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Can new defensive staff put a charge into Clay Helton and USC football?

Southern California head coach Clay Helton argues with an official in the second half of an NCAA college football game against BYU, Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019, in Provo, Utah. BYU defeated USC 30-27. (AP Photo/George Frey)
(ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The energy was palpable. The messaging purposeful. But one by one, as USC’s new assistants introduced themselves last week, each promising old-school toughness and preaching a lost form of physicality, the same, underlying question remained.

With the same head coach still in charge, how much change is actually possible for USC’s football program?

A first glimpse comes Wednesday, as the Trojans open spring practice with a fleet of new assistants, an influx of new resources, and a newly rebuilt defense, remade in the old-school image of new coordinator Todd Orlando.

For Clay Helton, the embattled coach, spring offers a chance to start anew, after a relatively strong finish to the 2019 season went south in a Holiday Bowl blowout. Five coaches were fired in the weeks that followed that loss, while Helton remained the last man standing from his 2016 staff.

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There has been plenty of change in the months since, as USC scooped up Orlando out of Texas, hired one of the Pac-12’s top recruiters (Donte Williams) from Oregon, and swung for the fences on the rest of its staff. With so much invested around him this offseason and so much talent set to return on the field, the edict to win is now abundantly clear for USC’s coach.

Arizona State point guard Remy Martin grew up watching some of the best high school players in Los Angeles. It helped make him one of the top players in the Pac-12.

“He’s well aware of the expectations and the commitments we’ve made,” athletic director Mike Bohn said.

Here are five questions facing the Trojans heading into the spring:

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How will the defense be different with Todd Orlando and his new scheme in place?

Orlando has already begun the process of installing his multiple 3-3-5 defense, which uses a mix of three- and four-man fronts to confuse offenses. That should be a bit different from the primarily four-man front that Clancy Pendergast used and could mean changes up front. Though, the commitment to constant pressure should be a comfortable one for a defense that ranked third in the Pac-12 in sacks last season.

The more significant shift on defense, according to Orlando, will happen mentally. He has promised to turn up the physicality in practice, while also griping about NCAA rules that preclude them from tackling more.

His goal this spring, Orlando said, is “to create chaos and see if these guys can respond to it.” The strategy has worked for him before, as his defenses at Utah State, Houston and Texas all made immediate improvements in Year 1.

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How will USC replace its bookends on the offensive line?

With all but four starters returning, there aren’t many position battles to monitor this spring. The exception comes up front, where both starting tackle spots are very much up for grabs.

On the eve of the Pac-12 Conference basketball tournament, growing fears of the coronavirus and the deep field on the court create uncertainty.

Given the Trojans’ lack of depth at offensive tackle, some shuffling should be expected. Alijah Vera-Tucker was arguably USC’s best lineman last season at left guard and should get the first crack at filling the vacancy left by Austin Jackson at left tackle. Redshirt freshman Jason Rodriguez, who has the size of a prototype blindside protector, could also get a serious look at the position.

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An answer on the right side should come a bit easier. Jalen McKenzie looked on his way to winning the job last fall, before he was shifted inside late in fall camp. With a good spring, he should grab hold of it again. If he does, expect redshirt junior Andrew Voorhees to slot in at right guard, where he has 20 games of starting experience.

Will there really be a quarterback competition (again)?

Six months after he tore his anterior cruciate ligament, it’s unclear how much competing JT Daniels is capable of. The former five-star recruit and freshman starter was sidelined after just two quarters last season, ceding the job to Kedon Slovis, whose stellar season made him the Pac-12 offensive freshman of the year.

Slovis injured his elbow in the bowl game, and he’ll be monitored closely over the next month. Even if he were to sit out the spring, Slovis did more than enough last fall to steal the starting job, as he completed 71% of his passes for 3,502 yards, with 30 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

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Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell reiterated last week that the most significant growth for quarterbacks in his system comes between Year 1 and Year 2.

Vicky Oganyan has been the girls basketball coach at Burbank Burroughs High since she was 24. This past season, she played for Glendale College at age 40.

What will be seen from Bru McCoy?

At this time last year, McCoy was earning rave reviews out of spring practice at Texas, where he decided to transfer after Kliff Kingsbury left USC for the Arizona Cardinals. It’s been quite the saga ever since for the five-star freshman from Santa Ana Mater Dei, as McCoy eventually transferred back to USC, where he was stricken with a mysterious illness soon after.

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Now, after a difficult redshirt season, McCoy is healthy, eligible and ready to contribute on an offense stacked with proven receivers. The question is what kind of opportunity he’ll receive with so few available targets to go around.

As spring begins, junior Amon-ra St. Brown, senior Tyler Vaughns and sophomore Drake London are essentially locked in as starters. Throw in sophomore Munir McClain, redshirt freshman Kyle Ford and freshmen Joshua Jackson Jr. and Gary Bryant Jr., and it’s a crowded rotation to break into for a young wideout, even for one as talented as McCoy.

With Daniel Imatorbhebhe returning, will tight ends play a bigger part on offense?

Even as the Trojans built one of the nation’s most prolific passing attacks a season ago, the tight end position was almost entirely ignored. Tight ends Erik Krommenhoek and Josh Falo combined for 15 receptions, the same amount as running back Vavae Malepeai had.

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That focus could shift in 2020, with the long-awaited return of Imatorbhebhe, who last played for USC in December of 2017. Imatorbhebhe burst onto the scene as a freshman during USC’s Rose Bowl run before injuries cost him most of his next two seasons. He spent last year away from the team entirely.

New tight ends coach John David Baker noted that USC would prefer more formations with one tight end and three receivers, but it will require one of those tight ends to prove they are worthy of a more significant role. Imatorbhebhe had 17 catches and four touchdowns in 2016.


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