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Duck Dive: USC Football 2023 Preview

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

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 19 USC at UCLA Photo by Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Special thanks to Alica de Artola Castillo of Reign of Troy for joining me on the Quack 12 Podcast to discuss the Trojans’ roster: LISTEN HERE


Head coach Riley’s first year at USC produced the top rated offense in F+ advanced statistics and a Heisman trophy for returning starter #13 QB C. Williams. I’d studied Riley and Williams the year before at Oklahoma in preparation for the 2021 Alamo Bowl and found the 2022 version to be just as much of a treat for a student of innovative schemes – the combination of an Air Raid-inspired route tree with man-blocking and RPOs, which are not part of that offense’s original lineage, plus truly exceptional skill talent and a quarterback who can make NFL throws look easy and salvage (unfortunately frequent) line breakdowns with elite pocket presence and scramble yardage is almost impossible to stop.

On the podcast, Alicia and I spent quite some time discussing the versatility of the offense, as well as a couple of vulnerabilities that might be patched up in 2023. For one thing, both of us think that Riley is still in the process of maturing as a playcaller (he won’t turn 40 until week 2 of the upcoming season), and we talked about how the playbook could stand to be more diversified on 3rd & longs which is the only down & distance situation the offense goes underwater in terms of efficiency. Alicia also asked me to look into 3rd quarter passing playcall efficiency rates, and she was totally right: restricting the dataset to just meaningful downfield passes (that is, excluding screens and garbage time) over all 14 games which I charted, the per-play success rate given the down & distance goes from 57.7% in the 1st quarter to 53.2% in the 2nd to 51.4% in the 3rd. An efficiency dropoff of more than six percentage points is pretty significant; my subjective opinion from watching film is that Riley tends to “run out of gas” in terms of playbook creativity compared to the really interesting stuff he throws out at the beginning of games, while Alicia’s take is that he gets so focused on just running the plays that’ll lock in the win that defenses gain an advantage.

Another interesting factor is just how effective the rushing offense was in 2022, especially with an offensive line largely made up of the previous staff’s players which I wasn’t thrilled with. Alicia and I agreed that this really came down to the run scheme being that much better than previous years’ and that Riley gets full credit for writing a better rushing playbook. Overall they ran at a 63% success rate given the down & distance (205 successes vs 119 failures), three points over the threshold which in my experience marks championship-caliber efficiency. Even more remarkably, it was a run-pass balanced offense, and rushing wasn’t limited to short-yardage pickups or just plowing ahead to set up play-action, but rather was designed to be – and actually was – explosive, with 5.8 adjusted YPC and more than 17% of rushes gaining 10+ yards.

In fact, one of the criticisms for Riley we both had on the podcast was that in several games, most notably against Arizona and Oregon State, insisting on throwing the ball against a comparatively much stronger pass defense instead of pressing the Trojans’ massive advantage running the ball made the contest a lot closer than it should have been. One of the curiosities of this offense is that while it was incredibly explosive at 8.9 adjusted YPA and 21% of passes gaining 15+ yards, it was just above-average in terms of passing efficiency at 55% (278 successes vs 228 failures), with a surprisingly high rate of incompletions. There’s no single standout cause of that which I can find after running a correlation analysis on my complete set of game charts, rather I think it’s a mix of the above playcalling refinement issues, with a lot of pass protection problems and some inconsistency in the receiver corps which will be discussed below.

There are two other quarterbacks on scholarship: 2021 mid 4-star #7 QB Moss and 2023 5-star #8 QB Nelson. Moss got a few garbage time reps last year, and based on Spring reports Alicia said he’s still the primary backup, but he was recruited by the previous staff and it’s obvious that Nelson is Riley’s preference for the future of the program.

On the podcast we discussed Riley’s decision to keep Williams in the conference championship game when he popped his hamstring in the first quarter and at points could barely move in the pocket — after which the offense collapsed to 4.6 yards per play, with Williams taking seven sacks and turning the ball over twice — rather than putting Moss in to finish the game. There’s a case to be made that was simply a poor choice on Riley’s part and doesn’t reflect on Moss at all, but even if that’s true, Riley gets to make the call in 2023 as well and the implications for how much he trusts Moss with the offense are clear.

The conclusion we reached is that while it’s uncertain when Nelson would be ready to play as a true freshman (if at all, being a 5-star doesn’t guarantee that), Riley would probably keep a half-strength Williams in again rather than go to Moss or risk stunting Nelson’s development by throwing him in too early if he’s not ready to go yet. But if he is, and if Williams becomes truly unavailable at some point, it’ll probably come down to how long he’s projected to be out – a short-term absence would mean Moss holds the line for a bit, but a long-term one would mean starting Nelson’s tenure early.

USC vs Notre Dame in Los Angeles, CA

The Trojans lost leading rusher Travis Dye to a season-ending injury near halftime of week 11; he’s since signed a UDFA contract with the Jets. They return the other three running backs: former Stanford transfer #6 RB A. Jones who wound up with nearly as many carries as Dye, #14 RB R. Brown who got about as third as many but mainly against overmatched opponents, and former TCU transfer #22 RB Barlow who only got a handful.

There are three additions: South Carolina transfer MarShawn Lloyd and true freshmen #21 RB Joyner and #27 RB Peterson. Lloyd was the Gamecocks’ top rusher last year with 111 carries at 5.2 YPC; he was a high 4-star in 2020 who redshirted, then was the third back in 2021 behind two guys who went pro at the end of that year. Joyner and Petersen are both low 4-stars at over 200 lbs apiece, they enrolled early and Alicia said looked good in Spring practices.

Given their long and productive experience, it’s fairly clear that Jones and Lloyd will be the top two backs in rotation in 2023, just as Dye and Jones were last year. I think that if one of them becomes unavailable, there’s a good chance USC reaches for one of the true freshmen instead of Barlow or Brown.

Barlow is going into his fifth year and has been getting fewer touches every season since 2020, and I doubt a more aggressive roster manager would have kept him on scholarship. Brown is interesting because he’s so fast, and he may have some value on special teams, but he’s simply too small at 5’8” and 185 lbs to be an every-down back or to block in pass protection which are essential to this offense. It was clear from how his playing time was distributed last year that the staff doesn’t trust him with anything more than gadgets and mop-up play. Alicia said he was practicing this Spring with the slot receivers, but USC is stuffed with talent of those dimensions already, and again I’m not sure that the potential here justifies the cap space.

On the podcast I joked that for five straight years I’ve asked Alicia the same question: “What’s up with the tight end room?” Her response: “You want to talk about players who it’s hard to justify their existence on your roster? … I don’t know what the future of the position is.”

For the previous three seasons (2019-21) under former OC Graham Harrell in USC’s quasi-Air Raid offense, I’d written about how the tight end was a vestigial position taking up far too many scholarships, sometimes as many as nine on the roster, when the Trojans’ efficiency and explosion numbers were much better when they’d go four-wide. In 2022 they were down to five scholarship tight ends and yet it still was a poorly utilized room, with 17 total catches for 152 yards across the entire unit, the same as their 8th most targeted wide receiver.

Three have left the program: Malcolm Epps transferred out, Josh Falo ran out of eligibility, and Ethan Rae medically retired. Two return, #18 TE Wolfe who has struggled with injuries his entire career and only played in three games last year as a situational blocker, and #87 TE McRee who caught ten passes in 13 games.

There are three additions, so they’re back up to five bodies for 2023. High 3-star Kade Eldridge signed last December, then 5-star Duce Robinson committed at the end of this March. USC has decided to honor both and they’ll arrive in the Fall. The Trojans have converted #84 TE Tabaracci from a linebacker; he was a 2022 mid 3-star who transferred in last Spring a couple months after enrolling at Utah but didn’t play while rehabbing an injury all year. I’ve never seen such a switch work out before and Alicia said she’s not staking much hope in it either.

It’ll be interesting to see how Robinson is used; Alicia noted that USC’s official commitment tweet called him a WR instead of a TE. Otherwise, I continue to think this room will have limited production and offer blocking assistance only situationally, using up between two and four more scholarships than are justifiable.

Notre Dame v USC Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Trojans lose their leading receiver, former Biletnikoff winner and Pitt transfer Jordan Addison, who was drafted in the 1st round by the Vikings. Receivers Gary Bryant, Kyle Ford, John Jackson, and CJ Williams transferred out, and former UW transfer Terrell Bynum ran out of eligibility. Those six represented a little under 40% of the wide receiver room’s production in 2022.

All five returning scholarship receivers got between 15 and 50 catches last year: 2021 mid 4-star #10 WR Hudson, 2021 low 4-star #9 WR M. Jackson, former Colorado transfer #2 WR Rice, former Memphis transfer #16 WR Washington, and former Oklahoma transfer #4 WR Mar. Williams.

There are four scholarship additions: Arizona transfer #15 WR Singer, plus the three 2023 recruits 5-star #1 WR Branch, high 4-star #23 WR Lemon, and low 4-star Ja’Kobi Lane (Branch and Lemon enrolled early, Lane arrives in the Fall).

The inside receiver position is fairly straightforward: Washington and Williams are both established in the position and lead the returners in catches, and are shorter receivers (the former is listed at 5’10” which I think is being generous, the latter is shorter than that). We haven’t seen a lot of Hudson in his two seasons but based on that limited film I think he’s best used as an inside possession receiver at 6’1” with a lot of length. It’ll be interesting to see if the very talented shorter true freshmen, Branch and Lemon (both listed under 6’0”) break into the rotation, or if Robinson’s talents are used here as more of a big Y-receiver rather than an in-line tight end when he arrives.

The outside receivers are trickier to sort out. The third leading (and tallest by two inches, at 6’3”) returner in the unit is Rice, and he was playing X-receiver with the ones in the Spring game, so it should be easy to pencil him in here. But he was also the most frustrating skill player on USC’s offense last year, and Alicia’s irritation when speaking about him was evident. In a few games he was electric (which was true while he was at Colorado as well, showing off the bloodlines of his father, the NFL legend Jerry Rice), but in many other games he clearly struggled with route-running and drops. On the podcast we discussed the difficulty of both of the potentially more valuable big men transferring to Power-5 programs which USC will have to play in the near future – Ford to UCLA and CJ Williams to Wisconsin. As Alicia described Rice, “If there’s a weak link in USC’s wide receiver lineup, it’s him and the level of consistency he brings.”

I think Jackson and Singer will be in a battle for the other outside receiver spot. Jackson only played in eight games last year while struggling with hamstring injuries, but was at Z-receiver with the ones in the Spring game, and Alicia said from what she’s seen of him he can really play. Singer was with the twos; he was a real sideline burner for Arizona last year with a good vertical and an ability to win 50/50 balls, though as we talked about on the podcast some of his thousand-yard production stemmed from being the only guy in that offense who was running a different route than the 15-yard square-ins that the other three pass-catchers were. Both are listed at 6’0” so not traditional flankers in the sense of beating coverage through sheer size, for that they’d have to wait on the true freshman Lane to arrive in the Fall at 6’4” and see if he’s ready. Alicia and I noted how the wide receiver room in general has maybe one too few bodies at only nine scholarships and possibly not enough tall outside guys, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they took one more through the portal by Fall camp.

For years USC has had a “go-to” receiver who could be counted on if all the chips were down for a big conversion – Michael Pittman, Drake London, Jordan Addison. I don’t get the sense that they’ll have such a target in 2023; Alicia said Williams fits the bill best because of his talent and connection with quarterback since they came in together from Oklahoma, and I agree he’s the best candidate. Her secondary nomination was Washington because “people forget he exists” (an odd thing to say about a USC receiver). Neither strike me as undefendable in the way those earlier go-to guys were, though, and I’m interested to see what effect if any this might have on the offense – it seems like they might need to really distribute the ball rather than feed a stud.

USC had a relatively stable set of offensive line starters in 2023, in that 85.8% of meaningful reps (3,561 of 4,150, every one of which I charted and graded) were taken by the five most-played linemen. Still, due to injuries and what I think were some peculiar experiments moving guys between positions — including some guard/tackle swaps — they very rarely played two consecutive weeks in which they started and finished with the exact same configuration.

Three of those top five were redshirt seniors who’ve now graduated: Brett Neilon who was the longtime center, Virginia transfer Bobby Haskins who played most of the season at left tackle and has now signed a UDFA with the Bears, and peripatetic left guard (an entire article could be written on his journey) Andrew Vorhees who was drafted in the 7th by the Ravens. Additionally, Courtland Ford has transferred out – he was the left tackle who started the season and played a game and a half before being replaced by Haskins and then re-appeared in the bowl game. On the podcast we referred to Ford as “starting caliber” since he was the initial choice out of Fall camp and in previous years was the first backup in.

There are five more departures of linemen who didn’t play. Mid 3-star Maximus Gibbs and low 4-star Jason Rodriguez have transferred out, while mid 3-star Caadyn Stephen seems to have retired; each had at least two years of eligibility remaining. For completeness’ sake, two non-scholarship senior linemen have disappeared from the roster, AJ Mageo and Joe Bryson (an unrated Div-II transfer who Alicia took pains to remind us was on the official two-deep by week 13).

The other two starters return: #57 OG Dedich and #79 OT Monheim. Dedich was a 2018 mid 4-star and has been Neilon’s backup at center for virtually the entirety of both of their careers (and on my tally sheet Dedich grades out much better at the position; Neilon has been one of the weakest Pac-12 centers I’ve ever charted). In 2022 Dedich mostly played right guard, with two starts at left, one at center, and only one missed week; he figures to take over at center full time in 2023. Low 4-star Monheim got some play as a redshirt freshman in 2021 and then started in every game in 2022, 11 of them at right tackle where he figures to continue in 2023 and three at right guard for reasons I don’t understand. I’m not as high on Monheim as some other observers, his basic error rate on my tally sheet is the Pac-12 standard mid teens but he’s got very high per-play rates of both holding penalties and pressures surrendered on non-blitz pass protections, which are the two worst things for an OT to give up.

Two other returners got multiple starts due to absences, or perhaps experimentation, during last season. 2019 low 4-star #76 OT Murphy played in five games, week 9 and the CCG at right tackle, and weeks 10-12 at left, with error rates on my tally sheet in the high teens – not great, but not a disaster as some backups forced into the rotation can be. 2019 mid 3-star #66 OG Quinones started twice, right guard in week 5 and left in the bowl, but his error rates were well into the 20s which indicates a real problem.

Only two other returners are on scholarship, #56 OL Dewerk and #78 OL Milek, both low 3-stars from the 2020 class who’ve never seen meaningful play. There are also three walk-ons returning who didn’t play and I don’t believe were ever in the two-deep.

There are eight additions to the roster, an aggressive amount in normal circumstances, though considering the parlous state this room is in due to the almost criminal neglect by the previous staff, if anything I think they should have added even more. I like the way USC has been recruiting recently, with the five freshmen in the 2023 class averaging a .8898 (a borderline 4-star) in the 24/7 composite and a good start in the 2024 cycle so far, but that won’t pay off for a little while.

With only six returning scholarship linemen, two of whom I’m fairly certain aren’t playable and one who was pretty problematic last year, it was inevitable that USC would turn to the transfer portal for a lot of help reconstructing the o-line. They got two early on: #71 OL Tarquin from Florida announced in late December and #52 OL Kingston from Wazzu in early January. They’ve been practicing throughout Spring as the presumptive LT and RG respectively. Tarquin was the Gators’ starting RT last year, he looked fine against two Pac-12 opponents though one was a humiliating, near scoreless loss; Kingston has graded out remarkably poorly as a tackle for the Cougs but he might be able to handle switching to guard.

The third portal addition is Emmanuel Pregnon, who was Wyoming’s RG last year and figures to take over at LG for USC. He was unrated out of high school but considered a high value transfer; I haven’t seen much of his film (just while reviewing Evan Williams’ tape, and there’s not much safety-guard interaction), but considering the alternatives are Quinones or worse, it’s almost impossible to believe he’s not a better option. But Pregnon’s transfer wasn’t announced until April 26th, almost two weeks after the USC Spring game, and my longstanding concerns about an offensive line made up of transfers are magnified when their time gelling with teammates is minimized.

If one of the tackles is unavailable, Murphy would likely step in and I doubt there’d be much of a falloff. I wasn’t wild about the tackle play in 2022, particularly in pass protection, but Williams’ phenomenal ability to scramble renders that question academic in most games at any rate.

I think the depth is precarious at the three interior spots, however. Only six returning linemen and having to take three transfers just to get to five playable starters are very bad signs for depth, and the vote of non-confidence the transfers represent for Quinones, Dewerk, and Milek speaks for itself. Alicia brought up a good point on the podcast as well, which is that they’ve had Dedich as the security blanket at backup center for years, but now there’s real uncertainty about what would happen if he’s unavailable – apparently Milek is the backup now, someone I’m already concerned isn’t playable; Alicia said he wasn’t recruited as center and the most she’d offer is that “one would hope” he knows how to snap the ball.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 02 Goodyear Cotton Bowl Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images


USC finished with the 94th ranked defense in F+ in new DC Grinch’s first year. Given the massive disparity between how effective the offense and defense were, it came as a surprise to many observers that Riley elected to retain Grinch and the entire staff.

After exceeding expectations for two of three years as DC at Wazzu from 2015-17, Grinch has headed the defenses at bluebloods for the past five seasons. Each of those years except 2020, a peculiar season for obvious reasons, Grinch’s defenses significantly underperformed the 24/7 team talent composite, so I was expecting another poor showing in 2022 and wrote as much this time last year. But this was worse by another maybe 40 ranks than even that trend would have predicted, so something else must be going on.

I think there are two major factors to explain “the extra gap” as we called it on the podcast. First is that the talent disparity between the offense and defense at USC in 2022 was much more skewed than the other bluebloods (through complete coincidence, Oregon has recently played Ohio State and Oklahoma, Grinch’s two previous employers, and as such I had already used the same roster database tools to map out their talent profiles; I can say that even for a famously offense-driven team like the Sooners the talent was much more balanced than for the Trojans). To a large degree that’s an inherited problem from USC’s previous staff, which neglected recruiting and development across the board but especially on the defensive front and less so at the offensive skill players, though in the era of the transfer portal and given how notoriously Riley’s staff used it to restock the Trojans’ roster, ultimately the buck stops with the current staff.

The other issue, and the one I was pretty surprised to see, is that Grinch’s defensive structure has devolved away from what made it unique during his days in Pullman - a 3-3-5 with lots of stemming and a dynamic role for the stand-up end who confused offenses with stunts, loops, and coverage drops. But those stems and stunts grew far less frequent over the last two years I spent charting Grinch’s defenses, and what USC was showing on film by this point is better described as a fairly insipid one-gapping 4-2-5 in which both ends have indistinguishable duties and little in the way of coverage drops, very few stunts or shifts, and a front that’s completely reliant on blitzes for pressure.

In efficiency terms, USC’s deepest weakness was in run defense, in which they were badly underwater at 43% effectiveness (140 successes vs 186 failures). They were particularly poor against inside rushing on 2nd down with under six yards to go, just 29%, and on 3rd & short their inside run defensive success rate fell to 27%. That comes down to an interior defensive line which I think has been under-recruited for a long time and simply couldn’t drive back offensive guards to set up the backers to stuff the run. However, schematically this defense was just as vulnerable to outside running in longer yardage situations, which I think reflects poor technique teaching.

The defensive line structure that the Trojans used in 2022 had a four-man rotation for the two defensive tackle spots, and essentially no one else saw the field. The one I had the most on my tally sheet was Brandon Pili, he’s now signed a UDFA contract with the Dolphins. Three others who I think were defensive tackles have also departed, though I don’t believe they played at all or if so it was only in garbage time and I don’t have any reps charted: former TCU transfer Earl Barquet hit the portal again after the Spring game, while Colin Mobley and Jamar Sekona disappeared from the official roster after we recorded with Alicia (I’d wondered aloud how USC justified their cap space; this has happened a lot over the course of this series and it left me with the typical feeling of empty validation).

The three returners who saw the field last year are #79 DT Benton, #31 DT Taleni, and #47 DT Ta’ufo’ou. Taleni was a low 3-star Juco who later went to Kansas State and is on his last year of eligibility, the other two are mid 3-stars from the 2019 cycle who redshirted their first season so have two years left. Each graded out fairly poorly on my tally sheet last year, and Alicia and I spent a good deal of time discussing the alarming state of recruiting on the interior of the line – USC hasn’t had a bluechip or even a high 3-star here in years.

There’s one other returner listed on the official roster, #94 DT Pepe, a mid 3-star from the 2020 cycle. I’ve never seen him during meaningful play in his three seasons, and he reportedly entered the transfer portal last December, but he was playing in the Spring game with the twos. Alicia thinks that may have just been to get him some tape for the benefit of other schools.

There are five additions to the defensive tackle unit. Two are mid 3-star freshmen (continuing a trend), Elijah Hughes and Deijon Laffitte; they arrive in the Fall and I expect them to redshirt. The other three are transfers: #92 DT Barrs from Arizona and #99 DT Sullivan from Purdue arrived early and were playing in the Spring game with the ones, and Bear Alexander from Georgia announced after the Spring game and will arrive in the Fall.

I’ve been charting Barrs for many years now, he was a low 3-star and I think he has a certain talent ceiling but I’ve always thought he knows what he’s doing and should play at or a bit above replacement value as a veteran in his last year of eligibility. Sullivan is a mid 3-star converted end and his center of gravity is a little too high for the position at 6’5” but he’s another veteran with 46 games under his belt in his final season. Alexander is high 4-star who played in 12 games in 2022 as a true freshman and recorded five solo tackles; he didn’t come up much during my study of Georgia last year and we’ll have to wait and see if he can shake reports about his work ethic.

During the Spring game Taleni and Ta’ufo’ou were apparently being held out with injuries and the Trojans hadn’t yet secured Alexander, so it’s a little tricky making guesses about the order for the tackles. But I wasn’t surprised at all that the transfers Barrs and Sullivan were ahead of the returner Benton, and if he’s even half of what his talent rating implies then Alexander should jump ahead of the rest of the returners as well. That’s plenty of depth for the position, but other than Alexander’s largely unproven talent this looks a whole lot like more of the same. Taking a step forward is a possibility here if the transfers prove to be significantly better than the guys they replace, but I’m not sure I’d give that better-than-even odds.

Usc vs Cal in Los Angeles, CA

Several players on the ends of the line have switched from the “RUSH” label to the generic “DL” label on the official roster. At this point I believe it’s a distinction without a difference, and I’ll treat all ends as interchangeable – they essentially were last year and in the 2023 Spring game, and so I expect them to be in the Fall 2023 season.

The rotation at the end spots was somewhat uneven. Starter Tuli Tuipulotu played about 74% of meaningful snaps on my tally sheet and graded out very well, with more havoc plays than every returner along the defensive line at tackle or end combined. He was drafted in the 2nd round by the Chargers. Opposite of Tuipulotu on about half of all meaningful snaps was Nick Figueroa, who’s also departed.

It gets complicated to explain how the four returners who played at end figured into the rotation. I think #2 DE Height, a borderline 4-star who’d transferred in from Auburn, was going to be prominent in it, but he got hurt in the second week and missed the rest of the season and Spring as well, and Alicia and I both noted the same thing which is that he didn’t look great on the reps he took. #51 DE Byrd, a 2-star who’d transferred in from Wyoming, got by far the most play and production of the returners; he’s now on his last year of eligibility though he was held out of Spring with an injury.

The remaining reps, about 15% apiece, went to #0 DE Foreman, a 2021 5-star, and #58 DE Tuliaupupu, a 2018 mid 4-star who Alicia reminded me was recruited as a middle linebacker and has been forced into this spot for lack of a better place to play him. The last returner is a redshirt freshman, mid 3-star #37 DE Thompkins about whom I can find little in the practice reports and don’t believe I saw in the Spring game.

There are five additions to this group as well. Freshmen borderline 4-star David Peevy and mid 4-star Braylan Shelby arrive in the Fall, while borderline 4-star #44 DE Greene enrolled early and Alicia said generated some Spring camp buzz (I saw him playing with the twos in the Spring game). 2022 high 4-star #6 DE Lucas transferred from Texas A&M and was with the ones in Spring, while 2019 mid 3-star #10 DE Muhammad transferred from Georgia State and was with the twos.

After watching several of his games last year for other projects I think Lucas’ talent ceiling is evident in flashes, though his production was limited by some silly freshman positioning problems and off-field issues (he was suspended for several games) that can be corrected with maturing. In College Station he was listed at 270 lbs and now he’s listed at 295, that’s hard to believe given how well he moves. I don’t have any doubts that he’ll be a starter at one of the end spots.

USC has plenty of options and a decent amount of experience and on-paper talent for the other starter and the backups, so they should be fine for depth here, but I’m hard pressed to predict the pecking order or make a strong case for matching or improving Tuipulotu and Figueroa’s output. Given his production with the Panthers (70 tackles in three seasons, though some of that comes from his first season as a QB) I figured Muhammad was brought in to take all of the returners’ jobs away, but after watching him in the Spring game I was shocked at how small he played and I think his official listing at 6’1” is overly generous by at least an inch – I just don’t think he has the arm leverage to defeat outside blockers at the Power-5 level.

I don’t know where Height is in his injury recovery – he’s never mentioned in practice reports or by Riley when speaking with the press, and his film wasn’t impressive. Tuliapupu is a positional convert and I think was only playing with the ones because other guys were injured. Foreman, unfortunately, is looking like a bust. Greene and Thompkins are freshmen, we have no film on them and we’ll just have to wait and see, but it’s not like they were 5-stars. Their best option is probably Byrd, assuming he’s healthy again by the Fall, and the fact that a 2-star from the Mountain West is the best USC can muster tells the Trojans’ tale better than I can.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 01 Arizona State at USC Photo by Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Three DCs ago, Clancy Pendergast re-organized the inside and outside linebackers between the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then he was replaced at the end of that year with Todd Orlando who ran a totally different scheme and shuffled the backers around again, and two years later Grinch shook up the room with a fourth structure in five seasons. That had resulted in an ILB unit that was overstuffed with underdeveloped players for years, and Alicia and I spent some time on the podcast recounting the toll that this instability took on the unit and the cost of all the extra scholarships on the rest of the squad. Fortunately for 2023, this room finally looks like it’s stabilized to an appropriate number of bodies that are properly layered in terms of class balance for development. Now the only question is if any of them can effectively play football.

There are six departures here, which would be a staggering number for a two-position unit in normal circumstances but completely appropriate for the Trojans’. Both of the primary backups in the rotation, Ralen Goforth and Tuasivi Nomura, have transferred out. Clyde Moore, an unrated transfer from Colorado I don’t believe was on scholarship but who was getting a few backup reps, has left the team. Julien Simon, a mid 4-star who hadn’t played in his two seasons, transferred out, as has Tayler Katoa, a mid 3-star who hadn’t played in five. As mentioned above, Tabaracci switched to the tight ends.

Both of last year’s starters return: #18 LB Gentry and #53 LB Lee, both of whom were transfers last year, from Arizona State and Alabama respectively. Gentry was USC’s most effective backer on my tally sheet, though his style of play is quite unorthodox because he’s so tall and slender at 6’6” and 200 lbs, which creates some interesting pluses in terms of leverage and tackling but some minuses in terms of quick change-of-direction and burst. Lee is tougher to assess, he was a mid 4-star in 2019 and has a huge number of tackles in his career. He hits like a truck in the run game when he gets squared up, but for all his experience he’s still out of position a lot and Alicia expressed frustration with how much of a liability he is in pass coverage, though she also mentioned Lee was playing with a bone break in his hand last year that makes it difficult to grade his play fairly.

The fifth-most used backer last year was returner #9 LB Davis, though he only finished with eight tackles. Alicia and I spent some time talking about him on the podcast because I think he’s the biggest mystery in the room – he has the highest on-paper talent rating as a high 4-star in the 2021 class, but I don’t know if he’ll ever live up to it as I barely have any eyes on him. Given what I thought were some obvious problems in this unit over the two seasons he’s been on the team I would have expected a player of his ostensible caliber to have gotten more of a tryout by now. Something similar can be said of low 4-star #30 LB Thompson who originally signed with Auburn in 2020 as a DB but has barely seen the field in three seasons and hardly appears in any practice reports. The final returner is redshirt freshman mid 3-star #41 LB Madden; neither Alicia nor I could recall anything about him.

The two additions to the room are Oklahoma State transfer #13 LB Cobb and mid 4-star early enrollee #25 LB Curtis. Evidently USC fans are expecting Cobb to be “the savior of the defense”, an odd thing to think of any linebacker much less one Alicia aptly noted has a habit of missing tackles and running himself out of the play. Curtis’ frame looks great for a backer but ideally he’d pack on 10-15 lbs more, I might figure him for some early playing time but not starting right away.

Unfortunately Gentry hurt his ankle in week 7 against Utah and missed the following four weeks (a bye and three games), and after the season he had surgery and has missed out on Spring. Cobb and Lee were with the ones in the Spring game, but my guess is that if and when Gentry is back in the lineup he’ll have his job back with Cobb as the other starter and Lee demoted to backup.

On the podcast I said I was having difficulty with an ordinal ranking of the seven scholarship backers and asked Alicia for her list; both of us stumbled at the same point which was the fourth spot – it’s probably Davis, but she said last year the word out of practice was the staff didn’t trust him at all, so maybe it’s the true freshman Curtis, which could be a pretty scary thought. I suspect Thompson and Madden are just space-fillers at this point, and for a unit I’m inclined to praise as being well managed at long last that’s a bitter pill.

USC v Oregon State Photo by Ali Gradischer/Getty Images

Cornerback Mekhi Blackmon transferred in from Colorado to become one of last year’s two starters, and has now been drafted in the 3rd round by the Vikings. There are two other departing corners: converted WR Joshua Jackson transferred out and Adonis Otey medically retired, neither played last year.

The other starting corner, #22 CB Wright, returns. I thought he looked pretty good for a redshirt freshman and his talent as a mid 4-star was evident in terms of fluid mirroring in man coverage, though I still have complaints with how this staff coaches hip alignment in relation to the sideline. I expect he’s got the starting job locked down and historically we tend to see a noticeable tightening of technique at this point in corners’ careers. My guess for the other starting corner would be #1 CB D. Jackson, a 5-star from last cycle who played seven games last year but is coming off a knee injury. He was with the ones in the Spring game and Alicia said “he should have the keys to the car.” I think his talent ceiling is almost unlimited but we’ll have to see how well he’s recovered and hopefully his development hasn’t lagged too much – I think the early investment is worthwhile given his potential but experience is always the bottleneck with corners.

Cornerback is far and away the best recruited defensive position on this squad and so Alicia and I discussed how bizarre it’s been that they’ve filled up with so many apparently unnecessary transfers – four in the last two cycles – rather than developing their prep bluechips. That also makes it difficult to pick out exactly how the backup situation lines up. Probably the third guy in the room (or possibly starter opposite Wright, if there’s an issue with Jackson) is Arizona transfer #17 CB Roland-Wallace, who’s on his final year of eligibility and made the switch last December. I’ve been charting him for years and think he’s certainly a solid option, and a fair complement in terms of talent/experience balance to Jackson.

Last cycle USC took another transfer, 2020 low 4-star #14 CB Covington from UW. He was the primary backup last year, but I wasn’t impressed with his film at either school and I wasn’t surprised that other corners appear to have passed him up. The two other returners are 2021 mid 4-star #16 CB P. Brown and 2022 low 4-star #26 CB Ross. The latter redshirted last year, but Brown is a mystery – Alicia hasn’t seen enough to say anything about him and I’m in the same boat, which is odd because according to the statkeeper he’s played in 17 games in two seasons. Brown’s a total ghost on my tally sheet though, which might be a great sign for a cornerback, but more likely means he’s been relegated to garbage time and special teams and has been recruited over for a reason.

There are two other additions besides Roland-Wallace: 2022 mid 4-star Tre’Quon Fegans from Alabama who redshirted last year, and 2023 low 4-star #29 CB Crawford who enrolled early but missed Spring ball with an injury. Given his experience I’d still expect Covington to be ahead of these two on the depth chart despite my reservations regarding his level of play, but they may jockey ahead of Brown and Ross.

I expect some incremental improvement from Wright, and then there’s a range of possibilities for replacing an NFL player with a sophomore 5-star or a veteran 3-star, which average out to probably holding steady at the position. I didn’t really think the outside corners were the issue with USC’s secondary last year and I’m not expecting that to change in 2023. I do think there’s an impending roster management tumult coming given how young the room is and that they keep taking transfers – there are seven bluechips with a combined 24 years of remaining eligibility in this unit and they can’t possibly give developmental time to all or even most of them, so several guys are likely going to hit the portal as soon as the pecking order becomes clear, which might affect depth during the season.

While I think talent problems on the interior of the d-line and the inside linebackers have been long-standing issues for the Trojans’ defense, in my opinion the spectacular collapse of their defensive performance in 2022 can be located in what was quite possibly the worst safety play in the conference. That’s astonishing given the talent level – the room averaged a .9161 in the 24/7 composite – and that they didn’t perform nearly that poorly under previous safeties coach Craig Naivar (now the DC at Coastal Carolina). But under Grinch, who’s this unit’s position coach in addition to being DC, I saw repeated shocking lapses week after week in tackling technique, positional discipline, bad angles, sideline alignment, coverage communication … and that’s not even getting to the schematic issues yet.

USC’s pass defense was underwater in efficiency terms at a little over 48% success rate against the pass (211 successes vs 226 failures). That’s not terribly below average though, and actually this was the best (well, least bad) aspect of their defense. However, their explosive pass defense was awful, surrendering over 8.0 adjusted YPA with more than 19.5% of opponents’ pass attempts gaining 15+ yards. The same explosive play prevention problem plagued rush defense as well, giving up 6.1 adjusted YPC and allowing more than 18% of opponents’ designed runs to gain 10+ yards. For national comparisons we need to switch to raw stats – the Trojans ranked 105th or worse in all six categories of 10+, 20+ and 30+ yard passes and rushes surrendered. These aren’t difficult dots to connect – a safety’s job is to prevent plays that have gotten past the first line of defense from getting even more yardage, it’s right there in the name.

Schematically, I can confirm from charting every game that this came down to an excessively aggressive approach by the midfield coverage (the starting safeties mostly, though also including some linebackers and the dime) who were easily lured out of the way by even basic misdirection plays. It also meant that they were prone to giving up huge plays in short-yardage situations, because they’d attack so hard trying to stop the conversion. Not only would they fail – their pass defense success rates on 2nd & short, 2nd & medium, and 3rd & short were atrocious at 20%, 28%, and 33%, respectively – but they would then be short-handed in the backfield to keep it from going big, so on such downs they gave up nearly 11 yards per attempt.

On the podcast, Alicia sounded hopeful there’d be some re-evaluation of the players here, but I can’t say I’m expecting any personnel changes here given that there have been no staff changes, no significant departures, and only one addition of a true freshman. Xavion Alford missed last season with an injury and then transferred to Arizona State. Briton Allen has struggled with injuries his entire career, didn’t play the last two seasons, and has transferred to Utah. Walk-on Micah Croom has been a mop-up duty player with just a handful of meaningful reps since he started college ball in 2016 and has finally run out of eligibility. Low 4-star #24 DB Pierce enrolled early and Alicia said he’s been getting great practice reports, which might translate into displacing one of the backups but probably not earning a starting job.

The returning free safety is #7 DB Bullock, who grades out the best of any of them on my tally sheet, although he’s usually fairly far from the play so he can’t get himself in too much trouble. Bullock has one pretty impressive note – the one saving grace of this defense was the crazy number of interceptions they generated, of which the safety unit contributed nine, and Bullock alone got the majority of those with five himself. The returning boundary safety is #27 DB Shaw, a transfer from Ohio St, who grades out terribly. Amazingly, he graded out worse in 2022 than he did in the three other years I charted him while preparing for the Ducks’ home-and-home with the Buckeyes (sadly the first game was canceled due to covid but not until after I’d studied all their 2019 film), and I was stunned that any team accepted him out of the portal — much less started him — considering OSU fans nearly ran him out of Columbus on a rail. Then I recalled that Grinch was OSU’s DC in 2018 and was likely involved in Shaw’s initial recruitment process, and is now throwing good money after bad.

There may be a battle at the nickel position. The starter for a while has been #4 DB Max Williams, who finished the season with the most tackles on the team. But his grades are pretty poor for that veteran status, and as we discussed on the podcast, his size at 5’9” is a significant problem, and unfortunately I think the multiple knee reconstructions he’s undergone have slowed him as well. By midseason there were a couple games that the backup nickel, #19 DB J. Smith, actually got the start and played more reps, though Williams still rotated drives with him, but then Smith got hurt and I don’t have him on my tally sheet after the Cal game in week 10. Interestingly in the Spring game Smith was playing with the ones.

Oklahoma transfer #21 DB McCutchin was used as their dime player, which they switched to on about 17% of meaningful snaps. The two backups who played were #15 DB Beavers and #28 DB Gordon, both low 4-stars from the 2021 cycle … the statbook says they were in every game, but I barely have them on my tally sheet at all and I think it was just one or two garbage time reps and maybe some special teams, not actual on-field experience. The last returner is high 4-star redshirt freshman #8 DB Branch, who missed last season with an injury. I didn’t see any of these four in the Spring game with the ones.

EDIT: 90 minutes after publication, it was announced that McCutchin entered the transfer portal.

In my opinion if Beavers or Gordon were so talented that they were capable of displacing a starter they would have at least gotten onto the field by now, so I doubt it’s going to happen this year. Even if Smith wins the nickel battle it’s not like he’s a massive improvement on Williams – both of those guys got plenty of playing time last year and the results were the results. We’ll have to see with Branch or Pierce are young breakout players who play at such a high level that it forces Grinch to see the light, but I wouldn’t give great odds to either ends of that proposition. The most likely outcome with the same personnel, staff, and scheme is the same performance.

Accountability Corner

Last year’s preview got the structure and high potential of the offense and its starting QB correct, though it was hard to miss after watching Oklahoma the previous season which was a peculiar aligning of the stars. I expressed skepticism that we’d see any of the backups even if Williams were dinged up and that turned out to be true. I got the running back order correct, including vouching for Jones as the 1B despite his modest numbers at Stanford before transferring based on watching his film. After running through the TE and WR options I concluded that the TEs probably wouldn’t play the same role in the USC’s offense as they had in Oklahoma’s, and instead correctly predicted they’d go with two inside receivers and another shorter guy on the outside, with just Rice or Ford (it was mostly Rice) as the only tall outside receiver. I got every one of the offensive line starters right, including Haskins as the sixth man who then wound up playing most of the season since the original LT starter was out. I also thought they’d have significant pass protection issues since I wasn’t a big believer in the tackles and my study of Riley’s passing game indicated it wasn’t a “get rid of the ball immediately” style, though I also noted Williams was a spectacular scrambler so he’d get them out of that problem. The only thing close to a black eye for the offensive predictions was that I thought the run game would finish about five percentage points less efficient than it did, but Riley really found much better ways to use Neilon in particular, something that Alicia immediately caught and tweaked me about on the podcast.

Defensively, both the expected underperformance vs talent issue and the unexpected “extra gap” from the surprising devolution in Grinch’s structure are discussed in the article proper. I got every one of the starters and most of the backups in the defensive line correct, tackles and ends. The exceptions were that I didn’t foresee Height’s injury, Katoa switching to ILB then sitting out, or Foreman not playing up to his talent billing so far. The entire linebacker unit, Katoa excepted, was described correctly. I got the corners right, though Blackmon did a little better than I expected and I figured on more fluidity given that I thought Brown and Ross would get more playing time. I expected Bullock to slide in smoothly into the free safety spot which he basically did, but I didn’t foresee Alford’s injury. That caused Shaw to play and while I did note that would be problematic I didn’t make clear it would be catastrophic in the structure of Grinch’s defense, which I regret. But the big shock to me was the nickel position, which I barely discussed given how established the two players were. That position really underperformed in 2022 and I should have spent much more time exploring the possibility and the connection with Grinch as a position coach.

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Championship Game-Southern California vs Stanford Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports