The question of the week, it seems, is this: What exactly is the identity of USC’s offense going to be? Leading the charge here has been brodieboy3, asking for coordinator Tee Martin to explain what it is USC plans to do on offense.
Ask Tee, bb3 pleads. See if he knows.
But with Tee spending much of this month on the road recruiting, we’re getting some unsolicited answers here on the P that mostly seem to be describing what it is that USC has been doing – much of it not very well, the respondents say – the last few seasons.
We tend to agree – looking back at the last couple of seasons.
What we’re not sure of is whether a new playbook with a named new offense signed off on by head coach Clay Helton, OC/wide receivers coach Martin, passing game coordinator/quarterbacks coach Tyson Helton, running game coordinator/RB coach Tommie Robinson, O-line coach Neil Callaway and tight ends coach John Baxter is much of a security blanket. As Steve Sarkisian and Lane Kiffin proved, it’s not about the playbook – or what you call it
And yes, there’s the little bit of new lingo. There’s Mobile-native Tee’s “gumbo.” But what the heck is that, the critics ask. Just another name for a mish-mash of stuff you don’t do very well and won’t stick to when things are going bad, the critics here are saying. “Pabulum.” “Coach speak.” Blah, blah, blah.
They seem to worry that this USC offense could be just as ill-defined and not all that well thought-out as it’s ever been. It was a worry another perceptive P poster, Richsc, expressed earlier in the spring.
As we did then, we disagree now.
We think Tyson Helton said it best of the basic scheme: “We’re built on a pro-style, no-huddle with tempo mixed in . . . we start with a pro mindset and flex out from there.”
But big brother Clay had this final say: “We must be able to run the ball.” And sure, talk is cheap. And doesn’t always mean that much. It’s not so much what you say but what you do. And you can do both of these in the same game, the same season. You have to be able to to go all the way.
Clay amplified on this in his Campus Rush Q&A with SI’s Pete Thamel this week on how this philosophy will play out and it’s consistent with everything we’ve seen and heard this spring.
We’ll note it’s not consistent with what we saw in the Stanford and Wisconsin games to end last season. So that’s an issue for Clay and Tee to deal with, making what they do catch up with what they say. Here’s Clay on the USC offense.
“I think that every good offense looks at its personnel, designs its offense around its personnel and recruits to its system,” Clay told Thamel. “Right now we're very skilled. I think that you have some really talented running backs, but you look at the receiving corps and it's one of our strengths, also. Going into this, I think we're going to be extremely balanced.
“One of the staples I think is imperative for this team, and how you win championships, is when it's time to run the ball—and everybody knows you have to run it in games—you have ability to. You look at the Cal game [a 27–21 win on Oct. 31], having to run six [times] in a row to finish the game. You look at the UCLA game [a 40–21 win on Nov. 28], 11 plays in a row running power to the right side to finish that game. The Colorado game [a 27–24 win on Nov. 13], running the ball to finish that game. That's got to be a staple of our football team. Be a balanced offense and run the ball when you must.”
That’s why Callaway is here. And building up an O-line that’s deeper, more physical and much more accountable than any Trojans group in a long time. There’s a confidence about these guys we haven’t seen recently. It’s a carryover from the hard work they’re putting in on the practice field. And it’s clearly as important as whatever you call the offense.
Are they going to be one of those “jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none” offenses we’ve all seen too often? I coached with, and argued against, that approach my first years out of college with high school coaches who tried just that. Been there, done that. This team isn't going the "grab-bag" route.
But here’s the thing. You can hang that tag around some of the Kiffin and Sark offenses all you want but if either had had Neil Callaway coaching with this offensive line, they’d have had a chance to do whatever it is they wanted to do. As Lane did in 2011 when USC had Matt Kalil up front and Rhett Ellison at the point of attack.
But to say USC hasn’t tipped its hand, or doesn’t really know what ingredients it wants in Tee’s “gumbo” is not what we’re seeing.
We’re seeing a deep-enough running back group that’s tough-minded with experience that will run the ball inside even with no one over 200 pounds and hit it in there quickly on traps and inside counters, no longer dependent on the slow-developing stretch plays. That forces linebackers to stay home. And all of a sudden, your three tight ends have much more room to roam – as long as you encourage them to do that.
And this USC offense will do that. So now defenses have to look inside, up the gut, to stop the run and yet be aware of a tight end group, often two at a time and bunched to the same side, getting into the seams quickly. Neither of those were a problem for defenses last fall. USC didn’t go there.
And didn’t go nearly as quickly. That’s the other big difference we see. This is not a slow-developing offense in any way. Which is why the quarterbacks seem to be doing so well so soon. The key for them is to get the ball to the person who is open, the guy in space, as soon as you see that, something you may see before the snap call.
This isn’t one of those 1-2-3 reads with the quarterback moving mechanically from his primary to his secondary targets while hoping the O-line doesn’t whiff on a block. It’s one where USC will have more weapons in play quickly so that as the quarterback scans the entire field in a split second, the open guy is apparent and he gets the ball much of the time. USC will take what the defense gives them.
And if that’s a quarterback run, for four or five yards, USC will take that as well, even with Max Browne. It’s not the read option. But it’s there. And you’ll have to defend it.
But the key to everything is the ability to run the ball, as Clay says, when they know you’re going to run it. Here’s how we said that in the spring.
"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," we wrote. "But it all starts at the line of scrimmage. It starts with toughness and technique and the confidence that brings . . . 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."
Something else is changing. While we have always assumed the Trojans’ skill position talent at running back and wide receiver led by JuJu Smith-Schuster, Justin Davis and Ronald Jones will be competitive, do not forget the tight ends. The Taylor McNamara-Tyler Petite-Daniel Imatorbhebhe trio are as talented a group as anyone in the Pac-12, maybe the nation, can trot out – especially the way USC plans to use them.
Then there’s this and the tight ends come into play here. USC will have the ability to attack short and deep with them, as they did in the Spring Game. And throw it over the middle and deep down the seam. If you can trust your O-line not to break down, you don’t have to keep the tight ends in to block. That’s all new. Defenses will have to account for the entire field now, not just from the mid-level hash marks out.
And there will be a fullback, at times. But in personnel groupings that don't give away the game plan. And on an offense when they know you're coming at them but you're good enough to make it happen. No need for short-yardage "trickeration" if you do this right.
And for those who remember the Oklahoma national championship game, as good as that Sooner secondary full of All-Americans and future NFL guys was, they couldn’t help themselves from inching up to support the run allowing USC wide receivers and tight ends to run by them on the deep routes. Of course, that was the perfect proposition for a USC offense with its Thunder and Lightning talent.
But that’s the idea. And a good one it is.
Now all USC has to do is . . . do it.
Saying who you are and what you’re going to do is fine. But making it happen is really the only thing that matters.
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