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Duck Dive: USC Football 2021 Preview

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

NCAA Football: Oregon at Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Special thanks to Alicia de Artola of Reign of Troy for speaking with me on the Quack 12 Podcast during our deep dive into the USC roster. Listen HERE.


NCAA Football: Arizona State at Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Offense

USC’s offense lost some of the most productive players in the Pac-12 this offseason, and overall has more personnel losses than most teams in the league. But I still expect them to reload fairly smoothly due to staff continuity and the talent they’ve acquired through recruiting and the transfer portal. There are certainly weaknesses in this offense — I documented how inefficient and incoherent the scheme is both before and after the Ducks played them in their final game, and Alicia and I discussed it at length on the podcast — but the aspects of it that they do well are nearly undefendable by most teams. The personnel issues that I believe will continue in 2021 are ones they’ve already been coping with over the last two seasons with OC Harrell in place, during which their record is 13-6, and 11-4 with returning starter #9 QB Slovis finishing the game.

I think Slovis has been pretty well studied at this point - he’s a great match for this system and plays his best ball in 4th quarters. His numbers were down a bit compared to his incredible debut as a true freshman in 2019 as most QBs’ were, probably due to covid-related issues, but he also seemed to suffer from some very wobbly passes and poor decision-making in 2020:

Alicia tells us that we’ve never gotten a satisfactory answer for why this was and that the staff is in denial that these problems even existed, so all we’re left with is speculation. It seems like the most likely explanation is lingering injury issues since he’s missed a substantial amount of time over the last two seasons with health problems, and we’ll just have to wait and see if he’s back to 100% for 2021.

If injury problems recur for Slovis, USC won’t have any experienced quarterbacks to fill in - backup #19 QB Fink has left the program, and Vanderbilt transfer #10 QB Hasan is going to be out for the season with an injury of his own. The Trojans have three new passers in the room: #2 QB Dart and #6 QB Moss were high 4-stars in the 2021 class, and they recently took a mid 3-star transfer from Oklahoma St in Brendan Costello. I thought Dart played much better in the Spring game than Moss did, while Costello has never attempted a pass, is lower rated, and missed Spring practice, so I believe Dart will wind up as the primary backup.

We’ve talked for a couple of years now with Alicia about USC’s counterproductive insistence on its rushing attack under Harrell — they seem to run the ball merely because you’re supposed to run the ball, not because it sets up the passing offense or is an analytically supportable choice — but the issues here certainly don’t stem from a lack of talent among the tailbacks. While they lose #7 RB Carr and #30 RB Stepp to the transfer portal, both 4-stars with 364 carries between them over the last four years, they return 4-stars #29 RB Malepeai and #23 RB Christon who are the starter and an experienced backup, respectively.

They’ve also taken former 4-star #28 RB Ingram as a transfer, who averaged 5.3 ypc on 339 rushes over the last three years at Texas and arrived for Spring practice, as well as high 3-star Darwin Barlow who averaged 5.9 ypc on 73 carries last year at TCU and will arrive in the Fall. Both were part of very crowded rooms on their previous teams, with three backs at Texas and four backs at TCU getting 40+ carries last year and the QB being the leading rusher at both schools. They’ve also taken another 4-star in the 2021 class, #25 RB Campbell, and awarded a scholarship to the fifth back in the rotation during the last two years, #27 RB Jountti. Depth is obviously not a concern here, though given the structure of the offense using six scholarships on tailbacks is probably excessive.

USC has rotated backs extensively during the last two years and I suspect that will continue in 2021, and given how well he played in Spring I would think Ingram will be in heavy rotation from the beginning. The interesting thing here is that it’s pretty clear that Malepeai has had the official starting job mostly because he’s been the best at blocking in pass protection, so we’ll have to see how well Ingram and others do at that - simply being a big strong back as he is doesn’t guarantee blocking success, which is more about footwork and reading the defense.

Most of the same things can be said of USC’s tight end room - the staff insists on playing them out of something like aesthetics or sentiment but since none of the returners can catch the ball or are particularly effective at blocking, this constitutes an opportunity cost both in the formation and against the scholarship cap.

There are four returners, the most significant of which is #84 TE Krommenhoek who has typically lined up as an H-back the past two seasons. The other three have taken so few reps that I don’t know what to think of them, but can only infer that if they’re being passed up then there must be significant ability or injury limitations. The new players are more interesting: they took two in the 2021 cycle, high 3-star recruit #87 TE McRee who arrived for Spring and 4-star Michael Trigg who will arrive in the Fall. They’ll also get a portal addition in the Fall, Malcolm Epps who’s a former 4-star from Texas with an interesting career - he played as a TE in 2018 and 2020 but only got a couple of catches, however he was used as WR in 2019 in between and had 20 receptions for 232 yds.

It’s hard to predict how this goes in Fall. Logically, they should deploy one of the new guys because the returners simply aren’t useful (or more useful than a fourth WR would be) and why else would they have taken three more TEs in an Air Raid offense … but that way lies madness, because logically they shouldn’t be using a tight end at all and instead should go 4-wide on every snap with a minimal run game. From what I can judge of this coaching staff, the most likely scenario is that they just stick with Krommenhoek again, which is probably the worst possible option. Unless one of the new players comes in and seizes the job with enough added value as a blocker and a receiver to justify his presence, this entire room is a wasted opportunity with even one scholarship expended, much less seven.

USC’s wide receiver unit, probably the strength of the team for the last decade or more, was in the peculiar place after last season of only having four available scholarship players. During 2020 they only had seven due to injuries and departures, and three of those are no longer in the room - #8 WR St. Brown and #21 WR Vaughns left for the NFL while #6 CB Josh Jackson switched positions.

That they found themselves in this situation in the first place with an Air Raid offense that needs a lot of wideouts — Mike Leach at Wazzu usually kept 20 on scholarship — constitutes pretty poor roster management. But I think they’ve addressed it fairly well such that the 11 scholarship wideouts they’ll have represent adequate depth for the offense, and nearly all of them are exceptional talents or very experienced.

The Trojans return three experienced 4-stars: #15 WR London, the dynamic Y-receiver whose role expanded since his debut as a dumpoff receiver at the start of this true freshman season in 2019, #4 WR McCoy who’s great as an X-receiver when Harrell lets him play, and #1 WR Bryant who’s an excellent slot receiver but underutilized in 2020. Rounding out the returning players is 3-star #80 WR John Jackson as depth, he only got one catch last year. They also get back borderline 5-star #81 WR K. Ford, who’s never caught a ball as a Trojan because he missed a lot of playing time in high school and college with injury - we’ll have to wait and see if he lives up to billing but expectations are high.

There are six new players in the room, three transfers and three freshmen. #21 WR Nixon, a veteran slot receiver from Colorado whom I’ve been writing about positively for years, arrived for the Spring, and Tahj Washington from Memphis and Jake Smith from Texas will arrive in the Fall. All three have over 40 receptions in their careers. #13 WR M. Jackson, a high 3-star whom Alicia really likes, practiced in the Spring as a true freshman, and they’ll get 4-star Kyron Ware-Hudson (brother of Oregon’s defensive lineman) and 3-star Joseph Manjack in the Fall.

The only real issue here is how the staff chooses to deploy the receivers, which was frequently counterproductive in 2020 and Alicia says looks like will continue to be scrambled in 2021. It exceeds the scope of this article to detail schematically how USC was getting itself in trouble by playing the wrong receivers outside vs inside, then would stage their comebacks in four different games by correcting the mistake in the 4th quarter, but there’s a great discussion on this podcast between several of my film reviewer friends and colleagues at the 23-minute mark, particularly the 5-minute segment starting at 34:45 about this wideout mix-up.

With the receivers USC should have in 2021, I would start McCoy at X, London at Y, Bryant in the slot, and Ford at Z. I’d use Nixon and Washington, who like Bryant are under 5’11”, as rotational slot receivers, and use some combination of the other five (including the three freshmen) who are each over 6 foot as backups for the outside receivers and London at Y. But everything we’ve seen from USC in 2020 and the Spring of 2021 so far has been contrary to this logical order - they’ve had short receivers at X with McCoy on the bench, London playing outside when there’s no one else available to replicate his Y-receiver skillset, and very little rotation at all over the last two years with starters playing to the final whistle even in the rare garbage time game.

Alicia has had some of the most memorable lines in this entire podcast series when discussing the Trojans’ offensive line. Two years ago, she said:

“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.”

And last summer:

“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.”

But this year she was even more direct:

“This offensive line has the potential to be shocking … USC could have an utter disaster on their hands. This is a problem, this is a huge problem.”

That’s useful context to understand that while USC returns four starters, all of whom are redshirt seniors and several of whom have been playing as starters or significant backups in the three seasons prior to 2020, expectations for them are pretty low. Compounding this is that they lost “by far” (Alicia stressed this and I agree) their best lineman in #75 LT Vera-Tucker, and the possibilities to replace him and as depth behind the starters are some of the weakest options in the league due to poor recruiting and development.

Arizona State v USC Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Those returners are #72 LG Vorhees, #62 C Neilon, #71 RG Jimmons, and #70 RT McKenzie, and I’ve been publishing film study of their poor blocking for three | years | now. They also return #57 C Dedich, a backup who’s gotten significant play over the last two seasons in place of Neilon - he’s not as easily bowled over physically as Neilon is (though that’s not saying much), but I think he’s a step behind in his blitz protections.

The likely replacement for Vera-Tucker is mid 3-star #74 OL C. Ford - even though we didn’t see him in the Spring game due to a family issue, he was the starter at LG against Wazzu when Vorhees was unavailable. Alicia says Ford was recruited as a tackle and he’s her bet for the new LT, with #79 OL Monheim as another possibility or at least sixth man - he was the only other backup we saw in 2020, during garbage time against Wazzu as RG.

Both Ford and Monheim were true freshmen in 2020, and the fact that they had jumped everybody else including the only other 4-stars, #65 OL Martin from 2016 and #77 OL Rodriguez from 2019, plus the experienced Juco #51 OL Schirmer who joined USC in 2018, tells me that the rest of the room is unplayable. Every one of the nine linemen not already mentioned is a low-to-mid 3-star, and seven of those are from the 2020 or 2021 classes - this is just appalling recruiting and roster management from a program of USC’s stature. So while USC returns four starters and three playable backups, I don’t think this line will be very good in 2021 - it’s probably the most relevant personnel factor to USC’s disappointing performances in recent years and an important contributor to the various QBs’ health issues, and I think a couple of injuries at the o-line could spell total disaster.

In late January USC replaced Tim Drevno, who was on his second stint in Los Angeles after some time in Ann Arbor and himself a replacement for the underperforming Neil Callaway, with new OL coach McGuire, meaning the older players have had three OL coaches since 2018. McGuire was a longtime Air Raid coach who worked for Leach at Wazzu for years - he’s probably better suited than his predecessors, who were more traditional OL guys, to address the somewhat unique needs of an Air Raid line in the future. But I suspect his impact for 2021 will be minimal given that there’s no middle ground between the very veteran and very green in this unit - my guess is that the six linemen who have been playing since at least 2017 are too far along in their careers for McGuire to meaningfully impact, and he hasn’t been working with the six 2020 and three 2021 (none of whom are on campus yet) recruits long enough to get them up to speed.


NCAA Football: Washington State at Southern California Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

When DC Orlando was brought in last year, I thought the 3-4 Tite front he was using at Texas wasn’t an immediate fit for the roster, which had been recruited to play in former DC Pendergast’s 4-2-5. It turned out that Orlando adjusted by playing more even surfaces and papering over the gaps with extreme aggression in the form of frequent blitzes and DBs in the box - not a bad strategy against most Pac-12 teams given the generally poor state of offensive lines in the league. Still, it wound up moving their best player in the front, #99 OLB D. Jackson, from his natural defensive end position into a “spill & kill” player where I thought he was less effective.

Jackson returns, and USC doubled down on the issue by taking the top player in the class, Korey Foreman, who was a defensive end in high school and also doesn’t have a perfect fit in this defensive structure. He wasn’t on campus for Spring and there’s been a lot of turnover in defensive personnel since last year, so Alicia and I spent quite some time discussing the possibility of another scheme adjustment to fit an evolving roster. It’ll be interesting to see what emerges in Fall camp, because the potential to put both Jackson and Foreman on the field at the same time in more natural positions for them is too tempting to ignore. This article will proceed with the assumption that everyone stays in their 2020 positions, but the reader should be aware of the possibility for changes in a few months.

The biggest position, literally and figuratively, of roster turnover is the defensive tackles, where everyone who’s started or gotten significant playing time is now unavailable. #78 DT Tufele opted out prior to the season and was drafted by the Jaguars, while #93 DT M. Tuipulotu started in 2020 and was drafted by the Eagles. It looked like their spots would be taken over by the backup #91 DT Pili and true freshman 4-star Jay Toia, but the former has been injured and will miss this season, and the latter got in the transfer portal after Spring and switched to UCLA. #95 DT Trout has been injured as well and looks like he will miss his third straight season, and may be considering medical retirement.

There are only four guys north of 280 lbs on the roster, and all are very green in a position that, unlike some space-eater DTs in other schemes, will actually be required to split gaps and create pressure. Returning freshman #94 DT Pepe only has five meaningful reps on my tally sheet from last year and is dealing with a shoulder injury, and he’s the most experienced of them because #79 DT Benton and #77 DT Sekona, both mid 3-stars from the 2019 and 2020 classes, respectively, have never played. They’ve also taken a transfer, #42 DT Sopsher, but he’s never played either in his two prior years at Alabama and looks like he’s carrying a bit of bad weight at this point, and he missed Spring ball with a leg injury.

All four of these are 300+ lbs and Alicia has a lot of faith in DL coach So’oto (warranted, in my opinion, because he did a great job at Virginia) to have the new kids ready to play, but I would be concerned that it’d just take one injury or a guy not working out for them not to be able to play a proper rotation. They may need to move one of the defensive ends over to fill in, but because the previous system has been recruiting guys who are 250-270 lbs range it’s slim pickings.

I think the defensive end position (as it were, in a Tite front they don’t have traditional containment responsibilities but there are some modifications and concessions to the roster here) is looking better, though it’s still not ideal. They’ve lost #90 DE Murphy and #96 DE Tremblay, experienced players before the scheme change who only played a few downs in 2020 then transferred out, likely because it’s not a great fit for them. But they return both of last year’s eventual starters, #50 DE Figueroa and #49 DE T. Tuipulotu, who’s about 40 lbs slimmer than his brother in Philadelphia.

Depth is trickier. They’re returning two backups, #45 DE Tufono and #47 DE Ta’ufo’ou though neither played more than one or two reps last year, as well as getting #97 DE Lichtenstein back from injury. Tufono is a 4-star from the 2019 class but a converted linebacker, and at 245 lbs needs to put on some mass to play in this role. Ta’ufo’ou is heavier at 280 lbs, the biggest in this unit so he’d be the prime candidate for filling in at DT, but that’s robbing Peter to pay Paul as it would leave only four returners at DE. Lichtenstein is an unknown — he was a mid 3-star from 2017 who redshirted, got a few reps in 2018, then missed both of the last two years — but he looked okay in the Spring game.

The big question is what to do with the 2021 recruits, Foreman and high 3-star Colin Mobley. Both played end in high school and Foreman is a game-changing talent, but neither were on campus for Spring and we’re not sure where their playing weight or best positions for this defense will be. It’s possible that one or both bulks up a bit and adds depth to, or even supplants a starter at, the defensive end unit. Alternately, one or both may join Jackson as an OLB, again either as a backup or possibly starter.

It’s hard to imagine beating out the current OLB starters though, because as mentioned above Jackson is the best returning player they have - in his true freshman season in 2019 I thought he was one of only a handful of truly dominant defensive linemen in the Pac-12. And the other starter, #31 OLB Echols, played a great season after finally finding an appropriate role for his body type after three re-organizations of the linebackers since he arrived as a 4-star in 2017.

But they may really need depth help at OLB, because the injury and departure situation among USC linebackers is getting out of hand. Both #1 LB Gaoteote and #42 LB A. McClain transferred out in highly publicized events, and Alicia told us about serious injury problems to four other backers who’ve been around since at least 2018 and I’ve been expecting to contribute for a long time. Officially, there are six returning linebackers on the roster who could back up Jackson and Echols, but given that those two played I believe every snap last year, I think it’s entirely possible that one of the freshmen — Foreman, Mobley, or high 4-star Raesjon Davis — winds up playing early after arriving in the Fall.

Inside linebackers seem to be set, however, despite the loss of the former 5-star Gaoteote. They return both starters, #26 ILB Mauga who had played as a backup in 2019 and #10 ILB Goforth whom I hadn’t seen much of before but played fine as a new starter in 2020. They also return both backups in #18 ILB Scott and #44 ILB Nomura, who got more than a handful of reps in 2020 and looked pretty good in Spring. I thought this unit did what was expected of it in the defensive scheme, which calls for stopping inside runs at all costs and to spill runs outside for the OLBs and DBs to clean up - there were some obvious problems with those other units actually accomplishing the task but that wasn’t on the inside backers.

USC has taken in eight new defensive backs so far in the 2021 cycle, six freshmen and two transfers. I’ve noticed some people in other fanbases making light of supposedly overloading the secondary when the Trojans clearly need help in the trenches, but after a thorough examination of the roster I think these takes are mostly appropriate.

The cornerbacks are in good shape in terms of depth. One of the starters, #2 CB Griffin, declared for the NFL and is off to regulate in Buffalo, but they return the other, #8 CB Steele. They also return #6 CB Taylor-Stuart, who’d been a starter in the past but Alicia says was being slow played in 2020 when returning from an injury, as well as #22 CB Hewett who’s been getting significant reps since 2019 and looks better than the low 3-star he was recruited as, plus mid 3-star #14 CB J. Williams who got a couple reps in 2020. Rounding out the returners are two players I haven’t seen before: #13 CB Otey, a 2019 high 3-star, and the aforementioned Josh Jackson who converted from wideout.

They also took two 4-star true freshman who haven’t made it to campus yet, Prophet Brown and Ceyair Wright. Eight cornerbacks is a fairly big room given that nickelbacks in this system are classified as safeties, and a more hard-nosed coach might have encouraged Otey and Jackson to move on. But that’s not a good reason to pass on talents like Brown and Wright, especially with the high rate of turnover to the pros typical of USC’s talented corners.

That said, I’ve never been wild about Steele as a corner and most of the film clips in my last two in-season previews of USC focus on the vulnerabilities in their deep coverage he creates. Taylor-Stuart had a pretty rough Spring game in my opinion (Alicia disagreed), which normally I wouldn’t think much of but I think he may still be feeling some lingering effects of his injury. I plan to be on the lookout for a potential step back here with the loss of Griffin and the other issues I’ve mentioned, and for the possibility that the freshmen get more playing time than would be expected from Fall enrollees with this many returners in the room.

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

The Trojans lost their best player in the defensive backfield (and arguably the box) in #15 DB Hufanga to the 49ers. There are also some significant injury problems here to the returners - starting safety #4 DB M. Williams looks like he’ll miss the entire season, and longtime starting nickel #9 DB Johnson wasn’t available in the Spring. I think they’ll have Johnson back for the season and they return the other longtime starter in #21 DB Pola-Mao. They also get back #7 DB C. Williams and #25 DB Allen, though I haven’t seen much out of them in the last couple years and I don’t think they’re in line for starting jobs.

Taking those issues into account, and the fact that DBs were used to fill in the schematic gaps and linebacker absences listed above, taking a host of new safeties in 2021 seems like the right move to me, especially since all six are blue-chips. I think they’ll use the transfer from Texas, #29 DB Alford who made it to campus for Spring practice, as a new starter alongside Pola-Mao and Johnson. Three other freshmen also arrived for Spring, #15 DB Beavers, #27 DB Bullock, and #28 DB Gordon, though I expect they’ll be depth. The fourth freshman is Jaylin Smith who arrives in the Fall and I’ve penciled in as a nickel behind Johnson, and I’m not sure where the other transfer, Chris Thompson from Auburn, will fit in when he arrives.

The question here is again schematic. As Alicia put it, “they’re grasping at straws to find somebody who’s capable of replacing Talanoa Hufanga.” Both of us have noted in the past two years that when he was unavailable and they put in C. Williams for him, the scheme changed because they weren’t as comfortable with anybody else playing the same box safety / quasi-LB role that Hufanga did. That type of player is at even more of a premium given the structural changes over the last year that I’ve tried to point out throughout this article. I don’t know how or even if Hufanga’s role can be replicated, and we’ll have to wait for Fall to see how the Trojans address it with this many new faces.


NCAA Football: Oregon at Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Accountability Corner

Last year’s preview accurately predicted USC’s place in the South as they once again beat every opponent in their division but fell to Oregon. The personnel on offense was pretty easy to predict since they returned so much, and the only real questions (as is generally true for 2021 as well) is how players will be deployed, not which. The article successfully predicted that McCoy and St. Brown but not London would split time at X-receiver, contrary to many other writers at that time, as well as the Trojans continuing their baffling insistence on a running game with excessive running backs and tight ends. The predictions about the offensive line — both personnel and their performance — were perfectly accurate.

I didn’t think that Orlando’s scheme would map very well onto the defensive roster he was inheriting, and that was certainly borne out. I thought it could go in one of two ways - forcing square pegs into round holes or extensive adaptation, and we sort of saw both, though I think I could have been more clear about where I thought which would happen - in hindsight it played out how I figured but I didn’t write it down and I wish I had. I was skeptical about Jackson moving from DE to OLB as Alicia suggested he would, and I was foolish to doubt her. I didn’t predict Goforth emerging to take the other ILB spot, though I did note the issues that ultimately led Gaoteote to transfer, and I think linebackers would have been impossible for anyone to predict given the horrible rash of injuries. Otherwise the personnel predictions at every position across the DL, one each of ILBs and OLBs, and the entire secondary were exactly correct.


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