USC football’s playoff aspirations rest on depth, rotation and being more fresh

Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy
Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy /

USC football’s plan to reach playoff level involves being fresher, with added emphasis on utilizing the Trojans newfound depth in 2018.

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“We all had a bad taste in our mouth after last season,” Clay Helton said on USC football’s first day of Fall Camp on Friday.

Despite winning the Pac-12 for the first time since 2008, the Trojans’ 2017 season ended in eye-opening defeat to Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl. The conclusion drawn from that game by coaches, players and certainly fans: USC was far from a playoff-caliber team.

Helton’s goal is to change that in the 2018 and he’s identified one welcome lesson from that disappointing day in Dallas.

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“We’re going to play a lot of kids. We’re going to stay fresh,” said Helton.

It was Ohio State’s rotation that left an impression on the Trojan head coach, watching them play four defensive linemen for a handful of snaps before walking out another set of capable linemen to challenge USC’s offensive line.

“I was extremely impressed by a team that had depth,” Helton explained. “It was hard. They were fresh the whole time and they were talented. That’s what we want to be able to get to.”

Rotation has been a talking point around USC, particularly on defense where coordinator Clancy Pendergast has been loathe to use players who haven’t earned the complete trust of the coaching staff. In previous years, the number of players with that trust was limited.

This time last year, Pendergast stuck to his guns explaining his philosophy on rotation: “We’re going to play the best 11 guys.”

Expanding the “best 11” to a trusted 15 or 16 would come with development and that might have come to fruition in 2017 if not for some unfortunate injury woes. Even so, Pendergast was cautious about the idea of rotation in general.

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On Friday, he was more open to the possibility.

“This is the deepest defense I’ve had probably since I’ve been coaching in college football, just in terms of sheer numbers,” Pendergast said.

The advantages of depth, not just in numbers but in quality, was clear on Day 1 of Fall Camp. For the first time under Helton, USC was able to practice “two-spotting,” running two separate sets of 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 work simultaneously.

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They can do that because they have bodies on the defensive and offensive lines, depth in the secondary and across the lineup. In the past, USC had been unable to hold a spring game because they didn’t have enough defensive linemen to field a team.

Now the Trojans have the numbers to field a second and third team squad.

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Two-spotting means less standing around for players at all levels of the depth chart.

“The kids love it because it gives them more reps, it gives them the availability to get more work,” Helton said.

Helton hopes those extra reps will help to develop USC’s second and third teams, yielding more accessible depth than years past.

It also supplies more opportunities for coaches to evaluate those players. Offensively, that means more moments for skill position players to shine, particularly at wide receiver where playmakers are always welcome. Defensively, that means more chances for players to earn the trust of Pendergast and his staff.

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As always, what happens in Fall Camp only matters so far as it continues on into the season. The first month of the season will put the Trojans to the test with tough match ups against Stanford, Texas, Washington State and Arizona before a much-needed bye week.

USC’s utilization of depth and ability to stay fresh over that period will remain a talking point. The Trojans will hope it’s a positive one.