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USC recruiting in the trenches and early rivalry game predictions: Trojans mailbag

LOS ANGELES — Jordan Addison is now officially a member of USC’s football program, the Trojans’ coaching staff has been on the road recruiting for the past month before it starts hosting official visits and recruiting camps in the coming weeks, and our readers have plenty of questions.

Let’s get to them.

Note: Some reader questions have been lightly edited for clarity.

Why are the analysts thinking the O-line will be improved when during the spring game the run game was sporadic at best and there was pressure on the QB by a defense that was terrible last year?

Mark C.

I thought it’d be good to start this week by talking about USC’s offensive line. The Trojans have a potential star at quarterback in Caleb Williams. Travis Dye proved last year at Oregon that he could be one of the best running backs in the Pac-12; now he’ll line up next to Williams in USC’s backfield. And the Trojans will have Addison as the No. 1 target in the passing game. That leaves the major question of whether the offensive line can give Williams enough time to find Addison and USC’s other receivers or provide running room for Dye.

I get why you might be concerned, but I wouldn’t put much stock into the spring game. It’s not like Lincoln Riley was calling plays with the goal of beating USC’s defense on every snap. The offense was extremely vanilla. If it had been an actual game, you probably would have seen different protection adjustments. Riley wasn’t going to show those in the spring game.

Those who think the offensive line will improve, myself included, are going off what they saw last year when the Trojans had just adequate scheme continuity. USC’s run blocking was putrid in 2020, but aside from the Washington State and Arizona State games, I think the offensive line held up pretty well in the run game last year. USC allowed 18 sacks in 2021, which was tied for 19th-best nationally. That was while playing two redshirt freshman at the tackle spots for a majority of the season.

Those two, Courtland Ford and Jonah Monheim, are back, along with center Brett Neilon and left guard Andrew Vorhees, who was an AP All-American last year. So that’s the main reason for optimism. We’ll see where Virginia transfer Bobby Haskins fits into that rotation.

I don’t think it’ll be a dominant offensive line, but I don’t think it’s out of the question to see the group take another step forward this year in a better scheme. Riley is clearly high on the line’s experience.

The starting five shouldn’t be your concern. The depth behind them is the bigger issue.

Riley and staff seem to be doing a land-office business in their recruiting in most positions save the OL and DL. Losing the OL recruit to Oregon was surprising and disturbing. Why is SC struggling to recruit on the lines? For SC to become elite, it is going to have to get SEC caliber linemen. That just doesn’t seem to be happening. What do you think can be done to change that script?

Chris B.

Look back at USC’s offensive and defensive lines from its last national title team. Those units were made up of a majority of players from Southern California: Shaun Cody, Mike Patterson, Sam Baker, Ryan Kalil, Lawrence Jackson, and on and on.

It’s true that for USC to become elite, it has to bring in elite talent on the line of scrimmage. Now go look at how much elite offensive and defensive line talent there is in California in the 2023 recruiting cycle. The lone blue-chip defensive lineman is five-star St. John Bosco (Bellflower, Calif.) defensive end Matayo Uiagalelei. The state has no blue-chip offensive linemen.

Landing those guys is going to be tough when there are just not that many close to campus. And those out-of-state battles are going to be tougher. It’s not always easy to pull kids from Georgia, Texas or anywhere else. Losing Josh Conerly to Oregon was definitely a tough blow. Say what you want about Adrian Klemm as an offensive line coach, but the Ducks assistant can land talent with the best of them.

This staff will have to prove it can develop linemen, and the Trojans will need to win games for people to jump on board. That’ll take time. There’s also the Texas route, where donors/fans/alumni stepped in with an NIL collective catering specifically to offensive linemen. Texas had been struggling to get elite offensive linemen, then it landed six this past cycle.

USC seems to have a ton of talent in the defensive secondary from 2021, 2022 and 2023 high school and transfer classes. When will that start to translate on field? Is it worrying that the talent isn’t more spread out across positions?

Quinn B.

I think that talent will start to spread out a bit more. The previous staff’s two best recruiters were probably Donte Williams and Craig Naivar, and they both coached the secondary. And the Trojans didn’t sign any defensive backs in the 2020 cycle, which has forced the assistants who arrived after that to hit the position hard.

USC signed six blue-chip defensive backs in the 2021 recruiting cycle and that group of signees arrived with a lot of hype. Only one really stepped into the spotlight last year and is in line to start this year: safety Calen Bullock, who has star potential.

It’ll be a critical training camp for second-year corners Ceyair Wright and Prophet Brown. Both are talented but raw. Jaylin Smith has the potential to be pretty good, but Max Williams will be tough to beat at nickel.

I’d be most concerned about the two four-star safeties from the 2021 class: Xamarion Gordon and Anthony Beavers Jr. USC brought in Ohio State safety transfer Bryson Shaw after spring practice ended and moved Oklahoma transfer Latrell McCutchin from corner to safety during the spring. And highly touted freshman safety Zion Branch arrives on campus in a few weeks. The path toward playing time for Gordon and Beavers is very muddled right now.

It’ll be a young secondary this fall with the exception of Colorado corner Mekhi Blackmon, who is going to start at one corner spot. But it’ll be hard for USC’s secondary to be as bad as it was last year. I think this group will have some growing pains, show flashes of that potential and then turn into a solid all-around unit in 2023, when Bullock is a year older and players like Branch and Domani Jackson have some experience.

Is the defensive line and linebackers a concern? The transfers are good players on defense but none of them have done anything in college besides Shane Lee and that before he was injured. They lack starting experience or significant playing time. Seems like fans are too optimistic on the defense. The team lacks depth on defense. The transfers on offense have experience compared to the transfers on defense.

Ali A.

With Lole going to Louisville, who do you think they add to the defense with the offers they’ve made already?

Brandon L.

I’d say the defensive line is the most pressing concern about this team headed into the season. Shane Lee still needs to prove he can recapture his 2019 form at Alabama, but the addition of him and Arizona State transfer Eric Gentry, who was a freshman All-American last season, should make the linebacker spot a little less concerning.

It’s going to take a few years to build this defense up, particularly the defensive line. Tuli Tuipulotu is really, really good, but USC is counting on a lot of other guys up front who have been inconsistent or injury-plagued over the course of their careers. There’s just a lack of playmaking, size and depth in the group. Jermayne Lole was never transferring to USC for reasons we’ve hit on in the past. I think Lole’s teammate, Omarr Norman-Lott, was an under-the-radar target for the Trojans’ defensive line holes, but Norman-Lott returned to Arizona State shortly after entering the portal.

We’re getting close to June now. There aren’t a ton of quality options, or players who could help USC in 2022, left in the transfer portal, especially when it comes to defensive linemen. So I don’t see USC making any sort of dramatic addition that would spark the defensive line this fall.

And remember, for all positions, not everyone who enters the transfer portal is a take just because they might play a position of need.

Who wins ND vs USC 2022 and why?

Daniel L.

Can Lincoln Riley and USC stay ahead of UCLA and Chip Kelly?

Eric G.

I found these questions interesting because BetOnline released its initial Power 5 win totals on Monday morning and USC’s over/under was set at 9.5. With the addition of Addison, my projection for the Trojans has gone from eight or nine wins to nine or 10 wins. So I think that 9.5 is right in the sweet spot. Whether USC hits that could come down to the final two games of the season: at UCLA and home against Notre Dame.

Notre Dame has a first-year head coach in Marcus Freeman but has a more well-rounded roster than the Trojans right now. Those games have been competitive in recent years even when USC has been down, but I’ll still give the Irish the edge.

That leaves UCLA, which is probably being slept on a bit this offseason. The Bruins lost a lot of talent from last season, but they utilized the transfer portal well, and the return of quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and running back Zach Charbonnet should make them tough offensively.

I like USC’s long-term outlook better than UCLA’s just because its recruiting will be better, but the matchup on the field this year could go either way. It’ll likely be a shootout, just like the past three or four games in that series. But I think we’re going to end up seeing that type of game from USC a lot this season.

(Photo: Keith Birmingham / MediaNews Group / Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

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