Predicting the players who will decide USC’s fate this season

Redshirt junior Tyler Vaughns celebrates a touchdown reception against Cal at the Coliseum last season. (Ling Luo | Daily Trojan)

Following a disappointing 5-7 season that left USC football with far more questions than answers, the Trojans are gearing up for one of the more pivotal seasons in recent program history. The following will determine the outcome of USC’s 2019 season — for better or worse.  

Team MVP: Sophomore quarterback JT Daniels

The No. 3 quarterback recruit in the class of 2018 had an inconsistent freshman season at USC. Despite an unimpressive 14-10 touchdown to interception ratio, Daniels posted a respectable 59.5% completion percentage and showed flashes of excellence by going 17-26 with 241 yards and three touchdowns against Washington State and 37-51 with 349 yards and no interceptions against Notre Dame. The talent is clearly there, but the questionable play-calling from former offensive coordinator Tee Martin seemed to prevent Daniels from getting into any sort of rhythm. Look for new offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s quarterback-friendly Air Raid offense to elevate Daniels’ game to new levels and carry the Trojan offense in 2019.

Best position group: Wide receivers

Incoming sophomore Amon-Ra St. Brown (60 receptions), redshirt junior Tyler Vaughns (eight total touchdowns) and senior Michael Pittman Jr. (68.9 receiving yards per game) made for one of the best receiving corps in the Pac-12 last season. That unit should only get stronger this fall. After landing the No. 3 receiver recruit in Kyle Ford, two-sport standout and four-star prospect Drake London, and three-star Munir McClain, USC’s strongest position group is a Bru McCoy eligibility away from immediately becoming one of the best receiving units in the nation. When raving about his ability to pick up yards after the catch, head coach Clay Helton referred to St. Brown as “one of the best [wide receivers] in the country.” That should only draw attention away from the Trojans’ other potent options and allow Harrell to exploit overmatched defensive backs all season. With several legitimate weapons at the position, a step forward from Daniels combined with Harrell’s pass-heavy offense could make for a dominant Trojan receiving corps in the fall — especially if McCoy can contribute.   

Best newcomer: Freshman cornerback Chris Steele

Until USC receives word on McCoy’s status and receiver Kyle Ford gets fully healthy, the freshman cornerback transfer from the University of Florida is the highest-rated incoming Trojan playing this fall per 247Sports. After a chaotic past year which saw 2019’s No. 5-ranked cornerback commit to USC and transfer to two schools before returning to Southern Cal, the 6-foot-1 freshman has impressed his new coaching staff with his ability in fall camp. Many believe Steele still needs time to familiarize himself with USC’s defense, but Trojan coaches have remarked that Steele seems especially comfortable in practice after spending the entire spring in Gainesville. Meanwhile, the Trojans’ inexperience in the secondary has opened up a door for the newly-cleared Steele to slide into a starting role, and his athleticism should help him become an immediate difference-maker.

Most likely to break out: Sophomore cornerback Olaijah Griffin

Griffin will be counted upon to play a huge role in an alarmingly thin and inexperienced secondary for USC. After an injury-riddled freshman season and an offseason of slow recovery and rehab, Griffin is itching to get back on the field and show Trojan fans why he was the No. 4-ranked cornerback prospect in 2018’s recruiting class. Griffin, who has made a full recovery from offseason shoulder surgery, has impressed the coaching staff with numerous interceptions in fall camp and seems to be the Trojans’ most (and perhaps only) reliable corner heading into the season. All signs point toward Griffin establishing himself as an elite cornerback in USC’s most questionable position group in 2019.

Most important game: Week 4 vs. Utah

USC’s Week 4 tilt with the Utes at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum could be pivotal for the Trojans in several ways. For starters, it will decide if USC can push past the first six games of the schedule, which includes tough home matchups against Stanford and Utah and two extremely challenging road bouts against Washington and Notre Dame. If USC can take care of business against a Utah team that helped destroy its Pac-12 Championship aspirations last season, it will be in a much better position heading into the second half of its schedule. It would also go a long way in cooling the hot seat of head coach Clay Helton. Most importantly, the winner of the Pac-12 South could very well be determined by this matchup.