This week the WeAreSC staff offers their take on the question: Outside of “Who will be the starting quarterback?” what is the most interesting question the 2019 USC Trojan football team faces heading into fall camp?
Is the momentum real?
By any measure, USC had a really strong and productive spring ball and that appears to have carried over into the summer. Players are unanimous in their claim that the entire team bought into the strength and conditioning program in a way that did not exist last offseason, and they are ready to prove last year was a fluke.
Everything said since 5-7 and the rocky winter has sounded good, and it feels like the Trojans have some actual momentum with them as they head into fall camp. But is it real?
Will they actually be physical and disciplined and accountable, or are those buzzwords that sound good? I want to see a fall camp with guys getting after the ball and each other, bringing an energy and a mentality that does more than just look good in twitter videos.
By all reports, this team has done everything right during an off-season that could have easily turned into a continuation of a disappointing season. Can they continue building that momentum with things that matter this fall: tackling, blocking, hitting, dominating the player across from you, staying motivated, and staying focused on doing every little thing right?
Who are the team leaders going to be on offense and defense?
While most will debate position selections, concentrate on the quarterback competition, and/or the progress of the secondary, I want to find out who the players are going to look up to and who will the balance of the team listen to. Last season, former linebacker Cameron Smith revealed that the captains tried to be leaders, but the team seemed to go its own way.
This leadership question on offense and defense will be tested not when the Trojans are winning but when the team stubs its toes. As for predictions, I guess we could all speculate on the selection of the team captains. My guess is four captains will be WR Michael Pittman Jr., DL Christian Rector, ILB John Houston, and possibly one from the QB competition, which could open a can of interesting interpretations. What would happen if sophomore QB JT Daniels is named the starter but sophomore backup QB Jack Sears is named a team captain?
Who will be the starters at Cornerback? Can Chris Steele come in and earn a starting position after transferring from University of Florida. Can Chris Steele and Olaijah Griffin give the Trojans the gritty man coverage the defense requires to become an elite group?
Last season the cornerbacks were a liability for a Trojan defense that ranked 61st nationally for passing yards allowed.
Will Drake Jackson contend for a starting position? By Week 5, Drake Jackson will lead the team in TFLs, and become the cornerstone of this revamped defense.
Where will the pass rush come from? Christian Rector must have an All-Pac-12 type of season in order for USC to have a chance to contend for the Pac-12 South.
Is John Houston ready to take over at Mike Linebacker. At 230lbs can Houston remain Healthy enough to give the Trojans lined up and playing down hill.
Will USC finally go off script? Much discussion about the coordinators scripting personnel groups instead of plays. How will this translate during critical situations?
Can Grahm Harrell’s simplified offense of attack really maximize USC’s talented offense?
Linebacker coach Johnny Nansen is now sharing the defensive coordinator duties. What type of an impact will this have on the defense?
1) Will the new focus on the strength and conditioning program be evident early in season?
2) And closely related, will physical play translate into a dominant team in the 4th quarter?
3) Will Palaie Gaoteote become the inspirational leader of the defense?
4) Is there a firebrand player on offense to inspire this group to “win always?”
The most important question is whether USC football has a new mindset going into this season.
USC didn’t lose to 7 games last year, it didn’t lose to bad teams like Cal and UCLA, because of a lack of talent. USC had enough talent to beat the Pac 12 cellar dwellers and make a bowl game; everybody knows that. But USC was a team that didn’t prepare as hard as its opponents and, because it was mentally soft, folded when times got tough. That’s how you give up 37 straight to Texas, get outscored 41-7 by Utah after an early lead, and give up 24 straight to Notre Dame. It’s how you let a single bad snap against Cal lead to a meltdown in a game you were dominating against a team with no offense. It’s how you give up a series record in rushing yards to a UC Davis transfer playing for a 2-9 team.
There are things to be excited about. Graham Harrell’s offense should be fun to watch. I think USC will be much better at QB. The D line has great potential. The WR’s are a fantastic unit.
But there comes a time when you have to want it more than the other guy and when you simply have to be tougher than the other guy. Last year that was a huge problem. Have things changed? We’ll see. I’m cautiously optimistic based on the reports from Ausmus’s summer program. But let’s keep things in perspective: everybody’s undefeated in July, everybody talks optimistically in the summer, and offseason chatter just doesn’t mean anything. This group of guys will either play with the pride that characterized generations of players who wore that uniform before them, or they won’t. We’ll know soon.