In this week’s WeAreSC mailbag, readers had questions about quarterback Kedon Slovis, the USC running game, recruiting, injuries and plenty of other topics.
Q: I was wondering how Jason Rodriguez is doing? He is a huge young man will he get his shot this year
A: I think Rodriguez is coming along. Early in the spring it felt like he was being passed over at those guard spots, but he seems to be getting more and more run with the second team now as the coaches mix up the lineup. I think this summer could be big for him in order to get himself ready for the fall and to try establishing himself as part of that clear second group.
Q: Is USC planning to run some seam routes when opposing defenses drop eight in coverage?
A: One of the things Clay Helton has been consistent with when talking about where USC’s offense needs to show improvement is that when they get “advantageous boxes,” meaning that drop eight coverage that’s easy to spot, they need to get much better production from the running game. It’s clearly been difficult to find windows underneath against the coverage, so trying to take the top off with speed or hitting guys deeper downfield would certainly help. But I think finding running room against that look will be a much better indicator of how good this offense can be this season.
Q: How should the Air Raid offense look in its idealized form? I understand it is pass-oriented, but how much of a run game should there be: 60/40, 70/30, enough to provide some balance? Should it be able to operate from under center on occasion? What would it take for ‘SC to run the ball effectively? Thanks
A: There are so many variations of the Air Raid now that it’s impossible to put an exact number on it. Mike Leach and Mississippi State had a 75/25 pass/run ratio last season. Lincoln Riley and Oklahoma had a 47/53 pass/run ratio. USC was at 59/41 pass/run ratio, based on an average of 44.2 passings attempts and 74.8 total plays per game. I’d like to see the raw numbers much closer to what Oklahoma is doing, especially because rushing attempts are usually inflated anyway with sacks and games where you’re running out the clock at halftime or the end of the game.
I think all offenses should be able to give the defense at least some kind of look from under center. I don’t think you need to yo-yo the quarterback under center and in the shotgun back and forth, but there are too many things you can do from under center to attack a defense that has become accustomed to only seeing shotgun snaps to just not having anything at all there.
I think finding an offensive line coach who understands the Air Raid and the goal and intricacies of the running game in it was huge. I really do expect an improvement in the running game this season. The question obviously becomes how much of an improvement, and I don’t know the answer there yet. Part of it is going to be figuring out when to run and what looks to give. Leading edge defenders completely unblocked so they can run down ballcarriers in the backfield is not a recipe for success, but we saw it plenty last year and have seen it at times this spring. It’s also about more physical and athletic play and better communication. Offensive linemen can’t get pushed into the backfield and blow up their own pulling teammate and they have to be able to reach linebackers in the second level.
I think there is some ground-up work being done with the running game this spring.
I know Solomon T. isn’t practicing for precautionary reasons but in your opinion, how does he look? Do you think that this is the year he’s finally able to avoid the injury bug and show us what he can do?
Also, what’s the word on EA? Is he still looking to transfer or is there hope he will come back and play well in TO’s system?
A: It’s tough to say exactly how Solomon Tuliaupupu looks because he’s only been with the rehab guys this spring. He definitely doesn’t look overweight or out of shape or anything like that. He actually looks quite trim right now. I can’t say that this is his year because we just don’t know what his health situation is going to be with that injury history. I can say that there are very few players, if any, that I’m rooting for more than Tuliaupupu, and if he gets on the field, I think there are very few players, if any, who will play a more passionate, intense brand of football than what he’ll bring.
No change in Palaie Gaoteote’s status at this point. If he was going to try to come back and make an impact in Todd Orlando’s defense, sitting out this spring ball was probably not the best way to set that up.
Q: Has Clay Helton, Mike Bohn, or anyone at USC for that matter addressed the homeless walk-on’s infiltration of USC football and Heritage Hall? Or is this another case of the USC administration hoping an issue will simply go away if they close ranks?
A: I have not seen or heard any comments about that report or situation.
Q: Has there been any sighting of #23 Christan at practice? I feel like he has been run off which would be sad because when used the right way, he could be a weapon.
A: Kenan Christon is running with the track team this spring. It’s tough not to see him out there because the running backs are really performing quite well. He brings such a different dynamic than any of the five guys going right now and you’d think there would be a chance to utilize him in a few different ways this fall. He’ll have his work cut out in a battle for playing time though.
Q: How many offensive linemen do you think the staff want to sign? Also outside of Earnest Greene, who the most important offensive line recruit?
A: I could see another handful of offensive linemen in this 2022 class, even though there are so many on the roster right now. I don’t believe the Trojans are concerned about creating a logjam at the position and with so many guys about to exhaust their eligibility, USC will recruit like starting spots are opening. Some of the final number depends on what happens with the transfer portal this offseason (the portal will continue to have more and more of an effect on high school recruiting).
Josh Conerly Jr. (Seattle/Rainier Beach) is a five-star prospect and the nation’s No. 2 offensive tackle. He might be the guy at the very top of the list. Five-star guard Devon Campbell (Arlington, Tex./Bowie) is up there as well, but I see him as much more of a longshot. There are a few more guys in Washington as well as Nevada and Utah who will get looks, but I’m interested to see what kind of impact USC can have on four-star Georgia lineman Addison Nichols (Norcross, Ga./Greater Atlanta Christian School) and Dayne Shor (Alpharetta, Ga./King’s Ridge Christian School). Pulling linemen away from the SEC is not an easy task right now, but those two have both shown heightened and sustained interest in USC and will take official visits in June.
Q: Being that there are (have been) some struggles on the OL, is using the TE going to be more prominent in the every down look of the offense?
A: USC clearly wants to use the tight end a lot. The question is whether the Trojans can use it effectively and if the players at the position can impact the game. If the tight ends don’t get it done in the run game, then why have them out there when you can throw four receivers out and attack the defense that way? Graham Harrell isn’t going to take a weapon off the field, so it’s up to the tight ends to prove they should be out there. There was some heavy use in terms of number of plays early in the season last year, but Jude Wolfe suffered the foot injury and Josh Falo wasn’t available most of the season. Right now USC is without Wolfe, Falo and Ethan Rae. I like what I’ve seen early from Lake McRee and Michael Trigg arrives this summer with a ton of potential.
But having the tight ends become a bigger part of the offense seems to be part of the plan, since the Trojans would like to be able to move Drake London around and get him lined up as an outside receiver at times.
Q: Is Nick Saban afraid of us? I notice he managed to avoid us last year and we should be even better this year.
A: Definitely. I believe there was also a USC – Alabama game scheduled for 2016 that never happened either.
Q: I’m wondering how Kedon is progressing. Is he showing the promise he has in the past?
Q: Does Slovis show significant improvement over 2 years ago?
A: I don’t think Slovis has had the kind of spring that makes you truly believe a Heisman season and No. 1 overall pick in the draft type season is coming. But he has had the kind of spring where any concerns about his level of play this season rank way, way down the list. He’s been solid and he’s had some terrific throws. He seems to be driving throws downfield better of late and fewer receivers are having to slow up deep down the field because the ball isn’t placed out in front of them.
If I had to bet right now, I’d say this year will be his best at USC. Whether that lives up to the hype his 2019 season created for his junior year might be another question.
Q: Can we get an honest appraisal of Bru McCoy’s play/development? I’m a little concerned that he is following in George Farmer’s footsteps. I was convinced that Bru was the next great USC receiver. Was I wrong?
A: I’m pleased with where McCoy is. He came into spring with a hamstring issue (playing into that Farmer comparison), so it took him a bit to get going. But as with the previous question about Slovis, McCoy’s ability and production this season is not something I’m concerned about at the moment. Drake London is on a different level than the other receivers, but McCoy should definitely play a role this year.
Q: If Mike Jinks lives up to his word about using a primary RB for most of the carries and then finding a good backup or change of pace back, who do you think the main ball carrier will be? Keontay Ingram or Vae Malepeai or Stephen Carr or Brandon Campbell – what do you see as their roles? And what becomes of our best breakaway threat, currently running track – Kenan Christen – does he stay or does he hit the portal? I feel for Coach Jinks, this is a super difficult decision. I am not sure what I would do. Our philosophy has been to try to keep everyone happy, but obviously he wants to move away from that and his the chosen one(s) enough carries to get into a rhythm.
A: I don’t feel too badly for Jinks because he’d 100% rather be in this position than if he only had one good back and the decision was extremely easy. That being said, what I thought would be a fairly easy call earlier this spring to just slide Keaontay Ingram in as a starter has definitely gotten more difficult. Ingram is doing fine, and I thought it said something the way Isaiah Pola-Mao spoke about how he has impressed this spring and how he brings something a little different than the other backs. But Carr, Malepeai and Campbell aren’t letting him run away with the spot at all.
Unless someone just goes crazy in that first game and is clearly the guy for the rest of the season, I don’t think it would be out of line to use the early part of each game to figure out who the hot hand is and then ride that guy for a while. Just because Jinks said he wants a primary guy, I don’t take that as they need to pick one guy at the beginning of the year and give him 85% of the carries for the season just because he was the guy coming in. I took that to mean they don’t want to mess with someone’s rhythm in the game if they are really running it well.
BOULDER TO BIRMINGHAM
Q: Erik- As someone who is very concerned that Helton will still be around in 2022, what do you think he needs to do this year to be around a year from now? Conference Championship? South Title? Bowl eligibility? The ability to fog a mirror and spout platitudes he cant backup?
Please give us your best guess
A: There has been too many mentions of “championships” and “winning championships” to think there is a 100% guarantee that Helton will return for the 2022 season if USC falls short of winning the Pac-12 Championship Game. But we’ve also seen enough of a willingness to build the foundation of a program around him, and a desire for continuity, to think there is a 100% chance that he’ll be out if they fall short of that goal. Right now I’ll go with a conference championship being the bar, but I can see some paths where falling short of that could get another year. I don’t think missing a bowl game is one of those, though.
Q: Part of our physical practices, which I’m very glad to hear we’re having, involve increased chances for injury. Thank you for all of the injury reports so far. Can you comment on how many people we have lost for the 2021 season? I’m just curious if all of the players who have gone down so far, can make it back by fall camp? Thanks!
A: USC will be without safety Max Williams, defensive tackle Brandon Pili and backup quarterback Mo Hasan for the 2021 season.
Williams and Hasan both suffered ACL injuries, while Pili will rehab a torn achilles.
Defensive end Nick Figueroa and safety Greg Johnson have not participated this spring but should be recovered during the summer. Center Andrew Milek went down this week but Helton said it was just a sprain, so he will be back. Defensive tackle Ishmael Sopsher has missed all of spring to this point but Helton said initially that he thought Sopsher could be available by the end of spring ball.
Tight ends Jude Wolfe and Ethan Rae have played sporadically this spring but there has been no update as to their potential availability down the line. Linebackers Tayler Katoa, Solomon Tuliaupupu and Eli’jah Winston have not played this spring. There has been no update as to timelines for them. Linebacker Jordan Iosefa has not been at practices after missing last season due to a knee injury.
Defensive end Kobe Pepe, safety Briton Allen, cornerbacks Adonis Otey and Dorian Hewett and wide receiver Gary Bryant Jr. have missed some time, but none appear to be season-ending.