Hollywood, Calif. • The Pac-12′s flagship program took the stage to end the conference’s Football Media Day, facing questions that will produce some answers by the middle of this season.
The school’s history makes USC intriguing every year. The current state of Trojans raises the curiosity index even higher in 2019.
USC is coming off its first losing season (5-7) in nearly 20 years and tackling a front-loaded schedule that includes games against Pac-12 South reigning champion Utah, overall winner Washington and highly regarded Notre Dame. Mix in meetings with Fresno State, Stanford and BYU in those first six games, and it becomes clear that everyone will know where coach Clay Helton and the Trojans stand as of mid-October.
At that stage, Helton could be fired. He also may be the front-runner for Pac-12 Coach of the Year. While the Trojans are in turmoil, they also have “talent coming out of their ears,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “There's no change in that respect. They're as talented as any team in the country.”
USC didn’t play that way last October, being statistically overwhelmed in a 41-28 loss to Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium. The product the Trojans displayed that night was stunningly poor, to anyone familiar with USC’s tradition. It is just as inconceivable that USC could remain at that level, according to voters who made the Trojans a strong No. 2 choice behind Utah in the Pac-12 South in this week’s official media poll.
The Trojans believe they’re positioned for a bounce-back year, acknowledging their 2018 struggles and being tired of hearing about them. “I don’t want to be that guy that people are looking at like, ‘You let USC fall.’ So I’m doing anything and everything,” said receiver Michael Pittman Jr., who made the preseason all-conference first team along with USC defensive lineman Jay Tufele, a sophomore from Bingham High School.
Helton was far from defensive Wednesday as he fielded questions about USC’s status. He said the standard stuff that coaches say after a lousy year, about demanding more of his players. In the Trojans’ case, they have the kind of personnel that can turn those promises into production.
“The heat got turned up a little bit in the spring, and I felt it was nice. I thought our kids thrived off of it,” Helton said. “When you have a 5-7 season … you own it yourself as the leader and you look at yourself truthfully of what you have to do to get better. You can either hide your head in the sand or you can address the issues, have very brutally honest conversations with the men around you of how to get better and institute that. And that was the biggest thing … to make changes that need to be changed, to put a point of emphasis on some things that I felt beat us last year, make those corrections, and now move on to the 2019 season.”
The biggest change came at offensive coordinator, a position where the initial hiring of Kliff Kingsbury became another element in the view of USC as a crumbling program. But who could have imagined Kinsgbury’s becoming the head coach of the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals, having been fired by Texas Tech? Helton responded by picking another Air Raid disciple, former North Texas offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, and he liked the look of the scheme in spring practice.
USC’s first six games of the 2019 season:
Aug. 31 – Fresno State
Sept. 7 – Stanford
Sept. 14 – at BYU
Sept. 20 – Utah
Sept. 28 – at Washington
Oct. 12 – at Notre Dame
It’s a spread offense, but not an all-out passing approach, as with other members of the Mike Leach coaching tree. USC will keep running the ball, while a simplified passing game is designed for sophomore quarterback JT Daniels to get rid of the ball quickly.
The Trojans do have playmakers on the outside, notably Pittman and Amon-Ra St. Brown. “I didn't want any confusion or hesitation from our skilled athletes,” Helton said, “and to allow [sophomore] Devon Williams and kids like himself to really thrive and not be confused … to take the brain out of the process and just let the talent prevail.”
That strategy has worked for USC in the past. We’ll soon know how it will play out in 2019.