Antonio Morales (TheAthletic.com) — LOS ANGELES — After this past season, USC’s offense needed something. The offense lacked identity, a clear vision, consistency, and as of last week, when Tee Martin was relieved of his duties, a coordinator at its helm.
On Tuesday morning, a major move was made in an attempt to remedy all of that. That’s when The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman reported the university and former Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury reached an agreement, after about a week of speculation, for Kingsbury to become the Trojans’ next offensive coordinator.
Kingsbury, who is viewed as one of the most innovative offensive minds in the sport, is fresh off a six-season stint with the Red Raiders, who were 35-40 in his time as their head coach. He played collegiately under Mike Leach but has developed his own spin on the “Air Raid” offense as Texas Tech’s coach and during offensive coordinator stints at Texas A&M and Houston this decade.
Kingsbury’s task is simple: breathe new life into a USC offense that performed well below expectations this season. The Trojans, who went 5-7 and posted their first losing season since 2000, averaged 26 points per game, which was 91st among 130 FBS programs and their lowest scoring average since 2001.
USC’s average of 5.78 yards per play was its lowest this decade. Given the amount of four and five-star prospects on the roster, the performance was a massive disappointment.
“I think to say ‘USC hires the Air Raid’ would be inaccurate,” Pac 12 Networks football analyst and reporter Yogi Roth, also a former USC grad assistant, said. “I think what USC is trying to do is… I don’t know if SC fans are going to enjoy this or not, (but) I think when you go back a couple years ago and Steve Sarkisian was hired as coach, his whole approach was, ‘We’re going to spread you out, we’re going to be a West Coast system. We’re going to pound the football but our athletes in space are better than your athletes in space.’”
Considering the offensive personnel on USC’s roster, a marriage with Kingsbury’s prolific offense plays to the Trojans’ strengths.
Kingsbury coached several talented quarterbacks during his time at Houston, Texas A&M and Texas Tech. Baker Mayfield, Patrick Mahomes, Johnny Manziel, who won a Heisman while Kingsbury was the Aggies’ offensive coordinator, Case Keenum and Davis Webb — who all went on to the NFL — have all played for Kingsbury within the past eight seasons.
At USC, Kingsbury will inherit a former five-star prospect with a season’s worth of starting experience under his belt in JT Daniels. There are plenty of good receivers at his disposal as well.
Michael Pittman Jr., a 6-foot-4 target, led the team with 758 receiving yards and will ask for an NFL draft evaluation but plans on returning for his senior season. Amon-Ra St. Brown led the team with 60 receptions (for 750 yards) as a true freshman this season. Redshirt sophomore Tyler Vaughns caught 58 passes for 674 yards and tied Pittman for the team led in touchdown receptions with six.
“When I look at every position group, where do I say SC is better than everybody else (in the Pac 12)? It’s at receiver,” Roth said. “I don’t think right now I’d take SC at any other position group based on its roster (as it stands). … Where is SC going to, we would presume, always be elite? At the skill positions. So I think there’s an element there Kliff Kingsbury and Clay Helton would be highly excited about.”
Over the years, USC has gotten further and further away from “Student Body Right” and the traditional power running game it had a reputation for utilizing decades ago. As Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian went through their tenures, more spread concepts were adopted and Helton, who served as an assistant under both coaches, has continued that.
In Helton’s three seasons, the Trojans have been fairly balanced, passing the ball on 49 percent (2016), 50 percent (2017) and 54 percent (2018) of their play. Kingsbury’s offenses at Texas Tech relied much more on the pass.
Texas Tech passed the ball 57 percent of the time in 2017, which was its lowest percentage in Kingsbury’s six seasons, and on 58 percent of its plays this past season.
Since 2013, Texas Tech picked up 73 percent of its total yards through the air, the second-highest rate in the FBS over that span behind only Washington State. Under Helton, USC has picked up 61 percent of its total yards via the pass, 45th in that span.
It’s difficult to imagine USC just forgetting about the run, though, so it will be interesting to see how much Kingsbury’s offense can mesh with the Trojans’ stable of running backs.
Washington and Utah played for the Pac-12 title on Friday night. Both offenses’ strong points were running the football. When USC won the Pac-12 title in 2017, it had Sam Darnold, but it also had a quality running back in Ronald Jones to provide balance. Stanford won the Pac-12 behind the talent and explosion of running back Christian McCaffrey.
“I think, overall, you still have to be able to run the football,” Roth said. “Unless you just want to win eight games, which is what a lot of teams are doing in college football, in my opinion. ‘Let’s get rid of the ball, throw it out, make a bunch of plays and our athletes are better than yours, we’ll win a majority of our games.’ But you won’t be, I don’t think, a championship-caliber team. You can’t be physical, run the football and — most importantly — have the mindset. You want to be able to ‘dictate terms.’ It’s what the elite teams do. When we want to be able to run it, we can.”
Kingsbury utilized a lot more four-receiver sets. Texas Tech attempted 365 passes out of four-receiver sets this season — also per Sports Info Solutions. USC attempted 50.
The tempo is also vastly different. In Kingsbury’s tenure, Texas Tech ran 82 plays per game, which led the FBS over that period. During Helton’s tenure, USC has run 72 plays per game, 45th in the FBS.
It worked for Texas Tech’s offense, which in Kingsbury’s time in Lubbock averaged 37.8 points per game, but that kind of tempo could put more pressure on USC’s defense, which will lack depth in the secondary next season.
But, to be frank, this was the kind of hire Helton needed to make. The offense sputtered last season, the team lost games and the fans lost interest.
No more than 59,821 people attended a game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum this fall. Some of the fans who did show up booed Helton when a video of him thanking them for their support was played on the video board.
This is something that can revitalize an offense and a fan base that’s used to exciting football. It should also pay dividends in recruiting for USC, especially when two of its most crucial remaining targets are five-star receiver Kyle Ford and five-star athlete Bru McCoy.
“I think it’s hitting reset on his entire program,” Roth said. “I think, overall, we got a chance to watch a first-time head coach evolve as a head coach at one of the most premier football jobs in college or the NFL. And now, he’s been given another opportunity to hit reset, wipe the slate clean … and say, OK, this is what we’re going to be. When I was with Coach (Pete) Carroll, his year out (of coaching) was the best year of his career. He got to say, ‘Who do I want my team to be?’
“I still don’t think — and I wouldn’t buy this — this is Kliff Kingsbury’s offense. This is Clay Helton’s offense. … I think for this team, it has to be Clay’s system, of course, impacted in large part by Kliff Kingsbury’s background. To say, ‘Hey, I’m just going to turn the offense over to Kliff,’ for an offensive head coach, I highly doubt that is going to be the case. … I (do) think he’s hitting reset on their entire offensive approach and the style they want to play. He’s getting a guy who’s been a head coach longer than him to run that side of the ball, which is only going to help. …
“I think for Clay Helton at USC, this is a phenomenal hire and now the next most important thing is resetting their mindset. Lynn Swann said it, they need to be more disciplined, that’s obvious. They need to be more physical. They need to be more consistent.”