Amon-Ra St. Brown returns for year two at USC as part of a WR group overwhelmingly viewed as the strongest element of the Trojans per 70% of those who voted in our TDB Poll. An out-of-sight distant 2nd was the LB group (13%).
Antonio Morales (The Athletic) — LOS ANGELES — As the clock struck 11:21 a.m. PT on Saturday, the third and final horn blew at Howard Jones Field which concluded USC’s scrimmage and signified the end of practice.
It also represented the conclusion of this year’s spring practices.
It’s unwise to make firm declarations during the spring. After all, the freshmen don’t arrive for another few months and the first game isn’t until Aug. 31.
Still, there are some things we learned about the Trojans this spring. The offense is faster and, by most accounts, is simpler. The defense, which allowed 4.30 yards per rush last season (64th among FBS programs), is placing more of an emphasis on bigger bodies up front and is also attempting to simplify its scheme.
But as USC finished spring ball, and tried to move further and further past the memories of last season’s dismal 5-7 campaign, there are still plenty of questions that remain about this year’s team.
Who will start at quarterback?
When Clay Helton spoke to the media after a lively practice on Saturday, he knew what was coming: Questions about his quarterbacks and where they stand on the depth chart.
He took this time to reiterate what he said earlier in the spring and what new offensive coordinator Graham Harrell stated earlier in the week. There will be some honest conversations with the quarterbacks coming up, but nobody is set as the Week 1 starter as of yet.
“I’m going to tell each and every person, ‘Understand, it’s about who can compete the best in the moment,’” Helton said. He’ll talk with his offensive and defensive staffs about who they would feel most comfortable playing if there was a game next week and let every player know.
Harrell spoke about each quarterback on Tuesday, and each has some positives but they all have room to grow, too. For Jack Sears, he’s the best athlete of the group, but there are times he’s too quick to leave the pocket. For Matt Fink, he’s the most energetic of the bunch, but he still has to find some consistency.
Kedon Slovis has played well considering he’s only a true freshman, but still gets fooled by some disguised coverages like a true freshman normally would. JT Daniels throws well, anticipates well and grasps the offense well, Harrell said, but gets in trouble when he overthinks things.
So Harrell didn’t bite when he was asked Tuesday if there was a definitive leader among the quarterback group.
“I think it’s hard to say that someone’s won a job or anything through 15 practices,” he said. “It’d be different if I’d been here for two years and they had two years worth of work and to evaluate things on.”
While the competition will continue through the summer and into fall camp, the bet here is that Daniels, who started 11 of USC’s 12 games last season, ends up keeping the job. Yes, the other quarterbacks have had their moments but none have performed consistently enough to clearly rise above the Daniels.
What should be expected of the secondary?
There will be plenty of question marks in USC’s secondary practice resumes in early August.
Can Olaijah Griffin, a former five-star prospect who recovered from a shoulder injury this spring, develop into a No. 1 corner? Who will start opposite of him, Greg Johnson or Isaac Taylor-Stuart? Can safeties Isaiah Pola-Mao and Talanoa Hufanga, who both have injury issues, stay healthy?
There’s some talent in this group, but there’s also a dearth of experience. And several of the players who will play this fall, sat out this spring. Griffin didn’t practice. Hufanga missed the final few weeks after he re-fractured his collarbone. True freshman corner Max Williams’ ACL recovery is encouraging and he was able to do a bit at practice but was held out of contact drills.
As spring practices came to a close these past few weeks, USC was counting on true freshman Briton Allen and walk-on redshirt freshman Jordan McMillan at safety. And there were only three scholarship corners who were available for 11-on-11 team drills.
“There’s not a lot of experience there,” defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said. “The summer is going to be critical. They’re going to have to really work in the offseason, not only in the weight room but in the player-run practices. Then the time we get to meet with them is going to be critical.”
The numbers will increase this summer. The guys who were out this spring will return and the new signees will arrive. When that happens, things should look a bit more encouraging for the defensive backs. But once the season begins, this group — which lost four starters from last season — will certainly be tested.
What role will the run game have in this offense?
It only took a few weeks to figure out the running backs would have a larger role in the passing game this season.
It’s going to take much longer to figure out if this team can run the ball effectively or not. USC averaged 133.5 rushing yards per game last year (107th nationally) and 4.09 yards per carry (87th among FBS teams).
Vavae Malepeai is a good utility running back, Stephen Carr has talent and Markese Stepp possesses size and runs hard. The Trojans have talent in the backfield, and maybe it’ll come later but there was really nothing definitive this spring to indicate this group would run the ball much better than last season.
Maybe with a concise scheme and a heavy emphasis on the pass game, it’ll open running lanes for the backs as the defense focuses on the pass. But we won’t truly know until the season kicks off in late August against Fresno State.
Helton is quick to point out North Texas ran for nearly 2,000 yards under Harrell last season — but the Mean Green averaged only 153.7 rushing yards per game (88th nationally) and 4.33 yards per carry (69th nationally) last season.
Harrell will obviously have much more talent to work with at USC, though, so it’ll be a matter of him finding ways for them to succeed.
Where will the pass rush come from?
True freshman defensive end/outside linebacker Drake Jackson had a really impressive spring and drew rave reviews from coaches and teammates so he may be able to help in this department. But that’s still a lot of pressure to put on a player who turned 18 years old last week.
Instead of how, it’s easier to look at who the Trojans will depend on in terms of applying pressure on the opposing quarterback. Jackson and Christian Rector are two obvious candidates. Rector is the best returning pass rusher and Jackson has immense potential for a newcomer and has already asserted himself in the two-deep rotation.
Hunter Echols played in pass-rushing situations last year and worked on the edge once again this spring so it’s likely he’ll fill a similar role. Redshirt freshmen outside linebackers Eli’Jah Winston and Abdul-Malik McClain also received plenty of reps this spring as well.
Outside of that, it’s hard to think of anyone else who could step up and fill that void. Marlon Tuipulotu and Jay Tufele could provide some pass rush on occasion but profile more as run stoppers.
With the secondary as inexperienced and thin as it is, this is a question Pendergast will desperately need an answer for in the fall.