except it was the equivalent of a chop block which are penalties.
A: I don’t think there was anything illegal about it. Unfortunate outcome, definitely.
Q: Against Arizona, I watched a USC team that played their hearts out. The game seemed like will power, more than a well-coached and oiled machine. But players can rally behind their coaches. Which happened in Sam Darnold’s first season.
I saw a tweet from Hunter Echols that said: “We go to war for you ! The biggest of all horses , thank you for helping us continue to strive for greatness on and off field Fight on.”
So there are no doubts players hear and read social media and aware of the decline in the fan base. My question is how much do you think the team wants to rally behind Helton and how much of the team is still intact. I don’t think we reached the point the team may quit. Which is great and two folds.
Also, do you think the Helton is close to turning the corner if the team can actually rally a PAC 12 South or a PAC 12 Championship? I really would not like to re-live 2017, 2018 and 2019 all over again in 2020.
A: There is no question that the players are vocal about their support for Helton. They love him. That’s never really been in question. I do think it’s a positive sign that this team clearly isn’t going to quit in any game and isn’t likely to fold this season if things do start going poorly.
I think we’ll find out a lot about this team with how they play against Colorado. I understand that it’s a short week and they’ve been hit by injuries, but Helton has to find a way to get his team to play well on the road. If this is a close win (or a loss, obviously) then that calls into question how well they can play at Arizona State or Cal in the coming weeks. I think a Pac-12 title will be difficult this season, because it likely means beating Oregon twice, and I haven’t seen enough consistency on either side of the ball for long stretches that makes me believe that is likely to happen. But overall I think it’s impossible to say that there haven’t been improvements this year compared to last year. At this point, we just have to let things play out and I think we’ll get our answer when it comes to what this team’s record is after the next three weeks. If USC wins at Colorado, against Oregon and at Arizona State with these injury issues lingering, that would be a really strong statement for Helton.
Q: Recruiting Question: Are we targeting any pass-rush specialist in the upcoming class?
A: Xavier Carlton (Draper, Utah/Juan Diego Catholic), Tuli Tuipulotu (Lawndale, Calif./Lawndale) and DeShawn Lynch (Folsom, Calif./Folsom) are a few defensive ends on the radar for this class, but I don’t know if there’s a Drake Jackson type that USC is in on. But 2021 target Korey Foreman (Corona, Calif./Centennial) definitely fits that mold.
Q: What’s the status with Kyle Ford and Bru McCoy? Are either of them practicing? Are they close to seeing the field in an actual game?
A: Bru McCoy is not at most practices and I don’t think there’s any rush to get him on the field right now. Kyle Ford is practicing and I think he’s still probably in the mix to potentially see time in one of these late games. But again, he’s not going to be rushed back.
Q: Erik, do you see D. Davis getting much playing time at RB? I heard that at one time he was the fastest player on the team. Will Easington or Edmunson (Reserve RBs) be making the trip to Colorado?
A: I would be surprised if we saw Dominic Davis a lot against Colorado. Even when Markese Stepp was the No. 3 guy, it took an injury to Vavae Malepeai to really get him involved. Davis hasn’t spent any time at tailback in this offense outside of this week. I wouldn’t expect the staff to suddenly call on him a bunch if this game is close. Certainly if USC gets a comfortable lead and wants to run the clock, then he could be an option to help finish out the game.
Ben Easington hasn’t participated in practice in weeks, as he’s been out with an injury. Not sure if Chris Edmondson will make the trip. I would probably take him with the number of guys who definitely won’t play against Colorado.
Q: What is your comment or feelings to a possibly Helton could be “Coach if the Year” if we win out? How could he get fired if that happens? I heard this scenario mentioned on Inside PAC 12 this week. Herm Edwards was another candidate.
A: If USC wins the entire Pac-12, Helton will (and should) absolutely be named Pac-12 coach of the year. But I think that’s the only way he would get it. As for how you could fire a coach who was named his conference’s coach of the year, a new Athletic Director makes anything possible when it comes to a coach. Could a new AD like what he sees from Helton in that case and choose to keep him? Sure. Could a new AD decide that 1-4 against Notre Dame is enough to make a change even with a Pac-12 title? Sure.
As for that race, Herm Edwards is going to get a lot of attention if Arizona State closes well. Kyle Whittingham will get some if Utah wins the South. But Oregon’s Mario Cristobal has to be considered the front runner with the Ducks running away with the North right now. And he won’t yet be dinged like what happened a couple years to Pete Carroll because of voters’ expectations going into the season.