USC 2019 spring preview: Plenty of questions after losing season

ByKyle Bonagura ESPN logo
Friday, February 15, 2019

Nothing that will take place between now and the start of the season has a good chance to generate much enthusiasm about USC football. After collapsing to 5-7 in 2018, USC's large fan base is quickly growing disinterested, and offseason talk isn't going to change that. Trojan fans are no longer buying what coach Clay Helton is selling.

The vocal majority wanted him gone after last year's disaster, and once he was retained, a lot of that ire has shifted toward athletic director Lynn Swann. It's an important spring at USC -- they all are, really -- but it's unique in that expectations haven't been this low in nearly two decades. It is highly likely that USC will be unranked in the top 25 of the AP preseason poll, which hasn't happened since 2001.

5-7, (4-5 Pac-12)

March 5

April 13

The assumption is that JT Daniels, after starting as a true freshman, will remain the Trojans' starting quarterback, but there is reason to allow for the possibility that could change. In his brief time as USC's offensive coordinator, Kliff Kingsbury said there would be an open competition at the position, and Helton confirmed again, after Graham Harrell was hired, that remained the case. "Anytime you bring in a new system, whether it's quarterback, wideout, tight end or running back, you're going to evaluate every position. All jobs are open," said Helton, adding that the quarterbacks would receive equal reps in the spring.

Helton didn't lay out any expectation for how long it could take to settle on someone, but it will be interesting to see how Daniels, Jack Sears and Matt Fink handle a second competition. As a freshman, Daniels underwhelmed, throwing for 2,672 yards with 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, while completing 59.5 percent of his passes. Sears went into last season third on the depth chart, but due to injuries to Daniels and Fink, he started -- and played well -- in USC's 38-35 loss to Arizona State. This will be Fink's fourth spring with the program, but he has yet to see any meaningful playing time, with just 18 passing attempts over the past two seasons.

One of the reasons it made so much sense for USC to shift toward an Air Raid approach, at least in the short term, is how talented it is at receiver. With Michael Pittman Jr., Amon-Ra St. Brown, Tyler Vaughns and Velus Jones Jr. all returning, the Trojans have their top four receivers back from last season. Sophomore Devon Williams, a top recruit in 2018, and incoming freshman Kyle Ford provide excellent depth and could easily break into the rotation and make a significant impact.

The Trojans also have two running backs in Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr who have the skills to be effective pass-catchers coming out of the backfield, along with one of the conference's stronger tight end groups. The offensive line is still a big question mark, but whoever wins the quarterback job will have several dangerous playmakers to work with.

USC lost seven defensive backs from last year's roster, including CB Iman Marshall and safety Marvell Tell III, two of the Trojans' five NFL combine invitees. USC's failings as a team prevented Marshall from receiving the praise he probably deserved last season. He was easily among the Pac-12's best corners last season and compared favorably with some of the best in the country. This year's group is young and inexperienced. "We're going to have to be really imaginative a little bit in spring because the numbers at DB, because of some of the offseason surgeries we've had, we'll be very limited," Helton said.

USC could improve slightly from last season and still start the season 0-6. The Trojans' schedule is that unforgiving: Fresno State (coming off a 12-2 season), at Stanford, at BYU (a game USC should have never scheduled), Utah, at Washington and at Notre Dame. While 0-6 is obviously a stretch, would anyone be that surprised if USC went 2-4? There are no gimmes there, and that these hypotheticals are even worth discussing speaks to the state of USC football and its current place in college football.