One image from a rollercoaster of a 2020 season that will not soon be forgotten around USC is the last one: walking off amid green and yellow confetti as rival Oregon celebrated a Pac-12 title. The loss was the Trojans’ only one in the pandemic-shortened campaign, but it hit extra hard on their home turf after they pulled off several remarkable comebacks to win the South division title.
Heading into what should be a far more normal 2021 season, the emotions felt last December should serve as a powerful motivator for a team that consistently has the talent but has often come up short in putting it all together. USC returns 41 players who have started at least one game, and the Trojans should benefit from an experienced coaching staff that saw little turnover. They sport a potential Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback and a balanced schedule, and they can look favorably at a conference that seems as wide open as it’s ever been.
As those around the program know all too well, though, what the Trojans should be and what they wind up becoming are often two very different things — and a good reason why head coach Clay Helton remains perpetually on the hot seat trying to navigate it all.
Previewing USC's Offense for 2021
It’s tough to say last year’s first-team All-Pac-12 quarterback had a sophomore slump after leading the league in every major passing category (17 TDs, 320 yards per game, 67 percent completion). Yet for Kedon Slovis, the variance between his ceiling (three dazzling fourth-quarter comebacks) and floor (seven INTs) was readily apparent as he shouldered an oversized amount of the offensive load. As he enters his third season as a starter, the hope is that Slovis will clean up those mistakes and get a little better protection so he can realize his potential as the next great USC quarterback. Behind him, four-star freshmen Jaxson Dart and Miller Moss will battle it out to become the heir apparent.
Depth at the skill position spots remains a strength for the Trojans. Super senior Vavae Malepeai returns at tailback and will be complemented by Texas transfer Keaontay Ingram, who adds another element in the passing game after 67 receptions in three seasons in Austin. Drake London (6'5") is the primary go-to at wide receiver and should benefit from an improved all-around game after dropping his spot on the USC basketball team to focus exclusively on football. Add in the emergence of former five-star Bru McCoy, the presence of veteran tight end Erik Krommenhoek plus speedy Colorado transfer K.D. Nixon (104 career receptions, seven TDs), and OC Graham Harrell’s Air Raid scheme will not lack for targets.
The bigger question is if an offensive line that returns four starters can elevate its own play enough to go from a hindrance to a strength. Junior Jalen McKenzie can play either tackle spot and is complemented by a quality interior core of Andrew Vorhees, Brett Neilon and Liam Jimmons.
Previewing USC's Defense for 2021
Despite playing in less than half as many games as it did in 2019, USC was able to match the same number of takeaways (16). DC Todd Orlando’s arrival and subsequent scheme changes had something to do with that, but USC will have a challenge repeating the effort without ball-hawking safety Talanoa Hufanga, who earned Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors and was seemingly everywhere on every snap.
There’s still plenty of talent in Los Angeles ready to step up. That could start with five-star defensive lineman Korey Foreman, considered the top prospect in the Class of 2021 and the type who looks like a first-rounder getting off the bus. He’ll likely vie for snaps with returning starter Nick Figueroa (coming off shoulder surgery) at end, but Foreman has a chance to move around the formation quite a bit with his hand on the ground or standing up.
If the freshman lives up to the early billing, that would take some of the pressure off OLB Drake Jackson. An All-Pac-12 pick each of the past two years, he’s the Trojans’ most disruptive pass rusher and could benefit greatly from a running mate chasing after opposing quarterbacks. The rest of the linebacking corps also returns but will need to show further development.
The same could be said of the secondary, which offsets the loss of Hufanga with Isaiah Pola-Mao and Texas transfer Xavion Alford at the two safety spots. Depth is two- and three-deep with players who’ve seen action, though it won’t be shocking if incoming corner Ceyair Wright inserts himself into the starting mix.
Previewing USC's Specialists for 2021
Ben Griffiths’ strong leg is a weapon in the field position battle after he averaged 46.4 yards per punt, the best mark at the school in over a decade. Placekicker Parker Lewis had a long of 48 yards last year and contributed to a vastly improved kickoff coverage group as well.
USC came up short in its quest to win the Pac-12 last season and will no doubt use that failure as motivation in 2021. Given the returning production, the Trojans’ sights are set squarely on getting over the hump, winning the league and making noise nationally. If they fall short of any of those goals, Helton could be in trouble.
National Ranking: 18
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(Max Duggan photo courtesy of gofrogs.com)