Pat Haden wanted coaches he could control. USC’s current quarterback situation could be an upgrade over the Trojans’ all-time leader in career completion percentage. If you seek USC football insights, Scott Wolf is your guide. The longtime L.A. Daily News beat writer made a timely visit to Opposing Views.
1. Some of Stanford's biggest strengths from 2015 -- Kevin Hogan, the left side of the offensive line, Blake Martinez at middle linebacker -- are gone. That said, how do you like the Trojans' chances of exploiting those voids and taking advantage of some potential weaknesses? What are the biggest differences between USC team who visits Palo Alto on Saturday and the group Stanford saw twice in 2015?
After two games, I'm not sure there are huge differences for USC. The offensive line, a supposed strength has had problems and center Toa Lobendahn is out for the season. He also missed the Pac-12 title game. The running game has also been disappointing. Ronald Jones is expected to be a breakout star but barely played against Utah State after bruising his ribs. He should play Saturday.
The big difference is at quarterback. I think Max Browne and Sam Darnold are an upgrade over Cody Kessler, especially Darnold, who is dynamic as a passer and runner. If the offense struggles it would not be a surprise to see Darnold take over. A lot of focus Saturday will be on the defensive line. It is considered the weakest aspect of the team but played better than expected so far. Whether it can handle Stanford's offensive line is another matter.
2. Is it fair to say USC has always owned talent in the years since Pete Carroll left, but has lacked the coaching expertise needed to become an elite team again? How did the talent compare during the mediocre years (1996-2000) to what Carroll had at his disposal? Aside from probation, what have been the biggest barriers to SC's success since Oregon and Stanford began taking turns winning the conference?
USC always has talent because USC recruits USC no matter who the coach is. The talent the past five years has been better than the period before Pete Carroll. NCAA sanctions played a role but the bigger problem was poor coaching hires. If USC hired a proven coach, they would not have gone through the problems of the past four years. But Pat Haden, the former A.D., was awful when it came to hiring football coaches. He did not want anyone who might challenge him. He waited too long to fire Lane Kiffin and then made a poor hire in Steve Sarkisian. Clay Helton might turn out to be a great coach but the coaching search was lacking that Haden conducted.
3. Talk about how much patience is left in the Trojans' enormous fanbase. Are the natives getting restless and growing tired of the losing (by USC standards) and off-field drama? From up here, I see a) Stanford enjoying the greatest five-year run in its history while b) the Trojans suffer coaching instability and approach the program's longest Rose Bowl drought. Has anything along those lines occurred to you, or anyone else close to this program?
There has been a lot of restlessness among fans. It decreases slightly with the coaching changes because people hope things will turn around. But there is already a lot of anxiety with Helton because of the 52-6 loss to Alabama. USC continually has the best recruiting classes in the Pac-12, so there is always optimism that with the right coach things will turn around quickly. The problem is the athletic directors are inexperienced so you never know who they might hire.
4. Does this team have an identity yet? It seems Helton has stressed physical/power football approach since taking over the team last year. At this point in their head coach's system, what players have emerged as USC's "bread-and-butter," as in those called upon when all else fails?
USC wants to be like Stanford but has struggled running the ball despite the experience at offensive line and tailback (Justin Davis, Jones). The go-to guy is wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, but he has only eight receptions in two games. Helton wants to spread the ball around and not depend on one receiver but Smith-Schuster definitely needs a larger role. He is the one special wide receiver and best player on the team. It will be interesting to see if the game plan makes him the focus again like last year.
5. Those who follow Pac-12 football know you as the USC expert for the L.A. Daily News. How long have you had that post? Where else have you worked, and what are your proudest accomplishments as a sports writer along the way? When you're not covering the Trojans, what do you like doing best?
I have covered USC since 1996. I have seen USC teams struggle and covered the glory years under Pete Carroll. The two games i remember most are the Bush Push victory over Notre Dame and Texas-USC national title game. Each was memorable because I don't think I've ever felt the energy of the crowd reach the field like it did in those games.
Before I got hired by the Los Angeles Daily News, I worked at the Riverside Press-Enterprise and Los Angeles Times. My proudest accomplishment is probably knowing how many readers we reach on a daily basis covering USC. The USC blog (insidesocal.com/USC) is the most popular one at our paper. That's surprising to me with the so many big teams in L.A. (Lakers, Dodgers, Rams, UCLA, Angels, etc.). But it shows USC has a long tradition and loyal fans. It never gets dull covering them. Outside of work, I like soccer, specifically the English Premier League and try to attend games in England whenever possible.