USC’s passing game has its limits in more ways than one

USC receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown hauls in a long pass against Fresno State at the Coliseum on Aug. 31.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

When his youngest son, Amon-ra St. Brown, first arrived at USC, John Brown insisted to coach Clay Helton that the five-star freshman receiver earn every opportunity he was given. From an early age, Brown encouraged his three sons to embrace competition at every turn, pushing them constantly to push themselves.

“If he doesn’t earn it,” Brown said, “don’t give it to him.”

It didn’t take long for Amon-ra, perhaps the most talented receiver of the St. Brown trio, to earn a major role in the Trojans’ offense. As a freshman, he led USC in receptions with 60. This season, he’s tied with Michael Pittman Jr. for the team lead in touchdown catches with four.

Against Notre Dame last week, St. Brown had eight catches for 112 yards and a touchdown in one of his finest performances to date.

“One on one,” said quarterback Kedon Slovis, “you can’t stop him.”


But as John Brown sees it, there are still a few things standing in the way of his son’s ascent as an elite receiver. He believes St. Brown has been miscast in Graham Harrell’s offense, which has used him almost exclusively in the slot. He wonders why all of USC’s talented receivers aren’t moved around more, “so they’re not as predictable,” Brown said.

Stopping Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate will be among USC’s top priorities as the Trojans look to pick up their third Pac-12 victory of the season.

Oct. 18, 2019

He’s not alone in his frustration about USC’s offense. With the Trojans sitting at 3-3 heading into their game Saturday against Arizona, the past month has raised plenty of questions around the program, some founded, some less so.

Harrell’s highly anticipated Air Raid scheme is only middling in the Pac-12 Conference in total offense (sixth at 428.8 yards a game) and scoring (eighth at 29.0 points) at the midway point of his first season as USC’s offensive coordinator.

For an offense that has dealt with admittedly difficult circumstances all season, a matchup with Arizona and its 129th-ranked pass defense is as ideal an opportunity as any for USC to answer questions about its direction.

But while Harrell remains confident and Helton praises his coordinator’s adjustments, John Brown questions if the issue is more fundamental than systems or schemes.

“We embrace competition,” Brown said, “and I’m not sure they embrace competition over there.”

Cultivating competition was one of Helton’s main directives heading into the season. He carried out a weeks-long battle at quarterback, even as JT Daniels remained the odds-on favorite throughout. That competition undoubtedly played a part in readying the freshman Slovis to take his place when Daniels suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first game.

But at receiver, the correlation has been less clear. When Harrell installed his offense in the offseason, he reiterated his desire to have eight capable receivers rotating through his up-tempo attack. But through six games, USC has spread the ball around to its receivers less than at any point in Helton’s tenure as coach.

Three receivers — St. Brown, Pittman and Tyler Vaughns — have accounted for more than 71% of USC’s receptions. Freshmen Drake London and Munir McClain, who earned rave reviews during fall camp, have combined for five catches, while Devon Williams had one before entering the transfer portal. Velus Jones Jr., who had 24 receptions last season, has yet to catch a pass.


“Part of it is just the way it’s played out,” Harrell said. “We haven’t had as many plays as we thought would play out offensively. At North Texas,” where he previously coached, “we were getting 100 plays in a game.”

At USC, long drives have been harder to come by. Harrell’s offense has averaged just 67 plays per game, which has limited options.

It didn’t take long for opposing defenses to find a method for stifling Harrell’s approach. Since USC’s September loss to Brigham Young, defenses have routinely dropped eight into zone coverage, leaving tighter windows in which to throw and fewer opportunities downfield.

The Trojans have struggled to adjust since, going 1-3, with their only victory coming against a Utah defense that played primarily man coverage.

“We still try to get them the football, there’s just tighter windows, less opportunities,” Harrell said. “It is what it is.”

A stronger commitment to the run has worked at times to counter that strategy, earning praise from Helton.

But Harrell’s in-game commitment to the ground game hasn’t been quite as overt as Helton suggests. USC’s percentage of called run plays has actually fallen from 49% over the first three games to 47% in its last three.

The USC Song Girls, who were shut out from performing at basketball games by former athletic director Lynn Swann, will be back at the Galen Center this season.

Oct. 18, 2019

On first downs, only pass-happy Washington State has run the ball fewer times, despite the fact that USC’s first-down runs have been more successful than those of every Pac-12 team but Utah.

New wrinkles from opposing teams, meanwhile, have been a source of consternation. After Notre Dame stifled USC’s offense early last week, Harrell bemoaned that its defense used looks it never had before. “What you see on tape is never what you see on gameday, it seems, anymore,” Harrell said.

When asked about his coordinator’s observation, Helton chuckled.

“Welcome to USC,” he said with a grin. “That’s been my whole 10 years here.”

In his second season, St. Brown has no complaints about USC’s offense. He acknowledges that “we’re seeing coverages we’re not really used to.”

“But I love the offense,” he said.

As USC enters the second half of its schedule, it’ll need more from that offense — and from its new offensive coordinator. But as Arizona’s porous defense awaits, Helton is confident that USC has made the necessary adjustments to deliver the offense that he hired Harrell to run.

“We’re very, very close offensively to busting open,” Helton said, “and I’m hoping it’s this week.”