In the first mailbag of the offseason, readers had questions about the defensive coordinator search, recruiting and “necessary resources,” among other things.
Q: Erik, why wait til after the Alabama game to remove Coach Helton as head coach? If it’s done now, then we jump start the 2020 season rather than waste it.
A: If a 32-point loss to Oregon and a 25-point loss to Iowa didn’t prompt a coaching change, I have a tough time seeing a loss to Alabama (no matter the margin) resulting in one. The biggest question I have at this point with regards to Helton is how we all keep hearing about the “stability” he’s brought to the program. It’s getting tougher to stand by that right now. USC followed a 10-win season with a five-win season, has started six different quarterbacks over the past four seasons, changed offensive, defensive and special teams coordinators over the past two offseasons, has struggled to develop any kind of momentum on the recruiting trail and is going to start the 2020 season with its head coach headlining every “hot seat” story that gets published anywhere.
It’s a tough hill for Helton to climb right now, but if he can make the right calls with his coaching staff and get the kind of improvement on defense and special teams that he got with the offense, there’s an opportunity for double-digit wins next season.
If the scenario you lay out actually takes place (a loss to Alabama results in a coaching change), then you’re right, it makes little sense to bring him back. But even with Alabama looking a little more mortal at times this season and having to break in a new quarterback, I can’t imagine athletic director Mike Bohn preaching stability and improvements and then inviting what would be a ton of negative attention on the program by firing a coach one game into a season.
Q: How is the search for the DC going? We hear the conjecture of candidates. Is there a front runner? Is there even an official list of candidates?
A: It has been a very quiet search thus far. I still think Rams assistant coach Joe Barry can be considered the front runner and it could come down to whether the Rams choose to promote him to defensive coordinator. NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport reported this morning and Barry will meet with Rams coach Sean McVay soon about the Rams’ open DC position, and that if he doesn’t get that, he “likely has an opportunity to become USC’s defensive coordinator.”
Q: A couple of years back one of our highly regarded recruits went on a two-year Mormon mission. Who was it? Whatever happened to him? Is he coming back to USC at any time? Would he still be highly regarded? I guess my question is: Is he still a viable option for us?
A: Linebacker Tayler Katoa is the player you’re referring to. His two-year mission is scheduled to end this year. As of last week, he is still on his mission and there is no official word from USC on whether he’ll be back with the Trojans this year. When players leave for missions, there is no guarantee they’ll come back to their original program. Katoa is an interesting case because while he flashed some real potential as a spring enrollee early on, he suffered a knee injury and wasn’t able to finish that spring on the field. The linebacker spot could use the added body, so I’d be more than fine with Katoa added back to the roster. He’s a terrific athlete and would help no matter what kind of scheme the new defensive coordinator installs.
Q: Erik, with a homerun hire at Defensive Coordinator and bringing in a LB Coach like Chris Claiborne, could you see any scenario in which Justin Flowe could have second thoughts and come back to USC via the Transfer Portal before the, season like Chris Steele and Bru McCoy?
A: After what happened with Steele and McCoy (and a number of other transfers) I don’t think anything can be completely ruled out. But I don’t see Flowe taking that same path. He’s not as far from home as Florida or Texas and there’s a lot for him to like about Oregon right now. I think something would have to go poorly for him at Oregon, rather than something USC could do, to make him rethink that decision.
Q: When does spring practice start? Will JTD be ready?
A: No announcement on spring practice yet. And the expectation is that JT Daniels’ recovery will take 9-12 months, which could put him right up against fall camp. He won’t be available for spring ball.
Q: Is there any recruits still on the radar for this season or is it just transfer portal hopefuls?
A: Running back Mike Drennan II (Dublin, Ohio/Dublin Coffman) took an official visit to USC in December and is still undecided (Kentucky is seen as the leader). USC also extended an offer to quarterback Blake Shapen (Shreveport, La./Evangelical Christian) in late December. Tight end Jack Yary (Murrieta, Calif./Murrieta Valley)—a former USC commitment—also remains unsigned.
Q: Erik, in very brief terms, who might be the top prospects for us in the following areas:
* final signing day adds
*transfer portal pickups
A: Outside of Shapen and Yary—mentioned in the previous answer—there aren’t a lot of clear targets right now. But there’s also the chance that USC could stand pat with its recruiting class and look into the transfer portal for any new additions. I think we’ll get a better idea on those targets into the coming weeks and months, especially after the January 20 deadline for underclassmen to declare for the NFL Draft. If everybody stays, finding spots to add anybody else will be difficult.
Q: Erik, is it true: 2 high school all-star games and just 1 top recruit signed?
(I know it’s true, I’d just like to hear you go off on the subject again.)
A: It’s true, and made more difficult to watch by the number of unclaimed USC hats prospects had on the table—WR LV Bunkley-Shelton (ASU), CB Darion Green-Warren (Michigan), CB Dwight McGlothern (LSU) and 2021 QB Preston Stone (SMU) all had chose other programs during the All-American Bowl. I don’t want to take anything away from USC adding Gary Bryant Jr., because he has the potential to be a big piece of the wide receiver puzzle moving forward, but this was not typical All-Star game viewing for USC recruiting fans.
Q: Erik, It now seems they spent 2 weeks deciding whether to keep Helton or not and once decided it was cheaper to keep him as a figure head and opted to upgrade the d cord and special teams coach like they did with Harrell last year.
Do you believe there was a serious coaching search? Where any feelers sent out to gauge interest and to whom?
A: There were plenty of reports published that USC went down the road to varying degrees with other coaching options and I have no reason to dispute those. Money and the buyout was never an issue, and it sure feels like there was a difference of opinion in how things should play out between influential boosters and the administration. Clearly, the comfort level with Helton won out, but there is very little that’s truly believable about the idea that Mike Bohn would need to wait as long as he did to announce that Helton was staying if there was never another option explored.
We’ve heard from Mike Bohn and Clay Helton about now having the “tools and resources necessary to build a championship team”. Do you have any idea what tools and resources they are referring too? Do they plan on hiring more staff like the top programs (Per their websites Ohio State has 53 football staffers, Clemson has 47 and USC has 34)? Do you think improvements in “tools and resources” (excluding players and coaches) will have any noticeable effect on game day performance? Is there anything going on behind the scenes to make us believe this wasn’t just some bull**** statment?
A: Neither Bohn nor Helton has specifically stated what they meant by these additional tools and resources, but a bigger salary pool for assistants and adding staffers are pretty easy assumptions to make. Of course, all that’s happened since that statement is that USC has dismissed its defensive coordinator and special teams coach, lost a graduate assistant to a full time position at Arizona State, and lost its Director of Football Operations to Memphis. USC added several new analysts last season, as Graham Harrell was able to bring with him a few coaches with whom he was familiar. I would imagine a new defensive coordinator could have the same opportunity. Of course any additions—from coaching staff to strength staff to recruiting staff—will be made with the idea of getting better on-field production, but it won’t be easy to do enough to see immediate improvements. I will say that having this strength and conditioning staff in place for another offseason should help.
Q: Erik, any talk of an actual competition at QB seems like a fabrication to me. I happen to be one of those who thought under very adverse circumstances that Daniels played well in 2018. But IMO, Slovis is a phenom. As a pure passer and everything that goes into it – arm strength, accuracy, leading the receiver, tight windows, touch on all throws, quick release, etc. – I’ve never seen a better one at USC.
To me it seems like Slovis is on another level. What do you think?
A: Until I see JT Daniels back on the field and performing at a higher level than Kedon Slovis, I’m considering Slovis the USC starting quarterback. That being said, I don’t think anybody argued with Daniels winning the No. 1 spot after what he did last spring and fall. And both Clay Helton and Graham Harrell tabbed Daniels as the starter. It’s going to be a tough competition for Daniels as he’ll miss the spring and who knows how close to 100% he’ll be for fall camp, but he’s very talented and the coaches will absolutely let him compete for a starting spot.
Q: UCLA guard Chris Murray just entered the transfer portal. 2-year starter. If he used his redshirt year next year to sit out, he’d be a redshirt junior in 2021. Was a 4-star recruit that was down to USC and UCLA, and his family favored SC but there were rumors of issues with Calloway. Do we have a good shot? Do you think he would consider a switch from the Bruins to Trojans now? He would fill a critical hole in 2 seasons.
A: Murray immediately became an intriguing option for USC as soon as he entered the transfer portal. As you mentioned, he’s a two-year starter for the Bruins and was one of the main reasons UCLA has had a successful running game with Joshua Kelley. It’s an interesting spot for USC right now though, because the Trojans just signed six offensive linemen, so you’d be adding another lineman that you wouldn’t be counting on for production this season. If USC made a push, I have to imagine Murray would listen. But he’s also coming from a program that had a bunch of success running the ball, so USC might need to sell him on the Air Raid.
And as a final point, there is a report from 247 Sports that UCLA could still bar him from transferring within the Pac-12, so that could come into play as well.
Q: Without a coaching staff in place, is USC “mailing it in” with regards to recruiting? Seems like we are content with what we have.
A: I wouldn’t be too surprised if USC stuck with the class its already signed. But it’s also a recruiting dead period until Jan. 16, so not having two coaches who weren’t exactly known for their recruiting abilities isn’t totally hurting the Trojans right now. This was always going to be a small class, and USC isn’t getting any spots freed up at this point by players flocking to the transfer portal or leaving early for the NFL Draft. That could change in the coming weeks, so it’s something to keep an eye on.
Q: It looks like Rocky Long is actively looking to be a DC somewhere, and there is a good chance the Zach Arnett may also become available. If USC were to actively go after either of the two, which would you prefer and why?
A: I’d go after Long, but I don’t think you could go wrong with either of them. It would be splitting hairs really, but I think if you’re handing the entire defense over to someone, as Helton would certainly be doing with this hire, it makes sense to give it to someone with Long’s track record. Arnett has been a defensive coordinator for just two seasons, but they’ve been impressive ones. It’s a little different hiring a young defensive guy if it’s under a defensive-minded coach. But ultimately, I think Arnett has a bright future.