The turbulent offseason that preceded the USC Trojans' 2019 campaign was just an omen of things to come. The first thing that happened during the season was the loss of quarterback JT Daniels for the year with an ACL injury. The team also fired defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast and said goodbye to a number of other people associated with the program. For USC, it was a program overhaul without firing the head coach.
While the program might have been in turmoil, there was a very bright light in quarterback Kedon Slovis. The Arizona product had a spectacular season. He was the Pac-12 Freshman Offensive Player of the Year. While Daniels is a true blue-chip and will make his claim for starting quarterback, Slovis is a legit threat to take the job and likely should be considered the favorite.
With a bevy of receivers returning and the inclusion of top prospect Jack Yary at tight end, the Trojans are going to be an offensive powerhouse. The big question mark is new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando and what sort of approach he will bring to the Trojans. If the Trojans can improve upon their defensive output, this team could be a surprise contender for the Pac-12 South crown.
5 Storylines to Watch During USC's Spring Practice
1. Quarterback battle
This is the biggest thing to watch out for this spring. These two are the future of the program and will be competing tooth and nail for the starting spot. Should one of them slack off during the season, the other will be there waiting and will happily take the position away. These are two guys that have a little bit of everything, and while Slovis might be a touch more refined, having been coached by Pro Football Hall of Famer Kurt Warner, Daniels has the bigger arm and might be a little more fearless.
Whether offensive coordinator Graham Harrell will go with Slovis or Daniels will largely depend on both spring and fall camp. Unless it’s painfully obvious that Daniels was not fully healthy from his ACL injury, it’s hugely improbable Harrell will name a starter coming out of spring camp. It’s a battle that will likely be settled after fall, maybe a game or two into the season.
2. Replacing Michael Pittman Jr.
Pittman was the latest great receiving product to come out of USC. He has the size, the speed, the route-running ability, and the hops to become the premier wideout for an NFL team in this upcoming Draft, and he will likely go in the first few rounds. Pittman's going to be a guy who contributes on Sunday and contributed in a huge way on Saturdays for the Trojans during his stint with them. Replacing 2,519 career yards and 19 touchdowns will be no small task.
The likely candidates to step up and replace this kind of talent are Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns. Vaughns had 912 yards on 74 receptions, while St. Brown had 1,042 on 77 catches. Their games are a little different, but both of them benefit from the fact that USC has receivers contributing at every position. Vaughns was 88 yards short of giving USC three 1,000 yards receivers on the year.
Other possible options include three members of the 2019 recruiting class — Kyle Ford, Drake London, and Bru McCoy. London was the most productive (39 catches for 567 yards) of the trio while Ford and McCoy were able to maintain their redshirt status. All three figure to see an increase in opportunities in 2020.
3. New faces in the receiving corps
The fact that the Trojans have that kind of output is no surprise to anyone who’s watched them recently. There’s always someone waiting at the receiver position to make a name for themselves. There’s always a top-end recruit the Trojans can expect to come in and contribute right away either by force or by necessity. 2020 is no different.
This year the Trojans have newcomers Gary Bryant Jr. and Joshua Jackson Jr. Bryant is a four-star prospect and the nation’s no. 45 recruit, the seventh-best at his position. Bryant is 5-foot-11, 164-pounds. Jackson is a 6-foot-1, 179-pound kid who wasn’t on any recruiting hot-charts, but the Trojans have had enough success recruiting receivers that they warrant the benefit of the doubt. Either way, Bryant Jr. was on everyone’s hot charts for recruiting, and USC is expecting a lot out of him.
4. Can the Trojans manufacture a run game?
The Trojans’ run game in 2019 was well below the national standard as well as their own standard. As a team, the Trojans only managed 1,537 yards. The USC rushing offense was the nation’s No. 118-ranked, a measly 3.9 yards per carry. If the Trojans wish to compete in 2020, they’re going to have to do better than trying to shoe-horn St. Brown into an Adoree’ Jackson-type role. It’s simply not his game at the collegiate level, and that’s okay.
The trio of Vavae Malepeai, Stephen Carr, and Markese Stepp had some success last year, but they’re going to need to improve across the board or USC will find issues. There were a number of injuries that slowed the Trojans down in 2019, and they could very well have a breakout season if all three can stay healthy. There’s a style to all three, and all three are a joy to watch.
5. How does Todd Orlando fit in?
How new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando fits in with his new players is going to be a significant predictor as to how successful the Trojans will be carrying the football. Orlando is a coach that runs a lot of different looks and could very well provide USC with more newcomers seeing early playing time. Of course, this is a guy who was fired from his last gig for putting out one of the most porous and weak defenses in the nation.
Under Orlando, Texas finished no. 97 in total defense and no. 65 in scoring defense last season. It wasn’t good enough for the Longhorns, and that kind of output won’t be good enough for USC. He had tremendous success at Utah State and Houston, in some way or another, but he failed to parlay that success into more success at Texas after his first year there. USC needs a steady hand to guide them or there won’t likely be a second season for them.
— Written by Josh Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.