Berg is the Word: Developing Slovis must be the top priority

USC football has been heading for a head coaching change ever since the team’s embarrassing 56-24 home defeat to the Oregon Ducks a few weeks ago. At the time, the Trojans were 5-4, and no matter how the rest of the season went, it seemed like the right time to move on from Clay Helton and bring in a staff that could help the considerable talent on this roster reach true contender status.

While I still believe that is the correct course of action, something about Saturday’s 52-35 victory over UCLA complicates the coaching matter just a bit.

That something is Kedon Slovis, who shattered the program records for both passing yards in a season by a freshman and single-game passing yards by any quarterback in a sterling 515-yard, four-touchdown performance. Slovis was absolutely lights out, putting the pressure on UCLA’s offense by guiding the Trojans to an early lead and responding with scores every time the Bruins mounted a comeback attempt.

Saturday’s game continued the trend of Slovis putting up monstrous numbers — and not just for a freshman. Over his final five games this season, Slovis averaged 404.6 passing yards and 3.8 touchdowns per game while completing over 70% of his pass attempts. If there were fantasy football for the college game, Slovis’ home stretch would have won the league for many of his owners.

USC fans have obviously loved what they’ve seen from the once-unheralded three-star recruit, but there’s a small discrepancy between their future hopes for Slovis and their demand that the University move on from Helton. If USC elects to hire a new head coach, he will almost definitely want to bring on a whole new staff, including an offensive coordinator to replace Graham Harrell.

To protect Slovis’ seemingly definitive status as a star to rely on for the next three years, USC should do whatever it can to avoid this result. Harrell has been a huge factor in Slovis’ success. The freshman quarterback has said so himself, crediting Harrell’s scheme (and his teammates) for his big numbers.

Slovis is the perfect signal-caller for Harrell’s modified Air Raid approach. He almost always makes good decisions, so he can sling the ball more than 50 times without risking too many turnovers. He’s also got fantastic accuracy and knows how to find his receivers in positions for them to make plays with the ball.

The crazy thing is that due to the attack’s execution-based nature, Slovis is only going to get better over time. He’s had a few freshman mistakes where he tried to force the ball between defenders, but that’s something he can iron out.

Remember that Slovis didn’t even get the first-team reps until after sophomore JT Daniels went down with a knee injury in the team’s opener. Imagine what he can do with a full spring and fall camp as well as a season of experience under his belt.

This is why USC cannot afford to get rid of Harrell. The relationship between an offensive coordinator and their quarterback is crucial to a team’s performance, and the Trojans have found one that works — really well. Slovis has shown he can be one of the best quarterbacks in school history, but we don’t know what he looks like with someone else calling the shots.

I’m not going to claim that Slovis couldn’t look just as good under some other offensive coordinator. He has talent that most evaluators obviously missed in the recruiting process. From mental processing to arm talent, Slovis has looked close to the total package these last few games. But we know that he works with Harrell, and that’s not something USC should mess with.

Harrell isn’t necessarily a perfect offensive coordinator either. He sometimes gives up on the run game a little too easily, and Saturday was the first time the Trojans could really make a team pay for dropping eight by running the ball effectively. 

Even with the injuries at running back, it shouldn’t have taken that long to develop a complementary run game. But it’s also important to remember that Harrell is young and coaching his first season in a Power 5 conference. Just like Slovis, he’s had a fantastic first season, and he’s only going to get better.

USC now has a delicate tightrope to walk. It needs to bring on a new head coach so that it can reach its rightful aspirations as a College Football Playoff contender. It needs a head coach who not only inspires devotion from his players, as Helton does, but spurs them on to new levels of play. It also needs an improved defensive staff, as evidenced by the 35 points allowed to a seemingly unstoppable UCLA offense Saturday.

The University must balance that requirement with the priority of holding onto Harrell. It needs to find an inspired coaching candidate — no, not Urban Meyer — that will be willing to retain and work with Harrell and his crew.

The Trojans have something special on their hands. It’s rare to have two key pieces of your team be so productive and yet have so much room to grow. It’s even rarer for those two pieces to fit perfectly together. It’s been an encouraging end to the season, but if Harrell doesn’t return next year, the offense will enter the 2020 season opener against Alabama with more questions than answers.

Aidan Berg is a junior writing about sports. He is also an associate managing editor for Daily Trojan. His column, “Berg is the Word,” runs every Monday.