How Kliff Kingsbury’s arrival changes USC’s whole equation

It’s not as simple as USC hiring an air-raid guy and throwing more. The offense’s priorities will shift in more fundamental ways.

In each of the last last five years, Southern California has produced at least two of the 10 pro-style quarterback recruits on the 247Sports Composite. Texas has produced a handful of its own, but no region has churned them out like SoCal.

USC signs QBs from that group frequently, but the Trojans have struggled to field top offenses anyway. Yet out at Texas Tech, where top-10 QBs Texan or otherwise don’t sign, Kliff Kingsbury coached two top-10 offenses by S&P+, never ranked lower than 39th (his first season), and coached three QBs who are currently drawing paychecks in the NFL.

In 2018, while coaching for his job, injuries forced Kingsbury to start three different QBs with three-star true freshman Alan Bowman as the primary guy. The Red Raiders still finished 26th nationally in Offensive S&P+ and came within narrow margins of winning shootouts with both Oklahoma (51-46) and Texas (41-34) in back to back weeks.

Now the QB King is headed to the preeminent program in the most talent-rich part of the country for talented QBs and offensive skill players. USC’s decision to retain Clay Helton, only to completely overhaul his entire staff and offensive approach, was a curious one. But by landing Kingsbury as the offensive coordinator, the Trojans have married talent and coaching in a way that will overhaul a blue-blood program’s scheme.

Historically, USC’s built its offense around running backs.

Some used to refer USC s Tailback U for its prodigious success in churning out star RBs like O.J. Simpson, Marcus Allen, and Reggie Bush.

For years and years, the Trojans’ offense was built around the pro-style I-formation. Under Pete Carroll, they brought in Norm Chow to bring West Coast passing into the mix. Clay Helton added some spread formations and RPOs, but the offense was still centered around running the ball and then flinging it around against defenses keying the RB.

Kingsbury’s offenses, on the other hand, have been known for featuring QBs first, then mixing in whichever skill players fit best in any given year.

Kingsbury built around Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M and then Davis Webb, Baker Mayfield, Patrick Mahomes, Nic Shimonek, and Bowman at Tech. All threw a ton of passes and, with one big exception, were not primary options in the run game themselves.

But Kingsbury’s also shown a willingness to build schemes around specific skill-position players. The main shift he will bring is philosophic. Instead of just riding an RB, Kingsbury’s intention is to get the ball to “a player that can score,” as his former coach, Mike Leach, has put it. Kingsbury uses the run as a constraint for when teams overplay the pass.

In 2012, Kingsbury earned his chance at the Texas Tech job when he coached Manziel to a Heisman at A&M. One of their favorite tactics that year was to run RPOs that paired spread passing sets with the QB draw. Even Nick Saban had no answers when his team would use dime personnel and cover up all of the routes, only to watch Manziel run wild on the draw:

Over the years at Tech, Kingsbury didn’t coach another QB with the same kind of quickness as Manziel. But he was able to regularly reshuffle the tactics to feature whatever was on offer from their recruiting classes.

In 2013 at Tech, Kingsbury built the offense around flex TE Jace Amaro, foreshadowing one of the most popular trends in the spread offense today. The Red Raiders moved the big man was moved around to different slot positions, where he could run routes against LBs and produced 106 catches for 1,352 yards and seven TDs.

In 2014, Tech went tiny, with little slot WR Jakeem Grant and star RB DeAndre Washington leading the way for the offense, each checking in under 5’9. (Washington’s 2014 and ‘15 seasons were the only 1,000-yard rushing seasons anyone had at Kingsbury’s Tech.)

In 2018, various QBs did most of their damage, throwing to a WR corps led by the 6’6 Antoine Wesley, with 6’5 T.J. Vasher as an option on the other side of the field.

Whether they had speedy players you couldn’t catch in space or big matchups on the outside, Kingsbury’s Red Raiders were built around throwing them the ball and then running only after you committed all in to stopping the pass — and not always then.

USC faced two big questions heading into this offseason. Kingsbury is positioned to answer both of them.

The first was whether Clay Helton was the right man to maximize the next two or three seasons with JT Daniels and Amon-Ra St. Brown. That tandem has been playing together for four years in a row now, dating back to their time together at Mater Dei High School, where they put up huge numbers and became five-star recruits together. USC will probably have each for two more years before the NFL comes calling.

The other question was whether Helton was the right man to maximize USC’s massive advantages relative to their competition across the Pac-12. The Trojans are sitting on a goldmine of QB and skill-position, with recruiting edges no one else has. Why shouldn’t the top program in the capital of seven-on-seven football not be on the cutting edge of spread offensive styles? It’s especially important with another Mater Dei QB/WR tandem, five-stars Bryce Young and Bru McCoy, on the way to college ball in 2019 and ‘20.

For the last few years, USC’s struggled in part because it was built to dominate in the trenches but couldn’t.

The main conceit of Helton’s pro-style offense with a spread flavor and Clancy Pendergast’s 5-2 defense was to leverage USC’s ability to recruit blue-chip linemen on both sides of the ball. Then, the Trojans could focus the game around what happened inside the box.

On offense, they aimed make you stop their rushing attack without conceding easy yardage on screens and play-action. On defense, you’d better be able to block all of the monstrous big men they were going to send into the backfield from close proximity.

That didn’t pan out. Despite an amazing cast of receivers, tight ends, and defensive backs, USC has struggled to win consistently in the Pac-12.

Now Kingsbury is going to flip the script on offense.

Opponents will have to beat the Trojans by first having answers for their skill-position talent and then dealing with the OL and rushing attack with whatever resources are left. They can send extra help toward the trenches after ensuring Daniels and St. Brown haven’t burned them downfield.

A program that has struggled to develop OL will now be able to zero in on a simplified playbook, while the QB checks through a menu of schemes designed to unleash the highly skilled and explosive TEs and WRs who grew up not far from the L.A. Coliseum

USC’s has a deep tailback tradition and has leaned on the trenches under Helton. But if Kingsbury does what he sets out to do, the Trojans are going to win with great throwers and catchers instead.