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USC’s talent could spark revival in Clay Helton’s make-or-break year

USC coach Clay Helton speaks to one of his players during a game against Stanford in September.
USC coach Clay Helton speaks to one of his players during a game against Stanford in September. Helton is entering a critical year with the Trojans.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Clay Helton had no choice but to own it. He understood the damage a 5-7 season had done at USC. He knew that his seat at the helm of one of college football’s premier programs was hotter than perhaps anywhere else in America. There was no sense in hiding from any of that.

“When you have a 5-7 season, you’re going to hear it,” Helton said at Pac-12 media day. “And it’s deserved. It’s well-deserved.”

Helton has heard plenty of criticism over the course of a long, depressing offseason, and until the Trojans prove themselves in a down Pac-12 conference picture, he’s sure to hear plenty more. But as Helton enters a make-or-break campaign at USC, with his job very much in jeopardy, the Trojans have the talent to make a major turnaround, if his staff can make the necessary adjustments.

Helton has done his best to make those changes. He hired an offensive coordinator with a radically different approach. He preached accountability all spring, stunning his players with his uncharacteristic seriousness. Those adjustments, heading into fall camp, have players believing that 2018 might’ve been just a random blip in the budding career of a great football coach.

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“We had one bad year, it happens,” USC wideout Michael Pittman Jr. said. “Think of Nick Saban when he was with LSU. Was he the coach he is today? I’m going to say no he wasn’t. Sometimes it happens for you, sometimes it doesn’t. Last season, it just didn’t happen.”

Here are five questions the Trojans will try to answer during training camp:

When will JT Daniels take the reins (again) at QB?

It may seem like a foregone conclusion that JT Daniels, the consensus five-star recruit and true freshman starter already scripted as the next great USC quarterback, will at some point assume his rightful place atop the depth chart. But destiny apparently will have to wait out the duration of fall camp.

When asked at Pac-12 media day how long a purported position battle might last, Helton didn’t hesitate. He has no plans of just handing the potential star sophomore the job. At least ... for now.

“I do want 25 practices,” Helton said. “I want our quarterbacks to have to feel competition, to improve. I think that’s healthy.”

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USC quarterback JT Daniels signals touchdown on a catch during a game in September 2018.
USC quarterback JT Daniels signals touchdown on a catch during a game in September 2018.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Whether USC will actually drag out a decision that seems so inevitable remains to be seen. In a competition with sophomore Jack Sears, who has one career start, redshirt junior Matt Fink, who nearly transferred to Illinois this offseason, and three-star true freshman Kedon Slovis, Daniels appears to be the obvious choice. He started 11 games as an 18-year-old last season, throwing for 2,672 yards and 14 touchdowns and, in spurts, showing the potential to live up to his five-star promise.

But that freshman campaign wasn’t exactly a picture of consistency. Daniels had four multi-interception games. His completion percentage dipped below 54% in four of his 11 starts, too. He’ll be expected to iron out those inconsistencies in the coming weeks, as he continues to further grasp Graham Harrell’s new offense.

“I know for Graham, a large part of it is the decision making that a young man has to get the ball to the right person with a sense of urgency and great timing,” Helton said. “Is he throwing that ball accurately? Is he giving our guys enough time in space to be able to make plays in space?”

Will we see top transfers Bru McCoy or Chris Steele?

As camp begins, two of USC’s most talented top recruits remain in NCAA transfer limbo, with no word on when a decision will be made on their status for this season.

Bru McCoy, a five-star talent from Santa Ana Mater Dei, enrolled at USC last January, only to announce his transfer two weeks later to Texas. His performance during spring practice earned him early plaudits in Austin. But a bout of homesickness convinced the top recruit to transfer back to USC, where, barring a waiver from the NCAA, he’ll have to sit out the 2019 season.

Chris Steele, USC’s other highly touted freshman transfer, may have the best case to play right away. A four-star cornerback, Steele committed to USC last summer, before eventually signing with Florida. He spent one semester at Florida, before mitigating circumstances unrelated to football led him to enter the transfer portal. Steele then committed to Oregon, before ultimately flipping back to USC, where he could compete right away for an open spot at cornerback, if he winds up eligible.

“Hopefully we’ll know something before Game 1,” Helton said. “I anticipate that. But we’re in that process right now.”

Will USC’s touted young playmakers make the leap on defense?

It didn’t take long for Drake Jackson to turn heads. Before even celebrating his 18th birthday, the four-star early enrollee at defensive end was already drawing comparisons this spring to former Trojan star Leonard Williams, who was drafted sixth overall by the New York Jets in 2015.

His eye-opening spring performance hasn’t quite solidified Jackson’s spot as USC’s new primary sack artist just yet. He’ll need some time to develop, regardless of his possible first-round pedigree. But Porter Gustin’s departure leaves that role urgently vacant heading into the season. The arrival of a potential superstar pass rusher would certainly help matters up front.

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J. Brady McCollough examines the 25 biggest storylines in college football heading into the season. The second installment looks at what’s ahead for USC and UCLA.

“By the time he leaves this place,” Helton said of Jackson, “he’ll be known as one of our great players.”

Jackson isn’t the only young playmaker with a shot to make an outsized impact on USC’s defense. In fact, he isn’t the only one in his own apartment.

Palaie Gaoteote IV, his roommate, primarily sat behind departed senior Cameron Smith last season, but flashed at linebacker in the few opportunities he was given. The touted prospect will be expected to take on a larger role at weakside linebacker in 2019. Considering what we’ve seen thus far from him, a huge leap in his sophomore season could be in the cards.

Will a lead running back emerge?

It’s not entirely clear yet what type of role or rotation USC’s new offense envisions for its running backs. In some iterations of the “Air Raid” system, the running back is relegated to more of a backfield receiver role.

Regardless of who carries the ball and how often, it can’t get much worse than last season for USC’s run game. Only two Pac-12 teams ran for fewer yards (1,602) than the Trojans in 2018. Their leading rusher, Aca’Cedric Ware, finished with 826 yards -- the lowest total for a leading rusher at USC in the past five seasons.

A shock to the system could help jump-start a sputtering run game. Air Raid assumptions aside, Harrell and Helton have made it clear that the run game will remain a vital part of USC’s new, up-tempo offense. The question now, as a stable of running backs vie for their share of carries in camp, is which best fits that new system.

Redshirt junior Vavae Malepeai, who led the team with eight rushing touchdowns a year ago, is the most likely to lead USC’s rotation of backs early on. Junior Stephen Carr has offered brief glimpses of greatness in between injury issues, but should play a role if he’s healthy. And redshirt freshman Markese Stepp, who impressed in the spring, could offer a different type of look, given his physical rushing style.

Can USC weather big changes up front?

Halfway through last season, amid myriad offensive struggles, USC fired its offensive line coach. The change didn’t help matters much.

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Now, the Trojans find themselves facing even more wholesale changes up front. Three of last season’s five starters are now in NFL training camps. Only left tackle Austin Jackson and right guard Andrew Voorhees return with starting experience, leaving three spots presumably up for grabs as camp begins.

At center and left guard, respectively, Alijah Vera-Tucker and Brett Neilon took advantage of their opportunities during the spring. But at right tackle, the competition remains especially wide open. Last year’s backup, Jalen McKenzie, ran with the first team most of the spring, but could be pushed by Tennessee transfer Drew Richmond, who boasts more starting experience.

While Harrell’s offense, with its quick-fire, up-tempo philosophy, should help mitigate the line’s inexperience to some degree, there are still plenty of questions to be answered up front over the next month.


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