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Looking at USC the way others look at the Trojans

The names you're hearing most these days when people are trying to figure out where this Trojans team belongs are those of Max Browne and Kenny Bigelow.

With all the talk of the ESPN Power Index ranking USC No. 8 in the nation and tops in the Pac-12, Monday was a time for mostly good words about Trojan football.

Today, not quite so much.

More back-down-to-earth time, which really isn’t all that bad when you think about how it is that when you have to come down like that, you must have something to set your sights high to begin with. So there’s that.

But in this lull-before-the-storm couple of weeks until summer throwing and conditioning, we’ll keep on keeping up with USC’s place in college football. Not so hard after all the practice from a couple of decades worth of news – not to mention coaches – in the last five years. It’s never a bad idea to take some time off and step back and have a look.

But not without realizing there’s a certain sense about USC that despite all the hopes and happy talk, there’s also this. If it can go wrong, it will go wrong even while negotiating an NCAA near-death sentence better than anyone else in the country could have.

Still you get the sense that in most cases, save for that ESPN computer, there’s a feeling that buying into the USC program on promise is not the way to go. For the most part, Trojan football has been a bit more of a bear market than a place for the bulls to run wild in recent seasons.  

Which is where we’ll start here.

USC’S SPRING STORYLINE: And yes, we realize you might get a bit shaky when you hear that “storyline” word that Lane Kiffin so liked to use. The pundit who’s gone there first this week as he blogs the Pac-12 from California to the rest of the country is San Jose’s Jon Wilner, who clearly likes the talent on this USC team.

But then – and there’s always a “but” – he contends in his College Hotline blog that the Trojans bring to the table a couple of negatives he can’t get out of his head.

Max Browne failed to secure the USC job,” Wilner notes, lumping USC’s QB situation in the hopper with seven other undecided Pac-12 quarterback calls at Stanford, Oregon, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Cal and Arizona State. “The Pac-12 goes as its quarterbacks go,” Wilner says, “and the going starts early . . . in a fabulous Week 1 schedule.”

But the problem at USC isn’t one of a quarterback not stepping up as expected, as maybe is the case at Oregon, but of a second one – Sam Darnold – taking a giant step. But to the outside world, USC’s quarterback battle extending into the fall can’t be a good thing. We think otherwise. Guess we’ll know Sept. 3.

But Wilner is on to something with his second – and obvious – concern: the defensive line. And this is the one you’re going to be hearing lots about.

Here’s Wilner’s take: “Hardly a dominant unit last season, the Trojans lost three starters and five key rotation players up front. Then came the most significant injury of spring practice ANYWHERE in the conference – Kenny Bigelow, arguably USC’s best defensive lineman, was lost for the year with a torn ACL. Why it matters: The Trojans have a loaded depth chart with two exceptions – quarterback and the defensive line. Bigelow’s loss places added stress on the weakest unit on what could be a division, and perhaps even conference champion.”

No disagreeing with that second part. Plenty of disagreement with the first. USC does not have a depth problem at quarterback. But if the national guys want to hang their hats on that in keeping USC down to start, that’s not all bad.

STEWIE’S SPRING TOP 25: Fox Sports Stewart Mandel, now relocated to California, usually has a good take on the Trojans. Which is why some of you will be disappointed that he has USC down at No. 21. Although when you think about it, after negotiating all the bumps in the road USC has had to handle in recent years, just making anyone’s preseason Top 25 is something of an accomplishment.

But then there’s this. Mandel has USC trailing three Pac-12 teams – No. 11 Stanford, No. 16 Washington and No. 19 Washington State. Yep, Mike Leach, Luke Falk & Co. are living large and that probably shouldn’t bother any Trojan fan. With the Cougs not on the schedule, you can root for them every week. And maybe the Pac-12 North comes down to a UW-WSU Apple Cup matchup. Although no Pac-12 teams in the Top 10 is a bit of a worry.

Not that USC won’t have plenty of challenges and chances to prove themselves if Mandel’s picks hold up. He has Alabama No. 1 and Notre Dame No. 13. And Arizona one of five who just missed his Top 25.

And yeah, we don’t get Michigan at No. 5 and TCU at No. 6. Nor do we see Washington, North Carolina and Louisville at Nos. 16, 18 and 20 respectively. But what that tells us is how really wide open this season just might be. Which is how you’d like it if you’re USC trying to get back on top and hoping to convince people you’re there for the long haul again.

And yes, Mandel sees it much the way Wilner does in his USC blurb: “Surprisingly, fourth-year Max Browne did not come out of the spring a clear starter over redshirt freshman Sam Darnold. Whoever wins the job will benefit from a veteran offensive line and playmakers like JuJu Smith-Schuster. All-American Adoree Jackson and CB Iman Marshall lead a potentially stingy secondary but USC has some glaring holes up front following DT Kenny Bigelow’s offseason knee injury.”

But as much as USC seems to be getting its act together on the field with the new staff, Monday’s news pointed out where the rough spots are.

AUSTIN THOMAS, WE HARDLY KNEW YE: At least this time around, we barely got to see the former and now current LSU director of player personnel in his new job at USC since February before heading back to Baton Rouge where he rejoins Ed Orgeron, his mentor in his first stint at USC. That his three-month USC visit in a not-all-that-clearly-defined role as assistant athletic director for player personnel and NFL scouting has gone up in a puff like it never happened is more than a little puzzling.

He wasn’t happy here, that’s the word out of Baton Rouge, although without throwing any brickbats or specifics USC’s way. It just didn’t happen. And that’s hard to understand when you have someone as qualified and organized – and successful in the dog-eat-dog SEC -- as Austin was. One thing you heard from LSU coaches in recent years was that he did such a solid job, they “could sleep at night.” And that he ran the scouting operation like an NFL personnel/scouting department.

But apparently, after helping LSU to the second of back-to-back Top Five recruiting classes in February, the Tennessee native decided to return to USC, where he’d worked from 2010 to 2013. But then we’re told he didn’t ever put his Baton Rouge house up for sale, And in recent weeks, when people started asking what exactly his role was here and how it was going, there was no clear answer. Now we have an answer – if little clarity. It was not going well.

It all happened quickly. LSU couldn’t get him back fast enough, even gave him an assistant AD title. And a USC program that’s pretty much between athletic directors for a couple of months with a rookie head coach and missing the two departed senior associate athletic directors whose duties connected with football – J.K. McKay and Mark Jackson, who left in the fall for Villanova – there’s some scrambling going on right now.

Here’s our hope for nice guy Clay Helton. Stay true to yourself and yet do what Nick Saban or Urban Meyer would do. You don’t have to be them to get this together in the interim. But you’re the one all this falls on to lead this program – all facets of it -- and you can take this setback as an opportunity to learn how to get more involved in those places off the field that matter so much.          

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.

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