“Ahhhhh.” That’s a sigh of relief instead of a frustrated scream — for once. USC’s Weekender win was a high point for the Trojans, but this season, once again, has left much to desire for USC fans. With the hope of a Pac-12 Championship slowly fading away and a non-New-Year’s Six bowl game on the horizon, it is easy to lose sight of the season’s high points. Let’s take a break from the columns about the season’s disappointments and how head coach Clay Helton needs to be fired and instead look at the positives for USC.
1. The Discovery of Kedon Slovis
How can you not be impressed by the kid? Freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis has proved himself week after week as the real deal. Of course, he has shown signs of being a rookie (at 18 years old, he still makes freshman mistakes), but he has shown more than a few flashes of greatness this year.
His pocket presence is masterful — look no further than his 45-yard pass to freshman receiver Drake London against Cal. Slovis magnificently avoided tackles, found a spot to let routes develop and delivered a dime to London. Slovis grows in maturity each week and looks more comfortable in the pocket. The young slinger is a smart quarterback that can and will take advantage of USC’s receiving core.
2. Air-Raid’s Supporting Staff
USC’s new air-raid philosophy under offensive coordinator Graham Harrell requires a strong receiving core. Right now, USC has the best starting receiver group in the Pac-12 — perhaps in the NCAA. Michael Pittman Jr., Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns — it doesn’t get much better than that. Most teams would dream of having one of those guys, USC has all three.
Pittman will leave USC come season end, but USC has a high-profile lineup looking to fit in with St. Brown and Vaughns. Freshmen Kyle Ford and Bru McCoy have yet to play in any significant capacity with McCoy having yet to see the field; both plan to make bids for a starting receiver position in their sophomore seasons.
It’s safe to say Slovis will have plenty of targets to throw to next season.
3. Kickers are People too
Kickers don’t get the love they deserve. Putting a ball through the uprights or within the five-yard line is much less sexy than a 45-yard touchdown. A good kicker/punter is like a good offensive lineman — if you don’t notice them most of the time, they are doing their job. Let’s just say USC fans noticed its special teams a lot in 2018, and it is nice to not notice them this time around.
Redshirt sophomore kicker Chase McGrath has missed one of 11 field goals on the season — a 40-yard field goal attempt against Colorado. He has yet to miss a PAT this season on 44 attempts. Redshirt freshman punter Ben Griffiths has placed 21 of his 45 punts within the 20-yard line, with an average punt distance of 41.5 yards.
4. Defensive pressure
USC had 29 sacks in 2018. This year they have tallied 30 with a game still left on the schedule. Drake Jackson and Jay Tufele lead the team with 4.5 and 3.5 sacks respectively. Yes, USC has had troubles with backfield tackling. Bringing down opposing quarterbacks or running backs behind the line may not be USC’s specialty, but it is a point that has improved greatly this season.
For the defensive backs, sophomore Olaijah Griffin and redshirt sophomore Greg Johnson have stepped into their element and become forces to be reckoned with. Griffin and Johnson have been a thorn in the side of opposing receivers all season. Griffin has made several stops against receivers that clearly have a height advantage. The two have combined for 58 tackles this season.
The dynamic duo of redshirt sophomore safeties Isaiah Pola-Mao and Talanoa Hufanga has also been a strong point of the defense. Hufanga has made his presence felt over the top aiding in limiting the run game, while Pola-Mao has made his impact felt with four interceptions on the season.
With expectations set so high for a program like USC, it is easy to lose sight of the positives for this team. 2019 has already been a significant improvement over 2018; with all the building blocks in place, the end of 2019 and the 2020 season look like they could be a promising time for USC football.