Some thoughts are so well thought out, and expressed, they require a response -- hopefully just as thoughtful. So we decided that P poster RichSC’s extended and in-depth post on the state of USC football right now required a response from possibly a different vantage point.
And so we will. We’ll post RichSC’s take first, then ours. Join in as you already have when he originally posted it.
RichSC: “Let's start with the positive: Clancy P's return is clearly a big plus. He has an aggressive mentality yet keeps things simple so that the defense isn't rife with missed assignments and cluttered communication. He also seems to be reinvigorating certain players (Mike Hutchings, Jabari Ruffin, Quinton Powell, Leon McQuay) and putting them in spots where they can succeed (Ruffin as an edge rusher, Powell in the middle where his fleetness afoot becomes a factor against today's multiple-WR sets, etc.)
DW: Can’t say it any better than that. On the money. Clancy P has had the most immediate and positive impact with the changes – in attitude, personnel, schemes and coaching -- on defense.
RichSC: “*** The secondary. I think this is where Clancy's presence will be most keenly felt. Coach Heyward was an energetic personality but there was a curious lack of improvement and sometimes flat regression with the secondary in 2015. Clancy has always been great with DB's; his work with the Cardinals in the NFL (where he helped develop guys like Adrian Wilson and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie into terrific players) was proof of that. I expect Adoree’ [Jackson] to have a major bounce-back year at CB, Iman Marshall to take another leap forward, Marvell Tell to emerge as one of the best safeties in college football, and Jack Jones to have immediate impact as a CB. Langley, McQuay and Hawkins should all be better players in 2016 as well. That's good news. Oh, and I almost forgot Ykili Ross, who is as talented as anyone out there.
DW: It’s already started with the secondary. Much more aggressive. Better technique. Less fear of busted coverages and more willingness to let USC’s athletes be athletes. Confidence level is up considerably even without Adoree’, CHawk, Platt and others. Fewer penalties. Looks much cleaner.
RichSC: “*** I don't know what kind of coach Johnny Nansen is, but this LB corps has incredible upside. Anthony Sarao was a very limited player at LB, Scott Felix was woefully overmatched as a rush OLB, and Lamar Dawson was chronically injured. They're all gone now. Now it's time for Jabari Ruffin, Osa Masina, Uchenna Nwosu, Porter Gustin and Quinton Powell to step up. All are capable of rushing the passer, all are rangy, athletic guys who can cover ground, all are capable of making plays. It's time for LB to become a position of strength again, and I haven't even mentioned frosh All-American Cam Smith, Buddah Tucker and the apparently vastly improved Mike Hutchings to the mix.
"Can Nansen coach these kids up? I don't know. Maybe Clancy P is the one who's going to coach them up. Now that he has a handpicked DB coach in Ronnie Bradford, maybe he continues spending a lot of time with this deep and talented position group.”
DW: Again, looking at the defense, and the talent, and now the schemes with a two-man coaching staff working with them, this group has a chance. Not sure I’ll ever call out young men who dedicated their college years to USC by name or discount their abilities no matter what. Some of it was scheme and more of it was coaching. Whatever you want to say about them, they’re not playing for the Rams and not earning millions of dollars. Not sure we should ever tag any of them as “woefully overmatched.” Even if true, they were only trying to do what they were asked, and recruited, to do.
RichSC: “*** The OL. Why? Because Neil Callaway is running them ragged and not playing favorites. Probably the most underperforming group on the team in 2015, USC's fortunes ride heavily on the OL this season. And I think the group will deliver in spades. Zach Banner is an awkward player against speed rushers but if you keep him at RT he should keep our QB upright, and he's an intimidating force in the running game. The Deuce trio of Viane, Mama and Toa all have the ability to be All-Conference level players. Chad Wheeler is an athletic LT as is Chris Brown at LG. Rodgers and Falah provide OL depth at C/G, Chuma Edoga has "greatness" potential at tackle, and look who has emerged as a legitimate piece of the puzzle: none other than former 5-star Jordan Simmons.
”I like this group a lot, but they were not coached up last season by Bob Connelly. Furthermore, the OC play-calling did them no favors -- slow-developing run plays with a pulling guard on short-yardage were just one example of the OL being thrown into "fail" situations. It also seemed like the defense always knew when we were running, suggesting that Helton & Co. have to do a much better job of self-scouting with regards to formation, down-and-distance, tendencies, etc. The best friend to an OL is an offensive attack that keeps the defense guessing and puts it on its heels, and that is something we've lacked here for several years now. Will Clay solve this problem? That's one of the biggest questions of 2016 IMO, and ties directly into how well this USC team performs.”
DW: The entire offensive concept, from personnel to preparation, game-planning to play-calling, confidence to toughness, personnel groupings to tendencies, has to be re-worked. And it is. The shared input of the holdovers and the newcomers has gone well. But it all starts at the line of scrimmage. It starts with toughness and technique and the confidence that brings. They’re getting there. If they can run the ball, and run it inside, everything else falls into place. Last year, and even the year before with Buck Allen, they couldn’t. Not when they had to. That is changing. And Zach at 389 was awkward. Not so much now that he's down below 360.
RichSC: “*** The RB's. Justin Davis has hit that time in his career when he knows he's stronger, faster and smarter than ever, and pity any defensive players who take him lightly. Yes, I think Ronald Jones should be the starter, he is a legitimate 1,500-yard rusher who can score on any play, but I also don't take for granted the way Davis finished out 2015 with some punishing running against the likes of UCLA and the lot. Add to this dynamic duo Ced Ware, who has a tremendous ‘feel’ for running due to his vision, ‘wiggle’ (it's subtle, but he rarely lets the first defensive player wrap him up) and forward lean/pad level. Dominic Davis should be part of this group, he is an explosive player who must be accounted for when he goes in motion, but I fear he will get limited reps with all of the other skill kids on the roster.
DW: Right on the running trio although it may not be at all a bad way to go with Justin as the starter and Ronald as the home run hitter behind him. As to reps and playing time, I like it that they’re clearly staying with the no-huddle “tempo” game and planning to use numbers – of plays and players – to separate from teams in the second half. How about that for a turnaround in thinking. That would include Dominic Davis as a slot guy, receiver, flanker reverse guy and the like. But they have to run enough plays to get the ball to all their playmakers. And we’re not even talking Adoree’ on offense yet.
RichSC: “Now, to some concerns: A question thrown at Clay Helton or anyone on his offensive staff that never seems to get a straight answer is, ‘What kind of offense are you running?’ Awhile back, Clay said he wanted something along the lines of 2011, when Rhett Ellison was used effectively as an H-Back and USC was a Top 20 offense (though curiously mediocre in the red zone). To refresh one's memory: that team had 111 balls caught by Robert Woods, an explosive Marqise Lee making plays as a freshman, and 3 TE's/H-backs catching a collective 63 passes (Ellison and the freshman duo of Telfer and Grimble). Only two other WR's caught more than five passes on that team: Carswell and Butler. All of which begs the question: How does Clay's current roster, with 16-17 scholarship wideouts (when you include 2-way players like Adoree and Jack Jack) and a depth problem at TE, jibe with the above? My answer would be, ‘Not very well,’ and Clay seems to agree, as he has now put a walk-on former LB into a ‘fullback’ role on offense. This begs a second question: which of our scholarship WR's gets to sit down because we are playing a walk-on fullback?
The bottom line here is I'm not sure Clay knows what kind of offense he wants . . . yet. Perhaps the 2011 offense is the goal but it surely isn't a "fit" right now. There are reports that we're running some no-huddle at practice but not an overly high amount of it. Clay has referenced Lane Kiffin many times when talking about how much he's learned about offense. Lane, of course, ran a fairly traditional pro-set offense, which while less confusing than what Sark was running (a "no huddle" that inexplicably became a "slow huddle"), isn't exactly forward-thinking. Gumming up this subject further is what Tee Martin said the other day about the offense being partly Western Kentucky, partly Fresno State under Pat Hill, partly up-tempo, partly old-school USC, partly USC under Kiffin . . . yeah, I give up.
Here's what I do know: USC's offense needs an identity. When you're not sure what kind of offense you're running, when there's no overriding philosophy behind it, then you get a mixed bag that is far from optimal. You get players who never get good at one particular thing because you're practicing so many different kinds of formations/tempos/ideas that there's nothing for the kids to cling to with conviction. Saban's kids know exactly how he wants them to play. Same with Harbaugh. Same with Meyer. Same with Chris Peterson. Heck, same with Kliff Klingsbury and Art Briles and Paul Johnson. Clay needs to decide what this USC team is. It can't be a bunch of things. It needs a singular identity that he believes in. Unfortunately, I don't think he knows yet . . . so there could be some turbulence up ahead as this all shakes out. Stay tuned.”
DW: Identity is overrated when compared to excellence and execution. Sark's offense had an identity, one he sold hard to everyone who would ask from his scintillating talk to the entire athletic department on his arrival to the players as they headed into winter workouts and conditioning, spring practice, summer throwing and August practice. That identity lasted all the way through the opener against Fresno when it died as soon as Sark realized he didn’t have enough players to execute it. Or even practice it. The one big revelation this week is how all these guys – coaches and players – are on the same page. It is going to be an amalgam – a “gumbo” if you will to use Tee’s word for it – but gumbo can be good if it has the right ingredients put together by the right cook or cooks.
Here’s Tyson Helton on exactly what it is: “We’re built on a pro-style, no-huddle with tempo mixed in . . . we start with a pro mindset and flex out from there.” And then there’s Clay’s Tuesday take: “We must be able to run the ball.” Sark and Lane said the same thing about running the ball but no one thinks they believed it from the way they coached and schemed. Clay does. You see it every day starting with Neil Callaway.
And the move of onetime linebacker Reuben Peters to fullback/F-back is the kind of move a smart, confident coaching staff makes. He’s not taking playing time from a scholarship wide receiver, as if that mattered. That’s not how you figure out the way to play – or who. He can be this year’s Ross Cumming, whose 2011 play may not have been recognized as much as it should have been in a very similar role. And for those who downplay the 2011 offense, we’ll take a team that can put up 48 points on Arizona, 31 in a win at Notre Dame, 48 in a 3OT loss to Stanford, 42 in the freezing cold in Colorado, 40 against Washington, 38 in the cold upset of No. 4 Oregon and 50 over UCLA. The difference, of course, is that was the lone USC team in the last five -- not counting 2013 -- that kept getting better. That figured things out. We’re hopeful that this group won’t wait until October to figure it all out.
RichSC:: “*** WR situation. I know this is counter-intuitive due to the serious depth we have here, but when one-fifth of your roster is wide receivers, AND you're talking about running a Pro Style offense using TE's and a fullback, there's going to be a lot of juggling of egos and smoothing-out of ruffled feathers. That's just reality. Tee Martin seems to be beloved by his players, as does Clay, so that's a plus. But at some point all of these kids wanting the football thrown to them are going to experience some discontent. There's a lot of bodies at that spot, which brings me to . . .”
DW: The numbers at wide receiver – subtracting the two-way guys who are really DBs – are less than the O-line numbers, the secondary numbers and, when you count the outside linebackers as D-linemen as USC is now doing – the D-linemen as well. And with the expected or certain departure of five wide receivers after this season, a number of the newcomers know their time is next spring.
RichSC: “*** DL depth. Here's an area of great concern. I love the talent of our starting three -- Green, Jefferson and Daniel -- but Bigelow's loss hurts, and I'm not sure who we have to step in if the situation calls for it. Is Rector ready? If he is, great. Malik Dorton is a pretty undersized kid to be sticking into a 3-man front IMO. Kevin Scott is still described as ‘raw,’ which typically translates to "not ready to contribute."
DW: Lots of ways to do the numbers on the D-line. If you combine the edge guys with the inside guys, you’re mostly talking of a “starting four” which right now with the injuries to Bigelow and Noah Jefferson rehabbing his back, becomes for 10 of 12 opponents where USC will go with a nickel package, a “starting two” inside with Green and Dorton, who has blossomed under Clancy’s one-gap scheme. Don’t write Dorton off. His size – and quickness -- could be a feature, not a bug. And he looks like he’s closing in on 280 now. And Jefferson will be back. That leaves Porter Gustin and Uchenna Nwosu on the outside. When you see that four-man group line up, they look pretty formidable. The only two obvious hiccups – and they’re big ones – are the opponents in two of the first three games. Alabama and Stanford look like they’ll require the three down, inside guys so as Clay says, they have to be both “lucky” and “healthy” here.
RichSC: “*** QB battle. Unfortunately I think it's a foregone conclusion that Max Browne is getting the job, all discussion to the contrary. Maybe Max does a great job for us, but if we're talking about putting a fullback back out on the field in 2016, that makes two players (Browne and the fullback) that a defense doesn't have to be concerned about in terms of running the football. In this day and age, short of being a behemoth offense such as Stanford's, that's a tough way to have a consistent offense.”
DW: Bulletin. USC is planning to have a “behemoth” offense – at least figuratively. While it won’t be a regular way of moving the ball, all of USC’s quarterbacks are being encouraged to tuck the ball and take what they can get when the time is right and will do that – two of them obviously more so than the other. And you can win a national title in football – in college or the NFL – without a running quarterback or a running fullback. Maybe there was a time you needed one or the other of those. But not in this century. Or much of the previous one. And thanks to Sam, it is a competition.
RichSC: “*** Passing game. Everything I've heard to date suggests that most of the passing is going to be in the short areas -- hitches, slants, bubble screens, with the occasional long ball mixed in. Maybe this is just a reality of early practices, making sure you develop the short passing game and become proficient at it before moving on to more elaborate stuff . . . but I fear not. I am dying to see USC exploit the middle area of the field as well as the intermediate depths. The good news is, the 2011 offense that Clay so respects DID throw the ball down the seam to Grimble and Telfer once in a while. So maybe there's hope. But right now, this sounds like the conservative passing offense we've all grown to loathe the past few years.”
DW: It’s not the same offense. The tight ends, F-backs, fullback and running back will all see the ball coming their way. They’ll throw it down the seam. They really like their three tight ends. And they’ll double and triple up with an F-back, tight end and fullback and still throw it out of a power run formation. Yeah, hard to believe for anyone paying attention the last few years. But as much as it’s a carryover with Tee and Clay, it’s a long way from what they were limited to under Lane and Sark.
RichSC: “*** Kicking game. I hear about booming legs in practice reports but don't get a lot of enthusiasm about "accuracy." Hoping we get our act together with this for the upcoming season. Looking forward to seeing how all of the above develops and grows over the rest of the spring and summer.
DW: Don’t pay attention to “booming legs in practice reports.” We don’t. Hey, we were the ones doing the reports and then had to sit through so many games when the legs didn’t go “boom.” And thus far in the spring, we haven’t really seen punter Chris Tilbey do his rugby thing which isn’t expected to do much “booming” anyway, just bouncing and rolling in the right direction. Matt Boermeester can boom it but they're really not letting him or encouraging him to. Guess we’ll know more Sept. 3. Catch you then.
*** And one more. The experience level of this USC staff, that some really like, earned this additional take from RichSC: ”Yes and no. Helton is one of the inexperienced HC's in college football as I write this. Udeze is a first-time DL coach. Bradford came from a small school as a DB coach, Tyson Helton from a small school as an OC, Tee is a first-time OC, Nansen is coaching LB's for the first time in years. Clancy P, Baxter and Callaway are the ones who've got long track records of proven results, so they balance things out somewhat, but there's a lot of unproven talent on this coaching staff IMO. We all hope it works out, of course.”
DW: Small school, big school, not much of a factor in my mind. Connelly had coached at Alabama, UCLA and Oklahoma State. Sark at USC and Washington. Nick Saban and Lou Holtz came from Kent State. Clancy loves working with Bradford. Good enough for me. BKU may be the oldest, most-experienced 33-year-old rookie in college coaching. Tyson Helton’s “small” school finished in the AP Top 25 last fall with a record-breaking offense. That’s the important point. Although the most important point here is – as Callaway preaches to his O-line guys – is how they work together, as one. So far, so good. Clay’s track record at the end of last season may give us all pause, as it does RichSC but he’s had a pretty good 2016 putting this staff together and moving this team in the right direction, even if it's not all that obvious to everybody. Nor should it be.
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