A little more than a week of 2019 fall camp is in the books, as the USC Trojans have completed seven full practices with media present. After beginning with the four-day acclimation period, with two helmets-only practices and two shells practices, the Trojans went through a practice in full pads last Wednesday, before tapering off Thursday and Friday, then finishing the week with a significant scrimmage in full pads on Saturday.
With the Trojans set to begin their second full week of camp on Monday, we take a look at a few things we’ve learned through those early practices.
The Quarterback Competition Continues
The four-way quarterback competition between JT Daniels, Matt Fink, Jack Sears, and Kedon Slovis will continue all the way through the Fall Showcase on August 17. There were thoughts that the selection could come a little earlier in the fall, but head coach Clay Helton was fairly emphatic following Saturday’s scrimmage that the decision wouldn’t be made until after this coming weekend.
The Offensive Line Remains a Question
Left tackle Austin Jackson is working his way back into the lineup after undergoing a procedure to donate bone marrow earlier this summer. Once he is fully ready to go, there appears to be little doubt that the starting lineup will read Jackson, Alijah Vera-Tucker, Brett Neilon, Andrew Vorhees, and Jalen McKenzie from left to right. Is that a massive improvement from last year’s unit that struggled mightily at times? It looks promising, but we won’t get a real answer until the season starts. But there are absolutely signs of progress. Brett Neilon looks solid at center, as even remotely bad snaps have been few and far between. What still has to be answered is whether the line can consistently pick up the blitz and allow quarterbacks time to throw, and whether the physical push will be there when it’s time to pick up a third-and-short in a critical situation. The progress from spring to fall has been evident, but will it be enough throughout the season?
New Coaches Are Involved
Many of the new coaching hires did not inspire a ton of confidence from USC fans this offseason, as the biggest coaching news was the one who got away, when offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury left for the Arizona Cardinals after just one month at USC. But players have given rave reviews to defensive line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a, defensive backs coach Greg Burns, and running backs coach Mike Jinks. Kauha’aha’a and Jinks have been especially vocal during practices, and Jinks has been invaluable with his understanding of the Air Raid and helping the offense as another coach who came in with an expectation of what things are supposed to look like and the tempo associated with the offense.
Wide Receivers Are Top Notch
At various points this fall, the Trojans have looked like they have four No. 1 wide receivers, as Michael Pittman, Tyler Vaughns, Amon-Ra St. Brown, and Devon Williams have been simply terrific. Velus Jones has looked much-improved as well, as this offense really seems to fit what he can do as a receiver. St. Brown is a guy who could put up some significant numbers this season, except it’s tough to imagine one guy dominating the ball in an offense with this many weapons. The only knock on Williams is that he hasn’t been consistent in catching the ball throughout every practice, but he’s going to be held to a high standard because the potential he possesses is so great. The true freshmen in John Jackson III, Drake London, and Munir McClain, are going to make an impact this year.
D-Line Looks Good, And Deep
The defensive line has been as advertised this fall, with Jay Tufele, Marlon Tuipulotu, and Christian Rector leading the way. The group will get a bump when Brandon Pili can return to action, but the unit already looks stronger with the additions of Drake Jackson and Nick Figueroa from the 2019 recruiting class. Jackson might force the Trojans to get him onto the field with more of a four down linemen look, rather than stay on the sideline as a backup to Rector. But beyond that, there has been impact felt from Figueroa and Caleb Tremblay, Trevor Trout and Connor Murphy, making this group deeper than last season.
The Run Game Isn’t Dead
But this clearly won’t be your typical Tailback U offense. Washington State, the poster child for Air Raid offenses, beat Utah 28-24 last season and had zero total rushing yards in the process. This offense won’t run for zero yards in any game this season, but just how much impact the run game will have is still a bit of a mystery. We’ve seen practices where the running game feels like an afterthought, and others where they dedicate extensive time to it. The quarterback is going to have the ball in his hand a ton this year, but it feels like finding some success on the ground is still part of the plan for the Trojans.
True Freshmen Will Play
The rule put in place last season where players can participate in four games and still use their redshirt year regardless of injury means that virtually every true freshman will have an opportunity to see the field this year. But several could be in line for more time than that. John Jackson III, McClain, and London will all see time at wide receiver, while Drake Jackson is going to play a lot along the defensive line. In addition, Ralen Goforth is already taking first-team reps at middle linebacker as he fills in for Jordan Iosefa, who is out for the rest of camp after suffering a dislocated kneecap. Iosefa and John Houston will man the middle once he returns, but Goforth has done enough already to make it likely that he will at least see some time this season. Cornerback Chris Steels has seen some first-team work already, and could be a vital part of the rotation sooner rather than later. Safety Briton Allen and nickelback Max Williams could be asked to step up if the depth at their positions gets tested even a little bit. Tight end Jude Wolfe is the No. 3 tight end right now, and capable of seeing time if called upon. And running back Kenan Christon brings a pure speed element to the backfield and potentially the return game that could make him an asset early in his career, though the current depth at the position could allow him to keep his redshirt year intact.
At this point, it feels safe to start tossing his name out to any friends or family asking who they should be looking out for this fall. But here’s something we don’t quite know yet. What should USC do with him? He feels like a throwback tailback you should feed the ball to 25-30 times a game, but is that something this particular offense is designed to do? Do you take potential touches away from the dynamic receivers? Is Stepp ready to jump ahead of Stephen Carr (who looks terrific and finally back from those nagging injuries that have slowed him) and Vavae Malepeai (one of the most talented backs int he conference)? We’ll see what happens with him, but he has absolutely established himself as one of the must-watch components of his offense.
Secondary is Talented, But Thin
If the Trojans can roll out a starting five in the secondary that features Olaijah Griffin and Greg Johnson at cornerback, Chase Williams at nickelback, and Talanoa Hufanga and Isaiah Pola-Mao at safety for every game and have that group healthy all season, it would help USC immensely, because that group is extremely talented. What USC doesn’t have is a lot of depth behind it. CJ Pollard is an answer at safety, capable of stepping in and picking things up. Isaac Taylor-Stuart has been very good at cornerback, and the Trojans probably will be forced to pick two starters from the group that includes Taylor-Stuart, Griffin, and Johnson. But beyond that, there are a lot of “maybes” and “possibles” behind the starters. Chris Steele is getting thrown into the fire this fall and has responded well overall, with a few hiccups here and there. He absolutely will be called upon to play this year. At nickel, Raymond Scott continues to spend time there and is an intriguing option, but will be in his first year at the position as a converted linebacker. We’ve also seen flashes from Max Williams at nickel, who has missed the past few practices. At safety, Briton Allen saw a ton of reps this past spring at cornerback, so he isn’t completely new to the system or speed of the game, but is still a true freshman. There are more bodies now than there were this spring, and it’s probably greedy to want a two-deep of guys with multiple years of playing experience, but this group will need to grow up quickly.
Griffiths Is Good
It might feel a little wrong to get excited about a punter, when all it means is that your offense failed to score. But punter Ben Griffiths will bring some fun to punts this season, as he is something USC fans haven’t seen before in a Trojan punter. Not only can he lay into the ball and let one fly high and deep, the touch he has on punts that look to move a returner to one side of the field or pin an opponent deep is amazing. Over the course of a game, making a team bring the ball out from inside their own ten yard line over and over can have a positive effect on the defense, so it should be interesting to watch what kind of boost Griffiths can give to the entire team.