The Trojans hope a change at offensive coordinator can help quarterback JT Daniels take a big step forward
USC was remarkably bad last year. For the first time since before Pete Carroll arrived, USC (5-7) finished with a losing record. It wasn’t just the losing record, however, it was the continuous mistakes, the inability to adjust, and the constant breakdowns in communication. This combination of miscues was just too much for the Trojans to overcome, which is another indictment of the coaching staff.
But the issues for the Men of Troy run deeper than just the lack of wins. Last year's team couldn't seem to find its rhythm over a prolonged period and in the few instances that did occur, it didn't matter because USC's opponent simply outplayed the Trojans from the opening kickoff. Also, it was never just one thing that short-circuited USC in 2018. It was a combination of occurrences like penalties, turnovers, and other self-inflicted mistakes.
The Trojans' offseason makeover got off to a great start with the hire of former Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury as offensive coordinator. But after just a few weeks, the Arizona Cardinals hired Kingsbury as their head coach and he was off to the NFL.
Helton then turned to Graham Harrell, the offensive coordinator at North Texas. Like Kingsbury, Harrell is a former Red Raiders quarterback who played for and coached under Mike Leach. USC ultimately felt the sting of losing Kingsbury in the recruiting game, but still were able to cobble together a top-20 class.
Now Helton and company must show that last year was just a bump in the road and that the Trojans can get back to contending in the Pac-12. That process starts this spring as USC looks to overhaul its offense as well as tighten up the fundamentals, develop a new identity and lay the ground work for what hopefully will be a more successful 2019 campaign.
5 Storylines to Watch During USC's Spring Practice
1. How does Graham Harrell approach practice?
In the five seconds that Kliff Kingsbury was USC's offensive coordinator he had said that every spot on the depth chart was open, including quarterback. It’s possible that Harrell takes the same approach, but it’s also possible he looks at JT Daniels as the Trojans' future at the position. Daniels appears to have the skill set to be a productive Air Raid quarterback, which is Harrell's preferred offensive philosophy, so it's just a matter of how quickly Daniels learns the playbooks and gets on the same page with his new OC.
Harrell's offenses at North Texas were productive, but leaned heavily towards the pass, finishing 12th in the nation in that category in 2018 compared to 87th in rushing offense. USC will still need to run the ball as part of the reason Tee Martin was dismissed is because the Trojans struggled mightily to run the ball (106th) last season. Even with Harrell's arrival, USC won't abandon the run, as there's too much tradition and history when it comes to the Trojans and the running back position. So while Harrell will need to find his quarterback, he also will need to install an offense that maintains some sort of running game while meeting the desired criteria of being more innovative, creative, and most of all, productive.
2. Has JT Daniels matured?
Speaking of Daniels, he certainly did not have the type of year he was hoping for in 2018. The true freshman struggled with his accuracy (59.5 percent) while tossing nearly as many touchdowns (14) as interceptions (10). He finished third in the Pac-12 in passing yards per game (242.9) but was ninth in passer rating (128.55). There is plenty of room for growth, which is another reason why Harrell's arrival is so important. If he can help Daniels take that next step, then USC's offense should likewise improve. In particular, pay attention to Daniels' accuracy and footwork this spring, as Harrell's offense won't succeed if the quarterback can't connect with his receivers.
Daniels came into USC highly regarded and no one was surprised that he ended up with the starting job. But now's the time to show why he was such a sought-after recruit coming out of high school.
3. Who steps up at cornerback?
USC is losing a lot at the cornerback position and this comes after a season in which the Trojans gave up 20 touchdown passes and recorded a total of four interceptions. This position was a point of emphasis in recruiting and while the coaching staff landed some intriguing names, they don't come without question marks.
Max Williams is one of the key signees in USC's 2019 class but he is recovering from a torn ACL. The Trojans flipped Adonis Otey from Arkansas, while also signing local junior college transfer Jaylen Watson and Washington product Trey Davis, but the pressure is on for more than one of these guys to show they are ready to play right away following the departures of Ajene Harris, Iman Marshall, Isaiah Langley, Jonathan Lockett, and Marvell Tell. Adding to the issues at cornerback is the recent news that Greg Johnson has announced his intention to transfer. His departure leaves just five scholarship cornerbacks on the roster heading into spring practice.
4. What sort of identity does USC have leaving spring?
As mentioned earlier, identity will be a big part of what USC tries to do on offense. This is a program that has had an offensive identity for a number of years but one that failed to produce much success last season. It’s now up to Harrell to find a way to retool the Trojans' running game and blend it with his preferred passing attack. This spring will be critical to that process as USC is starting over from scratch in many aspects.
Expect Harrell to be very demanding during spring practices. He is going to insist the Trojans learn these concepts so they can focus more on implementation and fine-tuning in fall camp. USC needs to get off to a fast start once the season kicks off and Harrell knows this. That's why he needs his players to get make up a lot of ground this spring.
5. Have the Trojans cleaned up their mistakes?
Turnovers, self-inflicted mistakes, and penalties were the bane of USC’s existence last year. The Trojans couldn’t seem to get out of their own way. For every 10 yards forward, the Trojans went 20 yards the opposite direction. Time after time, USC drives and scoring opportunities were short-circuited or erased by some mistake or combination of miscues.
Helton made it a point to promise fans that discipline would be a huge focus this year. Not only did he seem to understand that the penalties were getting comically absurd, he also seemed to grasp that the Trojans needed to be better with the opportunities they have on offense in general. Like the penalties, execution is something that left a lot to be desired.
Nobody beat the Trojans in 2018 quite like the Trojans themselves. If that is to change in 2019, the process starts this spring.
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.