Freshman Kedon Slovis takes over for the revamped offense ahead of a difficult stretch
LOS ANGELES —Renovations to Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum completed this summer included acoustic-friendly architecture, meant to make the venerable stadium noisier on game days. But as USC quarterback JT Daniels lay on the turf late in the second quarter of a 31-23, Week 1 win over Fresno State, the Coliseum felt more like one of the libraries on the school's adjacent campus.
In real-time at the stadium, the way in which Daniels crumpled to the turf on Fresno State linebacker Justin Rice's clean tackle didn't look good. It looked worse on video replay. Sunday, USC head coach Clay Helton confirmed the same fears that silenced 57,000-plus in the Coliseum Saturday night.
"I regret to say, after the MRI, that JT Daniels did suffer an ACL injury, as well as a meniscus tear," Helton said on his Sunday teleconference call. "That surgery will happen in upcoming weeks after some rehab, and we will lose him for the season."
Daniels watched the second half from the sidelines on crutches and wearing street clothes, as true freshman Kedon Slovis manned the new-look offense. Slovis earned the praises of both Helton and teammates alike, but with the Trojans facing a gauntlet of a schedule — beginning immediately with rival Stanford coming to the Coliseum next week — a loud din permeates from Saturday's silence.
Will this be a case of 2018 deja vu?
USC's offensive woes a season ago sat front-and-center in the program's first sub-.500 finish in 18 years. Following two seasons of Sam Darnold, in which the San Clemente native became a USC folk hero with Rose Bowl and Pac-12 championships, Daniels took over a difficult task.
Starting as a true freshman is hard. Starting as a true freshman in the shadow of a legend is especially unenviable, magnified when it's for a program that expects title contention. While we may be long past an era when freshmen quarterbacks were expected to stand on the sideline wearing baseball caps and signaling to their veteran teammates, the immediate success of Clemson's Trevor Lawrence is still an aberration.
The position comes with a learning curve, and Daniels' numbers speak to it. He finished third in the Pac-12 in passing yards per game, but also completed fewer than 60 percent of his attempts and threw almost as many interceptions (10) as touchdowns (14).
The difference between the youngster Daniels and his predecessor, Darnold, was most evident in the rhythm of USC's offense. In 2018, sluggish and anemic stretches that followed hot starts punctuated critical losses, most notably to UCLA and Notre Dame. Having an experienced quarterback could, theoretically, address those consistency issues.
A pivotal 2019 campaign at USC kicked off with optimism about the offense. After ranking No. 91 nationally in scoring, Helton hired Graham Harrell, offensive coordinator of a potent passing attack at North Texas. Harrell's air-raid acumen, a deep and diverse wide receiving corps, and Daniels returning with a season's worth of experience as the starter.
And, as Helton put it, "they were glimpses of what this offense could be," especially in the early going. Daniels led touchdown drives on USC's first two possessions, including an 81-yard, 13-play march in which he went 10-of-11 passing.
He spread the ball among a variety of pass catchers. Last season's primary targets, Michael Pittman Jr. and Amon-Ra St. Brown, remain weapons. But the return to full strength of running back Stephen Carr showed off a new dimension to the offense. Carr demonstrated flashes as a dangerous pass catcher for Darnold in 2017, but injuries in each of the last two years limited his development. However, he recorded the first touchdown of the Harrell offensive era.
"I was really happy for Stephen, and Vavae [Malepeai] to go out and do what they did," Helton said. Malepeai rushed for 134 yards and scored a touchdown against Fresno State. His power rushing added a more traditional USC look to the pass-heavy attack.
"But I think we're all really happy for Stephen. I don't think people realize how hard that back surgery was on him," Helton added. "You just saw him gaining confidence in our spring training camp, as well as fall training camp. To see him go out and do what he did in the running game, average 9.3 yards per carry, and have six catches out of the backfield, making people miss in space like he did his freshman year, it was a great night for him."
And then there was Tyler Vaughns. At 150 yards, Vaughns set a new career high. He was a favorite target of Daniels before the injury, but also made a connection with Slovis that helped ostensibly seal the win, hauling in a 41-yard pass that led to Malepeai's goal-line touchdown run.
"I can't explain the adjustment; it's a 'feel' thing," Vaughns said in the difference playing with Slovis compared to Daniels. And how does the freshman gain comfort with the receiving corps to establish the necessary feel?
"Just repetitions. How many plays you run through in practice," Vaughns said. "We get about 80 plays a day in practice, so when it comes to the game, [Slovis lacked] repetitions [with the 1st team]. He never did it before."
That makes the coming week something of a crash course. It's not simply that USC sees a tough opponent in Week 2 with Stanford, which last year held the Daniels-quarterbacked Trojans to just three points, and in Week 1, gave up just seven points to Northwestern. It's not even that the always-tough Cardinal usher in Pac-12 early, meaning the result is the difference in an early leg up on the unpredictable South division or digging an early hole.
It's also that Stanford kicks off an absolutely brutal stretch for Slovis' first career starts. Week 3 opponent BYU ranked No. 24 nationally in scoring defense a season ago; Week 4 foe and reigning Pac-12 South champion Utah ranked No. 16. Washington, in Week 5, had the nation's best passing defense and ranked No. 5 in points allowed. Rival Notre Dame was 13th in scoring defense.
Stanford was actually worst among the quintet, by a considerable margin, and it kept USC out of the end zone a year ago.
All Slovis has to do in the coming weeks is develop that timing and chemistry with the first-string receivers, prepare for some of the most talented defenses in college football, and follow the script a proven quarterback guru in Harrell has written — but not too closely. Sticking to the script without some improvisation can lead to problems, as USC learned against Fresno State.
While the Trojans mounted three offensive touchdown drives against a defense that ranked in the nation's top five across a variety of categories a season ago, second and fourth quarter stagnation felt reminiscent of 2018.
Even before Daniels' injury, USC had two promising drives end on turnovers. The first — an interception thrown in the end zone — came as a result of the Trojans attacking a little too close to what the Bulldogs prepared to defend.
"[Linebackers] coach [Kenwich Thompson] kept harping all week, 'Stay on the hash, stay on the hash,' they're going to throw it right to you," said Rice, who both made the interception of Daniels, and delivered the sack on the quarterback's final play. "So I stayed on the hash, and they threw it right to me."
The checklist for Slovis is indeed long, far exceeding anything projected for most 3-star freshman recruits. But the Scottsdale [Ariz.] Desert Mountain product, who played his high school ball for NFL legend Kurt Warner, also has a unique opportunity.