After some tumultuous times that included multiple coaching changes early in the decade, the Southern California football team seemed to finally settle into a groove under Clay Helton.
Now, Helton is sitting on the hottest seat in the Pac-12.
Coming off a dismal 5-7 season – its first losing record in since 2000 – USC is no longer viewed as the class of the Pac-12 South, but aims to regain its swagger. This month, BuffZone.com is previewing each of Colorado’s opponents, with this installment focusing on the Trojans, who will visit the Buffaloes on Oct. 25.
Beating Stanford for the Pac-12 title in 2017 completed a 22-game stretch in which the Trojans lost just twice. That came with the exceptional Sam Darnold at quarterback, but he declared for the NFL Draft after that season (going third overall, to the New York Jets).
Last year, the Trojans leaned on a new group of playmakers on offense – including true freshman quarterback J.T. Daniels – and it was a rocky road. They ranked near the bottom of the Pac-12 in scoring, rushing and total offense. They were in the bottom half of the conference in the major defensive categories, as well.
It all added up to a 1-5 finish to the season and some raised eyebrows when athletic director Lynn Swann elected to retain Helton as coach.
Helton did make several changes to the staff, however. Five of his 10 assistants are in their first season. Most notably, the Trojans hired Graham Harrell as offensive coordinator. Harrell was a record-setting quarterback at Texas Tech a decade ago and he spent the past three years as the offensive coordinator at North Texas.
Harrell played in the “Air Raid” under Mike Leach at Texas Tech, but won’t necessarily bring that same offense to USC. He likes to run the ball more than Leach does, but he has adopted Leach’s mentality of keeping things simple. And, of course, he hopes to bring an up-tempo, high-scoring attack to the Trojans.
“I don’t believe there’s any magic or anything secret to what we do,” he told reporters when he was hired this winter. “There’s a lot of great offenses out there and a lot of great plays out there. You just can’t be great at all of them.
“We’re going to be simple in what we do; we’re going to just be good at what we do; we’re going to have an identity and we’re going to have fun doing it. I think if you do that, you give yourselves a chance.”
Daniels, who had some ups and downs in his freshman year, is the presumed starter at quarterback, and he will have the luxury of throwing to one of the most talented groups of receivers in the country. USC’s top four receivers from last year are back, and the group adds two of the nation’s best 2019 recruits, Bru McCoy and Kyle Ford.
Defensively, the Trojans are stout up front, with sophomore tackles Jay Tufele and Marlon Tuipulotu and senior end Christian Rector leading the way.
USC lost a lot of experience at linebacker and the secondary, but talent is never lacking. Middle linebacker John Houston is back after starting 23 games the past two years. Linebacker Palaie Gaoteote IV was exceptional when given a chance to play as a true freshman, showing why he was one of the nation’s top recruits in the 2018 class.
Years of highly-rated recruiting classes ensures that the Trojans will be loaded with talent. They’ve also got pressure to turn the tide. Going into the season, expectations are low, by USC standards, but Helton came out of spring optimistic.
“I love where their mentality is at right now,” he told reporters at the end of spring. “The coaching staff, the players, myself, we’ve all got chips on our shoulder and we understand that just because you have ‘SC’ on your chest doesn’t mean you’re going to win. You have to earn it and you have to work and compete to earn it.”
Date with CU: Friday, Oct. 25, 7 p.m., at Folsom Field in Boulder
Head coach: Clay Helton, 5th season (32-17)
Series: USC leads 13-0
Trojans in 2018: 5-7, 4-5 in Pac-12
Returning starters: 11 – 6 on offense, 5 on defense
5 offensive players to watch (2018 statistics):
QB J.T. Daniels, So. (216-of-363, 2,672 yards, 14 TD, 10 INT; rushing: 45 att., minus-149 yards)
RB Vavae Malepeai, Jr. (93 att., 501 yards, 8 TD)
WR Michael Pittman Jr., Sr. (41 catches, 758 yards, 6 TD)
WR Amon-Ra St. Brown (60 catches, 750 yards, 3 TD)
LG Alijah Vera-Tucker, So. (played in all 12 games last year as freshman)
5 defensive players to watch:
LB Palaie Gaoteote IV, So. (38 tackles, 2 sacks, 4.5 TFL)
LB John Houston, Sr. (67 tackles, 5 PBU)
S Talanoa Hufanga, So. (51 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 4 PBU)
DL Christian Rector, Sr. (48 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 9 TFL)
DL Jay Tufele, So. (23 tackles, 3 sacks)
Notable: Under Harrell last year, North Texas ranked 12th nationally in passing, 20th in total offense and 26th in scoring. … The Trojans were 11th in the Pac-12 and 120th nationally with a minus-10 turnover margin last season. … USC’s 26.1 points per game was its lowest average since 2001 (24.8). … USC lost three games at home in 2018 for the first time since 2010. … USC’s 2019 recruiting class got a major boost last month. Bru McCoy, rated by some the top receiver in the class, signed a letter of intent with USC in January, then transferred to Texas a few weeks later. Last month, he transferred back to USC. Chris Steele, among the top handful of defensive backs in the class, went through spring ball with Florida, announced his transfer in May and originally committed to Oregon before enrolling at USC. Both would need a waiver from the NCAA to play this season. … The Trojans are hoping sophomore kicker Chase McGrath is fully healthy after tearing his ACL last September. He is 18-for-25 on field goals in his career. … Junior Stephen Carr (81 att., 384 yards, 2 TD) teams with Malepeai for a solid 1-2 punch at running back.