Weekly Q&A – USC answers


I thought there was some sort of commitment to allow Pac-12 schools to play more games earlier than 7 p.m. this year. Is this true? If so, what happened to the commitment?

Yes, that was the news out of the conference before the season. The idea was that they could schedule Pac-12 Network games at either 2:30 p.m. or 6 p.m. local time to overlap with an ESPN or FOX exclusive TV window. The theory was that because they can now use those time slots, they could reduce the PAC-12 NETWORKS night games (start time later than 7 p.m.) by up to four. So it’s a matter of the fine print and the network the games are appearing on.

Many of the late games this year for the conference have been on ESPN or ESPN2, so they don’t fall into that preseason pledge.

The Pac-12 has actually had the same number of late starts (later than 7 p.m.) this year through 12 weeks as last year: 23. There has been one fewer late game on the Pac-12 Networks this year (five this year, six last year) so that part does fall in line with the preseason statement.

If you’re curious about how they build the TV scheduled each week, here’s a relink to an explainer from earlier in the season.

Does UCLA have someone with kicking experience working with the kickers and punters on their technique, or are they expected to figure things out on their own? Despite signing highly-rated players at those positions repeatedly, that unit hasn’t been a consistent contributor for a few years now.

They don’t have a full-time coach or graduate assistant with kicking experience working with the kickers. It’s just a matter of how the coaching staff is structured within the limitations of how many full-time/GA coaches you can hire. Every school breaks it down differently depending on what personnel they have available. As you likely know, special teams responsibility falls mainly on Scott White, the special teams coordinator/linebackers coach.

I would also add that Ka’imi Fairbairn was a consistent contributor in the past few years. He did win the Lou Groza Award after all. When he started as a freshman, he was 16 for 22 for his field goals (72.7 percent), so he wasn’t automatic until a little later in his career. J.J. Molson is still below Fairbairn’s freshman marks (11 for 18, 61.1 percent), but like Fairbairn, there’s still hope for improvement.

When it comes to Austin Kent punting, I think it’s mostly a mental thing. He really can punt. I’ve seen it in practice (what little practice we’re allowed to see) and I saw it during training camp. He’s just going through freshman struggles.

Please compare the players on the 2015 starting offensive line versus the 2016 starters. There seems to be a big drop off and I believe UCLA has three new starters this year. Is that correct? It had been reported throughout spring and fall that the interior of the line was struggling. Was it THIS bad?

I wasn’t on this beat last year, so I can’t compare last year’s group to this year’s group very well, but you don’t really need much analysis to tell that this year’s group is definitely much worse. The running numbers, the sack numbers, the fact that Josh Rosen is walking around in the sling, it’s pretty obvious.

They did have three new starters technically, but really, they had 2.5 at the start of the season because Kolton Miller was a part-time starter last year: He started when Kenny Lacy or Alex Redmond were out. Miller has since gotten hurt, so that really hamstrung the offensive line.

I think the biggest piece among the three (or 2.5) starters that the team lost was center Jake Brendel. You can’t hope to replace that kind of experience and leadership right away. He redshirted, then started every game for the next four years except for one. That kind of durability is extremely rare for anyone, but especially for an offensive lineman where injuries very frequently and quickly derail the athletic careers of young men. The center is often considered the second-smartest guy on an offense, after the quarterback, and is responsible for making a lot of calls and facilitating a lot of communication along the offensive line. Scott Quessenberry isn’t a center by trade. He’s really a guard. His Twitter even bio says so (even though it also says he’s located in Indonesia right now).

In terms of the interior of the line struggling during spring/summer camp, it’s possible that was the case, although I’m hesitant to judge too much about what happened during that time because everything goes half-speed anyway. (Remember that at one point during the offseason, we were impressed with the running game. That obviously didn’t work out.) It’s perhaps possible that I wrote that they were struggling, but I most vividly remember Mora saying it was “a concern.” Like many of UCLA’s concerns, it just turned out to be very legitimate.

Do you foresee any coaching changes during the offseason? If so who do you think might be on their way out?

I’m not going to swirl rumors about who will go and who will stay right now, but I believe there’s going to be some shake ups, especially on the offensive side. With all that talent/potential, nothing good happened on offense, so shakeups are definitely valid. Sorry this is such a weak answer, but I can’t in good journalistic conscience start spewing names right now.

Can you break down how the process works for what coaches/players get interviewed during the week?

There are three days of availability during the week: Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Mondays and Wednesdays are prescheduled for Jim Mora, while the two coordinators are expected to speak on Tuesdays (Mora speaks on a Pac-12 conference call on Tuesdays). Players always speak on Mondays as well, then speak on Tuesday and Wednesday depending on their schedules (for example, lifting, classes, tutoring, etc). Wednesday is also starting quarterback day. We usually get about 2-4 players a day (when they speak). Position coaches speak on Tuesdays or Wednesdays.

When it comes requesting players, reporters request at least one day in advance through sports information staff, the requests are then sent up the food chain through parts of the coaching staff for approval and to the player, who can always decide whether he wants to speak or not. Position coaches have a similar system, but the request goes straight from the sports information staff to the position coach and then he speaks.

All schools have different systems. Some schools (like USC or UW) will split up the days for players based on position, so offensive players and coaches speak one day and defensive players and coaches speak another day. UCLA’s a big, kind of unpredictable, mix of guys each day.

With ‘SC winning against the Bruins and the huge momentum the Trojans have going into this game, if SC wins in convincing fashion again, is it safe to assume or believe that the balance of power has shifted to USC?

It’s pretty clear that these teams are trending in relatively opposite directions right now, so you don’t need me — a non-L.A. native who has only lived here for about a year — to tell you where the balance of power pertaining to football would go with a USC win. Obviously it would tip toward the Trojans. They’re the toast of the Pac-12 right now. The momentum would not be all gone for the Bruins, and I don’t think UCLA is in complete free fall yet, but the favor definitely would start going toward USC with a victory.

This is an important game for the Bruins because they need something to hang their hats on this year. If they lose and then beat Cal next week, what’s their best win of the year? BYU? That’s a bad good win. This is the only thing that can begin to save the season even a little bit because 1) bragging rights, rivalry and all that jazz and 2) if they lose this, they’re not going to a bowl. That’s an incredibly fast fall from grace for a team that many people thought could challenge for the Pac-12 crown. Mora also doesn’t want it to become a storyline that Clay Helton has his number and he can’t vanquish the USC coach.

USC definitely looks like it’s on the rise. Sam Darnold looks legit. On the other side, UCLA has had some incredibly bad luck in these past two years: the injuries last year and levels of ineptitude that are so bad, you couldn’t even predict this year (as I talked about in last week’s Q&A, in the second question). But also, you have to start making your own luck and taking opportunities when they’re there. The Bruins haven’t done that this year and, as a result, are on the wrong end of this rivalry right now.

Do you have statistics on dropped passes 2015 vs 2016 and the number of dropped passes this year by receiver?

Unfortunately no. Drops are not an official stat, so I can’t really track them unless I watch every pass of every game and chart it myself. Also, drops are kind of subjective because you can’t really know how much of a “drop” is due to the receiver and how much is just a bad throw from the quarterback. Usually it’s a combination of both, so there’s no sure-fire way to judge.

What happened to Stephen Johnson III, has he played at all this season?

He hasn’t played this season. I think he got lost in the fray of the offensive change, then could never make a case for himself in the shortened receiver rotation. He was already on the fringe of the receiver group during camp as he took reps as corner, suggesting the coaching staff was not sold necessarily sold on him for the offense. His talents — shiftiness, speed — were ideal for the Noel Mazzone offense. He was maybe a little bit of a mismatch in this one.

I don’t think we can run the ball on ‘SC. Do you think Mike Fafaul will throw 60 times?

In that Utah game, UCLA abandoned the run because it found some success through the air. I don’t think the Bruins are going to find the same type of success passing the ball to warrant that type of game plan. USC’s secondary is likely the strongest part of that defense. I think the Trojans are going to line up in man coverage and dare the UCLA receivers to beat them, similar to what happened last year, and I don’t think the Bruins will be up to the task.

What has Mora done to try to reduce the amount of dropped catches?

I felt that the drops were starting to subside a little bit until the Oregon State game when they popped up again. I think most of it comes down to receivers coach Eric Yarber and the receivers themselves. Many of the receivers, including Jordan Lasley, stayed later after practice on the jugs machine for extra work, so you hope that it’ll pay off.