The Trojans rank No. 43 in Athlon's Top 130 for 2019
USC enjoyed its best stretch since the Pete Carroll era during its first two seasons under Clay Helton, winning a Rose Bowl and a Pac-12 championship.
Then the bottom fell out. After the losses of significant playmakers on offense, including star quarterback Sam Darnold, the Trojans went 5–7 in 2018, their first losing season since 2000. Unlike the program’s last coach to oversee a sub-.500 finish (Paul Hackett), Helton was retained, but he faces significant pressure from an impatient fan base to lead USC back into contention for a conference championship, if not the College Football Playoff.
Reasons for optimism remain, most notably the arrival of Graham Harrell as offensive coordinator. Harrell, formerly at North Texas, is a Mike Leach disciple who will install his version of the Air Raid. The scheme could serve as a jolt for a roster with no shortage of skill position talent and highly recruited quarterbacks. Helton needs a quick fix to cool his hot seat.
Previewing USC's Offense for 2019
For 11 games last season, the Trojans started a true freshman at quarterback in JT Daniels. It was in the final game that Helton saw a vision for his revamped offense. As the Trojans challenged playoff-bound Notre Dame, Daniels completed 26-of-31 passes by halftime, looking most comfortable in the quick passing game.
"I wanted to bring a great passing-game mind in to continue that," Helton says.
He first hired Kliff Kingsbury as offensive coordinator before the hotshot play caller took a head coaching job in the NFL a month later, prompting Helton to bring in Harrell. Kingsbury and Harrell possess similar pedigrees — former quarterbacks under Leach at Texas Tech and adopters of variations of the Air Raid.
The creative passing system could benefit Daniels, though he first needs to hold off Jack Sears, a sophomore who proved capable when he started a game in place of Daniels due to injury. Daniels, who skipped his senior season of high school, had ups and downs in his debut season but finished with similar statistics to Matt Barkley, the only other true freshman to start a season (2009) at quarterback for the Trojans.
Either quarterback will have an array of skill players who would be coveted by most programs, including a trio of wide receivers that includes Amon-Ra St. Brown, Michael Pittman Jr. and Tyler Vaughns. Running backs Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr are able pass catchers as well.
"The talent's there," Harrell says. "Just got to get them excited about what we're doing and put those guys in position to be successful."
An X-factor: USC's ability to fix the offensive line. The Trojans allowed 27 sacks in 2018 and ranked 107th in the nation in rushing offense. This unit got a post-spring boost with the addition of Tennessee graduate transfer Drew Richmond. The senior should push for time right away at tackle.
Previewing USC's Defense for 2019
Clancy Pendergast has been the defensive coordinator in each season under Helton. This time, he hopes to install a more simplified scheme. The approach could benefit a group that will be much younger after losing its veteran linebackers, plus the bulk of its experience in the secondary.
The area of strength is along the defensive line, where Pendergast says he could use more down linemen to take advantage of the surplus of bodies, led by Jay Tufele, Marlon Tuipulotu and Brandon Pili, all previous members of the 2017 recruiting class. They join edge Christian Rector.
When Pendergast's defenses have been most successful, they’ve been able to pressure quarterbacks. The Trojans tied for the national lead with Clemson with 46 sacks in 2017 but slipped last season to 29 sacks, ranking 49th.
Palaie Gaoteote IV is a promising linebacker, a punishing 250-pound presence who covers a lot of ground. Gaoteote gained starting experience when Cameron Smith was out with a hamstring injury. He'll be in the middle of the defense with John Houston Jr., second on the team in tackles.
The secondary remains a concern; half of the scholarship defensive backs are incoming freshmen. Greg Johnson is the only cornerback on the roster with starting experience. Depth already looked like an issue in spring practice when the Trojans at times used walk-ons on the second-team defense.
One known commodity is rangy safety Talanoa Hufanga, fifth on the team in tackles as a freshman despite starting only five games and missing the final month with a broken collarbone.
Previewing USC's Specialists for 2019
The special teams will have a punter with little experience and a placekicker returning from knee surgery. Ben Griffiths, a 27-year-old freshman, previously played Australian rules football for eight seasons, and Chase McGrath suffered a torn ACL last September. If McGrath does not recover in time for the season opener, the Trojans will rely on Michael Brown.
The Trojans should field a more competitive team in 2019. Then again, their schedule makes for a hard hill to climb. Oregon and Washington, the favorites in the North Division, return to the slate, and the nonconference games include road trips to BYU and Notre Dame. But no team in the Pac-12 is unassailable, and if USC can successfully regroup by fixing an offense that was at its least productive since 2001, then it can be a viable contender in the conference race.