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WeAreSC Mailbag

Questions about USC’s head coaching position dominated this week’s mailbag, and we also look at starters who will return next season, how recruiting could unfold, what to do with the targeting rule and other topics.


Q: What is your gut (or noises out of HH) telling you that we should expect on Sunday/Monday re the coaching situation?
Thanks and Fight On.

A: If USC beats UCLA, I doubt we’ll hear anything early next week on a coaching decision. At this point, it feels like athletic director Mike Bohn is comfortable letting the season play out (and that now likely includes Utah’s game against Colorado, which takes place next Saturday) before announcing a decision one way or another. If USC loses to UCLA, all bets are off, and I think there’s absolutely a chance that we could hear that USC is making a move at head coach early next week.


Q: How would you amend the targeting rule? Roughing the Kicker (15 yard penalty) was amended to include Running Into the Kicker (5 yard penalty), murder and manslaughter differ mostly on intent (maybe check with Arledge on that)…it seems there should be a way to better referee this facet of the game.

A: I absolutely believe that the current targeting rules need to be adjusted. I don’t necessarily mean what constitutes targeting, but the subsequent punishment. Too many players are getting ejected from games for things that are simply not ejectable offenses. Christian Rector’s penalty against Cal was targeting by the letter of the law. But to throw him out of the game for that the same way he’d be thrown out for punching someone after the play? Silly.

I just don’t know where the adjustment comes. I like the idea of a two-tier system, where you can have something like targeting with intent (something where a guy truly launches into a defenseless player) and simple targeting (like Rector’s) where the former results in an ejection and the latter is simply a 15-yard personal foul (I wouldn’t even mind if this counted as one of your two unsportsmanlike penalties). The hesitation I have with that is now you’re putting even more decisions in the hands of officials and replay reviewers who at times are just making things up as they go and don’t show anything even remotely close to consistent decision making. So ultimately, it might be in everybody’s best interest if we leave the rules where they are now and hope players continue to adjust.


Q: Now that SC has attained bowl candidacy and will likely be offered one, does it make sense to the administration to fire Helton given an upcoming bowl appearance? Understand I’m not suggesting Helton retained on this premise, but does it make sense?

A: It makes sense to fire Helton at any point if the administration doesn’t see him as the head coach against Alabama next year, or even as the head coach for spring ball 2020. Maintaining continuity for a bowl game (Alamo, Holiday, whichever) doesn’t make a lot of sense to me if you know you’re eventually making a change. Now, on the flip side, if the administration sees a path where Helton is the coach moving forward, then I understand keeping him and seeing how things play out in a bowl game. But ultimately, if the bowl game is deciding his fate, you’re basically saying you’re okay punting on the 2020 recruiting class.


Q: Do you think Pittman will be a first-team All-American, and/or a first-round draft choice? And to put you on the spot without giving you my opinion, where do you think he ranks all-time among USC receivers?

A: I don’t think he’ll be either of those things, but I do think he’ll be either a second or third team All-American and he could get into Round 2 of the draft. As for All-American status, he has some really impressive numbers, but I don’t think they’ll be enough where people will scan the stat pages and see guys ahead of him. He might have just one game left, while guys around him on the receptions/yards/touchdowns list have two, and some will have three with a conference championship game. As for the NFL draft, I just don’t know if he’ll test well enough to get into that first round discussion, but I hope he proves me wrong. If he posts a really strong 40 time, it’ll be tough to find any knock against him.

As for where he stands among all-time USC wide receivers, it’s always tough to compare players at that position from different eras because the numbers are going to skew heavily toward recent guys with the way everybody throws the football now. Still, I think he’s comfortably inside the top 10, and maybe surprisingly inside the top 5. He doesn’t have the career numbers that some other guys do, but if you have Mike Williams, Keyshawn Johnson, Marqise Lee and Robert Woods as your top four receivers (and I understand there could be plenty of debate here), there’s a ton of competition for that No. 5 spot, but I’d absolutely listen to an argument for Pittman based on everything he brings to the position. It’s too bad that his freshman year was basically spent on special teams and then USC couldn’t quite get him involved enough in the offense last year, so he was way behind heading into his senior season in terms of stats. He’ll likely wind up with a top-10 USC single season receiving yard mark this year though.


Q: What kind of percentage odds is it that Helton is indeed fired, whether after the UCLA game or the Bowl game? The reason I ask is because last season when we went into the UCLA game at 5-6 and even sooner than that, all of the USC fans, boosters, etc. were calling for Helton’s head on a platter, yet we saw that did not happen. Call me skeptical that any coaching change will happen. I’m just not buying all of the hype that Helton was a dead man walking as soon as Bohn walked on campus. If Helton wins this week and then a Bowl game, I think there’s less than a 50% chance that Helton is let go. Also, do you think it’s a done deal that Helton is gone after the UCLA game or do you think it’s more likely that barring some scandal or a 55-0 blowout loss that Helton stays until after the Bowl game?

A: I will be really surprised if Clay Helton is still the USC head coach for this early signing period. I’m not going to say it’s a guarantee that he’ll be let go, because I think we’ve all learned to expect just about anything when it comes to USC. There have been some recent things (Bohn’s statements to the LA Times and some columns written) that certainly feel like seeds are being planted to keep him on. But like I said, I’ll be very surprised if he is retained moving forward.


Q: I recall a fan posting about Swann wanting to shape USC in the same mold as the Steelers by rarely firing head coaches but often rotating coordinators and other coaches. It seemed to be the Rooney way. I also remember an article about the same thing decades ago in The Sporting News or the like.

It seems that the Swann way has worked to a degree. It took Helton out of play calling and we got some damn good coaching replacements (although CP could have been one of those replaced… imo).

My question is what are the possibilities of a new HC coming in and keeping the other good coaches at USC now?

A: I always assume that if a new coach enters a program, he’s likely to make some pretty significant changes with his staff, unless he has a prior coaching relationship with someone already there. I do think that, if a change is made, there are a handful of assistants on this staff that probably have done enough to deserve to stay on. But I completely understand any coach who wants to bring in his own staff. Having said that, the fact that Steve Sarkisian wanted to bring basically his entire staff from Washington to USC was always a red flag for me. I can’t imagine any coach who hasn’t won a national championship with his staff believing that he can’t make an upgrade at at least one spot. I understand being able to work together, but you have to be able to look around the coaching landscape and find the best guy.

SC ForLife

Q: Can we stop UCLA’s run game? Or should that be will we stop the run?

A: Is there a game this weekend? Definitely feels a little like an afterthought in the runup to it.

I think USC will be able to stop UCLA’s run, to a point. I can see UCLA tailback Joshua Kelley running for 100 yards, but I don’t think it will be enough to control the game and get the Bruins a win. USC will still be able to win if they give up yards on the ground but keep the Bruins out of the endzone, and I can see a situation like that playing out. I think UCLA knows that they need to get the run game going, because I don’t believe they trust Dorian Thompson-Robinson to sit in the pocket and throw the ball 45 times against USC (his season high for attempts is 38, in that wild game against Washington State). USC will certainly sell out against the run, but I think UCLA does enough to chip away with a few yards at a time on a bunch of carries.

Gold Trojan

Q: I hate it, but this year’s a fold. Looking ahead to 2020(not at coaches). Who are we seeing that will depart from the starting 11 on offense and defense?

A: On offense, the biggest loss will be wide receiver Michael Pittman. There’s a chance that Tyler Vaughns could leave early, but that would surprise me a bit. All the running backs are scheduled to return. Along the offensive line, the Trojans will lose Drew Richmond, and Austin Jackson would be another potential early entry into the NFL draft. There’s a good chance the Trojans could return nine starters on offense.

On defense, defensive end Christian Rector and linebacker John Houston are seniors. Interior defensive linemen Jay Tufele and Marlon Tuipulotu are draft-eligible, so we’ll see what decisions they eventually make. But as is the case on offense, the Trojans could return nine starters on defense as well.

This team is set up to be loaded next year if everybody returns.


Q: How great is Rich Ruben’s basketball writing?

A: Rich has been a terrific addition to the site. I hope everybody has been able to check out all the various stories he’s been able to contribute. A really good basketball team deserves some really good opinions.


Q: Two part recruiting question. If Helton stays does this show recruits that everything they have been hearing was false and might want to come to SC? Or if Helton gets fired, does that make the non committed recruits start to look at SC because of the change, let’s assume SC does not hire UM? I think SC is in a tough spot with both scenarios.

A: I just don’t see a way to save this recruiting class if Helton is retained. Retaining him won’t give recruits any sense of stability because they’ll all hear from opposing coaches/friends/family/trainers that the uncertainty surrounding his future will still be there during their entire freshman season. I think we’ve reached a point where keeping Helton guarantees that the 2020 recruiting class doesn’t look anything like what USC fans are used to seeing. I don’t think that’s the sole reason you should fire a coach, and if Helton stays on and they win the conference next year, the 2021 class would look really good. But anything short of a Pac-12 Championship this season is going to result in a recruiting class likely in the bottom half of the conference. Now, if USC does make a move and hires a new coach, I think Urban Meyer is the only guy who lands an elite 2020 recruiting class. Again, I don’t think you make a hire simply for one recruiting class. But I do believe that with so little time before the early signing period, anybody else might be a great choice, but could struggle to put together a great class. Waiting this long to do anything has absolutely put USC in a tough spot with regard to this decision.


Q: I’ve heard Bohn called out for saying ” limited scholarships are partly responsible for our current recruiting ranking” or words to that affect. I think we all sort of understand what the main contributing factors are for our current status, but I want to be fair also.

So, the question is, What is the context for that quote? and do you feel like there is any validity to it?

A: USC has limited scholarships to work with this year because there are so few seniors on the roster. The Trojans are only going to lose seven scholarship seniors (Jordan Iosefa plans to return for his fifth year) off this year’s roster, which means taking a full 25-man class would put USC well over the 85 scholarship limit. That being said, it’s absolutely not the reason for the current recruiting ranking. There is definitely some number bias that works into the rankings, so you can be ranked higher with more recruits, but maybe not necessarily better recruits. So USC’s 10 total commits puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to rankings points. But, if USC had commitments from the top 10 players on their board, they’d be ranked as one of the top 10-15 classes in the country, rather than No. 76, as they are right now. And looking at it further, USC’s average per-player ranking right now is sixth in the Pac-12, behind Oregon, Washington, Stanford, Arizona State and UCLA. The closest comparable programs nationally are Missouri (38th nationally, 12th in the SEC) and North Carolina State (45th nationally, 8th in the ACC), and every program in the top 25 right now has a higher per-player average. As it stands right now, USC has an outside shot at signing four of the top 25 players from the state of California (right now the Trojans have a commitment from just one).


Q: Erik, should Helton keep his job, who do you think transfers or leaves early to the NFL?

If Helton is let go and Urban Meyer or another elite coach is hired what recruits do you think flip or hold off on committing early and reconsider USC?

A: I think you’re going to see some transfers whether Helton is retained or let go. It’s just the nature of things in college football now, as guys can move easier from program to program. Certainly the tight end spot will be one to watch, as there haven’t been a ton of passes thrown that way and it’s not as if the wide receiver spot is going to be much less talented next year. I could maybe see Jay Tufele having the kind of film where scouts love what they see even if it goes unnoticed a little bit by fans. But I’d be a little surprised to see anybody leave early for the NFL, since there don’t seem to be any no-brainers like there have been in past years.

As I’ve said before, I think Meyer is the only coach who could create the kind of immediate impact with recruiting that would absolutely result in some of the elite prospects looking right away at USC. Linebacker Justin Flowe, cornerback Elias Ricks, running back Kendall Milton, cornerback Clark Phillips and either of the quarterbacks — Bryce Young and DJ Uiagalelei — would be prospects to keep an eye on. They all look to be in good spots with where they’re headed, but I think Meyer would make just about everybody think twice. If it’s a different coach, I think they could put together a solid class, but I don’t know if there’s anybody else who seems realistically available who has the cache in this area to make an immediate impact. Recruits would take notice, but all those guys have solid relationships with the schools they’re committed to/looking at seriously at this point, and forming a brand new relationship at this stage would take some serious effort.


Q: John Houston Jr. has 93 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 6.5 tackles for loss. That’s first, third, and second on the team, respectively. I’m fairly sure he’s the best LB in coverage, being that he was rated by NFL experts as the best coverage linebacker for two weeks.

Houston is clearly not pulling his own weight unlike the highly productive EA who has no sacks, 50 tackles, and 2 tackles for loss or Mauga who has 2 sacks, 51 tackles, and 6 tackles for loss. All have played in 11 games with plenty of opportunities to “take over games.”

When will the unproductive Houston finally get benched as many WeAreSC members have clamored for?

Why is Houston the main complaint of USC fans that he’s not “taking over games”?

Why is he the only LB held to that high standard of “taking over games”?

Will the debate over Houston finally be over when he makes All PacXII?

Stats aren’t everything but thay also cannot be ignored when measuring raw productivity, which is a fact.

Fight On! Beat Westwood JC!

A: I think John Houston has developed nicely over his USC career and is having a very productive senior season. I think it speaks volumes that the coaches wanted to move him to the middle because they trust him so much to take control of the defense. He just isn’t that typical thumper at middle linebacker that USC has had, and there are times when he gets exposed for that. And it’s probably not fair that he gets compared to other guys who were maybe more suited to the spot, and I think a lot of the little things he does for the team get lost in those critiques. I don’t think he’ll go down as one of the best USC linebackers of all time, but he’s absolutely been a benefit to the program for his career.

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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