The Trojans have a lot to prove this year.
The team is coming into 2019 unranked in the Associated Press poll after a devastating year. USC went 5-7 overall and 4-5 in conference play, marking its first losing season in nearly two decades.
“We agree that changes need to be made, and they will,” athletic director Lynn Swann said after last season. “We will improve and get better, in all areas.”
Despite pleas from the USC fandom for new leadership, Clay Helton will remain the head coach this year. He is, however, backed by a revamped coaching staff including new faces as well as returning coaches with new duties.
Highlighting the new hires is offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, whose fresh ideas just might bring the Trojans back from catastrophe. Harrell has introduced a simplified, air-raid style offense to capitalize on sophomore quarterback JT Daniels’ passing abilities.
Daniels is a pro-style quarterback who rarely scrambles, completing 59.5% of his passes for 2,672 yards last season.
To improve upon last year’s erratic performance, he will need to focus on quick decision-making, movement in the pocket and chemistry with his wideouts. He will be working with several returning wide receivers, including sophomore Amon-Ra St. Brown, senior Michael Pittman Jr. and redshirt juniors Tyler Vaughans and Velus Jones Jr. to help build and maintain that chemistry.
Pittman is entering his senior year looking to impress NFL scouts. He is coming off a great offensive season, averaging 18.5 yards per game, making him No. 1 in the Pac-12 and No. 21 in the nation.
St. Brown is also coming into the 2019 season as one of the most exciting wide receivers in the NCAA. He recorded 750 yards in his freshman season. To put that into perspective, former standout Trojan receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster had 724 receiving yards in his first year at USC.
The Trojans also welcome several talented freshmen receivers to their roster, including five-star recruit Bru McCoy and four-star recruit Kyle Ford. As one of the most impressive receiving squads in college football, this group has great potential to execute Harrell’s air-raid vision.
Quarterback Kedon Slovis also joined the team as a freshman out of Scottsdale, Ariz. and won the backup position during training camp.
Although the offense faced the scrutiny after last year’s disappointing season, defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast cannot return to business as usual.
USC finished 65th in total defense last year, allowing an average of 27 points per game. With defensive stars Porter Gustin, Cameron Smith, Marvell Tell III, Iman Marshall and Chuma Edoga gone to the NFL, the Trojans must fill in the gaps of their defense to replace last year’s departing stars.
Leading the defensive line this season will be redshirt sophomore Jay Tufele, a 2018 first-team Freshman All-American, and senior Christian Rector.
“I think right now, we’re playing better as a complete unit,” Pendergast said. “Our tackling is better in the open field, I think we’re better situationally, and we’ve practiced a lot more situations.”
A huge test for this year’s USC defensive squad will come during week four when the Trojans face the Utes. Utah, coming into the season at No. 14, is headlined by a host of seniors in quarterback Tyler Huntley, running back Zack Moss and wide receiver Demari Simpkins.
Huntley is making his comeback after suffering a season-ending injury during week 10 last year. Before the injury, he completed 64.1% of his passes for 1,788 yards. It will be crucial that the defensive line puts pressure on Huntley in the pocket to decrease his passing efficiency.
Another key matchup to look out for will be against the Oregon Ducks on Sept. 12. Oregon is currently ranked No. 11, and for good reason. Senior quarterback Justin Herbert had a 59.4% passing success in 2018 and will be protected by an offensive line full of All-Americans and All-Pac-12 honorees.
The Ducks defense will face Washington State one week before they make a trip to Los Angeles, so they will be familiar with facing an air-raid offense.
“I’m confident in us,” Rector said. “But that doesn’t mean anything until you see us go out and play.”
USC will open its season in the newly renovated Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum today. A losing season in 2019 will mark the Trojans’ first consecutive losing seasons since 1961.