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Three Reasons Why USC Will be a Better Team in 2019

Despite a frustrating offseason, USC Trojan fans can look forward to some positive changes.

PASADENA, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 17: JT Daniels #18 of the USC Trojans reacts after a stop on third down by the UCLA Bruins defense during the first half at Rose Bowl on November 17, 2018 in Pasadena, California.
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Clay Helton is giving his staff more freedom

Whether coach Clay Helton was eager to do so or not, part of the changes being made within the coaching staff this season include the USC head coach having to delegate more responsibilities to his assistants. He now will involve himself less in weekly game-planning and position meetings, and more in general oversight and player management, two roles in which he has actually done well in recent years. This is good news for many reasons, but most importantly, it removes Helton from play calling, an area in which he struggled mightily last season, as the offense failed to move the ball with any consistency.

For some perspective, USC visited the red zone 35 times last season. It scored a touchdown on 19 of those 35 visits. Graham Harrell’s North Texas offense visited the red zone 60 times, and reached the end zone a whopping 38 times on those red zone trips.

Let’s look at total plays. USC’s offense was painfully conservative and predictable throughout the 2018 season, which led to its offensive being unable to sustain drives. For reference, the Men of Troy ran 794 plays on offense last year, which was dwarfed by the North Texas Mean Green, who ran a total of 966 plays on the season. Even if you take into account the fact that North Texas played a bowl game and USC didn’t, it still averaged roughly eight plays more per game than USC. A lot can happen in eight plays.

JT Daniels is an incredibly accurate passer who can make virtually any throw on the field, but time and time again last season, the coaching staff did not put him in position to utilize his strengths. Young quarterbacks thrive when presented with simplified reads that force them to make quick decisions with the football and not take sacks. The Trojans did the complete opposite last year. Time and time again, the coaching staff unsuccessfully unveiled elaborate, slow-developing plays in crucial situations, and they paid the price.

An offensive line hobbled with injuries struggled to protect Daniels seemingly every week, and Daniels struggled to find and connect with open receivers (on the rare occasion the play designed them open). Many of the Trojans’ “big plays” in the passing game came from 50-50 balls in which Trojan playmakers were forced to make extraordinary plays in order to move the offense forward and continue drives. Not until (literally) the last game of the season against Notre Dame, did Helton and his staff implement these confidence building, easy completions and reads into the game-plan for Daniels.

The best way to get the most out of a young quarterback who is still learning and adjusting to the speed of the college game is to simplify his workload on every play, and ensure he’s comfortable and protected throughout his reads and progressions. USC did an awful job of that last season, but Harrell is here to right the ship in that regard.

The team will actually be healthy (hopefully)

On top of USC’s many struggles in the 2018 season, was that it seemed as if the team could never get fully healthy. Key contributors such as linebackers Cameron Smith and Porter Gustin missed significant time with injuries. Breakout stars Palaie Gaoteote and Talanoa Hufanga were sidelined with their own respective ailments. Defensive playmakers Marvell Tell III and John Houston Jr. were banged up late in the year. Running back Stephen Carr battled lingering back and ankle injuries and never seemed one hundred percent. Kicker Chase McGrath saw his season cut short after just three games. Even Daniels missed a game with a concussion. The Trojans were consistently short bodies on offense, defense, and special teams.

The onslaught of knocks picked up by Trojan players throughout their 2018 campaign was excessive to say the least. Although injuries will inevitably happen, the 2019 USC Trojans likely won’t be able to match last season’s squad in games missed due to injury, and that’s a good thing.

Changes in the staff have brought back excitement and energy

Although this team still has a long way to go to bring back the swagger and confidence that the program and fan base have exuded in its glory years, it must be said that things do feel a little different this year. While critics may point to the plethora of scandals and general uncertainty surrounding the university and the athletic department as reasons to discredit the Trojans heading into 2019, changes to the coaching staff seem to have injected life back into this group.

Despite being humiliated by the whole Kliff Kingsbury mess, the Trojans recovered nicely with the hiring of Graham Harrell. Those unfamiliar with Harrell likely won’t be impressed by his coaching track record, as he most recently served as offensive coordinator at North Texas. However, Harrell is an excellent football mind, who has worked alongside the likes of known offensive masterminds Mike Leach and Mike Gundy, not to mention he spent three seasons in the quarterback room with Aaron Rodgers during his NFL career as a backup quarterback for the Green Bay Packers.

The players seem to like Harrell, and that’s crucial. What’s more important however, is that he can successfully educate and evaluate the current offensive talent to maximize the success of his air-raid offense.

I don’t believe Harrell will have trouble implementing his new offensive system. Most of these athletes have been playing and studying the game of football their entire lives. The increase in the popularity of 7 on 7 tournaments, which prioritize quick decision making, accurate passing, and precise route running will likely make the transition simple and seamless for the majority of the team.

What Harrell must do is understand that he cannot completely force his players to accommodate to his offensive system. Harrell must evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the current and incoming talent, and then build an offense which showcases those talents and strengths, with his popular “air-raid” teachings embedded within the scheme. Like any new partnership, it’s going to take some time for Harrell and the other new assistants to gel with their new counterparts and athletes, and there will be some bumps in the road.

However, there are many signs that things are headed in the right direction. Running back Stephen Carr shared in an interview with 247Sports that Harrell’s system and playbook is, “really simple”, and also added that his offensive concepts are, “definitely easier to grasp”.

That’s a good sign for Trojan fans, and they should be excited for what’s to come with Harrell and his innovative mind.