LOS ANGELES — Cheers rose up from the cardinal-clad offense when USC wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. hauled in a deep touchdown pass at the Trojans' opening day of fall camp this past Friday.
The long scoring strike to Pittman showed both the potential of a new, higher-paced and more pass-prolific offense; and offered a glimpse into coach Clay Helton's decision to pluck offensive coordinator Graham Harrell from the air-raid coaching tree.
Perhaps as important as the execution was the response. The celebratory shouts echoing throughout Howard Jones Field contrast with the reality of USC's 2018 season, which oftentimes felt like more of a joyless slog than the disaster a 5-7 record might indicate.
"The offense is a lot of fun to run. I love up-tempo, I love going fast and seeing everybody move around, fly around," said running back Vavae Malepeai. "Whether it’s yourself scoring or your teammate scoring, that’s the best part of the game."
Such instances were fleeting for the 2018 Trojans. USC averaged 26.1 points per game, tied for 91st in the nation with Pac-12 cellar-dweller Oregon State. Fun would not be the word to describe last season's offense; more like stagnant. In late-season losses to Cal, UCLA and Notre Dame, the Trojans suffered bouts of offensive anemia that resulted in 58 combined points and a 15-point total margin of defeat.
Injecting some more energy certainly isn't a bad starting point to remedy those concerns — though it is a starting point, not a finished product.
Despite Pittman's long grab, the white jersey-wearing defense outshined the offense for much of the scrimmage sessions.
"Execution, speed, making sure we have the right spacing in our formations, and making sure we know who’s in the game and who’s not," said Malepeai, rattling off the various phases in which the offense needs to improve ahead of a Week 1 date on Aug. 31 against Fresno State.
Fresno State won 12 games and the Mountain West Conference championship in 2018 behind the nation's third-stingiest scoring defense.
USC's embrace of air-raid principles has been and will continue to be the talk of the offseason and weeks leading into kickoff. Helton's initial hire of Kliff Kingsbury to replace Tee Martin as offensive coordinator — then turning to Harrell after the NFL snagged Kingsbury — raised eyebrows among those who equate the Trojans exclusively with quarterbacks under center, fullbacks and tight ends.
Don't expect the Trojans to completely abandon those roots; Malepeai said "in the spring and [fall camp], we ran the ball way more than" anticipated.
And in the same vein, USC's comeback from its worst finish in almost two decades won't shirk the notion of power football.
The Harrell hire commanded more headlines, but the staff change that may play as pivotal a role in the turnaround is that of Aaron Ausmus as strength and conditioning coach. An assistant under both Pete Carroll and Lane Kiffin, Ausmus replaced new Seattle Seahawks strength coach Ivan Lewis in March.
It didn't take long for Ausmus to get the 2019 Trojans buzzing.
The opening of fall camp brought that work onto the field for the first time in earnest.
"Double A got us right. They had us compete every week, and it just got us better and better," said defensive tackle Jay Tufele. The All-Pac-12 honoree touted new personal bests in the weight room to Ausmus' emphasis on intrasquad competitions.
"It brings out the best in all of us," Tufele added
"That got everybody coming out, wanting to lift, wanting to get better," said linebacker John Houston Jr. of the competitions. "Because you don’t want to be the last [ranked] person."
Invoking the name Notre Dame around USC's Heritage Hall might usually require leaving a quarter in a swear jar, but the Trojans' longtime rival offered a blueprint on how to engineer a one-year turnaround. Last November, Helton cited the Fighting Irish's reversal from 4-8 to the College Football Playoff over a two-season span; like Notre Dame, USC is banking on it stemming from a new offensive coordinator and new strength coach.
Should that plan work, the Trojans will truly have something to cheer.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.