1. Vavae Malepeai
This season, it is perhaps Vavae Malepeai who will be getting the greatest offensive workload of all running backs for the USC Trojans. Graham Harrell’s scheme often uses three and four receiver sets, leaving one running back on the field with perhaps a tight end.
In Harrell’s scheme, running backs are called to pass-protect far more often than they are called to pass-catch. In last Thursday’s practice, pass-protection by running backs was an emphasis. All but Malepeai did not fare well against the strong and stable Trojan linebackers, with even the promising Markese Stepp being beaten in pass-protection.
#USC’s running backs focused on pass blocking Thursday. One portion of practiced pitted LBs against the RBs in a 1v1 pass protection drill. Vavae Malepeai seemed to be the only RB who fared well. Mike Jinks was very animated throughout and had some choice words for Markese Stepp.— Keely Eure (@keelyismyname) March 29, 2019
This past practice, both Stephen Carr and Stepp improved in their pass-protection, but they will need to consistent pass-protection to gain Harell’s trust and become every down backs. Until then, Malepeai seems to be the Trojans’ most reliable option.
Malepeai has also displayed softer hands in practice, with a greater ability to catch out of the backfield. This is not something we saw out of Malepeai last season, and reflects a potential new wrinkle to his game. He’s no Carr yet in that department, but he is improved.
2. Devon Williams
Following the transfer of Trevon Sidney, Devon Williams is the clear number four receiver on the Trojans’ roster this spring camp. He will have to compete with stalwarts Amon-Ra St. Brown, Michael Pittman Jr., and Tyler Vaughns for catches, as well as talented freshmen Kyle Ford and Joshua Jackson. Still, the number four option under Harrell is an enviable spot to be in.
Harrell’s offense often has four or more receivers on the field. In North Texas’ game against Rice, Harell’s offense ran more than twenty plays with four or more receivers on the field. Furthermore, the dominance of St. Brown and co. will attract attention from opposing safeties. When left with one on one coverage, Devon Williams’ 6-foot-4 frame will be more than enough to win contested balls, and Williams possesses the speed necessary take the top off a defense.
In spring practice, Williams has wowed with his speed and size. He is an astounding physical specimen who needs to work on his hands to become a more consistent receiving threat. As a potential number four option, he will get every opportunity to show his chops.
3. JT Daniels
Personally, I am all aboard the Kedon Slovis hype train. His throwing motion is immaculate, he throws with innate velocity, and his balls are well-placed. He needs to work on timing, though this is often remedied through more practice and chemistry with receivers. In spring practice, one player even called out a comparison with Kurt Warner: both are number nine, and from Arizona, and Warner coached Slovis in high school.
Now that the conspiracy theories are out of the way, JT Daniels will likely be the Trojans’ starting quarterback in 2019. He had an up-and-down freshman season, with questionable control of the offense and issues with pocket presence.
Under Harrell, Daniels and co. will have a simplified offense to work with. There will be fewer plays for him, and those that he knows will be drilled into his head. Harrell has often said that one of the principles to his style of Air Raid, is drilling it to the point of ruthless efficiency.
Another focus of practice under Harrell has been getting to the line of scrimmage and setting up quickly. Last season, the Trojans too often snapped the ball with only seconds on the play clock, allowing for defenses to rest and get set on the play. This greater emphasis on setting up quickly will throw defenses off guard, allowing Daniels to read defenses more easily.
Perhaps Harrell’s greatest contribution to Daniels’ game will be through pocket presence and ball security. As a quarterback coach, Harrell has endlessly harped on ball security. As Daniels and the Trojan quarterbacks go through their drills, Harrell often bats at the football to ensure that quarterbacks are spatially aware and holding onto the ball at all times. If the quarterback fumbles the ball, they must redo the drill. Some say that pocket awareness cannot be taught; if it can, Harrell is the man for the job. These drills and this focus on ball security will help Daniels develop more pocket awareness and avoid fumbles.
4. Brett Neilon
Just because Harrell runs an air raid system doesn’t mean that offensive linemen can’t benefit as well. Brett Neilon stepped in for Toa Lobendahn at points last season, though he preserved a year of eligibility as the NCAA allowed for redshirts to play up to four games while preserving their redshirt.
The redshirt sophomore, like Daniels, should benefit from a simplification of the Trojan offense. The center position is the most cerebral position across the offensive line, and centers are often relied upon to identify blitzes or pressure brought by a defense. As Daniels struggles with pressure, it will be imperative for Neilon to help deal with that pressure. Having a simplified Harrell offense can only help that.