Two weeks away from USC spring ball, the WeAreSC staff looks at four positions they’re looking forward to watching over the coming practices.
Anytime there is even the hint of an open competition at the quarterback position at USC, all eyes will be focused there. More than just completions and touchdowns, I want to see how comfortable JT Daniels looks in his first spring ball session, and I want to see if Jack Sears and Matt Fink let it rip like they have nothing to lose.
USC has two really promising potential centers is Brett Neilon and Justin Dedich, so this should be a true position battle to watch. I’m also looking forward to see if either takes any reps at either guard spot, in case the backup is still one of the three best interior linemen.
Head coach Clay Helton said he was going to be hands off when it comes to the minutiae of the offense and defense, allowing the coordinators more control during the spring. That means Graham Harrell will be front and center as he tries to install an identity in an offense that finished 83rd in yards per game and 90th in points per game in 2018. I’m curious to see how he works with an offense and a quarterback, and how quickly he can get this thing going.
Helton hinted that there would be some challenges in putting together a complete secondary at times this spring, due to offseason surgeries and departures. To me, that means that anybody available has an opportunity to take a step forward, and this is a spot where USC could stand to have somebody step forward, as there is a leadership and experienced talent vacuum with so many upperclassmen moving on. There are replacements waiting who are more than capable, and this spring could give a glimpse as to who steps up into available spots at cornerback and safety.
So much attention was paid last season to departed center Toa Lobendahn – he of the celebrated Clay Helton comment “the love of my life – due to Lobendhan’s liability as a snapper, which heavily contributed to the loss to Cal. The new center candidates, sophomore Brett Neilon or redshirt freshman Justin Dedich, will have a big say on the improvement of the offensive line in terms of leadership and snapping consistency. Given a new offensive scheme and the adjustments to it, there will be added responsibility to whomever comes out the starter.
The Trojans will be looking to also replace senior starter Chris Brown. Already thin in terms of depth along the offensive line, a logical frontrunner at left guard would appear to be sophomore Alijah Vera-Tucker, but he, like his offensive line teammates, will taking the basic O-line fundamentals and adding the challenge of the new “Air Raid” offensive scheme that also affects philosophy of both pass protection and run blocking.
You can make a strong case that all four or five of the secondary positions are a concern. There are candidates, but this is an area that new defensive backfield coach Greg Burns will need to really do some fundamental teaching. Losing corner Iman Marshall and safety Marvell Tell lll to the NFL is only half the story because replacements must be found for the other corner position and safety positions – not to mention the nickelback. Focus on one particular spot is difficult because of the amount of numbers needed to restock the entire defensive backfield.
Okay, this one was a no-brainer because Clay Helton has said that “all positions are open,” which also means quarterback. All three returning QBs bring a different skillset, but which of the throwers – sophomores JT Daniels and Jacks Sears or junior Matt Fink – best fits the Graham Harrell’s version of the Air Raid offense? While Graham Harrell is the new quarterback coach, the “X” factor will be the involvement of former Trojans’ quarterback coach/play-caller and current head coach Clay Helton in making the final decision. Any bet that the Trojans won’t name a starting quarterback at the end of spring? Didn’t think so.
A lot of the talk during the offseason has been about the offense, which makes sense in light of the OC drama on that side of the ball. But if USC is going to get back to looking like USC, the defense must improve. Last year’s squad didn’t stop the run (67th in the country), the pass (54th in opponent passer rating), and was next-to-last in forced turnovers (but Oregon State was worse!). I think we can agree that’s not great. So I’m going to focus on that side of the ball.
This spot should be one of the strengths of the defense. Brandon Pili, Marlon Tuipulotu, and Jay Tufele have all shown promise over the last two years. Now as juniors, they should be physically mature, they have a promising new position coach, and Marlon will have had another year to bounce back from his back injury. If these guys are good, the defense has a chance. USC must control the A gap, and it wouldn’t hurt to get some push up the middle against passing teams. USC had a run with some pretty special players on the inside with Mike Patterson, Shaun Cody, Sedrick Ellis, Jurrell Casey, and the Big Cat (Leonard Williams). And USC won’t be a great team defensively until they find the next guy in that line. I’m actually pretty high on this trio, and I’m looking forward to seeing how they play in the spring.
Somebody has to step up as a pass rusher on the outside. Porter Gustin was the only pass rusher that scared opposing offensive coordinators last year, and his inability to stay healthy was devastating for the defense. USC cannot be good on defense, especially in this passing conference, without an edge rusher. Rector has been a solid contributor and at times with great versatility, and with 12 sacks over the last two years, he’s a candidate for a breakout season. But as far as proven performers, that’s it. Jordan Iosefa really needs to step up. He had 22 tackles and 2 sacks last year. And if we’re being honest, that’s not nearly enough production from that spot. Maybe it will be a young guy like Juliano Falaniko, Abdul-Malik McClain, or Kana’i Mauga, or even the incoming freshman Drake Jackson. I don’t know. But somebody has to step up. This may be the spot that worries me most defensively, and I hope we see glimmers of something good next month.
I think it goes without saying that USC needs to get better here. Biggie was steady last year, and the spot opposite him was almost always a mismatch. Can Greg Johnson and Olaijah Griffin step up this year with another year of experience and a better position coach? Will we see something from the ultra-talented Isaac Taylor-Stuart? (If not, get that man to tailback asap. Corner is a technical position and isn’t for everybody, and you can’t waste athletic ability like his.) We have a ton of new bodies this year, including a junior college transfer. I don’t know what we’re likely to see. There’s talent but very little in the way of past production. I do think the move on from Ronnie Bradford was long, long overdue, and I’m anxious to see what Greg Burns can do with this group.
Is there a position battle here? Geez, I hope not. Assuming Palaie Gaoteote can hold off any remaining former walk-on/former fullbacks and get the start (don’t get me started), we’re finally going to see what the guy can do. I can’t wait. This is a big, fast, tackling machine who will probably be the best athlete on the field most weeks. I think we’re going to enjoy watching this wrecking ball playing behind what should be a much improved defensive tackle group. Go get ‘em, EA.
As spring ball approaches the position developments I’m keen about other than the more obvious ones include:
How do Brandon Pili, Jay Tufele and Christian Rector develop and improve under Chad Kauha’aha’a (hereinafter referred to as Chad “K” or Coach “K”!)
Sub-plot is “can Rector apply pressure from the edge?” Who else can step up? Can Jordan Iosefa gain a step to make disruptive plays from the edge?
Can Coach K convince Pendergast to twist the DL on occasion?
Brett Neilon as starting center or Justin Dedich? Both are good football players. Let’s see which.
Can Greg Burns spool up a secondary with talent but little cohesiveness?
Can EA drive smash mouth play into the defense?
This is a position that under performed the talent in the room. With the addition of new secondary Coach Greg Burns, this group should be most improved.
Will Daniel Imatorbhebhe remain on the team? Can we see him return to his 2016 form? How will the new additions be utilized in the Air Raid offense?
Markese Stepp. How healthy are Stephen Carr and Vavae Malepeai?
What type of an impact will Palaie Gaoteote IV have as a full time starter?