The USC Trojans kick off fall camp for the 2021 season in less than a week and there is still plenty left to determine that will dictate just how successful this season is for the Men of Troy. Here are five storylines worth watching during camp that will help define the trajectory of USC's season.
The offensive line
All of it. Everything that has to do, even remotely, with offensive line play is going to be under the microscope over the first couple weeks of the fall. There were times during the spring that the line was clicking the the running game seemed to be working, but it wasn't consistent enough to feel really good about potential production and longterm success this fall. And much of that success came with Drake Jackson and Nick Figueroa on the sideline. But new position coach Clay McGuire was still in the early stages of implementing his teachings and the Trojans spent much of the second half of spring ball mixing and matching linemen, looking for the five best linemen and the combinations and lineups that provided the most punch. The line didn't need to produce any longterm answers leaving spring ball, but it certainly does by the end of fall camp.
There's no guarantee that the running game will thrive under McGuire, but it wouldn't be surprising to see it take a significant step forward from last season. He's going to get the unit on the same page in terms of communication and understanding of where to be and what to look for on every call. But game day success comes after fall camp. First, the Trojans need to figure out the starting lineup and there are a few things still up for grabs there. The left tackle spot will be one of the most watched position battles this fall, but Courtland Ford saw a majority of the reps there in spring and the expectation is that he'll be the guy to protect the blindside of quarterback Kedon Slovis this fall. If that's the case, Ford might be the most impactful player on the roster this fall. He'd be replacing a first-round NFL pick and the best offensive lineman on the team last year, in Alijah Vera-Tucker.
Right tackle might wind up being the more interesting battle, where Jalen McKenzie ran mostly with the first team in spring, but Jonah Monheim drew praise from offensive coaches and head coach Clay Helton. After a year of development and a true offseason, Monheim is someone squarely on the radar as a guy who could play his way into the starting lineup.
In the interior, can Andrew Vorhees and Liam Jimmons take steps forward, and does Brett Neilon stay as the starting center? That would be the best at this point, but Justin Dedich is looking to prove he deserves to be in the starting lineup and Jason Rodriguez is heading into his third season hoping to make a bigger impact.
The Trojans have to find a way to keep Slovis upright and healthy this season and a big part of that is developing a running game. Nothing will be proven until the games start for real, but getting a sense of just how confident the Trojans are in the offensive line, how successful they might be in short-yardage situations and seeing which five guys will be taking the field for that first offensive snap will take place over the next couple weeks.
Marlon Tuipulotu, Brandon Pili and Jay Toia won't be lining up for the Trojans this fall. All three are gone for different reasons, but those three all had eligibility remaining and would have turned the defensive tackle position into a real strength for USC this fall if they were on Howard Jones Field for camp. Instead, the Trojans need to find answers right in the middle of the defensive line. The easy answer would be plugging Alabama transfer Ishmael Sopsher in, but the 6-foot-4, 330-pound redshirt sophomore underwent surgery for compartment syndrome earlier this year and will continue to be eased back onto the field. Hopefully he'll be able to get fully healthy in time to be a factor during fall camp or early this fall, but if he can't, all eyes will be on Jamar Sekona and Kobe Pepe. Sekona played very well in the spring and was one of the young guys who impressed early and continued that level of play throughout. He'll need to take another step forward in the fall if that interior spot is going to produce at the same level that USC expects from its end positions, where returning starters are among the best in the conference.
Pepe missed most of spring with an injury, but he's another young player who will have an opportunity to make an impact this fall. And it'll be worth keeping an eye on Stanley Ta'ufo'ou's development, as well as whether Maninoa Tufono can play a role after making the move from linebacker to defensive line last year but missing spring ball.
USC is going to throw the ball a bunch and football in general has become more passing-game oriented, but it's no surprise that the top two storylines for the Trojans during fall camp revolve around running the ball and stopping the run. It's tough to develop a consistent offense or control a game if you can't do either at a high level.
Korey Foreman's fit
USC's 2021 class is extremely talented and a big group of those players are going to be key contributors in the coming seasons. But none are expected to have the immediate impact Foreman is this fall. The 6-foot-5, 265-pound defensive end will have every opportunity to become a key contributor along the defensive line this season. There isn't an easy road to the starting lineup because defensive ends Tuli Tuipulotu and Nick Figueroa are two of the best in the conference. But Foreman is talented enough that USC's defensive coaches can get creative in how to get him on the field and a four-man front of Tuipulotu, Figueroa, Foreman and Drake Jackson on clear passing downs is an exciting prospect.
First, it'll be fun to see Foreman answer a few questions answered during camp, like if he's physical ready to handle the defensive end position as a true freshman and, most interestingly, just how good he is at this level. The expectation is to make a national impact, and while expectations aren't always fair to young players, that's what comes with being the top-ranked prospect in a recruiting class.
USC has a few true freshmen that are capable of seeing time this fall. Wide receiver Michael Jackson III was a spring star as an early enrollee. Linebacker Raesjon Davis is a ballhawk who brings impressive athleticism to the linebacker group and all five defensive backs could factor in on defense or special teams. But none will be under the same spotlight as Foreman.
USC is bringing in nine scholarship transfers this season, a clear indication the coaches want to quickly up the overall talent level of the roster and put positions up for grabs. Two spots to watch for the new guys are safety and wide receiver. There are three new, experienced players coming in at receiver. K.D. Nixon came over from Colorado and was active for the Trojans during spring ball. Jake Smith will arrive on campus this week, from Texas, and former Memphis receiver Tahj Washington has been with the Trojans for summer conditioning and player run practices.
Slovis spoke highly about all the incoming transfers (tight end Malcolm Epps is another of the four new pass-catchers), but heaped plenty of praise upon Washington. He brings a speed element to the position that the Trojans needed to add alongside Gary Bryant Jr. and he's clearly productive, evidenced by 43 receptions for 743 yards as a redshirt freshman last season. It would not be surprising to see him get going quickly during camp.
On the other side, safeties Xavion Alford and Chris Thompson Jr. are worth watching. Position coach Craig Naivar spoke this spring about USC not having enough safeties on the roster to do the kinds of things they wanted to do at the position. Well, there are five new additions this offseason (the two transfers join freshman Anthony Beavers Jr., Calen Bullock and Xamarion Gordon, who were all early enrollees) and both Alford and Thompson bring a year of college experience with them. USC has some experienced veterans at the three safety spots in Isaiah Pola-Mao, Chase Williams and Greg Johnson, but how that position shakes up and exactly how the USC coaches want to use that group will be worth watching.
This fifth spot could have gone to the inside linebacker position, where the Trojans will need to be much stronger than last season due to question marks ahead of them on the line of scrimmage and potentially another year with very little depth behind projected starters Kana'i Mauga and Ralen Goforth. It could have gone to special teams, where USC was improved last season but could use another step forward in most areas if they are going to find those extra yards and points to win tight games. It could have gone to the running game, where incoming transfers Keaontay Ingram and Darwin Barlow will compete for playing time with returners Vavae Malepeai and Kenan Christon, as well as freshman Brandon Campbell, to greatly and immediately improve USC's paltry rushing numbers in 2020.
But ultimately, it goes to quarterback Kedon Slovis.
The junior made some big plays in 2020, but the ultimate takeaway from last year was that he was just a little off. There were times he delivered perfectly thrown passes and he led three game-winning drives in six games, which is a major plus for a quarterback. But he wasn't the consistent Slovis throwing the ball that he was during his true freshman season and the significant step forward in his second season wasn't there.
He looked much better in the spring and now he needs to be even better in the fall. He'll have a chance to put all the questions to rest early in camp if he comes out feeling healthy and firing the ball around the field. This team will go as far as Slovis takes it and he has the talent to make that a fairly secure feeling for USC fans. He'll need some help from the defensive side of the ball and the running game will need to pitch in, but things start and stop with how well Slovis plays and how much control over the offense he has. If he looks sharp early in camp and throughout the four weeks, both physically throwing the ball and mentally running the offense, it'll be one of the biggest positive signs USC could get for the 2021 season.