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Duck Dive: USC Football 2020 Preview

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

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 02 Oregon at USC Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Special thanks to Alicia De Artola (@PenguinOfTroy) for jumping on the Quack 12 Podcast to help break down the USC roster. You can check out the episode HERE!


In 2019, USC finished 7-2 in conference and beat every team in their division. I think they’ve separated themselves from the rest of that pack and should be the clear favorites to win it in 2020. It is the only team in the South to return a complete and well-rounded roster, leads in both percentage and absolute returning production, and has superior talent across the board. They survived an absurd number of injuries last year, although it remains to be seen if the roster could handle key injuries in 2020 as recruiting in the last two cycles has been well below typical USC standards.

The Trojans’ admirably difficult schedule (11 Power-5 opponents, no FCS) and a suboptimal coaching situation make it difficult for them to reach their ceiling, which is a playoff run. But outside of the toughest games, it’s a pretty manageable slate that should keep them well above their floor. They face Alabama in Arlington and Oregon in Autzen, but each of their next four toughest games are in the Coliseum (ASU, Cal, Notre Dame, & Washington), and their remaining conference road opponents are all teams I expect to be non-competitive or take a step back (Arizona, Stanford, UCLA, & Utah).

Depending on how the Notre Dame game goes (I’m just not familiar enough with that opponent), I predict USC will go 9-3 or 8-4 overall.

USC v Notre Dame Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Offense

OC Harrell’s Air Raid is somewhat different than former Wazzu coach Mike Leach’s, but the fundamental strategy is the same: lots of quick, short passes to march down the field. I don’t find it as elegant or philosophically coherent, in that it lacks complementary screens and checked-into runs as answers to pressure that punish the defense, but with USC’s talent it’s certainly very effective. For a schematic breakdown of their offensive gameplan with plenty of film clips, see last year’s in-season preview.

True sophomore #9 QB Slovis is the perfect quarterback for this offense, in that he’s both a quick decision-maker and an accurate pocket passer. In my opinion he was the best QB in the league last year and I expect him to be again in 2020.

I have two related concerns about Slovis from his freshman year. The first is I think he’d play hero ball too much - when the pocket broke down and he didn’t have a clean look at any targets, he’d either force the throw or start running around to keep the play alive instead of throwing it away. That sometimes worked out pretty well, but against better defenses it consistently led to turnovers, sacks, and taking hard hits … on balance in competitive games it was a net negative quality. Second, he missed several stretches of 2019 with injuries and there’s very little depth behind him. His backup, #19 QB Fink, didn’t operate the offense nearly as deliberately and instead played what Alicia calls “YOLO ball,” which miraculously worked against Utah in what was probably a one-off performance but is far more likely to produce results like the decisive losses to UW and Iowa.

USC had an elite receiver corps that would have been excellent in any offense but really thrived in this one, and they return three of the four primary pieces: #8 WR St. Brown, #21 WR Vaughns, and #15 WR London. They lose Michael Pittman Jr. to the NFL, who was the big X-receiver and earned them a lot of YAC turning short passes into chunk gains.

In fact, much of the offense is predicated on a quick throw (there are usually three short routes every play, four if the RB releases), then relying on the receiver to turn upfield and get extra yardage. One way successful defenses shut them down was simply making the quick tackle, limiting them to short gains and forcing them to sustain very long drives. USC averaged more than two drives per game that went 10 plays or longer; for example, USC required 17 plays, five 3rd down conversions, a 15-yd penalty, and a hero-ball extended scramble for their first passing TD vs Oregon. So finding a replacement for Pittman and his ability to routinely turn a modest catch into something big will be vital.

In my mind the most likely was #81 WR Ford, but he had an unfortunate ACL tear this offseason. I think they will probably keep the same receiver structure and use redshirt freshman #14 WR McCoy instead, though Alicia brought up the possibility of moving St. Brown to the X and plugging in true freshman #1 WR Bryant in the vacated slot. I’ve seen some commentators say that London might take Pittman’s spot; I think that’s very unlikely and misunderstands his role as a Y-receiver on little hooks and dumpoffs.

The concern here is depth: the four starters got virtually every rep in 2019, and there has been zero experience for any of the backup receivers. We just don’t know if any of them are ready to play, either to fill the void left by Pittman or if injuries happen … that was the one area that USC was spared the injury bug last year, and they declined to put in anybody else during garbage time.

The Trojans made only one offensive staff change, promoting new TE coach Baker from an analyst (the previous TE coach also had special teams, which were awful, and USC brought in a dedicated coach for that squad). In my opinion, despite Baker being Harrell’s right-hand man at North Texas where they extensively used a TE, it’s likely that this position remains vestigial. I just don’t like the talent here; to my eyes everybody is either a blocker (like most-used #84 TE Krommenhoek) or a pass-catcher, but not both, and the location of the H-back in the formation gives away the play. If they’re smart, I suspect they’ll just stick with 4-wide every down. Alicia told an amusing story on the podcast about Baker tweeting out a tight end highlight reel that in large part consists of the wideout London doing Y-receiver stuff.

USC’s run game under Harrell is genuinely baffling to me. What clouds all of it is that they suffered multiple injuries to their running back unit, including at one point all of their first three backs in the lineup. But it’s such a talented group that even with the fourth string back in, this was a very efficient rushing offense on a per-play basis: an overall 62.5% success rate given the down & distance in the eight games I charted, and in each way I break down rushing (inside vs outside, zone-blocking vs power) they were at least 59% efficient; those are championship-caliber numbers. So it’s a real puzzle why they don’t run more often - is that an ideological hangup from an Air Raid coordinator? It seems like it would help in the redzone, where they’re #8 in the conference in TD conversion rate.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 27 Holiday Bowl - USC v Iowa Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

However, it’s exclusively an efficiency rushing attack, because their season-long average in raw stats was only 3.93 yards per carry, #91 in FBS. Part of that stat is because QB sacks are included as negative rushing yards and USC took a lot of those, but a much bigger part is how rarely they get chunk or explosive rushes: a 10+ yard run only 3.46 times per game, #119 in FBS (one spot ahead of Stanford).

Why they should be so inexplosive probably has to do with the RB order. There’s a peculiarity on the stat sheet here: the top back, #29 RB Malepeai with 105 carries, was at 4.8 YPC; the next two, #7 RB Carr and #23 RB Christon (the fourth string but bumped up in reps due to injuries) at about 70 each are tied at 5.5 YPC; and the least used of the four, #30 RB Stepp with 48, had 6.4 YPC. In other words, the more carries you get, worse your average. To some observers, that looks like they got the talent backwards. I think the real answer is that the primary job of a back in this offense is pass protection, not actually running the ball, as it’s about a 2:1 pass-to-run ratio and they put a premium on keeping the moneymaker upright. While I don’t think any of these backs are great in blitz pick-up and haven’t been for two years now, the stoutest and most effective is Malepeai, and Alicia endorsed my theory that he gets the start when he’s healthy primarily for his blocking ability.

If there’s a problem in this offense, it’s likely to be at the line. Alicia and I have been talking about the issues here for quite a while - in 2019 the o-line gave up one sack every 32 snaps, #74 in FBS, and it was probably the biggest single factor contributing to USC’s 5-7 record in 2018. The Trojans will likely start four players from that 2018 rotation; here’s what I think the lineup will be in 2020:

  • #75 LT Vera-Tucker, 2019 starting LG, 2018 backup LG
  • #72 LG Vorhees, missed 2019 with injury, 2018 staring RG
  • #62 C Neilon, 2019 starting C, 2018 backup C
  • #71 RG Jimmons, 2019 backup RG, 2018 backup defensive lineman
  • #70 RT McKenzie, 2019 starting RG, 2018 starting RT

In other words, after losing both starting tackles from 2019, they’ll move their starting guards out a spot to replace them, bring a backup and a player returning from a missed season in off the bench as the new guards, and retain the center.

Between their raw talent (two 4-stars and two more high 3-stars) and experience, this line probably will be one of the better ones in the Pac-12 … but that’s just not saying a whole lot. I haven’t been wild about this group based on the large amount of film I have on most of them in their 2020 positions: Vorhees and McKenzie as starting guard and tackle in 2018, Neilon as starting center in 2019, and Jimmons as backup guard in 2019. Each one of those guys has over a 10% error rate on my tally sheet in those roles, which is not a great number. Quick passing offenses are somewhat immune to a pass rush around the edge because the ball gets out of the QB’s hand so fast, but even this one frequently got into trouble when big DTs easily ran Neilon over right up the middle. I thought Vera-Tucker was a bright spot at LG in 2019, but I have no idea how he’ll be as a tackle - he’s never played there in a Trojans uniform.

For 2019, USC finally made a staff replacement with a retread, OL coach Drevno, who was at USC for their weird 2014 season (the Trojans missed Oregon, had peculiar losses to BC, ASU, Utah, and UCLA, and won several squeakers that shouldn’t have been close), then spent three seasons at Michigan. Alicia thought that he clears the very low bar of being better than Neil Callaway, but stopped short of any more praise. I don’t see much in his peripatetic record, much of which is at the FCS level, that leads me to believe he’s a great developer.

Depth is a real concern here, and I’m astonished at how poorly the Trojans have recruited for this unit by their standards. The only identified backup is #57 C Dedich, a 4-star who got some replacement reps in 2019 … he wasn’t great on my tally sheet, but he was a freshman thrown into the fire. There’s only two other 4-stars: #65 OL Martin who’ll be a redshirt senior and yet has never broken into even an underperforming o-line, and #77 OL Rodriguez who’s a redshirt freshman and has never seen the field. The remaining roster is a Juco, three walk-ons, and eight mid 3-star freshman, all of whom appear to be developmental projects. As Alicia put it: “You’re literally two injuries away from having to turn to true freshmen who were not highly rated … and haven’t been practicing yet. So the situation is sitting on a knife’s edge … if it falls one way, the season’s going to go really well. If it falls another way, it’s going to get dicey, and nowhere is that more true than on the offensive line.”


COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 20 Utah at USC Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Defense

After four years in Los Angeles, Clancy Pendergast was let go as defensive coordinator at the end of 2019, along with the entire defensive staff. I had been calling for that to happen for the last two years; just like at his previous college stop in Berkeley, Pendergast had been running USC’s defense into the ground after a strong start. His replacement, DC Orlando, has had a mixed record as a coordinator, with several strong finishes but just as many clunkers. It’s very difficult to tell which direction this defense will go and whether it’ll improve.

For one thing, just because the writing was on the wall for the last DC doesn’t mean any new coordinator is an automatic improvement. Pendergast’s worst SP+ performance was #60; that’s still better than four of Orlando’s 15 years (including his most recent one, which got him fired at Texas), and in the same vicinity as four more. Pendergast’s best performance was #9, Orlando’s was #14 (his first year in Austin).

For another, while Orlando is known for his odd-front defense, it wasn’t very popular with Texas’ players. They played their bowl game against Utah after he was fired and the defense reverted to the 4-3 those players were more suited for and rolled the Utes decisively, with several players saying the scheme change was the crucial factor in the big jump in performance.

And the last reason it’s difficult to predict what USC’s defense will look like is that there are a lot of reasons to think a scheme switch from Pendergast’s 4-2-5 would not go smoothly, especially in a year without Spring practices to install it. From what I can tell of watching Texas’ film, the Longhorns were using a base 3-4 or 3-3-5 Tite front, although not exclusively.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 23 UCLA at USC Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The first issue would be sorting out the defensive line. Pendergast recruited for an even front with one-gapping d-linemen. Switching to a two-gap odd front without two-gappers would be a big problem even if I really liked their returning tackles — #51 DT Tuipulotu, #78 DT Tufele, and #91 DT Pili — but I saw them surrendering a lot of ground on initial contact last year and I don’t know if they can hold the point of attack with one fewer lineman. I’m not sure who’ll be the nose; probably it’s Pili given that he’s the biggest of the group but I don’t know who’d be the necessary depth man (Alicia suggested #95 DT Trout, but he’s missed almost all of the last two seasons with three different injuries). If they don’t get reliable play at 0-tech in an odd front the rest of this defensive structure doesn’t make any sense.

I think the defensive ends will be fine, led by the excellent #99 DE D. Jackson and backed up by experienced vets #50 DE Figueroa and #96 DE Tremblay, even though they’re losing Christian Rector. But if it’s a Tite front, that’s a spill & kill philosophy, where the ends stay home and force the run to bounce outside for the OLBs to clean up … and USC was terrible at stopping outside runs last year - less than 35% success rate on stopping outside runs on my tally sheet, #85 in FBS in opponent yards per carry, and giving up more than 5 runs of 10+ yards per game, which was #72 in FBS. If Jackson is stuck inside instead of being used as a pass rusher (something Texas’ d-linemen complained about), that would hurt one of the bright spots on USC’s defense last year: generating a sack every 26.6 snaps, #4 in the conference, of which Jackson was the leading producer.

It’s just as difficult to make out the situation at linebacker. On the one hand, this is a large and talented group of returning players: a dozen guys on the roster, seven of whom are blue-chips plus three more high 3-stars. They lose the longtime starting MIKE, John Houston, though I don’t think that’s too significant since in my opinion he was the least effective of any of USC’s starters on either side of the ball. On the other hand, this will be the second straight year of re-organizing the linebackers, and between the constant positional moves and a lot of injuries, I think development of this talent has probably been hindered.

The headliner in terms of raw talent is #1 ILB Gaoteote, a 5-star in the 2018 class who had a spectacular true freshman season playing as something like a STUD backer (reader, don’t ask me to repeat Pendergast’s varied and precious LB titles). He was re-categorized inside and bulked up in 2019, but I think he struggled to learn the role and sat out a few games with injuries in what was ultimately a disappointing season. The other inside backer with a lot of reps was the backup #26 ILB Mauga, who was plainly very raw in his performance as a true sophomore (he almost entirely played on special teams in his true freshman year), with several problems in tackling, run fits, and underneath pass coverage responsibilities that I noted. I believe these two will probably be the starting inside backers in 2020 since they had about 60 tackles each and the other 10 scholarship LBs are all in the single digits, though there were a number of players who sat out last season with injury (notably senior team captain #56 ILB Iosefa and high 4-star #58 ILB Tuliaupupu) or may be used differently in the new defense, so again, it’s tough to say.

In 2019, the outside backers were a pretty messy unit: they had the now-departed DE Rector taking on some OLB assignments, relegated #31 OLB Echols (who I thought had a very good 2018 campaign) to a 3rd down pass-rush specialist only, were missing #42 OLB A. McClain with injury, and had to borrow both #41 ILB Falaniko and #34 ILB Winston to play up on the line at times.

If it is a Tite front, then the outside backers become decidedly more important than in Pendergast’s scheme, since they’re covering more of the field and take on some of the responsibilities that would otherwise go to defensive ends. I’m not sure at all what they’ll do in 2020. I suspect it’ll be Echols and McClain as starters, with one or possibly two guys converted back from the inside in Falaniko and Winston as backups. Alicia raised the possibility of Jackson playing here as well, which I’m not sure is the best use of his talents (though I’m not sure having him play as a dedicated 4i is either). The problem figuring this situation out is that there are currently only three scholarship players listed as OLBs, and I’ve got very little film on any of them. I imagine Orlando is (figuratively) pulling his hair out over the same thing.

All things considered, I thought the secondary was a pleasant surprise last year. They lost a ton of production and leadership after 2018 and many were predicting the talented but very young group of DBs led by coach Greg Burns (who hadn’t exactly covered himself in glory at Oregon St) to be a vulnerability. Instead, this turned out to be a pretty solid group, with the Trojans finishing #4 in the conference in yards per pass allowed and #2 in passes of 20+ yards.

Fresno State v USC Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

They return eight guys with a lot of reps last year, lose one to transfer but gain another 4-star redshirt freshman Alicia is high on. Burns was let go when they cleared out the entire defensive staff, but they’ve replaced him with two much more active recruiters. USC played a three-man rotation at corner, consisting of #2 CB Griffin, #6 CB Taylor-Stuart, and #8 CB Steele, and will probably have #22 DB Hewett as backup. Free safety looks set too, with starter #21 DB Pola-Mao and backup #7 DB C. Williams.

Strong safety and nickel are a bit more interesting. USC returns #15 DB Hufanga, who was a pivotal player in the 2019 scheme as almost a hybrid backer who’d play in the box. But he’s missed a lot of time over the past two years with injuries and the defense suffered for it, because they don’t have anybody else with his physical profile … when Williams or Hewett played in replacement, I was seeing the defense change structure. The starting nickel, #9 DB G. Johnson, also returns, and he can be a frustrating player - I’ve got almost equally as many fantastic plays on my tally sheet for him as bone-headed ones. It remains to be seen how frequently USC will play out of the nickel if they do in fact go to a 3-4 base defense … it would seem screwy to sacrifice productive DBs for mostly unproven LBs if so.

While I think the DBs are pretty solid in coverage, I think this unit does have some significant problems in taking the right angles and making fundamentally strong tackles. There’s no defense in the Pac-12 that had a bigger disparity in explosive passing vs explosive rushing defense, and I think this is a big reason why.


Arizona v USC Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

Accountability Corner

I think last summer’s USC preview holds up pretty well, with of course the exceptions of not knowing that their starting QB as well as several other key players would miss the season with injuries. I think that the prediction that Harrell’s offense would look less like Leach’s and more like the 2018 offense turned out to be mostly true, as well as the prediction that he wouldn’t be able to use the RBs and TEs in the same way due to real blocking problems in those units. I got the can’t-miss bet that they’d have the best receivers in the league right, as well as the trickier prediction of the o-line’s starting lineup and reasons that they’d be something of a liability.

I expected the defense to continue to slide, particularly in giving up explosive rushes and failing to generate turnovers, both of which did indeed get worse. Several of the defensive front players that I liked in 2018 turned out to be sidelined with injuries, but that doesn’t excuse being higher on the guys who did play than I should have been: knowing that the linebackers were going to be re-organized, I should have taken several of their promising 2018 performances with a bigger grain of salt. The prediction on the secondary — that a bunch of very young but talented freshmen passing up experienced upperclassmen backups in Spring camp was a positive sign — paid off well.


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