Will the Trojans rotate more in 2017? Which freshman has changed the most since arriving? RoT’s USC football mailbag seeks answers.
USC football spring camp is always a fun time, because there’s always new stars on the horizon.
It’s great to see new, unused or underutilized players from years past get the opportunity to shine, but does that mean fans will see all of those players when the season gets going?
That’s just one of the questions to address. Let’s open the ‘bag…
QUESTION: Which freshmen have changed the most physically since arriving on campus? — Aaron
ANSWER: This is cheating a tad, because Oluwole Betiku arrived on campus as a physically impressive specimen to begin with and he’s technically a sophomore, but it’s the predator linebacker who first jumps to mind.
Clay Helton probably put it best: “If you watched this practice last year compared to now, it’s night and day. You’re looking at a baby doe who’s turning into a big buck deer.”
The head coach focused on Betiku’s greater understanding of the game clearing away some of his hesitation, but it’s more than that. He appears more flexible, more in command of his body and movement.
QUESTION: How concerning are Nico Falah’s back problems? If he’s limited, how might the o-line’s makeup and chemistry be affected? — Dave C.
ANSWER: Back injuries are always a concern because they limit everything else the body can do and they have a tendency to linger. Just ask linebacker John Houston, who said it took him ten months to get back to feeling normal while dealing with back problems.
At the very least, it’s better to be sorting things out from Falah and the offensive line’s perspective right now during spring, rather than face this question during the fall.
Redshirt sophomore Cole Smith has gotten valuable reps there in Falah’s absence, much like Falah himself got last spring with Toa Lobendahn and Khaliel Rodgers out injured.
Having said that, it’s an unfortunate situation. Chemistry could be affected, but that was always likely to be the case with Lobendahn’s return and the arrival of gifted freshmen in the fall due to shake things up.
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The trouble for Falah is he hasn’t had the time to lock in his starting job. A full spring to entrench himself at center would have been useful given the challenger waiting on the wings. He won’t have that now, which may leave the door a little bit too open for Lobendahn, if center is his desired position.
QUESTION: If we have to lose a game, who should we lose to? — Kenneth
ANSWER: The easy answer out of the gate is an out-of-conference match up, as losing out of conference wouldn’t disrupt USC’s quest for the Pac-12 championship.
However, the three potential dates on the Trojans’ plate aren’t ideal. Losing the season opener to Western Michigan would signal a major upset. Sure, USC would have plenty of time to recover from it, but losing a home opener to a team from the Mid-American conference should never be an option.
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Texas would represent a more respectable loss, but again it’s a home game. The Trojans have some demons to exorcise when it comes to the Longhorns as well.
As for Notre Dame, that’s off the table too. It’s the rivalry game. Enough said.
Dipping into the Pac-12 schedule instead, let’s go with Washington State.
USC plays the Cougars in Pullman on a Friday, just six days after a road trip to Cal. Pac-12 coaches have taken to complaining about such scheduling quirks, something which may play well as far as excuses go with the College Football Playoff committee.
As a game at the end of September, there’s also more than enough time to pick up momentum in the last two months of the season after the loss
Moreover, Washington State won a respectable eight games in 2016 and features a veteran quarterback in Luke Falk, plus weather could always be a factor. It was already circled as a trap game when the schedule was announced for a reason. It wouldn’t be the biggest shock in the world.
Most importantly, a loss to a North Division team wouldn’t greatly impact USC’s South Division campaign.
Why not Stanford, a game even earlier in the schedule against a potentially ranked squad from the North?
Because it’s at the LA Coliseum and against a hated rival and it would be better for the Trojans to have that quality win in their pocket rather than the quality loss.
Why not Cal? Because, come on, it’s Cal.
QUESTION: We have so much depth at so many spots now. Is there a chance Clancy feels more comfortable w/ guys & finds a way to get them into the game? — Dave in the OC
ANSWER: You’re right, Dave. There are good reasons for defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast to trust his depth and rotate much more.
But I’m not convinced that will change anything in 2017.
Pendergast’s style is aggressive. The reward is great, but the risk is always present. As a result, there must be a high level of trust between the coaches and the players.
The defensive coordinator trusts his players to know where they’re supposed to be and what they’re supposed to be doing, but the nature of his system is that trust can’t be given too freely.
Obviously, things don’t always go right and there are plenty of what-ifs as a result, but that’s true on the flip side as well. What if more rotation meant more mistakes by players who aren’t ready to contribute?
Philosophically, both sides could go back and forth, with equally valid arguments. As it stands, the Trojan defense is run by Pendergast, so it might be best to just get used to a limited rotation.
The thing is, this strategy has worked for Pendergast at USC. Fatigue was never really a major factor for the defense in 2013, despite a perilously thin roster.
Pendergast hardly rotated at all in some games and that defense ranked 13th in total defense, 15th in rushing defense, 14th in team passing efficiency defense, 16th in scoring defense, 12th in third down conversion defense and first in red zone defense.
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USC’s 2016 defense didn’t quite replicate those numbers, but losses to Alabama and Stanford don’t fall at the feet of a lack of rotation. Fatigue might have factored into USC’s loss to Utah, though devastating penalties and turnovers probably played a bigger role in the end.
Against Penn State in the Rose Bowl, the Trojan defense was actually at it’s best in the fourth quarter.
All that is to say, Pendergast knows what he’s doing. If there’s a greater level of rotation in 2017, that’ll be wonderful to see, because it’ll be a sign that more players have reached a level of competency in the system.
If not, then it’s a sign that things will continue as they’ve been, with reliance on a trusted few — which isn’t an inherently bad thing. It’s worked before.