The increased reliance on the USC ground game could not have come at a much better time, at least as far as the Trojans' wide receivers are concerned.
What started the year as a deep group has dwindled somewhat in recent weeks, with the latest setback coming for JuJu Smith-Schuster, who required surgery for a fracture in his right hand. Smith-Schuster leads the Pac-12 in receiving yards per game (119.5 per game) and is in the top 25 nationally in receptions and receiving touchdowns. USC interim coach Clay Helton said it’s unclear how long Smith-Schuster will be out, with the time frame for recovery varying from three days to a couple of weeks.
The Trojans have already been playing without Isaac Whitney and Ajene Harris, although Whitney hopes to return late in the regular season. Steven Mitchell Jr. and Darreus Rogers have also missed time in recent weeks, but both were able to participate against Cal. Their availability is critical if Smith-Schuster is forced to miss any significant time.
USC could also turn to a pair of youngsters who have given the Trojans an unexpected boost lately in quarterback-turned-receiver Jalen Greene and true freshman Deontay Burnett. Greene has shown a quick learning curve for his new position, while Burnett is making plays after being a late blueshirt scholarship offer for the Trojans. It was thought that Burnett had a chance to make an impact in due time, but it’s been a pleasant surprise to see him contribute so soon.
Adoree’ Jackson, De’Quan Hampton and Dominic Davis are other options available to Helton, if he even needs to go that deep in the receiver group. USC has rushed the ball 95 times in the past two weeks and that doesn’t figure to change against an Arizona defense that is vulnerable up front without injured LB Scooby Wright and is giving up over 450 yards per game. Helton has settled into a three-man rotation at running back that figures to include freshman Ronald Jones II even more as the season goes along, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Trojans rush the ball 50 times or so in this game as well.
Helton was quick to give credit to position coach Tee Martin this week for the job he has done with the receivers. In addition to getting production from the entire position group, the Trojans have been an efficient passing team all year, which naturally means good results from the receivers, and there has also been a notable presence in downfield blocking.
Helton making his case
It’s far too early to start handicapping Helton’s chances of eventually earning the full-time job, but you can’t ignore the fact that he is starting to put together a solid presentation for athletic director Pat Haden to consider. There is a lot of speculation about how many wins it might take for Helton to earn the job, but I don’t think it comes down to that. More than anything, his best claim is going to come from the way the team plays football, and so far that is getting good reviews from all areas of USC football. The former players and fans are taking notice that they like what they see, especially with the return of an offensive identity that revolves around running the ball.
Helton also seems very comfortable in the way he’s handling the team. That shouldn’t be a surprise, as he has been a coach for 21 years and was raised as the son of a coach, but it’s still a positive to see him come into a situation that involved a lot of drama and quickly steady things. Now it’s just a matter of seeing where things go the rest of the way. Haden isn’t going to be in any rush to make a decision, and Helton knows there will be some heavy hitters in competition for the job, but he’s the only one with the chance to make his case on the field with the Trojans.
It was announced this week that Norm Chow is out as head coach at Hawaii, and it’s unclear what his coaching future might be. If he does retire, it would bring to an end a career that included a run at USC that will not soon be forgotten.
In his four years as offensive coordinator and quarterback coach for the Trojans (2001-04), Chow coached two Heisman Trophy winners (Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart) and was part of two national title-winning teams (one since vacated). His creativity with play calling, using different formations and pre-snap shifts, all combined with the talent on the USC roster to create one of the most explosive offenses the game has ever seen.
“Because he’s 230 pounds and a very violent runner.” -- Clay Helton, when asked why he gave the ball to Tre Madden in a pair of fourth-down situations