Close to two months after it traditionally would have, USC fall camp is set to kick off Friday morning, as the Trojans officially hit the practice field following the strangest and most difficult offseason any of the players and coaches have likely ever experienced.
Friday ends a two week ramp-up period and begins the typical fall camp structure. Here, we look at what to watch for during the next four weeks, as USC prepares for its Nov. 7 season opener.
There are still some state and local guidelines in place that will prevent USC’s fall camp from looking exactly like it has in the past, but recent changes mean the Trojans can start on Friday mostly with business as usual.
During Wednesday’s media session, USC head coach Clay Helton was asked what practices might look like during fall camp.
“We are going to be able to actively work together and be able to have contact, and that was really the change that has happened through our local, city and state guidelines,” Helton said. “Right now we’re allowed 75 men on a field actively, so you’re going to have to use multiple fields–teams may have to use, depending on their situations, they may have to have a couple practices going on at the same time—but as far as what you are doing in practice, that is not going to change.”
Helton said specifically that the number limitation will have no adverse effect on the team’s ability to practice and prepare to begin its season against Arizona State on November 7.
USC has 114 players listed on its 2020 football roster.
Helton has been asked about whether he expects any players to miss all or part of fall camp due to injury and he has said he will announce a full injury report on Friday morning in order to “give the clearest picture available.”
One player expected to miss this season is redshirt freshman Kyle Ford, who tore his ACL during off-season workouts in June.
Back in the fold should be wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, who was likely to miss all of spring ball while recovering from a sports hernia surgery, and linebacker Jordan Iosefa, who missed all of the 2019 season after suffering a knee injury early during last year’s spring ball and then undergoing a second surgery later in the year.
Three Biggest Questions
What is the make up of the offensive line?
The return of Alijah Vera-Tucker was significant. The fourth-year junior was one of the top guards in the country last season, but he’s all but guaranteed to slide out to left tackle for the Trojans this season. During the one practice of spring ball, Vera-Tucker and Justin Dedich manned the left side of the line with Brett Neilon at center. Liam Jimmons was at right guard with Jason Rodriguez at right tackle. But Jalen McKenzie, who played right guard all last season, was not in attendance for that practice. McKenzie is likely to figure in somewhere along that right side, though the Trojans have a few options there. Liam Douglass continues to progress and Andrew Vorhees, who started as a true freshman, should be back to full health after missing most of last season with an injury. That’s six potential options (Vera-Tucker at left tackle and Neilon at center would seem to be set) for three available spots and doesn’t take into account any of the freshmen who could show up ready to contribute right away–Courtland Ford and Jonah Monheim are two candidates there.
Is Jay Tufele replaceable?
As much as Vera-Tucker’s return helps the offensive line is as much as Jay Tufele’s departure hurts the defensive line. The replacement seems obvious in Brandon Pili, who came in alongside Tufele and Marlon Tuipulotu and has flashed during his time at USC, but hasn’t quite been consistent enough. If USC can get Tufele-level work from Pili, that would be fantastic. But no matter what, at least one and preferably two player behind the Tuipulotu-Pili tandem will need to step up in a big way. It’ll be interesting to see where Jacob Lichtenstein fits in along the line, but there could be big hopes pinned to redshirt sophomore Trevor Trout and redshirt freshman De’jon Benton.
Trout is in his third year now and is hopefully ready to make a move firmly into that two-deep. If not, Benton somewhat surprisingly flashed a few times as a true freshman last season and Stanley Ta’ufo’ou continues to bulk up after making the move from linebacker to defensive tackle.
Is the running game game-ready?
It’s tough to get much done with the running game when you can’t hand a ball off, work in groups of more than 12 or play with any contact, but with practices moving to fall camp without those restrictions, it’s time to get the running game to a point where it’s a true threat for opposing defenses. The Trojans bring back every running back from last year’s team, but the top four–Stephen Carr, Vavae Malepeai, Markese Stepp and Kenan Christon–rushed for just 1,579 yards last season. This is a past-first offense, but it needs a competent running game to keep things a little more balanced than they were last year. There were times that teams were willing to sit eight defenders off the line of scrimmage–BYU most notably–and ask the Trojans to beat them with the running game and USC was either unwilling or unable to do so. Do the seniors keep their hold on the top of the depth chart or is Stepp ready to grab the top spot?
Five Most Interesting position Battles
This is technically two positions, but with a variety of ways they could go, they get lumped together here. Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando has more than a few available bodies for the two inside spots–the Mac and Rover linebacker positions. Of the two, the Mac is generally involved in run defense while the Rover is more of a blitzer. The Mac linebacker is the middle linebacker, typically responsible for helping to call the defense. That role would seem to suit veteran Jordan Iosefa, and Palaie Gaoteote next to him as the Rover. But those are far from the only options Orlando has at inside linebacker, and with no players coming into the season with any additional familiarity with this defense, it should be a wide open competition that could be settled by which players fully grasp the system quickest and most fluently. Aside from Iosefa and Gaoteote, Solomon Tuliaupupu could have plenty to say about the starters if his foot is fully healthy, while Kana’i Mauga saw a lot of time last season. It wouldn’t be surprising if Ralen Goforth caught Orlando’s eye at some point, and Eli’jah Winston has all the physical abilities needed to play either inside spot. These two spots are extremely impactful in this defense, so finding the right answer here this fall will be vital.
USC was going to have two major offensive tackle battles before Vera-Tucker announced his return. Now, the Trojans will likely be able to focus on finding a solution at right tackle. McKenzie spent a bulk of 2019 spring ball there before moving inside to right guard and making way for Drew Richmond last fall. Rodriguez has shown all the signs of becoming the next USC offensive tackle, so he’ll likely get a chance to prove he’s ready right now.
USC’s three players who served time as a nickelback or bounced between cornerback and safety–Chase Williams, Greg Johnson and Max Williams–are all listed as safeties on the USC roster for this fall. But they won’t be simply slotted behind Talanoa Hufanga and Isaiah Pola-Mao as traditional safeties. Orlando’s defense features a significant reliance on a nickelback at times and those three could be in a real battle to see who comes out on top there. Max Williams missed much of last season dealing with injuries, while Johnson stepped up with a very good season–though he dealt with some injuries as well. There are eight or nine guys who could fill the five spots in the defensive backfield, so watching who rises to the top of the depth chart here will be interesting.
This was mentioned above, but it’s going to be very interesting to see how this position is handled after the top four backs all got significant playing time last season. It was evident that Stepp was ready to take on a much bigger role when he went down with an ankle injury. But if they’re fully healthy, Carr and Malepeai are more than solid options. And clearly Christon brings a speed element that none of the others possess. Injuries had just about everything to do with it, but last year felt a little like a wasted year at time for the tailbacks. If the Trojans are going to run through the Pac-12 conference this year, the tailbacks might need to feature a bit more, with a clear structure.
This battle could again come down to Drake London vs. the traditional tight ends. The coaches have been direct with future recruits in saying that they see them filling the role that London had last season. Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell and tight ends coach John David Baker have said it’s up to the tight ends to force themselves onto the field. The Trojans bring back two seniors in Josh Falo and Erik Krommenhoek, but expectations should be high for Jude Wolfe and Ethan Rae, who both missed much or all of last season due to injuries (Wolfe played in four games, Rae none). London obviously found a comfort level with that role. Does he stay there or move outside, allowing for a more traditional tight end look for the offense?
Five Potential Breakout Players
The redshirt freshman was terrific during the one day of spring ball, and while USC returns several talented wide receivers in St. Brown, Tyler Vaughns and London, McCoy will absolutely find significant time on the field this year.
Vic So’oto mentioned Tremblay several times unprompted during his initial press conference, which means the senior made a quick impact on his new position coach. He finished last season with 16 tackles and two sacks, but with so much attention likely being given to Drake Jackson, Tremblay should have an opportunity to put up some big numbers.
Tuliaupupu will go as far as his foot can take him. There is no question he’s one of the most talented defenders on the USC roster. If he’s fully healthy, it could be difficult to keep him off the field despite all the experience ahead of him.
Abdul-Malik McClain and Hunter Echols
It’s going to be tough to get a lot of action if they’re playing the same spot as Drake Jackson, but McClain and Echols have the natural pass rushing ability that should help them contribute in any defense. McClain had two sacks in five games last season before a shoulder injury ended his year. Echols had 1.5 sacks and two starts last season. Both will be coming off shoulder surgeries.
He started twice at center last year when Neilon went down, but if he gets a shot to start the season at left guard, that left side of the line–Vera-Tucker and Dedich–might turn into a real strength for the Trojans. It’ll be important to keep Slovis upright for the entire season, but getting a better push in the run game will be big as well. USC has to replace a first-round draft pick on that side of the line and if Dedich steps in at left guard, he’ll be taking over for Vera-Tucker, who graded out as one of the best in the country last season. It won’t be an easy task, but Dedich has always seemed like one of those guys who just needs one opportunity to see the field and he won’t come off.