Editor’s note: The following is a Q&A between Kabir Rao, football beat reporter at The Daily Californian, and Adam Jasper, sports editor of The Daily Trojan. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Kabir Rao: What would you say have been the Trojans’ strengths and weaknesses this season?
Adam Jasper: Obviously, we fired former head coach Clay Helton, so everyone from then on was like, “We don’t really know what the expectations are going to be going forward.” It’s been a down year. But in terms of positional strengths, I have to say it’s wide receiver Drake London. He’s now out for the season, so our brightest spot is now gone. That was a huge loss in terms of target share and third-down ability to make a play and get open. I would say another strength has been the emergence of running back Keaontay Ingram, a transfer from Texas who originally started as the second string behind Vavae Malepeai, another one of our running backs. Since then, Ingram has broken out as No. 1 and he’s had some pretty big games. However, in the past two games, Ingram has been banged up, so Malepeai has come in and put up some big performances. The diversity of USC’s running back room and Drake London have been some of the team’s strengths. However, the weaknesses definitely outnumber those strengths. The main weakness is the defense and, specifically, the secondary. It starts with the cornerbacks — guys such as Chris Steele — that have not lived up to expectations and the unit has been penalty-prone as well. The Trojans’ secondary gets called for a lot of defensive holding and pass interference penalties. And if not, then it’s giving up a big play. It’s been the long passes that have worked so well for opponents as they dice up our secondary. Even some of the safeties have not put up the performances that many expected of them at the start of the season. We pretty much go into every game now thinking, “What is the best way we can limit the damage?
KR: Who are the players that Cal should really look out for Saturday?
AJ: Starting quarterback Jaxson Dart. Kedon Slovis, who was the original starter at the beginning of the season, might be playing; he practiced this week, but as of now, most are assuming that Dart will be starting. Dart, as a freshman, has put in a lot of work this year. He came in when Slovis was injured against Washington State and had an all-time debut performance, throwing for four touchdowns and torching the Cougars. Dart’s mobility and instincts are impressive, and he’s got this electric energy that just lights up the offense. Dart is integral to the way USC plays now and will continue to play in the future. Another guy to look out for is wide receiver Gary Bryant Jr. Specifically, since Dart has been starting, Bryant Jr. has seen a lot more targets and hauled in a lot more receptions. He’s able to vary it up, whether it is making short catches or plays downfield. Bryant Jr. has a lot of the traits that you’d look for in an NFL wide receiver, from making a contested catch downfield to contributing out of the slot and on short routes.
KR: There have been some questions surrounding the quarterback position as Slovis and Dart have both taken the field. How are their play styles different and do you think Dart is the right choice to lead USC going forward?
AJ: When Dart came in to replace Slovis, despite how good Dart was in that first game, I told myself that Slovis should still have the chance to see everything out. But now, my perspective has completely shifted. Dart is the best thing for this team right now and it is really because he’s mobile. Slovis had a tendency to look London’s way on almost every play and he wasn’t spreading the ball around as well. Dart does a much better job of that and he offers what’s best for the Trojans right now: a little bit of spark and electricity.
KR: London was having a Heisman-worthy season before going down due to injuries. Who has stepped up in his absence?
AJ: Definitely say Bryant Jr. But beyond him, Tahj Washington, a slot receiver and transfer from Memphis, is playing really well. We were not seeing the best of him early on this season, and I think that it’s because the team was misusing him. Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell was sending him on these deep routes, but at 5’11”, Washington does not quite have a height advantage over many of the defensive backs that the Trojans have faced. But as the season has gone on and since London went down, we’ve seen Washington running outs, hooks and slants — routes that can really get him in open space and allow him to make a play. He’s been good at that, but Bryant Jr. has truly been the one to step up and take on as much of the No. 1 role as possible.
KR: I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up the fact that USC just closed a deal to bring Lincoln Riley on as the Trojans’ new head coach. What has the reaction in Los Angeles been like and do you think that Riley is the man to bring USC back to its glory days?
AJ: I was back at home in Austin, Texas, when I heard the news, and I was jumping up and down on my couch. Everybody was absolutely thrilled to hear it, and it was not a hire that we were expecting. We were looking at guys such as Dave Aranda and Matt Campbell — coaches who were solid this year but not at the level of Riley. To be completely honest, I did not even think we could get him. But hearing that news has really energized the Trojans’ fanbase, especially amid such a deflating season. USC is already flipping recruits; the Trojans just got Malachi Nelson, a five-star quarterback in the 2023 class. It seems like everything is coming together instantaneously and that is really exciting. It really felt like a stroke of luck.
KR: Last year, these teams never had the chance to meet. However, in 2019, the Trojans wrecked the Bears with a deep passing attack. How is this year’s USC team different from those of the past few years?
AJ: The biggest difference with the 2019 team was that the Trojans had guys such as Michael Pittman, Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown that year. Now, I feel that the receiving options are a little bit weaker. Obviously, losing London has been a huge part of that. But Slovis was also in the prime of his freshman season when he was having a breakout year in 2019. He was showing a little bit more experience than Dart has shown thus far. Dart has made a couple of throws that appear to be ill-advised and rushed. Slovis, in his freshman season, looked a lot more composed. He had a really big year in 2019, and afterward, everyone was tracking him as a potential Heisman candidate in the future. But I’d say the biggest difference is the defense. This season, USC’s defense has been a lot more susceptible to the passing attack, the run game and pretty much anything. On offense, the team is lacking a little bit of that maturity. Slovis was a freshman, but he really did not show it in 2019.
KR: Outside linebacker Drake Jackson headlines a group of USC players expected to make waves in the 2022 NFL draft. Which Trojans do you expect to see succeed at the professional ranks?
AJ: Jackson has the tangible physicality and the measurables. He’s a big guy and a really good athlete. Honestly, I don’t think we’ve even seen his best and that’s because he’s been dropping back in coverage a lot. The Trojans have not really been rushing him a lot and that’s been concerning for USC fans. Jackson will definitely succeed at the next level. Obviously, the other name is London. I think that he will declare for the NFL draft despite his injury. It would be awesome if he came back for his senior season but I just don’t think that he will. If he does declare, he could be a top five or a top 10 pick. I know that sounds biased, but I really believe that would have been the case had he continued and finished out this season. In the future, Dart has the ability to develop toward that level. But going into this next draft, it is the two Drakes that stand out.
KR: USC has had a lot of ups and downs in 2021. The team fired Helton and gave up the most points it ever has to rival UCLA, but the Trojans also almost upset No. 13 BYU last Saturday. What has kept USC from putting it all together this year?
AJ: There was just so much dysfunction in the program during Helton’s time here. The fact that the Trojans waited until after his first loss to fire him was definitely a head-scratcher. USC fans wondered why the team would not have fired Helton before if it was just the one loss that caused his dismissal. That was athletic director Mike Bohn’s decision and we’re sticking by that, but it’s felt disjointed since then. Interim head coach Donte Williams used to be USC’s cornerbacks coach and was one of the top recruiters in the nation during these past few classes, but he doesn’t have the capability to lead a team and we’ve seen that. There’s been accountability issues, guys not making plays, a lot of penalties and sloppy football. That has really defined the season and it all started with having that disjoined firing — and hiring — in the middle of the season.
KR: With the hiring of Riley and the Trojans already being eliminated from bowl game eligibility, it seems as if all eyes are already on next season. What, if anything, does USC have to play for on Saturday night?
AJ: Had the Trojans pulled off the upset against BYU, bowl eligibility would have been a big deal. But I don’t know that there is really much for USC to play for in this last game. Maybe it could be a case of the Trojans wanting to show out for their recruits and anyone that they may be bringing in under Riley. But obviously, there’s pride associated with playing another California team. It might not be the rivalry it is with UCLA, but playing Cal is still a big deal. A lot of USC students will make the trip up to Berkeley for the weekend.
KR: What do the Trojans need to do to win this football game?
AJ: It will come down to USC’s defense because the offense is going to have a good day. The team has put it together against a decent BYU side, especially with some defensive stops that were uncharacteristic of the Trojans. USC had some really good defensive plays and caused some momentum swings. It did not feel like everything was going to crumble, which it usually does. USC has had this terrible streak over the course of this season of not scoring consistently in the third quarter and getting blown out coming out of the half. That comes down to the other team making better adjustments than us. The Trojans have been starting out fine, and they’ve hung around until halftime in a lot of the blowouts that they’ve ended up losing. Third-quarter scoring and the composure of the defense will be huge. Is the defense able to limit big plays and prevent penalties? Those are some of the main questions that must be answered.
KR: Is there anything else significant about this matchup that fans should know about?
AJ: It is a really interesting scenario — such a dead game at the end of the year. USC could have accepted the forfeit but the Trojans chose to play it. I appreciate Williams’ classic “we need to earn the win” mentality, and it is commendable even though I would have loved for USC to take the win and be one win away from bowl eligibility. It is noble of Williams to want to play this game and of the Trojans to want to show why they are the better team rather than accept a forfeit.
KR: How do you think this contest will play out and what is your final score prediction?
AJ: I’m still pessimistic about this USC team. But that being said, I feel like the Trojans have some fight in them. I’ll say 31-24 — USC going for the win on the road.