Nota bene: Last December I wrote extensively about current USC head coach Riley, DC Grinch, and several other coaches and players who’ve since transferred to USC when previewing Oklahoma ahead of the Alamo Bowl. That article includes video clips and analyses of the offensive and defense schemes plus key personnel including USC’s likely starting quarterback. After watching the 2022 USC Spring game and talking with Alicia, I think this year’s Trojans will largely resemble last year’s Sooners and that article is still current. Conversely, while I charted much of USC’s film in 2021, after firing the head coach following week 2 the team clearly packed it in and that data is nearly worthless, so I find myself even more dependent on Spring game tape than usual and that’s often patchy.
When watching then-true freshman #13 QB C. Williams take over Oklahoma’s offense midseason last year, I thought he had future Heisman potential if he could clean up some understandable freshman flaws in his game, most notably holding the ball too long and looking for the perfect play. We’ll have to wait and see if he does this season after transferring to USC – their recent Spring game just wasn’t enough data on that question – but I still think he has elite promise in his sophomore season and that the offense that HC Riley brought with him from Norman is a great match for his skill set.
I have a harder time getting a read on 4-star backup #7 QB Moss, also of the 2021 class. He only got a few reps in a single game last year since he was behind both Kedon Slovis and Jaxson Dart, and those two have now transferred out. Alicia and I both think he was well behind Dart in the 2021 Spring game, and the 2022 Spring game didn’t give me much more clarity since he was behind the number-two offensive line and they did a terrible job protecting him. Riley has heaped praise on him this offseason, but Alicia pointed out that the only thing we can say for certain about Moss is that he didn’t have Dart’s escapability.
Beyond those two there’s no real depth in the QB room other than warm bodies, since it’s five guys who were unrated out of high school - #30 QB Hasan who transferred from Vanderbilt a couple years ago but has been injured his entire time in Los Angeles, incoming Juco Jake Jenson who isn’t on campus yet, two returning walk-ons in #38 QB Aoki and #31 QB Ward, and new walk-on Gage Roy. I’d bet on Jenson being the third-stringer when he arrives simply because he’s thrown the ball before in something resembling college football. Alicia says that if Williams is unavailable it’s “a pretty good falloff” in USC’s production; Moss is still mostly a question mark and there’s no appreciable talent behind him.
The running back room will be almost completely different in 2022. USC is losing the top two rushers from 2021 in Keaontay Ingram and Vavae Malepeai, plus backups Brandon Campbell, Kenan Christon, and Quincy Jountti who’d combined for 119 touches over the last three seasons. There are only two returners, #22 RB Barlow who was a high 3-star transfer from TCU and got 4.7 YPC on 62 carries for USC last year as the third-stringer, and #34 RB Colombo, a redshirt sophomore walk-on who hasn’t played.
USC has added three backs, transfers #26 RB Dye from Oregon and #6 RB Jones from Stanford, plus high 4-star recruit Raleek Brown who’ll arrive in the Fall. Dye needs no elaboration here; Alicia wasn’t wild about Jones’ production at Stanford but I’ll vouch for him after watching his film for three years – I think he’s very talented and just needs a better offense. I think it’s clear that Dye has the starting job, and I believe Jones will get the second spot with Barlow and Brown battling it out in Fall camp for third string.
I have high expectations of the transfers, but there’s still some uncertainty in this room. I think Dye will be going from one of the best run-blocking o-lines to one of the most underperforming, Jones still needs to prove what I suspect about his potential with a good offense, Barlow looks like a journeyman, and Brown wasn’t on campus in Spring. As much as there is to like about this room, as we discussed on the podcast there’s probably no magic-making gamechanger here like Kennedy Brooks was for Oklahoma last year, and considering how small the unit is it wouldn’t take much bad news to significantly derail production from what Riley is used to.
USC has been sporadically incorporating tight ends into its Air Raid-adjacent offense for the last several years, and Alicia and I have remarked in the past how unusually large this room is for how little production they get. It’s shrinking a bit in 2022 with two departures: Erik Krommenhoek who was their longtime blocking H-back has graduated, and Michael Trigg who had some real flashes as a true freshman last year has transferred out. There are no additions to the room from the portal or prep ranks.
From my film study of Riley’s offense at Oklahoma (and the offensive line he’s inheriting at USC) I’m sure that he would like to have strong blocking tight ends, but I’m not sure he’ll have them in 2022. In the Spring game only two were available: #19 TE Epps who’d previously transferred from Texas and caught 10 passes last year at USC, and #18 TE Wolfe who caught eight. Both are upperclassmen and were low 4-stars out of high school, but I was shocked at how poorly they were blocking in the Spring game.
There are three other returners, all of whom have been injured or otherwise unavailable: #87 TE McRee, #83 TE Falo, and #85 TE Rae. I don’t expect Falo or Rae will ever play. McRee did play last year as a high 3-star true freshman, but only in three games to preserve his redshirt. I didn’t get very good eyes on him since those were garbage time minutes (as was, arguably, the entire season), but Alicia says he looked like a pretty promising pass-catcher. To me, the issue is that USC doesn’t need any help catching the ball given their astonishingly talented WR corps, but they do need a lot of help blocking … and between McRee’s injury holding him out of the Spring game and only weighing in at 230 lbs as a redshirt freshman, I don’t have a lot of confidence they’ll get it from him. So it remains to be seen if Riley will be able to use TEs at USC the way he was accustomed to at Oklahoma.
The wide receivers lose one very significant player in Drake London (who I think was headed for a Biletnikoff award before he got hurt, with over 1,000 receiving yards in less than eight full games), and four others who were essentially non-factors last year in Joseph Manjack, Bru McCoy, KD Nixon, and Jake Smith.
London is 6’5” and his size was a great advantage last year; in 2022 there won’t be anybody that big in the WR corps and I expect there’ll be a lot of fluidity between what are traditionally height-based divisions of inside and outside receivers - at Oklahoma in 2021, only one of the top five WR targets was over 6’0”. That said, it’s somewhat difficult to pick out the rotation here because USC is spoiled for choice between three productive returners, three backups, four top-notch portal additions, and one very talented 2022 recruit.
The tall guys in the room are returners #81 WR K. Ford, #80 WR Joh. Jackson, and #10 WR Ware-Hudson (brother of the Oregon DE), plus Colorado transfer #2 WR Rice (son of the legendary Jerry Rice). None of these receivers topped 300 yards last year, but I think the returners were stuck in a scheme that didn’t use them behind London while Rice was just stuck in an awful offense, and I was seeing all of them much more extensively in the Spring game than their past production might have predicted. They’ll also be joined by high 4-star CJ Williams in the Fall, I didn’t see him in the Spring game.
USC will have six shorter receivers at 6’0” or under (eight, if counting a returner and transfer who were both unrated). The headliner is Jordan Addison, the actual 2021 Biletnikoff-winning slot receiver from Pitt, but they’ll have a lot of additional talent in this category from transfers #0 WR Bynum from Washington and #4 WR Mar. Williams from Oklahoma, plus returners #1 WR Bryant, #13 WR M. Jackson, and #16 WR Washington. Bryant was a high 4-star and Washington a low 3-star who’d previously transferred from Memphis, they were the next two leading receivers after London. There are so many good options here — Bynum and Washington providing high floors and Addison, Bryant, and Williams showing very high ceilings – that I don’t think Riley will constrain himself to putting just one on the field on any given snap.
I suspect that one of two things will happen here (or possibly both): they put a short guy on the outside, or the tight end will be taken out of the formation and they go four-wide with two short inside receivers and two tall outside ones. It’s hard to imagine that USC screws up the two-deep selection at WR – as we joked about on the podcast, they could pick names out of a hat and out-talent just about anyone – but there are some interesting roster management issues that we discussed at length. Much of this WR corps will likely be departing in a year or so and managing the development of young recruits like Williams and Ware-Hudson vs stopgap transfers and even younger 2023 commits will be tricky going forward.
On the podcast, Alicia and I spent the most time discussing the offensive line of any unit, since it’s the most obvious Achilles heel of the squad and has been for the last several years. In addition to the personnel matters, we talked about USC’s challenges of recruiting the position, their attempt to lure away Bill Bedenbaugh — Oklahoma’s OL coach for the last ten years — and ultimately settling for Texas A&M’s OL coach Henson from a fairly different system, and the misconception that Riley’s offense is “o-line optional” and in fact puts unusually high demands on the linemen with its power RPO scheme and complex pass protections.
Henson will be the Trojans’ fourth OL coach in five years, and he’s got his work cut out for him in 2022. There were nine departures from this unit, including last year’s starters on the right side of the line Liam Jimmons and Jalen McKenzie, plus seven backups. I was never wild about those starters but I have no idea as to the value of the backups since I didn’t see them play over any of the last six seasons that they were on the team, and Alicia suggested that many or even all left because they were never going to play.
Three starters return: #62 C Neilon who’s the longtime snapper, #57 OG Dedich who appears to be moving from left guard to right, and #72 OL Vorhees who is moving back to left guard after spending last year at tackle which is probably more appropriate for his body type. I’ve never been impressed with Neilon and have years’ worth of tape of him getting run over straight up the middle, but I think Dedich and Vorhees will be competent if unspectacular guards. We also know that Dedich can play center (in fact I think he’s better than Neilon at it) and Vorhees could go back to tackle, so there’s some flexibility built in here in case of unavailabilities or if the staff wants to make a change.
From the Spring game it appears that USC will be trying out #74 LT C. Ford and #79 RT Monheim as tackles, at least to begin with. Both were 2020 recruits; I haven’t really seen Monheim before but Ford made a couple appearances as a true freshman due to some unavailbilities in that difficult season. I was pretty unimpressed with both of their performances in the Spring game and I think their listed weights are inaccurate because they look very skinny to me. Alicia and I discussed the possibility that the starting lineup may shift in Fall camp or midseason if either or both aren’t working out.
It’s difficult to come up with alternate solutions, however, as there are only seven other scholarship returners plus one transfer, and their blocking with the number two and three offenses in the Spring game was painful to watch. USC took no OL recruits in the 2022 class.
The transfer, #70 OT Haskins who was a starting tackle at Virginia, was held out of the Spring game with an injury. Assuming he’s healthy, Haskins is the sixth man or maybe a starter, but his status is unknown and I have no way of knowing how well he’d fit into this offense or if he’s any good. If it’s not Haskins, Alicia and I are both stumped how else to solve this puzzle in case of injury, because the second-string tackles in Spring were a 3-star redshirt freshman and a walk-on Div-II transfer; as mentioned above they were collapsing instantly and not giving Moss any time to throw. If they move Vorhees to tackle then I don’t know how they would fill the guard void that creates, since the second-string guards were even less appealing.
I think that if Haskins is available and works out, the line picks up the new scheme gracefully, they stay healthy the entire year, and the new OL coach can get better play out of them than they’ve shown in earlier and simpler systems, then this group could perform adequately for Riley’s purposes and the offense could match the production he was fielding at Oklahoma. But that’s a lot to ask.
Riley brought DC Grinch with him from Oklahoma, where he’d been the coordinator for the last three seasons. Prior to that it was one season with Ohio St in 2018, and three seasons at Wazzu from 2015-17. His system has stayed pretty similar throughout that seven-year career – a 3-3-5 with one OLB (or “RUSH” in today’s parlance, but he still has coverage duties) on the line for an even surface, and some pre-snap stemming where the down linemen hop over laterally to change their technique.
Grinch provokes quite a bit of controversy in the advanced stats community. I count myself a skeptic, since he only has two spikes into the top 25 in F+ rankings – in 2017 when, as I wrote about last week, he enjoyed extraordinary turnover luck, and in 2020 which is a season that will always have an asterisk in the record books. The other three of the last four seasons at bluebloods he’s turned in rankings of 33rd, 53rd, and 56th – well below those schools’ exceptional talent rankings. In my film study of Oklahoma’s last season I thought it was particularly counterproductive that Grinch has his DBs play with really unorthodox hips in relation to the sideline and they constantly got cooked:
The previous DC at USC for the past two seasons, Todd Orlando, ran a Tite front and the d-line responsibilities don’t map perfectly onto Grinch’s system, but it’s also a 3-down front so we can basically project there won’t be real changes as to who’s a nose, end, and OLB here. Separating out the OLB/RUSH position, the down linemen lose Jacob Lichtenstein who was heavily used in the rotation, plus a couple backups who didn’t play have transferred out, Ishmael Sopsher and Maninoa Tufono.
They return the other three guys used in frequent rotation, #49 DL Tuipulotu and #50 DL Figueroa who were high 3-stars I think are pretty good ends for this system, and #47 DL Ta’ufo’ou who I think will continue to play nose and has a lot of experience but is somewhat undersized for it. Right now I think those three returners will form the first line of the rotation and I was seeing them the most during the Spring game. To me the only real question here is if #91 DL Pili is back to full health since he missed last season with an injury; if so he’s a much bigger body than Ta’ufo’ou and could be a better option at nose.
It’s more difficult to figure out the rest of the rotation, because there’s not a lot of talent here – there isn’t a single bluechip in the unit and the average 24/7 composite rating is about .85, a mid 3-star. While they took four guys from the portal (and no prep recruits), those transfers are all less talented than the returners, including two who were 2-stars out of high school, and Alicia and I both think they’ll probably stick with the returners and the additions are just backfilling depth.
The additional returners with some experience last year are #79 DL Benton and #77 DL Sekona, I saw them playing with the twos in the Spring game. I didn’t see redshirt freshman #90 DL Mobley or redshirt sophomore #94 DL Pepe last year or in Spring, and I suspect that all the low-rated but somewhat experienced transfers are about taking their spots. There are plenty of bodies here so depth should be fine, but I think there’s a real falloff in ability after the top three (or four, counting Pili) so the rotation may be pretty uneven and I’d be worried about the effects of an injury.
It will be interesting to see how this roster is managed in the future, since Figueroa, Pili, and several of the transfers are probably on their last season. Alicia suggested that they might do another wave of transfers in the future and we discussed the wisdom of getting on the “transfer treadmill” on the podcast.
The outside backers, conversely, are pretty talented but there are only a few of them. They’ve lost last year’s starter Drake Jackson to the 49ers, plus Hunter Echols, Juliano Falaniko, and Eli’jah Winston to the transfer portal. Curiously, Winston was playing extensively in the Spring game but left afterwards. All were 4-stars.
I suspect we’ll see a real Fall camp battle between true sophomore 5-star #0 OLB Foreman and the transfer from Auburn and borderline 4-star #2 OLB Height for the starting job. Both played eight games last year in backup rotation and were with the number-one defense on alternating drives in the Spring game. This is likely to be a pretty effective position regardless of who wins and who’s the primary backup, though Alicia and I discussed on the podcast whether Foreman is truly living up to billing.
For depth, there are a couple redshirt seniors playing in the Spring game with the twos who I think have moved over from other positions in the defense: #54 OLB Katoa and #58 OLB Tuliaupupu. They’ve also taken a mid 3-star 2022 recruit who’ll arrive in the Fall, Devan Thompkins. Considering that Grinch really only puts one OLB on the field except for the rare situational play, having a five-man room with only two really promising-looking guys seems fine to me, and the only real question here is the Foreman vs Height competition.
The inside backers lose one starter, Kana’i Mauga, the third man in the rotation, Raymond Scott, and two depth guys who had few to no snaps, Jordan Iosefa and Kaulana Makaula. They return the other starter, #10 ILB Goforth, and I would have guessed he’d have his job secure in 2022, but Alicia says some newcomers may displace him.
The two main threats there are the Alabama transfer #53 ILB Lee, who was playing with the ones for USC, and the Arizona St transfer Eric Gentry, who came in after both teams played their Spring games. Lee was a mid 4-star in the 2019 class and took over the starting job in Tuscaloosa as a true freshman when Dylan Moses got hurt, but I believe he himself was hurt in 2020 and his playing time was severely limited the last two seasons. Gentry was a backup for the Sun Devils last year as a mid 3-star true freshman but he was starting to take over by the end of that season and his loss was a real blow to that team. It should be an interesting Fall camp to see if Lee is really ready to go again and if Gentry is prepared to be a fulltime starter as a true sophomore. Alicia says that Lee has taken over the room and she bets he’s locked in, and the real battle is between Goforth and Gentry when he arrives to see who’s the starter and who’s the third man.
I don’t have high expectations for the backups, however. #30 ILB Thompson was a low 4-star who transferred in from Auburn the previous season, he only got a handful of tackles in what I think was a pretty weak room last year. The three other scholarship returners, #9 ILB Davis, #44 ILB Nomura, and #24 ILB Simon, all played few to no reps last year. Davis and Simon were 4-stars in the 2021 class so there’s still some time for them but Nomura was a 2019 mid 3-star and I suspect he’s been eclipsed. They’ve also added two 2022 mid 3-stars who’ll arrive in the Fall, Carson Tabaracci who originally signed with Utah but didn’t make it to campus before USC lured him away, and Garrison Madden who Alicia says is incredibly fast and to look out for in the future.
There should be adequate depth here but it’s dominated by transfers and late additions so we’ll have to wait for Fall camp to see how it shakes out. On the podcast, we discussed possible roster management issues with what message taking all these transfers sends to Davis and Simon.
USC is losing all five starters from last year’s secondary: Greg Johnson, Isaiah Pola-Mao, Chris Steele, Isaac Taylor-Stuart, and Chase Williams. They’re also losing two experienced backups, Dorian Hewett and Jayden Williams. They represented about two-thirds of USC’s tackles last year and had been around for years.
The safeties look like they’ll handle the departures pretty smoothly. Established backups #29 DB Alford and #27 DB Bullock (who combined for about a quarter of all secondary tackles last year) should slide right in to be the new starters at boundary and free safety, respectively, with #28 DB Gordon and #15 DB Beavers behind them. #4 DB Max Williams and #19 DB Smith look set at nickel based on the Spring game. All six of those guys are low 4-stars from the last couple cycles. They also have a couple deep backups in #17 DB Croom, a former unrated FCS player who was with the twos and threes in the Spring game, and #25 DB Allen who was a borderline 4-star in 2019 but I haven’t seen yet.
There are three additions to the room. One is an Oklahoma transfer (the only one on defense), #21 DB McCutchin who was switching back and forth between safety and corner in sporadic play both for the Sooners last year and during the Trojans’ Spring game. Another is the Ohio St transfer Bryson Shaw who’ll join in the Fall; I’ve had to do a lot of film study on him and I very much doubt he’ll beat out the 4-stars here. The last addition is the 2022 high 4-star Zion Branch, he didn’t enroll soon enough to play in the Spring game and I suspect he’ll redshirt given all the established players ahead of him but he looks very talented.
The corners, on the other hand, seem a lot more fluid. In the Spring game, the pair of 2021 4-stars, #16 CB P. Brown and #22 CB Wright, played throughout with the ones. They got very limited play last year so I don’t have great eyes on them, but they were highly coveted out of high school. I also saw #13 CB Otey playing with the twos and threes, he didn’t play at all last year and was a mid 3-star. The fourth returner is #23 CB Jos. Jackson, a high 3-star converted WR who played a little last year but wasn’t playing in the Spring game.
The interesting thing for the CB room is how many transfers they’ve taken. They got redshirt senior #6 CB Blackmon from Colorado, who was held out of the Spring game with some minor injuries. There were several reports over the last few months that Blackmon had the Trojans very excited; to be honest I viewed them skeptically because I thought the low 3-star was playing at his talent ceiling in Boulder and I would be surprised if he were outplaying the bluechips. They’ve also taken #12 CB Covington from Washington, he was a 4-star who didn’t play much (and I think got chased out of Seattle by some walk-ons), and an unrated FCS transfer #40 CB Simpson. I think McCutchin is built like a boundary safety but he’s more likely to find time with the corners due to the fluidity here and some experience last year when Oklahoma switched around their DBs’ positions multiple times midseason.
There are also two talented 2022 recruits, 5-star Domani Jackson and low 4-star Fabian Ross. Alicia said that the way this sets up might lend itself to playing the more experienced but lower ceiling guys like Blackmon early in the season but then transitioning to the far more talented freshmen later in the season. It should be an interesting Fall camp position to watch and also quite a roster management question for the future. As we discussed on the podcast, retaining CB coach Williams after luring him away from Oregon and letting him run the team for most of last year should pay dividends - he was the only coach from the previous staff Riley kept on.
In last year’s preview of USC, I discussed Slovis’ slide in passing since his true freshman debut in 2019 and it continued with an even lower NCAA passer rating than 2020. I also predicted that Dart rather than Moss would be the primary backup and he was. I thought Ingram would win the starting job in the running back rotation right away after transferring from Texas and he did, and that they’d use a rotation with longtime starter Malepeai and TCU transfer Barlow, which also happened, though I also thought they’d spread the carries around more to the other two backs in the room and that didn’t happen. Since I was basing that prediction on Harrell’s past pattern and he was fired after two games I’m not going to lose sleep over it. The personnel they deployed at tight end and wide receiver went exactly as I predicted, with the exception of playing London at X instead of Y, (though even that I listed as a possibility that I thought would be suboptimal and linked to a podcast discussion about why). USC fans seem more sanguine about their offensive line performance than I was, repeatedly describing it as “fine” because they didn’t allow as many sacks as they did in 2019 and 2020. It must have just been a coincidence that they didn’t play Oregon in 2021.
I spent a lot of time discussing how former DC Orlando might make alterations to the scheme to accommodate how his d-line and OLB personnel didn’t really fit his preferred Tite front and wouldn’t make best use of Drake Jackson and Korey Foreman; all of that turned out to be moot since the team essentially quit two games in and they collapsed to the 108th ranked defense in F+. Re-reading that long opening and defensive front section is actually kind of painful at this point, it was so much wasted effort. Perhaps I learned something about how USC fans feel. I got the ILB starters and backups correct, though that was fairly straightforward. The secondary starters were easy since they returned everybody, but I really nailed the backup rotation which was a challenge because their room was so loaded with young talent from the only quality recruiter on staff.