19 min Read

WeAreSC Mailbag

Questions from readers ranged all over this week, as we start with USC’s big visit from Oregon this weekend, spend plenty of time on recruiting and, as always, hit on head coaching hypotheticals.

Gold Trojan

Q: How good is Oregon’s pass defense, and pass rush?

A: They are good, but not elite. Oregon doesn’t really have a true weakness with this team, and I think the closest thing they have to an overpowering strength is their offensive line. But the USC offense should be able to move the ball against the Ducks, if the Trojans can keep two hands on the ball and get at least a little push in the run game. Oregon leads the Pac-12 in sacks, but a huge majority of those came in a four-game stretch against Nevada, Montana, Stanford and Cal. They have just one each the past two games, against Washington and Washington State. Similarly, the pass defense has put up really impressive numbers this season, but the Cougars got them for more than 400 yards last week, so there is a blueprint on how to move the ball through the air against them. Nickelback Jevon Holland is the wildcard. He can pop up anywhere, has a nose for the football and will come down with interceptions rather than tally pass breakups. He leads the team with four interceptions and has proven over two years that he is a true ballhawk. If USC can keep him quiet, they should be able to get things done offensively.


Q: Which guys that were out do you anticipate to be back for Oregon?

A: Defensive end Christian Rector and cornerback Chris Steele have practiced every day this week and are pretty much guarantees to play against Oregon. Having a physical presence up front will be huge against the Ducks offensive line, so getting Rector back will be big in that matchup. It also looks as though linebacker Palaie Gaoteote will play this weekend. Clay Helton will likely deliver official word on that following Thursday’s practice. I would be surprised if defensive end Drake Jackson or safety Talanoa Hufanga are fully 100% healthy and cleared to play at length against Oregon, as they didn’t practice Tuesday or Wednesday, but we’ll see if they’re labeled game-time decisions, or still a little bit away from returning. Either one would be a big addition to the defense.


Q: I haven’t seen a lot of movement in recruiting yet, and I’m contending part of this might be because of the effect of the coaching changes. Do you think there’s any merit to that argument? Is there a definitive recruiting coordinator on the coaching staff right now? Do you see USC filling up more support positions similar to programs out East who have been dominating in this area recently?

A: Johnny Nansen has been the recruiting coordinator the past few seasons, though that title doesn’t officially appear on his bio, which specifically says he was the recruiting coordinator from 2016 to 2018.

USC has bulked up the recruiting department a lot this year and I don’t believe they’ll add too many more people to it. I think it’s a good start to get where USC should be with the number of people dedicated to recruiting. It’s definitely competitive in the Pac-12 and doesn’t greatly lag behind the national powers the way it did just a year ago.


Q: Hi Erik, do you know if there is any credence with regard to the AD search committee hiring an AD by next week?

A: I don’t think it will happen as early as next week. The idea that it’s coming to a conclusion in the near future is true because it has to be. I think it will happen closer to the end of the month and the new athletic director will move quickly on a direction with the head football coach, either retaining Clay Helton or moving in another direction. I don’t believe the athletic director will come in unprepared to make a decision there.


Q: Erik, I’ve heard a lot of grousing about Trojan practices. Please tell me: Does our team tackle in practices? Have they ever? Spring or Fall practices. Please clear this up for us.

A: The team doesn’t tackle to the ground during the season. They absolutely did for portions of practices in the spring and fall, though I don’t believe they do as much then as other teams. As far as what goes on during the season, I don’t think it’s a massive departure from what goes on across the country, when coaches are more concerned about getting proper fits and thudding rather than full-speed taking guys to the ground constantly. I do think they could tackle more (especially during camps), and they are allowed to by NCAA rules, but I don’t think they’re this lone team on an island where everybody is doing something completely differently during the year.


Q: Hi Erik, any word on how Solo’s rehab is going? If he’s finally healthy for next year, could he be the answer we’ve been waiting for at middle linebacker?

Also, I know you mentioned last week that we should not be worried right now with Bru McCoy not practicing but I have to admit, your tone really scared me. Is there something we should be concerned about with Bru? (i.e. long term health, possible transfer, etc)

While it doesn’t appear that Clay Helton has lost the team as they continue to play hard for him every game, it does appear that optically, he has lost the ability to recruit top talent from Southern California. Regardless if we win out, win the Rose Bowl and by some stretch of insanity the new AD extends Clay Helton for another 3-4 years, would it have any effect on recruiting if recruits knew Helton was going to be around for several more years or has that ship sailed and recruits simply do not want to play for him? If recruits don’t want to play for him, why are we delaying the inevitable regardless of his record at the end of the season?

A: Nothing concrete on Solo’s rehab yet. He’s still not participating in any portion of practices. It certainly would be nice to get him back fully healthy next season. I think he could be special. Really tough to watch him, Gaoteote and Jordan Iosefa standing around injured these past few weeks.

I don’t think there’s anything to be concerned about with Bru McCoy unless he doesn’t show up for winter conditioning or spring ball. At that point, questions can fly.

The lack of commitments or general interest being shown by elite local prospects in USC is striking and absolutely cause for alarm. I understand that you can win with a few three-star guys sprinkled in, but if you look at the true freshmen contributing heavily this season from a down 2019 recruiting class, it’s still four-star Drake Jackson, four-star Max Williams, four-star Drake London, four-star Kedon Slovis, four-star Kenan Christon and four-star Nick Figueroa. To be at this point in the season with just two four-star commitments is a little unsettling, regardless of the staff’s ability to evaluate under-recruited or underrated guys.

I don’t believe that recruits don’t want to play for Clay Helton. I think what it comes down to is that they don’t want to enter a situation that appears completely unstable from the outside right now. Not knowing if your future coach is going to be there in three weeks, let alone three months, puts recruits in a difficult position. Sure, there are guys who would sign up to play at USC without any coaching staff in place, but a lot of these recruits have heard for years now that Helton won’t be their coach if they commit to USC. Getting clarity on that one way or another at the end of the season will boost recruiting.


Q: Erik, if a change is made in the head coach, which members of the current coaching staff do you hope that the next coach retains?

A: I think all the assistant coaches have merit and could be under consideration to keep. The issue is that they might not mesh with what a new coach is looking for at that position, and in that case, the program would be better served by going a different direction. But I really like what Greg Burns has done with the defensive backs, and what Chad Kauha’aha’a has done with the defensive line. I think Graham Harrell has something as an offensive coordinator, and his offense seems to be one that will perform better in Year 2 than Year 1 (and Year 3 than Year 2). Mike Jinks has gotten four guys ready to go as No. 1 guys this year and they’ve all performed.


Q: IMHO if the top recruits were on board with what Helton and staff are selling/doing they would not be looking/committed elsewhere.
What would it take to salvage this recruiting year?

A: I think Helton needs four wins to close the regular season, with several of them by comfortable margins, and recruiting could start to pick up. As far as completely salvaging the class, I think hiring a guy like Urban Meyer would be the quickest way to a tremendous 2020 recruiting class. Keeping Helton (given that kind of finish to the season) might just be the next best thing. I’m not totally convinced that hiring someone like Minnesota’s PJ Fleck or one of the other “up-and-coming” names that have been suggested would provide the quick and guaranteed boost to recruiting, since prospects out West just don’t have a lot of familiarity with a lot of those names floating around.


Q: Based on our commits so far, it looks like we’ve taken the Utah strategy for recruiting– since we can’t get the 4 and 5 star recruits, let’s find a bunch of under-the-radar 3 star guys on the offensive and defensive lines (9 of our 11 commits so far) that we may be able to develop since those positions are some of the most unpredictable, even for higher ranked recruits. This actually might turn out to be a good strategy, but we’ve sure become top-heavy in young line recruits if the commits hold. What are your thoughts?

A: USC has to load up along the lines in this class, but I don’t think it’s actively trying to take a Utah approach. It’s just a down year along the lines in California and out West overall. If you look at ESPN rankings, USC actually has commitments from the No. 1 defensive lineman (Jemar Sekona) and the No. 1 offensive tackle (Jonah Monheim) in the state. They made a run at Jeffrey Persi (No. 2 OL) and OmarrNorman-Lott (No. 3 DL) and have a good shot with defensive tackle Jorden Berry (No. 4 DL) after his decommitment from LSU. The issue is that there are a number of truly elite recruits at other positions and USC is coming up empty there. A guy like Justin Flowe does not come along often and you just can’t miss on someone like that if you’re USC.


Q: What happened to Josh Falo?

A: Falo had a knee injury that kept him out for some time. He’s back on the field now, but he just hasn’t shown the consistency to carve out a spot as a go-to guy in this offense, either as a blocker or receiver. I think the talent is there, but Erik Krommenhoek and Drake London have done enough to warrant spots.


Q: On Sunday the SF 49ers offense put on a clinic, using motion on almost every play such as a fly sweep, speedy receiver in motion running a fake reverse laterally out in space to one sideline, speedy RB sprinting laterally out in space to the other sideline, two back sets with speedy RBs sprinting out into opposite flats, etc., to thoroughly confuse and gash a good Panther defense. After running a fly sweep or two, a reverse, and a couple of passes to get speedy RB on LBs in space in the early part of the game, together with downhill running and slants and posts and receivers breaking across the middle that that the LB vacated; the Panther defense did not know what was coming next. Using the entire field this way was a thing of beauty. Why doesn’t USC use similar approaches more often with the talent and speed that they have at skill positions?

A: It’s just not a big part of this offense. Different coordinator are comfortable with different looks with their offenses. Graham Harrell just doesn’t have a lot of pre-snap motion built into his offense.


Q: How much of last week’s pathetic defensive performance would you put on each of the following?
1. Injuries
2. Altitude
3. Friday night on the road/typical Pac 12 death sentence
4. Clancy and his woeful schemes

A: I’d stop short of calling it pathetic. Laviska Shenault and Steven Montez are one of the better receiver/quarterback combos in the Pac-12 when both are healthy and clicking. I think a ton of the yards and points Colorado put up and scored had to do with the injuries to the USC defense. It wasn’t just that USC was missing key players on that side of the ball, it compounds itself when you’re missing on communication issues because guys behind them haven’t played together as much. Without Chris Steele and Talanoa Hufanga, and with Isaac Taylor-Stuart suffering from illness, that’s a sizable hit to the defensive back group. I think there were a few things Clancy Pendergast might have done differently, but I’d put a majority of the blame elsewhere.


Q: Does Helton ever call upon alumni to speak at practices or during team meetings? I know our Trojan greats no longer lead our team out of the tunnel…just wondering if our former players have any relationship with the current team anymore?

A: We’ve seen a handful of former players at USC practices, and there was almost always at least one during fall camp. Mark Sanchez, Hayes Pullard and Antwaun Woods were there a bit. But we haven’t seen former players address the team after practices very often, if at all, this season.


Q: It was nice to hear that Kyle Ford has been cleared to play recently, and that his 4 “red shirt eligible” games will be utilized. I’m looking forward to seeing him in action. Have you had a chance to observe him in practice at WR? Can you update us on what kind of WR role might be used for? Thanks

A: We are only allowed to watch warmups during the season, so we haven’t been able to see how USC might utilize him as a wide receiver. With his combination of size and strength, it seems that though he’d be a pretty seamless replacement for Michael Pittman next season.


Q: Can you discuss Drake London’s status with the basketball program now that basketball is here. Is he strictly football during football season or does he practice/interact with basketball some. Curious as two way D1 athletes are rare.

A: Given London’s role with the football team right now, I would fully expect him to finish the season before making his way over to basketball. We’ll get an update with him about how that will work this season and moving forward though.


Q: With Young committing to Alabama are we actively recruiting a quarterback for this years class .. if so can you provide specifics

A: USC extended a 2020 quarterback offer to Washington State commit Jayden de Laura (Honolulu/St. Louis School) on Wednesday evening. We’ll see if the Trojans can get him in for a visit and whether they’ll be able to flip him from the Cougars.


Q: Elaborate on the rumor that the end of the year team dinner has been moved up the Sunday following the ucla game. If true, rumor has it is so Helton can say “good bye” to his team. Do you agree?

A: I haven’t seen an announcement, but I have no reason not to believe the story that it has been moved. I think it’s early to say that it’s specifically for Helton to say good bye to his team. The potential Pac-12 Championship game and early signing period makes that a tricky time to fit that in. If you keep it at mid-December like it has been, then you could be devoting part of the final weekend before the early signing period to that, and that isn’t a good use of time. I do believe the hope is that there will be some clarity given in regard to the position for that event.


Q: Given Mauga’s performances in recent games, will we see Palaie Gaoteote selectively move to edge rusher?

A: I’d really like to see Gaoteote employed there and just unleashed as a pure pass rusher on occasion. I think his long-term position is likely still as a linebacker off the line of scrimmage, and I was never blown away by his pass rush moves when the coaches would have the linebackers go up against the running backs in blitz pickup drills. But I do think with a guy like that, sometimes you just have to let him line up and let him loose from different angles, especially, as you said, now that there should probably be some confidence in Kana’i Mauga filling in behind him.

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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