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USC Football

Spring Wrap-Up: Helton's Heroes, Harrell's Air Raid, and a Young Star

April 17, 2019

It’s all a matter of perspective.

Spring ball is now over and done, and, it could be argued, USC is only a little further ahead of where it started a month and a half ago.

After all, the quarterback battle hasn’t formally been resolved. The running back stable has yet to shake out. There is no defined slot receiver or Predator, and we won’t even get started on the secondary. The return game is anyone’s guess. Mysteries generally abound.

And, yet, there was progress. Each week this spring, this column promised nothing other than snippets of answers – fragments to cling onto and polish and dream upon for the four longest months of the year: The ones bereft of football.

Now, finally, we have some of them. Here are the three biggest successes of the spring, from the band of fresh faces to the highly scrutinized new offense to one star-making performance

Helton’s Heroes

There are very few hard and fast maxims in college football, but here’s one of them: You only get to clean house once.

Matt Kartozian - USA Today
Clay Helton’s fate could very well be in the hand’s of his new assistant coaches.

It’s college football’s nuclear option and Clay Helton pushed the button this spring, if not fully then at least enough to firmly cement 2019 as his last stand. If he’s right – and he needs to get this right – then Graham Harrell, Tim Drevno, Keary Colbert, Mike Jinks, Greg Burns and Chad Kauha’aha’a will save his job. If he’s wrong, someone else gets the luxury of deciding which ones will stick around next season.

The good news is that sextet has acquitted itself about as well as possible this spring. Drevno is hardly a newcomer but this is his first time to place his fingerprints on a Trojan offensive line in five years and the difference is already evident in the group’s precision and discipline. Jinks quickly cemented himself as perhaps the most well-rounded assistant on the team, a true teacher – watch the growth of Markeese Stepp’s hands, to cherry-pick one example – and a tidal wave on the recruiting trail. Burns was much-maligned, a backup plan to a backup plan and a nomad who has made seven stops since his first tenure in Troy, yet has been the surprise of spring for how well the defensive backs have taken to him. Colbert and Kauha’aha’a have comparably gentler learning curves – the former training USC’s most talented position group; the latter, its deepest – but have shown no early warning signs. As for Harrell… well, we’ll get to Harrell.

We won’t know until the season how much of these positive vibes are white noise versus the genuine article. But, at least in some cases, we have anecdotal evidence to point at for genuine improvement. And, overall, as our Scott Schrader has noted before, there is a buzz and a feel that things are trending in the right direction. If nothing else, the team hasn’t quit on Helton. That, alone, is a crucial first step.

All Hail Harrell?

Every week, we talk about Graham Harrell’s offense, so I’ll understand if you’re too overstuffed on Air Raid content to make your way through this section.

But we – all of us here at Trojan Insider, the USC media writ large, the fans, the coaches, the players, everyone – do it for two reasons.

Trojan Insider
Graham Harrell’s offense is unique to anything to USC has had put into action on the field in the fall.

First, this is genuinely new, a sort of re-stitching that USC’s institutional fabric has never faced before.  No matter how this plays out, you are seeing a radical departure from anything one of the sport’s most important programs has ever attempted. This is exciting, nerve-wracking, intriguing and perhaps even a little sad, depending on how tightly you cling to tradition. Bottom line, it’s different. Different is compelling. Different is why we stick around.

But, also, it’s good. Or, at least, it has been before at North Texas, a school hardly accustomed to pushing opponents around until Harrell and head coach Seth Littrell rode into town. And for all the other hires Helton has made, and for whatever tweaks he’s made to his own coaching repertoire, none of it matters if Harrell’s attack doesn’t deliver. The offense is simply too talented to accept any other option, especially when the defense – particularly the secondary – is so light on proven commodities to pick up the slack.

So you should feel pleased as punch that it has been executed about as well as it could be thus far. The terminology really is simpler; the team really does move faster. Less confusion. Less hesitation. More precision. And all of it against a defense with a gargantuan head start in knowing its playbook.

Fall could tell a different tale when the secondary is at full strength. If, once they are, the offense can’t maintain its edge, then that’s your first trouble sign. But for now this is a full speed ahead in a warp-speed offense. You’ve never seen anything like it in Cardinal and Gold.

A Star Is Born

Speaking of rehashed subjects, USC’s 2019 recruiting class. It may ultimately be great but it certainly wasn’t up to expectations, not to the fan base and, based on their primary targets, not to the coaching staff’s, either.

Trojan Insider
Drake Jackson’s talent is undeniable as part of USC”s 2019 recruiting class.

The quickest way to engender some good will, then, is for someone – anyone – to show out on the field. Because whenever someone does, the shortcomings tend to fall by the wayside a bit more in lieu of focusing on what the team does have.

And what the team does have in Drake Jackson is a potential game-changer.

Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t tamp down some short-term expectations. In 2019, at least, Jackson probably will not be the heir to Rasheem Green or Leonard Williams, as Clancy Pendergast posited he someday can be. He is equally unlikely to register the most impressive play of the season like he did with his one-handed pick six in the spring. And don’t be dismayed if he only carves out so many snaps in a rotation featuring Jay Tufele, Marlon Tuipolotu, Christian Rector, Brandon Pili and more.

Fact is, USC needs an heir to those upperclassmen and Jackson is undeniably it, whether or not he displays it now or in 2020. The frame, first step and motor are undeniable, as is his precociousness to cause this much of a ruckus in his first spring against an offensive line riddled with third-year players. The Drake Jackson era is coming. It should be worth the wait, no matter when it happens.

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Spring Wrap-Up: Helton's Heroes, Harrell's Air Raid, and a Young Star

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