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the Gekko Files: Previewing USC Trojans Football in 2018

Clay Helton and his Trojans want it all in 2018.

Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual - USC v Penn State Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Much of what you think of USC’s prospects in 2018 depend on how you perceive their head coach.

Those who love Clay Helton tend to do so mostly because a) the program hasn’t fallen off the rails under his leadership (two divisional and one conference championship counting his interim season) and b) he’s neither Lane Kiffin nor Steve Sarkisian.

Those who aren’t enamored with Helton have a few counterarguments. SB Nation’s Bill Connelly points out in his preview that a job like USC has plenty of room for error and that good coaches in such jobs should always drive superior results. Simply winning a conference without competing for the Playoffs may not actually cut it.

Critics looking specifically at 2017 may also point out that Helton lucked into Sam Darnold - a Sark recruit - and that he, in fact, oversaw a regression in both offensive (three fewer points scored per game in 2017 over 2016) and defensive (two more points surrendered per game) in his first two full seasons.

USC fans are heavily invested both in this team and the question as to whether or not Clay Helton is the right man for the job. 2017 was a cathartic year for the Trojan faithful. The PAC 12’s all-time winningnest program - 39 PAC 12 championships - finally reclaimed the conference title after a long nine-year drought dominated by the Oregons, Stanfords and Washingtons of the world.

But that sweet taste of victory quickly turned sour. The Trojans never even cracked the top 10 of the College Football Playoff rankings until their PAC title pushed them to #8. Their Cotton Bowl match-up against Ohio State turned into just another turnover-fueled embarrassment on the national stage. The conference title was great, but the season as a whole seemed to still not meet expectations.

As the page turns to 2018, it feels to everyone - fans and observers alike - that the time has come for USC and their head coach to put up or shut up. The PAC 12 is not enough. USC fans want their program to be viewed as the Alabama of the West and they want it to start now. The College Football Playoff is the litmus test for Clay Helton.

This will be Year 3 in Helton’s tenure ... 3.5 if you count his time as the interim coach. The roster he’ll roll out on Saturdays is largely of his making and he’ll be on the spot for breaking in a new quarterback. His program is loaded up with depth and talent at just about every position. There is no escaping the truth. One way or the other, 2018 will tell us if Helton has what it takes to restore the glory of USC football.

Luckily, we don’t have to wait for the season to play out. Let’s open up the Gekko Files and find out what the future holds for the USC Trojans. Shall we?

USC Offense

USC Offensive Highlights

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
run blocking QB inexperience OL Toa Lobendahn QB JT Daniels (TFr)
overall efficiency RB depth RB Stephen Carr WR Amon-ra St. Brown (TFr)
big play potential WR Tyler Vaughns

The Trojan offense is one that thrives on big plays. Last season, USC had 94 plays of 20 yards or more, first in the PAC by a long shot. The thing about those 94 20+ yard plays is that 67 of them were generated out of the passing offense. That passing offense now no longer has Sam Darnold, Steven Mitchell or Deontay Barnett. So, can it be the same?

The answer to that question starts with the QB position. Vying to replace Darnold are three young quarterbacks. Sophomore Matt Fink and redshirt freshman Jack Sears took the spring reps. Both are similar QBs in attributes, though Sears looks to have the bigger arm and the higher upside. That said, Fink was Darnold’s backup a year ago and already has some live game reps under his belt.

NCAA Football: Cotton Bowl-Ohio State vs Southern California
Toa Lobendahn (50) is the key piece in a resurgent USC offensive line.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The arrival of true freshman JT Daniels this fall will change the competition. Daniels is the most heralded LA area QB recruit since Josh Rosen. The Mater Dei prospect actually moved up his graduation one year so that he could classify as a freshman in 2018. That he did so in a year where Sam Darnold left early to go to the NFL tells me that Daniels is being viewed as an immediate starter candidate, despite not yet even being 18 years old. I’d personally not be surprised if Daniels is the starter by week 1.

The prospects for a young starting QB improve greatly when there is an abundance of playmakers available. USC’s crop of receiving targets is certainly that. Sophomore Tyler Vaughns (809 yds, 5 TDs, 76% catch rate) has already emerged as one of the top receivers in the conference. Standing 6’2”, Vaughns has the right balance of speed and length to be a threat anywhere on the field. He has good hands and has a knack for grabbing 50/50 balls. While he isn’t all that helpful as a blocker, he can certainly carve up a defense when out running routes.

Besides Vaughns, USC has a whole crop of receivers that are capable of killing a secondary. TE Daniel Imatorbhebhe and WR Michael Pittman, Jr. are a pair of established studs who provide big targets and can make plays downfield. A trio of less experienced sophomores in Velus Jones (the heir apparent in the slot), Josh Imatorbhebhe and Randal Grimes all bring size and speed to the rotation. Also be on the look out for true freshman Amon-ra St. Brown - a consensus top 40 player who many expect to explode this season.

While USC may be loaded at receiver, they still want to run the ball first. Stephen Carr takes over from Ronald Jones as the feature back this year. He’s a one-cut kind of back who thrives as a pass catcher. He hasn’t really shown an ability to break tackles yet, but can certainly do some damage in space.

His rotational partner will be senior Aca’Cedric Ware. Ware is more of a collision-in-the-hole kind of back though he comes in a smaller package that you’d expect. For bigger backs, USC has sophomore Vavae Malepeai, a former five-star recruit, and true freshman Markese Stepp (230 lbs). This isn’t the deepest running back unit that USC has ever had and injuries have been an issue for both Carr and Malepeai. It’ll be interesting to see how the rotation ultimately plays out this fall.

Regardless, USC ought to be able to count on their offensive line. The stout unit returns three starters from last year including two all-conference level talents in seniors Toa Lobendahn and Chris Brown. Lobendahn will be shifting from LT to OC this season. He’s a savvy veteran who plays small but is athletic for his size. Brown is the classic USC mauler who struggles with consistency but who can dominate at times.

The other two starters include senior RT Chuma Edoga and sophomore OG Andrew Vorhees. Two tackles who played last year - junior Clayton Johnston and sophomore Austin Jackson - will be battling to win the left tackle spot this year. Beyond those guys, there is a depth of young players that most teams would enjoy having including redshirt frosh Alijah Vera-Tucker, senior Jacob Daniel and sophomore Frank Martin, Jr.

When you put all of the pieces together, USC projects better on offense than they did a year ago even without Darnold. In fact, the reduction of Darnold’s turnovers alone compensate in the form of saved possessions for whatever incremental playmaking that Darnold brought to the table. I do have some concern that USC may be too thin at tailback to weather any injury there, but that’s a nit. These guys are loaded on offense and should score a lot of points assuming they work out their quarterback transition.

USC Defense

USC Defensive Highlights

Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers
strong up the middle big play prevention LB Cameron Smith LB Palaie Gaoteote (TFr)
LB speed / pass rush interior d-line depth LB Porter Gustin DB Talanoa Hufanga (TFr)
talent everywhere DB Iman Marshall

USC led the PAC with 46 sacks in 2017 - seven more than second place Washington. It was this ability to disrupt opposing lines of scrimmage that made the Trojans so difficult to deal with on defense last year.

But a closer look at their defensive performance reveals a few curiosities. The first is that they gave up a ton of chunk plays. They surrendered 75 plays over 20 yards (second worst in the PAC) four of which went for over 70 (worst in the PAC). The other thing you notice is just how much field position they surrendered on special teams.

NCAA Football: Southern California at Arizona State
A healthy Porter Gustin is the critical piece in USC’s pass rush.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Normally, these two flaws are killers for any team. But USC was so strong in both 3rd down and red zone defense, that they seemed to be able to handle many of their own self-inflicted wounds.

But can it last?

USC loses four of the top five pass rushers from last year. Backfilling for those lost sacks will be a challenge. OLB Porter Gustin returns after an injury-plagued 2017 to take on some of that load. Recently named as #10 on Bruce Feldman’s “Freaks List”, Gustin is probably USC’s most disruptive player. The 6’5”, 255 pounder will primarily be used as a pass rusher but has the athleticism to chase down opposing running backs from behind and to cover a zone. His health will be a key to the USC defense.

On the line, DE Christian Rector is a 275 lb beast who is best at setting the edge but who has the speed to close the gap on a QB. He had 7.5 sacks last year. Once you get past him, the rest of the defensive end and pass-rush specialist crew gets light on experience. Clancy Pendergast, who runs a 3-3-5 as his base, in fact has no pure pass rush specialists on the line and only projects such as Oluwole Betiku and Hunter Echols as contenders from the outside backer position. But don’t be fooled - those are talented players. The same is true for incoming freshmen Palaie Gaoteote IV and Solomon Tuliaupupu. But pass rush is an area of concern going into the season.

The middle of USC’s front seven is much stronger. Cameron Smith locks down the middle of the field from his MIKE position and simply makes tackle after tackle. His main partner in crime, ILB John Houston Jr is lightning quick if not a little light. Together, these two are effective in containing opposing running games from getting out on the edge and in blitzing the quarterback from their inside positions.

They back up a couple of pretty good inside linemen. Malik Dorton and Marlon Tuipulotu make up a versatile and talented interior duo. Behind them, 325 pound Brandon Pili - a pure nose tackle - and redshirt freshman Jay Tufele provide inside muscle to support an effective run defense. There isn’t a ton of depth on this defensive line, but the talent available is very compelling.

Netted out, the USC front seven is more than capable of doing their part to support a run to the division title in the South. There is depth and talent, even if there is some uncertainty as to where the pass rush is going to come from. The real challenge is the secondary.

USC’s defensive backs have the talent to be off-the-charts great but no real track record of success to point to. Following the unexpected loss of emerging star Jack Jones to academic ineligibility (and his subsequent arrest after breaking into a Panda Express ... yes, you read that correctly), the Trojans are going to be stuck relying on inconsistent senior Iman Marshall and a rotation of the oft-injured Jonathan Lockett and the underachieving Isaiah Langley to handle perimeter coverage duties.

Marshall is the key. He is blessed with the size to be an effective lockdown corner. But the senior has not shown good ball instincts and has been victimized repeatedly over the years on effective play action. He had zero INTs a year ago despite breaking up 10 passes.

The inside of the secondary will be handled by nickels Ajene Harris and Ykili Ross along with safeties Marvell Tell and Bubba Bolden. Both Harris and Ross are good players who each have the ability to play on the outside and cover well. Tell and Bolden are both at their best in run support and are less effective in pass coverage. In fact, the two of them had two PBUs combined last season.

I’m not a huge fan of this secondary despite the fact that it seems loaded with five stars at every position. It looks very imbalanced to me with a lot of athletes but very few craftsmen. Unless some younger players break out - and I’m looking at sophomore safety CJ Pollard, redshirt freshman safety Isaiah Pola-Mao, and true freshmen Olaijah Griffin and Talanoa Hufanga (a spring camp star) - I’m concerned that opposing offenses may have big play success against the Trojans. One thing to watch is whether or not Pendergast compensates at safety by moving Ykili Ross into that position.

One Breakout Player

LT Austin Jackson

I’ve already mentioned that I think Daniels is going to win the starting quarterback job. By default, he’ll be the breakout player on this team should that transpire. Imagining for a second that it does not, I would have to take Austin Jackson as the next best breakout candidate.

The 6’6”, 295 pounder out of Phoenix is, of course, a former five-star recruit. He became such a high level prospect because of his background playing basketball (and the excellent feet that come with that), his overall athleticism and his long arms. His potential is so great that the USC coaches are comfortable moving an all-conference player in Toa Lobendahn to center just to make room for him at left tackle.

I’m going to go ahead and assume that he wins the battle for LT against Clayton Johnston and call him my 2018 breakout, just barely squeezing out Amon-ra St. Brown.

Projecting the Trojans

The Trojans are very good. There is more than enough talent here to win both the South and the PAC 12 outright. But the question on the table is whether or not the Trojans are good enough to go beyond conference platitudes. Fans want to know if a Playoff campaign is imminent.

Most people will want to answer that by starting with the question at quarterback. This could obviously be a deal breaker if it doesn’t resolve well. But we’ve now seen plenty of examples across college football - Jake Fromm, Johnny Manzeil, Jalen Hurts - where both redshirt and true freshmen quarterbacks put onto otherwise stable offenses can lead their teams to conference championships and post-season runs. If USC decides to roll with one of their two freshmen, there seems to be more than enough support.

I certainly see the potential for USC to score a lot of points behind that offensive line. They have playmakers all over the field and a lot of young players who provide depth. Someone will always be open on this team.

Defense is where the question marks seem to percolate more. I can see USC taking a step backwards even if just a small one. They are strong up the middle, especially if Tuipolutu is healthy. They also have the kind of speed at all three levels that will make it difficult for opposing offenses to run against. I do think that the secondary and the propensity to give up big passing plays will continue to be one area that can be exploited. But, again, there is no shortage of five-star athletes for Helton to put against the problem.

The USC schedule will be a challenge just as it is every year. Their out of conference features Notre Dame (of course) at home and Texas on the road. I feel like there is a loss in one of those two games.

Their in-conference schedule is also interesting. It includes five road contests one of which is at Stanford in Week 2 (ugh). Fortunately, USC misses what would be tough games against Oregon and Washington. They also get to rotate home and away games every week following that two-game stretch at Texas and at Stanford in September. That’s manageable.

I think that USC is rightly the favorite to win the South. They have all that they need from a personnel perspective to not only advance to the PAC 12 championship but also to make a run at the playoffs. But the gap between them and the other contenders in the South doesn’t feel so great to me that you can just chalk it up as a given. There is going to be some drama in that divisional race this season, but I can see the Trojans winning it.

It is more difficult for me to paint a picture with a clear line of sight for USC to actually get to the College Football Playoff. There is probably one loss in their out of conference schedule and they feel like a six-win team in conference. It is possible for USC to repeat as PAC 12 champs with three or four total losses, but that won’t be enough for the Playoff.

I fear that USC fans might be destined for disappointment once again.