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WeAreSC Mailbag

More coaching speculation, the redshirt status of Kenan Christon, the performance of the Air Raid offense this season, recruiting and more recruiting, and USC’s future schedule are a few of the questions from readers in this week’s mailbag.


Q: When is Stepp coming back? Helton said 3-5 weeks and it’s week 4.

Q: What changes are they looking to make on kick off returns? What does the staff believe the issue is?

Q: Why did the cornerbacks not force the wide receivers to the outside especially with no help on the inside?

A: Three answers for three questions.

  1. I don’t expect Stepp back before the end of the regular season. I’m not sure if he’s been able to do any work with that injured ankle yet. The big boot is off, but he still has a small brace on that ankle. There has been no official word from Clay Helton recently, but unless Stepp can get out there early next week, it looks like a bowl game would be the absolute earliest he could return.
  2. Kickoffs are practiced during the portion of practice where media is unable to watch, so we haven’t been able to see any differences. Obviously there was a change made against Arizona State when the Trojans went full squib kick after the first few big returns. John Baxter said after the long Oregon touchdown return that it was the “perfect storm” of one guy getting blocked into two others, someone else getting caught up inside and an outside guy not getting over the top on time. So that pretty much covers five of the 11 guys not being where they should have been. On the long Arizona State kick, it looked like there were two initial poor angles where guys just ran past the returner, Kana’i Mauga got two hands on him but couldn’t get him down and Isaiah Pola-Mao got tripped up when he probably could have pushed him out of bounds before the 50. Covering kicks should not be this difficult for a roster with these kinds of athletes on it, no matter the injuries USC has suffered. Cal has not been great when it comes to kick returns this year, so it will be interesting to see if the Trojans trust their training and kick it deep, or continue to squib it or go high and short. Whatever the case, the hope is that they have a lot of opportunities to work on it during the final two games.
  3. There were some footwork issues with the cornerbacks in that game and Greg Burns spoke this week about being able to see that on film and work to improve there. Those are two good wide receivers who got the better of a couple young cornerbacks on a couple of plays. We’ll see if they can learn from it and not let it happen to that degree again, because I think the young corners have done really well overall this season.


Q: Erik, with the decommit of Jack Yary, there can be no further denial that recruiting as it relates to Clay Helton and his staff has reached a full-on crisis level. Do you think that Ron and/or Jack has talked to Bohn or will talk to Bohn about the state of affairs with the USC Football program? What are you hearing about this specific situation?

A: There have been several massive statements from recruits in this class regarding the general direction of this USC program and specifically recruiting. Bryce Young’s flip to Alabama likely has a little bit to do with JT Daniels’ injury and the success Kedon Slovis has had, but it’s still a big blow to lose a guy like that who looked so solid for so long. Five-star linebacker Justin Flowe putting out a Top 4 list that did not include USC (and did include Oregon) seemed to be a fairly deliberate statement. And now the decommitment of tight end Jack Yary is a major disappointment. I’ve not spoken to Yary about his decision, but it would surprise me if Bohn is taking an active role with recruits right now. He’s definitely interested in recruiting and pays attention to it, but it feels like his plate is probably full with settling in and getting an understanding the landscape at this point. I do believe he would be open to speaking with someone like Ron Yary, based on his early comments about wanting to welcome in former players.

Burak Uslu

Q: Erik, I have a question about the upcoming UC Davis match up for 2021. It is a nightmare, and it kills me slowly. Is there anything that alumni can do to have Bohn attempt a change? Perhaps a draft email to Bohn, something?

I am reading recruiting is almost impossible to salvage at this stage for this season. The toll of the last few years will linger for a while. The team is on a downswing. But everything goes in cycles and no doubt that USC will be back. Give a few-cycle, recruiting can be fixed. Another good coach and USC will be competing for championships in no time. But I can’t help myself and wrap my head around leaving ND and UCLA as the only two teams that have never played an FCS team. I can’t see any win from playing UC Davis. If the team wins, you were supposed to. If you lose, your season is gone.

I just can’t understand the motive behind Swann’s and Nikias’ motivation, but any chance for alumni to encourage Folt and Bohn. Do we still have a chance to fix this mishap, before it is broken?

A: Adding UC Davis to the schedule was almost entirely about getting a seventh home game every year, and that’s difficult to do while keeping that streak of only playing FBS programs alive. USC will play just six home games next season (plus the neutral site game against Alabama), but with the way USC’s future schedules are set up, the away game at Notre Dame can be the only non-conference away game USC can ever play if USC is going to play seven home games per year. The Trojans either play five home Pac-12 games and an away game at Notre Dame (leaving two non-conference opponents at home to get to seven) or the Trojans play four home Pac-12 games plus Notre Dame (leaving two non-conference opponents at home to get to seven). It’s tough to find a lot of programs willing to come to the Coliseum and never get a return trip (though I think I’d rather play Fresno State every year than book an FCS program).

As for Bohn’s take on things, he was very aggressive in setting football schedules at Cincinnati. He got Cincinnati a game at Notre Dame in 2021 and scheduled Indiana and Pittsburgh in the future, while jumping over some hurdles to make sure Cincinnati never had more road than home games. Cincinnati also has Nebraska on its future schedule.

This was a quote from Bohn after the Notre Dame game was announced: “We recognize the importance of our institution’s presence on the national stage and this matchup fits our profile,” Bohn said. “There are many ties between Cincinnati and Notre Dame constituents and we are excited to add these types of high-level games to our future football schedule that match the drive and competitiveness of the football program under Head Coach Luke Fickell.”


Q: Believe the problems with Helton are greater than wins and losses.

Should a change occur when would that happen?

A: If the Trojans decide to make a change at head coach, it’s reasonable to expect something to happen shortly following the UCLA game.


Q: What is the one big question you would like to address to your mailbaggers?
How do you perceive Your audience? Do you visualize us or any individual poster based on content?
Keep it ethereal; do not go statistical on us.

A: It’s not really a question, but I always like to read stories on the message board about how people started rooting for the Trojans and their favorite memories from old games. Probably comes from listening from stories from my grandparents about their experiences with the best (Oklahoma) and worst (LSU) fans they’ve experienced, and the random things that stood out to them on trips (Penn State creamery).


Q: I’ll keep it simple. Why is Helton still employed?

A: It was always going to be impossible to make a decision on a coach without an acting athletic director, and that athletic director was never going to fire a head football coach before he even saw a game. I understand that there’s a panic about the recruiting class and needing to make a move right now, but ultimately, I don’t think announcing a move either way right now or 10 days from now would change the ultimate trajectory of this class.


Q: Will the PAC-12 ever find better referees?

A: Pac-12 officials take a beating from fans, and there are certainly times where they deserve it. But I wouldn’t imagine you could go anywhere in the country where fans would say their conference’s officials are perfect. With the constantly-changing rules and an emphasis on player safety, it’s a tough line to walk where you want to let the game flow and also protect players. That being said, you can’t have a situation where you cost a team 57 yards on a penalty that you enforced against the wrong team. It appears as though the Pac-12 is at least attempting to take steps to get the officiating issues worked out, but there is obviously still a long way to go.


Q: What do you think would be the absolute latest would could hire a new head coach and salvage this recruiting class? Is November 25th enough time with the early signing day looming two weeks later. Do you think any/many of the top local prospects would delay their announcements until the Feb signing day to see who the new coach is what staff he hires?

A: I think the 25th is enough time to be able to finish with a very solid 2020 recruiting class. But it would depend on who the new coach is in that hypothetical situation. If it is Urban Meyer (and not “someone like Urban Meyer,” because that entity doesn’t exist), top local prospects would absolutely listen if he asked them to postpone signing. I don’t know if they absolutely would, because they all have relationships with other programs, and those programs aren’t just going to give up and let USC come in at the last minute a grab guys. There will also be plenty of pressure applied to get kids to sign in December. And I also understand that it adds a significant hurdle to the process, but the transfer portal has made it pretty easy to move around, and a strong recruiter hired as head coach at USC would be able to make use of that with regular and grad transfers to fill in any holes in the 2020 class.

Gold Trojan

Q: Is the pass happy offense a good fit, or is it just a gimmick that good defenses figure out quickly? Seems like once teams adjust (2nd – 3rd Q), our offense is ineffective.

A: I don’t have a huge issue with Graham Harrell’s offense here, but it absolutely needs a running game component to be truly successful, and without the top three backs for the past handful of games, it’s been really tough. I think the offense would operate better with a third-year guy at quarterback and three healthy running backs, but that’s just not been an option for USC this season. So I think that even with the numbers that have been put up, this is still a little bit of a watered-down version of this offense, due to the inexperience in it and the lack of being able to rely on a run game. That being said, even when all the tailbacks were healthy it still felt like it was tilted to the pass a little too much, so that will be something to watch once USC starts getting these running backs back on the field.


Q: Since we’re close to wrapping up the season, who has impressed you the most among assistant coaches and why? And which assistants have disappointed?

A: I like what Greg Burns has done with a young group of defensive backs. Mike Jinks has had to deal with injuries and he did a great job of getting Kenan Christon ready to go. It might be too harsh to say I’m disappointed in any coach specifically, but I think at times, all three phases (offense, defense, special teams) have struggled with discipline and execution. That’s something where blame can be spread throughout the entire coaching staff.


Q: Erik, I’m betting that Urban will get the first offer to be our head coach. But, if he chooses to stay out of coaching, who are the next three candidates that Bohn/SC go after?

A: Baylor’s Matt Rhule, Minnesota’s PJ Fleck and Penn State’s James Franklin are the three names that get mentioned the most as potential targets, and I think I’d like to see them in that order (if a change is made). But having never heard Bohn speak about a coaching search, I can’t say for certain who his targets would be. Obviously he’s familiar with Luke Fickell at Cincinnati as well.


Q: Does the coaching staff allow Kenan Christon to redshirt, or do they burn it playing him?

A: The announcement was made this week that Christon would play the rest of the season and not use his redshirt this year. There was obviously a plan heading into the season that he would definitely redshirt, which is why it took so long to fully get everyone to buy into playing him in more than four games. I think it’s a no-brainer decision. At this point, you’re going to get seven games out of him, and that’s pretty close to a full season for a running back. If a guy can contribute at all as a true freshman, I’m always in favor of playing them because it always feels like that redshirt year comes in handy if there’s a real injury down the line (like with Jordan Iosefa this year).

Touchdown for USC

Q: Erik, When will the kick-off time and the TV network televising the USC/Ucla game be announced?

A: The six-day window will be used for UCLA-USC, which means likely a Sunday announcement as to the time. All we know now is that it won’t be on Pac-12 Network. According to Jon Wilner, the windows are 7:30 pm on Fox, or 12:30, 4:30 or 7:30 on ESPN.


Q: Do you get the sense that the coaching staff is actually out recruiting? Here is what I mean…

Helton is on the hot seat so the uncertainty around his job has equated to a challenge on the recruiting circuit. But this obviously makes it tough for his assistants to recruit based off of the same reasoning AND that they too may not be around next year.

So… my question is, are you aware of any of the assistants actually not even recruiting? Might explain the 11th in the PAC 12 and 77th in the nation for this 2020 class??

A: Offers are going out, but the only time Clay Helton has even mentioned the staff going out and recruiting this fall was during USC’s bye week. I do not believe that coaches have stopped recruiting entirely because even if they aren’t at USC next year, building relationships with recruits would be important if they were to land with a different program, but I don’t believe it is anywhere near the top of their priority list right now.


Q: Is punting really winning? If so, why is our secret weapon punter not getting off consistent punts that pin opponents deep? Has Baxter changed the strategy now, seeing that hang time doesn’t help when the punt only goes 30 yards?

A: I thought Ben Griffiths did a good job against Arizona State, save for that one he hit short and out of bounds when punting from inside his endzone. Honestly, I wish that punting ranked among the top 10 or so concerns with this USC team right now. Griffiths has executed a few really great punts that have landed inside the 10-yard line, and he hasn’t allowed opponents to return much of anything this season. Arizona State’s punter averaged 48.7 yards per punt, but Amon-Ra St. Brown was able to take one back 24 yards, which allowed USC to pin ASU deep on that final drive that came up short.

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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