Has USC football’s culture, discipline, schemes, personnel, or staff improved at all?

Harry How/Getty Images
Harry How/Getty Images /

USC football athletic director Lynn Swann promised improvements in many areas during the 2019 season. However, the program continues to trend in an entirely negative direction.

How to Replace Each USC Senior. MORE

While Southern California is synonymous with drama and intrigue, the 2019 USC football offseason is trending towards a titanic disaster over the past few weeks.

The latest events in the tumultuous offseason were the departures of wide receiver Trevon Sidney and five-star athlete Bru McCoy from the program. While Sidney entering the transfer portal may just be a blow to USC’s depth, in the long run, the loss of McCoy before the talented freshman even participated in a practice at USC is an indication that the storied program is once again headed into a dark age.

Despite near consensus that Clay Helton should lose his job as a result of a disastrous 2018 campaign that included a three-game collapse against Cal, UCLA, and Notre Dame to close out the year, USC athletic director Lynn Swann instead chose to give Helton a vote of confidence for 2019. Swann’s statement on the matter baffled those around the program as he stated, “We acknowledge and understand our deficiencies in areas that include culture, discipline, schemes, personnel, and staff.”

Obviously, any team that is struggling in these areas is ripe for a change in leadership, yet the leadership endures and will continue to do so as long as there is no president in place at USC.

At this point, the concern for the football program is transforming from displeasure with the team’s performance to believing outright permanent damage is being done to the future of USC football.

And so, the question remains: Has USC actually made any improvements in those areas this offseason?

Culture and Personnel

The culture at USC has constantly diminished during Helton’s tenure and the 2019 offseason is no exception. Bru McCoy’s departure soquickly into his time with the Trojans signals that the team lacks a significant culture that can withstand coaches and players leaving the program. McCoy clearly does not believe in the outlook of USC under the direction of Swann and Helton or he would have stayed.

SEE MORE: Recruiting was USC’s last stronghold, then Bru McCoy left

Plus, McCoy is hardly the first person to recognize these issues at USC.

The fact that the Trojans are currently holding on for life at 18th in the 247 composite recruiting rankings (Texas is now third) speaks volumes to what prospects think about USC right now. The 18th position is a reflection of USC being dominated by Oregon and other schools within California during this recruiting cycle, and the ranking could easily drop if highly-rated prospects Kyle Ford and Puka Nacua decide to head to other schools by signing day.

Prospects are beginning to notice the lack of development for most players on USC’s roster. The players who are currently drafted into the NFL from USC have largely stepped foot on campus with the physical traits necessary to be NFL players and need only natural progression that is independent of coaching to move on to the next level. The primary positions where players improved their skills at USC were at wide receiver and running back, however, the coaches who could be credited for that development, Tee Martin and Deland McCullough, are no longer with the program.

Other positions, such as offensive line and defensive back have seen little to no progression while at USC. Draft picks at those spots, such as Adoree’ Jackson or upcoming selection Iman Marshall, did not necessarily improve their technique in ways that would prepare them for the NFL or make them dominant in college. They relied on their superior athleticism to succeed for the Trojans.

The decommitment of 2019 CB Chris Steele (signed with Florida) essentially confirms this theory. Steele made it a point in his decommitment tweet to emphasize that he wanted to “find a place that will help will help me reach all of the goals I wish to accomplish.”

The issues with culture clearly pervade the current roster as well, as players are leaving the program at an ever-increasing rate. Prior to the 2018 season, safeties Jamel Cook and Ykili Ross left the team despite having a clear opportunity to receive ample playing time during the season.Ross went as far as saying, “My development as a ball player and my dedication to the team was not being showcased/invested in therefore I have decided to use my remaining years eligible and take my talents elsewhere.”

TRANSFERS: Where are USC’s recent departures now?

The trend continued this offseason with three players, LB Oluwole Betiku, WR Randall Grimes, and WR Trevon Sidney, already entering the transfer portal. While none of these players saw significant playing time for the Trojans, they represent the loss of depth that USC just began to solidify over the past year.


To put it bluntly, USC shows little to no discipline in any aspect of its program.

On the field in 2018, the Trojans averaged 73.58 penalty yards per game, which was good for 122nd in the nation. These penalties often came in crucial moments or were selfish personal foul calls.

Incredibly, the team is worse off the field. In the classroom, USC only had one player selected to either All-Pac-12 Academic teams, graduate student and offensive lineman Jordan Austin.

In fact, USC only had three additional players named honorable mention for the award. The four total players named are the fewest of any Pac-12 team, with the next closest school being Arizona with seven players listed. And if you were thinking that the list must be extremely difficult to make, you would be incorrect. The minimum requirements to make an All-Academic team are a 3.0 GPA and appearances in 50 percent of the team’s games.

On top of that, the Trojans lost a starting CB in Jack Jones last spring due to his inability to remain academically eligible (Jones was later arrested for burglarizing a Panda Express).

CHECK OUT: Breaking down each recruiting class’s 2018 production

Then there are all the players either removed from the team for legal problems or violations of team rules. In the past year, USC saw potential contributors wide receiver Joseph Lewis IV and safety Bubba Bolden removed from the team due to conduct issues at the university. In addition, linebacker Levi Jones, a future starter at linebacker, was kicked off the team in November for breaking team rules.

While most college football teams have problems in these areas, the regularity of this at USC under Helton is troubling. From the outside, it feels like leadership has little influence or power over the players within the program.

Staff and Scheme

If all that was not bad enough, USC’s 2019 offseason has been disastrous in regards to its coaching staff.

Although it has been said many times, it must first be emphasized that Lynn Swann should have fired Clay Helton following USC’s loss to Notre Dame. The reasons are excruciatingly obvious, so there is little reason to beat a dead horse.

Instead, Swann chose to go the Notre Dame route in an attempt to reinvigorate USC by forcing Helton to make staff changes. Incredibly, the duo could not even follow that model correctly, and USC is already suffering for it.

During the offseason prior to 2017, Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly and athletic director Jack Swarbrick directed massive changes that resulted in 17 new members being brought on to the football staff.

SEE MORE: Five changes Clay Helton must make in 2019

Thus far, USC only let go of wide receivers coach (and former offensive coordinator) Tee Martin, defensive line coach Kenechi Udeze, secondary coach Ronnie Bradford and offensive line coach Neil Callaway. Quarterbacks coach Brian Ellis left the program on his own accord for Western Kentucky and it is expected that strength and conditioning coach Ivan Lewis will join Pete Carroll’s staff in Seattle.

It is incredible that Swann and Helton did not make changes within the strength and conditioning staff on their own accord. Even if they fully believed in Lewis as the director of strength and conditioning at USC, there needed to be major changes within his staff (i.e. nutrition) at the minimum.

USC does not have the size or speed of an elite college football team (see Alabama vs. Clemson in 2019 or even Ohio State vs. USC in 2018) and that means there is clear room for improvement. Lewis being tapped for the same position for the Seahawks gives Swann and company a second opportunity to get it right in this area.

Then, of course, there was the Kliff Kingsbury saga this offseason that has been analyzed to death, so let’s keep it short here. Kingsbury actively sought the USC OC job and hiring him was a home run (and a lay-up) for the Trojans.

Not only was USC getting an enormous upgrade to its offense, but it also gained the ability to replace the recruiting power of Tee Martin. Martin was a favorite among USC targets and his departure left the door open for other schools to flip USC commits. However, Kingsbury had enough star power to sell recruits on the offense USC would run under his direction. When Bru McCoy signed and Kyle Ford committed, it was with the assurance that Kliff Kingsbury would be with the Trojans to utilize their abilities.

Unfortunately, Kingsbury’s reputation as a young, great offensive mind and the success of Rams head coach Sean McVay created a perfect storm for the former Texas Tech head man to be hired as the Arizona Cardinals next head coach, despite lackluster results in Lubbock.

With Kingsbury gone, USC lost any positive momentum it had generated this offseason and recruits and fans took notice. McCoy’s decision to transfer to Texas is nearly unprecedented when considering that the Trojans did not lose their head coach.

CHECK OUT: No USC underclassmen enter NFL Draft

So where does that leave USC in the coaching department? Former Bowling Green head coach Mike Jinks will remain with the Men of Troy to coach running backs, despite joining the staff due to Kingsbury. Keary Colbert switched from coaching tight ends to wide receivers, Joe DeForest was promoted to outside linebackers coach from defensive analyst, former Pete Carroll defensive backs coach Greg Burns returns to USC in the same role, and Chad Kauha’aha’a will step in for Udeze and coach the defensive line.

Yet, the two most important roles available, offensive coordinator and strength and conditioning coach, remain unfilled. There is a sense that coaches have legitimate concerns with joining a head coach that appears destined to be looking for work following the 2019 season.

Meanwhile, it is troubling that USC has been unable to bring in an offensive coordinator to replace Kingsbury. With the talent that USC returns on offense, including young, moldable quarterbacks and a dynamic receiving corps, coaches should be fighting over the opportunity to fill the role.

While talks with Graham Harrell, a former Texas Tech quarterback under Mike Leach and current North Texas offensive coordinator, appear to be serious, Swann and Helton have made the USC job so unattractive that it is possible that the Air Raid specialist opts to remain with the Mean Green in Denton rather than move to South Central.

Ultimately, it is possible that Harrell could be a tremendous addition to the staff. North Texas’ offense actually ranked above USC’s last season in S&P+ (NT was 41st, while USC was 55th).

However, it remains to be seen what type of impact Harrell actually had on the Mean Green’s offense. Head coach Seth Littrell is an offensive-minded head coach and certainly has influence over the North Texas offense. Regardless, if Harrell could implement an effective Air Raid scheme to replace the Helton “gumbo” offense, USC could once again be dangerous with the ball in their hands.

MORE: Losing Kliff Kingsbury may be just what USC needed

Unfortunately, the likely end result of all of this is that Lynn Swann is allowing Helton to damage to the future of USC football permanently.

There is no reversing the fact that a player like Bru McCoy has left the program. McCoy left USC because he has a better chance to succeed in both college and the NFL playing for Tom Herman. There is no hiding that this may be the worst recruiting class at USC this century. All of the transfers and discipline issues for USC is killing both the starting lineup and depth of the team. Plus, the performance on the field has clearly been declining each year under Helton (Yes, the team’s performance during Pac-12 championship season was significantly worse than the previous year).

This dire situation lacks a quick fix outside of hiring an elite head coach.

This recruiting class lacks the top-end talent that USC should bring in every season. Even if Ford and Nacua honor their verbal commitments, they play at one of USC’s two strongest position groups. The defense lacks pass rushers, the secondary has zero depth, and the offensive line has not looked dominant in years. Yes, there is always the potential that three-star players exceed the expectations placed on them, but five-stars are still more likely to be better players on average.

USC is beginning to lose both the star recruits and the depth that makes college football programs like Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State, and Georgia what they are.

SEE ALSO: USC can’t let the Kliff Kingsbury fiasco stifle ambition

Meanwhile, USC’s losses are other Pac-12 program’s gains. Oregon has recruited tremendously, dominating the Trojans in the state of California in 2019. Plus, USC is already having to convince its 2020 commits, such as Mater Dei quarterback Bryce Young, that they should remain committed to the Trojans.

There is no way around it. USC will probably struggle on the field in 2019. But that is not Clay Helton’s fault. He should not even be in this position. Instead, place the blame on Lynn Swann or even the USC Board of Trustees, who lack the courage to fire Helton.

The only way the situation improves is if Swann takes ownership and actually improve USC football’s culture, discipline, scheme, personnel, and staff—something that is not happening during the 2019 offseason.