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Duck Dive: USC Football Preview

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Going deep with the Trojans’ scheme, returning personnel, and unknowns

Notre Dame v USC Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The USC-Oregon series has been a strange one in recent memory. Due to the Pac-12’s oscillating conference schedule, these teams have only played twice in the last six years … and both of them were pretty weird games. In 2016, a Sam Darnold-led team crushed Oregon en route to a 10-win season, a Pac-12 championship, and their first Rose Bowl victory in eight years, while the Ducks wound up 4-8 and fired their coach. In 2015, Vernon Adams threw for six TDs and over 400 yards against a USC team in disarray after they had fired their coach for public intoxication. The game before that was the 2012 shootout in Memorial Coliseum in which Oregon prevailed 62-51; the game before that was the Ducks’ only conference loss in 2011, a three-point margin in Autzen with a fateful missed block.

It’s hard to predict whether the 2019 Trojans will be one of those weird teams or not. On paper, they look outstanding - a 5-star QB, returning virtually all of its offensive production, a deep and talented defense, and relative stability in the coaching staff. But all of those things were true last year and that team went 5-7.

Thanks to Alicia de Artola of ReignOfTroy.com for her insights into USC this offseason. Check out our interview for more details on the Trojans, as well as her thoughts on the internal politics at USC, the unique challenges that come with coaching elite recruits, and a lot more.


Offense - #46 in S&P+

USC v UCLA Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

For reasons that neither Alicia nor I understand, most of USC’s offense went through #18 QB Daniels, despite him being a true freshman and the loaded roster of running backs. After a false start of an offensive coordinator hire, USC moved on from Tee Martin to Graham Harrell, formerly of North Texas. I watched a few UNT games last year, and while his system is described as an air raid, it’s fairly different from what Coach Leach is running at Washington St. For one thing, UNT rushed for twice as many yards as Wazzu did; for another, they fairly extensively employ a tight end (sometimes two, and sometimes a fullback) and used their single back in pass-pro instead of running him to the sideline for checkdown throws.

So while the route tree may be different and I’ve no doubt OC Harrell has a more organized offensive philosophy than Martin did, the strange thing is that USC’s offense might look awfully similar to last year’s in terms of play selection, blocking, and personnel use.

Skill Players

Colorado v USC Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

The production here is excellent and it’s basically all coming back. The biggest loss is #28 RB Ware, who got about 40% of the carries, but the rest of the backs are top notch: #7 RB Carr, #29 RB Malepeai, and #30 RB Stepp. If Arizona has the best trio of backs in the conference then USC is a very close second place.

The receiving corps loses four guys to the transfer portal: #1 WR V. Jones, #13 WR Sidney, #87 WR Grimes, and #17 WR J. Imatorbhebhe (the last is one of two brothers, the other is a TE and remains on the team, but was injured for all of last year). The first two were role-players with 31 total receptions between them, the last two I don’t believe saw the field in 2018. I don’t think they constitute a big hit to the depth chart though, because the Trojans return 85% of their receiving yards, almost entirely in three incredible players: #6 WR Pittman, #8 WR St. Brown, and #21 WR Vaughns. I think this is the best trio of wideouts in the conference, and the sink-or-swim nature of USC’s offensive production last year can largely be traced to Daniels throwing tossup balls to these guys and relying on their incredible skill to go get them. While we haven’t seen them play, I get the impression that the talent of new players surrounding them is pushing out the guys who transferred.

Blocking

USC v UCLA Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

As Alicia put it, “the key to 5-7 was the offensive line last year, and the key to whatever comes in the future is the offensive line as well.” Reviewing USC’s film last year, I was shocked at how often clearly talented offensive linemen were completely out of position and missing assignments - I’ve included the video clips from my Stanford preview illustrating USC’s run- and pass-blocking errors at the end of this article.

There are a few things going on here, all of which make predicting the o-line’s 2019 prospects difficult. First is that the coaches were constantly rotating the right side of the line between six (!) different players - readers will recall something similar from my Michigan St preview, where partially because of injuries and partially because of unsatisfactory play they kept experimenting with different configurations, and I thought this disruption was counterproductive. Second is I just don’t think the linemen were coached very well, and midway through the season USC fired OL coach Callaway and have put Tim Drevno, formerly Michigan’s OC, in charge of the line for 2019.

Third is that there’s a lot of personnel change, but not the most helpful kind: they lose #76 LG C. Brown, #50 C Lobendahn, and #70 RT Edoga, who I thought were the best three they had, while bringing back #72 RG Vorhees and #73 LT Jackson, who were the biggest underperformers in my eyes (Jackson’s blindside protection breakdowns on slow, sloppy footwork in particular were devastating to this offense). One of the backups from that six-man rightside rotation, #75 OG Vera-Tucker, will probably take the LG spot (I thought he was fairly good the limited times I saw him), and Alicia tells us that sophomore #62 C Neilon has run away with the center position in Spring ball. RT is harder to predict: #54 RT McKenzie was playing in the Spring but he was another in that rotation last year and I was less impressed with him, and they’ve brought in a grad transfer OT from Tennessee in Drew Richmond whom I expect to eventually earn the spot (why else would they get him?) but he wasn’t available in the Spring.

Two other issues with blocking jumped out at me in film study: the tight ends and running backs in pass-pro were subpar, in my opinion, and they were used on almost every down. Apparently USC has gotten serious about the latter; Alicia had a great story to tell about watching the backs practicing pass blocking in camp … you’ve got to listen to the podcast to hear it. But I think tight end might be a real problem: they lose #82 TE Petite who was blocking on nearly every play, and the guys who come back -- #84 TE Krommenhoak, #83 TE Falo, and #88 TE D. Imatorbhebhe -- were all serious underperformers or absent in 2018. Given how extensively Harrell made use of his Mackey-list TE Kelvin Smith at UNT, the offense might have a hard time getting out of last year’s funk.


Defense - #34 in S&P+

USC v Utah Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images

DC Pendergast returns for his 4th year in LA. I haven’t been wild about his career - the advanced stats show a consistent decline every year for every team he’s coached (reader, please refer to the charts at the end of this article). It’s hard for the bottom to fall out at a program as talented as USC, but there are some key indicators that were slipping badly in 2018: they were only #68 in S&P+ run defense, and #101 in IsoPPP+ (a measure of defense against explosive plays). They gave up at least seven runs of 45 yards or more, and Alicia pointed out that Pendergast’s defense finished near the bottom of the conference in sacks and turnovers after leading it to begin his tenure there.

Defensive Front

Oregon State v USC Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Part of the issue may have been a defensive front that had gotten too hybridized, with not enough beef on the line and trying to play too many guys as the OLB or rush ends. They’re losing the excellent #35 ILB C. Smith and #45 OLB Gustin, as well as a couple of guys behind them, #47 ILB Peters and #13 OLB L. Jones. They return #10 LB Houston, who had a bunch of tackles but I thought was less impressive than #1 LB Gaoteote who was only played sparingly.

Alicia tells us that the plan is to go more traditional with the front, deploy true DEs in a 4-man line, and convert back a lot of guys to ILBs. So apparently returners #56 LB Iosefa and #26 LB Mauga are going to be moved inside; they combined for about 50 tackles and I think there’ll be good depth at backer.

I think the line will be the strength of the defense, however. They return almost everybody of a very talented group, the exception being #44 DT Dorton, a flexible tackle I really liked in film study. It’s hard not to be impressed with the depth here - #89 DE Rector, #97 DE Lichtenstein, #78 DT Tufele, #91 DT Pili, and #51 NT Tuipulotu all got a lot of experience in 2018, and they’re adding a coveted Juco transfer in #50 DE Figueroa. On top of that Alicia tells us that there have been a number of freshman leapfrogging more experienced guys in Spring camp, which should probably be read as a positive.

Secondary

Washington State v USC Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

I was really puzzled by what I was seeing on film in 2018 from this unit, because it was filled with senior players who seemed to be underperforming. Alicia solved it for me - they were constantly rotating players due to injuries and had to play some deep backups late in the season. They’ve lost a huge number of reps from last year: #7 S Tell, #8 CB Marshall, #23 CB Lockett, #24 CB Langley, and #27 DB Harris, all of whom played extensively at the end of the season, plus two more transferring out because they got no playing time, #14 DB Ross and #2 DB Bolden.

I think problems in this unit have a disproportionate effect on Pendergast’s defense, particularly containing explosive plays, because it’s a pretty aggressive scheme and plays like reverses and counters which move the whole structure of the defense one way and then cut back against it will often leave just one DB to stop the play. When that guy gets caught in the wash, or slips, or just loses his assignment, it spells big trouble.

The only returner I got good film on was #15 S Hufanga, whom I liked early on, but he was sidelined midseason with a collarbone injury. There are a couple of other returners -- #9 CB G. Johnson and #28 S Pollard, neither of whom I saw much of -- but Alicia tells us they’ve been passed up in Spring ball by talented freshmen who got few to no snaps last year. It’s tough to tell if that’s a good or a bad sign … on any other team I’d say it’s probably catastrophic, because according to every adv stat study I’ve ever seen there’s no position that rewards returning experience over raw talent more than DB. But with USC, it’s possible that some or even all of those young players are the real deal.


Supplemental Materials

USC Run-Blocking Errors:

USC Pass-Blocking Errors:

DC Pendergast Advanced Statistical Performance: