Hi. It’s good to be back. Let’s get this thing going.
We start this year’s Gekko Files tour with a look at the most combustible situation in all of the PAC 12. With high profile alumni already clamoring for Urban Meyer to restore USC glory (and, c’mon, what could possibly go wrong in that scenario?), the fate of Clay Helton seems to come down to this one season.
And why the heck shouldn’t it? The recently extended Helton, a pet project of AD Lynn Swann, led USC to a wholly unimpressive 5-7 record and its first non-bowl eligible season since Paul Hackett put up the same record with the 2000 squad. Locals seem to not care about the stabilizing force that Helton has been for USC since taking over the dumpster fire that was the Steve Sarkisian era, much less the PAC 12 and Rose Bowl titles that he has won for them. All they see at the moment is a mortalization of the roster talent and the lack of program discipline that now seems to characterize this team.
Helton has just one more shot to prove that he belongs at the head of a blue-chip program. 2019 is that shot. Do Clay and his band of Trojan merry men have the juice to keep the headhunters in LA at bay? The Gekko Files are back and we have the answers for you.
Perhaps the most interesting offseason storyline around USC was the offensive coordinator saga that saw first Kliff Kingsbury and then Graham Harrell agree to man the post. It seems that Clay Helton is hell-bent on creating a step function improvement in offensive efficiency by bringing in a mastermind with spread offense roots. Harrell played and coached under WSU head coach Mike Leach and certainly fits the bill of an up-and-coming offensive genius.
He’ll have his work cut out for him. Though he’ll be inheriting a ton of returning and incoming talent, he also has to contend with the pressure of recent history. USC’s offense last season was an abomination (at least by USC standards). Outside of the occasional ability to hit on a big play, the Trojans struggled in just about every aspect of offensive play. Freshman QB J.T. Daniels took too many sacks, the rushing attack constantly played behind the sticks, and the offensive line looked physically overmatched more times than it didn’t, even against the more pedestrian defenses in the league. It all added up to USC finishing 10th in the conference in total offense, just ahead of Stanford and Cal.
Things could improve quickly in 2019.
The QB situation is the key. Harrell really needs to see J.T. Daniels take the reins and improve dramatically in 2019. The 6’3” 210-lb signal caller has all the physical tools to be a special player. How quickly he grasps the mental aspect of the new offense will be key. The Air Raid, even Harrell’s more watered-down version of it, depends on quick reads and snap decisions by the QB in order to achieve its efficiency benefits. If Daniels can’t hack it, sophomore Jack Sears—a more mobile but weaker-armed version of Daniels—is waiting in the wings. Matt Fink, who just decided to rescind his planned graduate transfer to Illinois, is still with the program providing Harrell with plenty of depth.
The receiver room is where the Trojans boast ridiculous talent (per normal). The big three of senior Michael Pittman Jr., junior Tyler Vaughns, and sophomore Amon-Ra St. Brown make up the best top three in the conference. The big-boded Pittman is the guy who catches TDs while Vaughns excels in finding space and getting open. St. Brown might be the best of them all, with the enviable combination of size, speed and hands that most other receivers can only salivate over.
There are a couple of other interesting tidbits to watch in the Trojans’ passing game. How Harrell handles the tight end position is one of those things. USC isn’t really deep in that position to begin with and it isn’t clear how it will be used. On the flip side, USC’s top two RBs—Stephen Carr and Vavae Malpeai—are both accomplished pass catchers. One could imagine that Harrell will be using them extensively in that role. Finally, it’ll be interesting to see how the Bru McCoy drama unfolds. The supremely talented freshman WR at one point decided to transfer to Texas, only to decide to transfer back. Whether or not the NCAA decides to hold him out a year remains to be seen. If he gains full eligibility, he could become a real X-factor for USC.
Either way, USC’s offensive line has to become much better, even while learning new assignments and the kind of spacing that Harrell’s offense requires. The Trojans gave up 27 sacks a year ago while finishing 10th in the conference in rushing offense—despite having two all-conference seniors in Toa Lobendahn and Chuma Edoga anchoring the line. This year, the Trojans will rely on their tackles—junior Austin Jackson and senior transfer (from Tennessee) Drew Richmond to help cover up for an interior line that, on paper, doesn’t look like a strength despite the presence of steady Andrew Vorhees at LG. There is talent here, but recent history of underdevelopment is a concern.
The running back situation is relatively stable. The graduation of Aca’cedric Ware—a name that gives me fits whenever I have to type it—leaves a big gap. But Carr and Malpeai are both productive and experienced backs when healthy. 230-lb RS freshman Markese Stepp will figure into the rotation and has “beast” potential. The real question is how this unit will be leveraged in Harrell’s offense.
USC has endured poor offensive seasons in the past, but it really is unusual when both its offense and defense are bottom-half kinds of units. Such was the case in 2018, where Clancy Pendergast’s defense failed to compensate for Tee Martin’s offensive deficiencies. The Trojans ranked seventh in the conference in total defense. While injuries (including six games missed by star pass rush specialist Porter Gustin) were a factor, the truth is that the Trojans were as unathletic and undisciplined on D as any USC defense we’ve seen in recent history.
The good news is that there is an overhaul of youth and athleticism on the way. The Trojans will be replacing nine starters/significant contributors from the 2018 defense and, in most cases, will be doing so with higher upside players.
This overhaul is most obvious in the defensive secondary where key players such as Iman Marshall, Marvell Tell, Anjene Harris and Jonathan Lockett have all moved on. There are too many high-level recruits to count all those vying to define their roles. CBs Greg Johnson and Olijiah Griffin both played last year and will step into leadership roles this season. Safeties Talanoa Hufunga (who finished fifth on the team in tackles despite missing much of the year with a broken collarbone), Isaiah Pola-Mao, and C.J. Pollard all figure heavily into Pendergast’s plans. Young players like 6’2” CBs Isaac Taylor-Stuart and Chase Williams make up a group of 11 incoming freshmen who will compete for time. Among those is true freshman Chris Steele who committed to Florida, spent the spring in Gainesville, then decided to transfer to USC—the program he originally committed to. If he gains eligibility, he could be a factor.
The linebacking unit will also welcome a few fresh faces with the departures of Gustin and the venerable Cameron Smith. Fortunately, the inside backers are set with seniors John Houston and Jordan Iosefa. Houston is leader of the defense and has the requisite combination of speed and size to be an all-conference performer. Moving from the outside to the inside this year may unleash that potential. Iosefa is more of a thumper who holds up well in rush defense but can be exposed sideline to sideline.
The rest of the middle units will be made of some young players, all of whom are a) talented and b) untested. ILB Palaie Gaoteote IV and OLB Hunter Echols are two examples of very talented players who will be counted on to break out as contributors in 2019. Also keep an eye on 6’4” 240-lb OLB Abdul-Malik McClain, who has the potential to earn significant snaps for a unit starving for pass rush productivity.
The defensive line is perhaps the most stable USC defensive unit. Stars Christian Rector and Jay Tufele both return after accounting for the majority of this unit’s TFLs and sacks a year ago. DT Marlon Tuipulotu also returns after having a relatively healthy and productive 2018.
Some new faces are going to have to contribute if this line is going to reach its full potential. DT Brandon Pili has been around awhile but really hasn’t become the kind of player his 6’4” 325-lb frame suggests he can be. Super recruit Drake Jackson, at 260 lbs and lightning quick, is also going to have to pop in order for USC to reach its potential up front. All in all, the D-line is probably a strength for USC, but clearly there will be a dependence on some stars aligning with the younger players in order for this to emerge as a top-tier PAC 12 unit.
One Breakout Player
LB Palaie Gaoteote
Gaoteote has a difficult name to spell, so my recommendation is that all you fans out there start studying. You’ll undoubtedly be seeing it quite a bit.
The former five-star recruit really came on strong to close out the 2018 season. At 6’2” and 250 lbs, he has the physical tools to play every down. He is gifted with extreme quickness and a high-level motor. As such, he can play just about any position across the linebacking unit. I expect that he’ll end up playing a lot on the weakside for Clancy Pendergast as the Trojans’ DC looks for ways to create pressure on opposing QBs. For this reason alone, I could see Gaoteote pick up many of the sacks that Porter Gustin leaves behind and becoming the true breakout star on the Trojans defense this season.
Projecting the Trojans is a challenge just about every year. There always seems to be a weird mix of superstars leaving at the same time uber-recruits are arriving. Factor in all of the mania that always surrounds this program and a prognosticator can find himself easily distracted.
Am I right, Will Ferrell?
I do expect some oddities to normalize in the Trojans’ favor this year. For example, USC intercepted just four passes last year, leading to a -10 turnover ratio (worst in the PAC). That seems more a factor of chance than execution. Similarly, USC’s five-year stretch of averaging about 900 yards per year in penalties just seems like it is bound to reverse itself following Helton’s overhaul of his coaching staff (UW has averaged around 600 yards per season over that time period), which should help with overall drive efficiency.
That said, USC is still USC and certain things are going to go against them. Young players do make mistakes. This secondary is going to give up big plays on assignment breakdowns and the offensive line is going to put the offense behind the chains too often for comfort. All of this might be more than offset by the emergence and development of some of the premier talent this team has assembled. Or it might not.
The schedule won’t be an ally. The Trojans will play Stanford in week two, will road trip to Washington and Notre Dame in back-to-back games (with a bye in between) and conclude with a tough string of vs. Oregon, at ASU, at Cal, and vs. UCLA. Their misses this year are Oregon State and Washington State. All told, this may be one of the toughest schedules in the PAC.
Because of that, I’m projecting USC’s 2019 ceiling to be contention for the South and bowl eligibility. There are four high-confidence wins on the schedule. I could see them taking four more among the six or seven toss-ups that are out there, giving them eight-to-nine-win potential overall.
But I don’t believe that the Trojans will ultimately have enough juice to claim the South title. Without a significant upset along the way (like a Washington or Notre Dame), I project that the Trojans will end up in a mid-tier bowl game with an interim coach at the helm to end the season.