USC football Spring Showcase offers hope, but still uncertainty for Trojans

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

USC football’s spring showcase provided fans with a first look at Graham Harrell’s dynamic Air Raid offense but offered little clarity in key positional battles.

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Following USC football’s disastrous 2018 season and tumultuous winter, the energy and hope of spring football were much needed in Troy.

Saturday the Trojans’ spring showcase provided a quality first look at some of the adjustments within the USC program that aim to rectify the problems the team faced last season.

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In an interview with Clay Helton, the fourth-year head coach discussed his shift towards a role as the disciplinarian of the team rather than being heavily involved with the offensive scheme.

Some of the outside noise surrounding the program clearly reached the head coach’s office as he discussed what went wrong late last season, “When I looked at the last four losses, we lost four games by seven points or less. We beat our self with turning the ball over, with the discipline of the game, with penalties, and beat our self because of lost fundamentals and techniques which are the key to winning football games.”

This acknowledgment by Helton is refreshing because last season’s rhetoric centered upon the belief that that the team was very close to having a successful season if it weren’t for some unavoidable issues like penalties, lack of discipline, and turnovers. It just did not feel as if Helton wanted to accept that the team’s failures were a direct result of poor preparation and coaching.

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This spring, moves such as bringing in Pac-12 referees at all practices and actually sitting players who make mental errors indicate that there is an investment in addressing the fatal problems from last season.

Another positive aspect of the spring showcase was the unveiling of USC’s offensive scheme. New offensive coordinator Graham Harrell was one of the best interviews of the day as he explained his offense and the players’ adaptation to the system.

He is impressed with how quickly USC’s players have caught on to his version of the Air Raid. He emphasized that one of the biggest adjustments for USC’s offensive players was learning how to play without the football, citing Vavae Malepaei and the receivers for seeking out blocks for the man with the football.

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As a result, “The ball is going to find those guys [in this offense], so they’re not worried about taking their touches anymore, they’re worried about how great can [they] be without the ball in [their] hand.”

So what did this “Air Raid” look like? In reality, USC was fairly balanced in its playcalling throughout the day with the running backs receiving ample opportunity to display their abilities. Vavae Malepaei is currently USC’s most consistent and well-rounded back with Stephen Carr still only producing the flashes of the greatness he teased his freshman season.

Yet, the talk of the day (on offense) had to be redshirt freshman Markese Stepp’s 60+ yard touchdown run that made one thing evident—Stepp is USC’s best “runner” out of the backfield. Helton mentioned earlier in spring that Stepp still has plenty of room for improvement in pass protection and receiving to become an every-down back, which will keep him off the field at times if he does not improve enough prior to game one.

However, Stepp is clearly an NFL-style back, meaning he combines bone-rattling power with the speed to outrun defenders in the open field. On the touchdown, USC’s linebackers and safeties committed to an interior run, which left a large hole on the right side of the offensive line. Stepp hit the hole and burst upfield past the USC secondary.

RELATED: Markese Stepp making his case for playing time

Meanwhile, on the outside, USC’s receivers were limited to a route tree primarily consisting of slants, curls, and a few fades. Still, there was little the depleted secondary could do to slow down the aerial attack. Michael Pittman, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Tyler Vaughns, Devon Williams, and even freshman John Jackson III broke open with little resistance, and USC’s four quarterbacks consistently hit on RPO slants and curls (10+ successful passes in 11-on-11) to work the offense down the field.

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The apparent leader of the receiver corps, Michael Pittman, emphasized that the adjustment to a new offense has been simple and he returned to school because a 5-7 season was not good enough. He believes that Harrell has lifted the players back up after Kliff Kingsbury’s brief stint in South Central left them feeling down, and he views this season as an opportunity to earn some respect back for USC and improve his draft stock.

One position that has little clarity heading into the summer is quarterback. After JT Daniels’ rocky debut season, the position is up for grabs as Jack Sears, Matt Fink, and early-enrollee Kedon Slovis make their bid to start.

Earlier this week, Harrell offered his opinion regarding where each quarterback is at in the competition, and it is clear that no one seized control of the job this spring.

Daniels remains the favorite to win the job because of his consistency in practice, yet the redzone period of the showcase emphasized both his strengths and weaknesses. On one play, Daniels moved off his first read (something he did very little of last season) and found his tight end in the middle of the field for a solid gain. But once again, it is apparent that his lack of athleticism allows that defense to disregard the sophomore as a threat on read-option plays, which leads to running lanes closing more quickly (as one did for Malepeai during the scrimmage).

If Daniels wants to remain USC’s starter the entire 2019 season, he must improve his pocket presence and build his functional intelligence on the field (find check-downs/eliminate panic throws). Despite being pressured on just 23 percent of his dropbacks last season, Daniels took 25 sacks and often looked skittish or threw off his back foot without pressure regularly.

MORE: Ranking the quarterbacks so far in Spring Camp

Jack Sears was up and down during the scrimmage, throwing a couple of pick-sixes, including the play of the day by defensive end Drake Jackson, in which the freshman read a screen-play, hauled in Sears’ throw with one hand, and easily outran the offense for the touchdown. Sears bounced back from the pick to complete a few RPO passes and flashed his escapability throughout the day. The San Clemente product’s lack of consistency as a thrower is the primary reason he has not made a stronger run at the starting position, however, the tools are there to seize control in the fall.

Matt Fink had a solid day and appears to have a quality presence to his game, but he is simply more limited as a passer than the other quarterbacks. Fink will move an offense that remains on schedule but has not proven that he can come up with longer conversions when the defense knows he must throw the football. During the redzone period, it was clear that USC will operate out of the shotgun at the goal line, which caters to Fink’s ability to run or at the minimum be a threat to take off.

The final quarterback, Kedon Slovis, has impressed this spring after being written off by many as a sure-fire redshirt after signing. Slovis commands the offense and benefits from the simple nature of the Air Raid, along with working with USC’s talented skill players. He is more likely to force balls than the other QB’s at this point, but that is to be expected with a freshman adjusting to the college game. To win the job, Slovis needs to prove that he can continue to make good decisions in the fall when USC’s secondary play will be improved.

Overall, the spring showcase was a positive outing for this Trojan team. Graham Harrell’s offense provides an identity that was blatantly lacking during Helton’s tenure and gives skill players the freedom to go make plays.

PODCAST: Reacting to the Spring Showcase and more

On the other side of the ball, the defensive line will be more formidable with more players in the rotation and the linebacker group is scary. However, the secondary remains a question mark with many players either injured or enrolling in the fall.

From a development standpoint, it is good that USC’s offense could build some confidence against a walk-on heavy secondary, but fall practice must be a different animal, in which the secondary helps separate the four quarterbacks from one another.

As Graham Harrell believes, if a team with this talent buys in, the sky is the limit.