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Loaded No. 21 USC grateful to be in Pac-12 title chase

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Southern California and the Pac-12 appeared to be on the way to spending 2020 without football until the Trojans got involved.

The USC players wrote a letter to California Gov. Gavin Newsom last month, pleading to be allowed to play safely amid the coronavirus pandemic. Nine days and a few political machinations later, the Trojans and their conference had a plan for a seven-game regular season starting in early November.

The Trojans didn’t do it all themselves, but they’re hoping to make the most of an opportunity created in part by their persistence. USC knows it likely has the Pac-12 South’s most talented roster along with two topflight coordinators running both sides of the ball for coach Clay Helton, and the Trojans didn’t want to waste a year of their careers with so much to gain.

“It’s just been exciting being back in the locker room with the guys,” said quarterback Kedon Slovis, who threw 30 touchdown passes last season as a freshman. “It’s been such a long time. It’s exciting to be back out there and see what the offense looks like with 11 guys out there. Just really excited to get back out there and see everyone again.”

USC was picked to win the South in the preseason poll, and the rest of the nation sees the Trojans’ potential as well: USC is ranked No. 21 in the current AP Top 25 despite not yet taking the field. Oregon is the only Pac-12 team ranked higher.

“It hurts your soul to be able to watch other teams (play) and we weren’t getting that opportunity,” Helton said. “So to be able to have this opportunity, we’re grateful. The approach for us is just put the ball down.”

They’ll do just that in an empty Coliseum against Arizona State on Nov. 7 at the unsightly kickoff time of 9 a.m. The Trojans believe the team they’ll field that morning has the potential to be special.

Slovis spent the first few months of the offseason healing his throwing arm after an injury forced him out of the Holiday Bowl, but he’s back at full strength for his second season in Graham Harrell’s version of the Air Raid offense. So are several gifted skill-position teammates on an offense that produced 32.5 points per game last season, tops in the South.

“You forget that he was a true freshman last year,” Helton said of Slovis. “He’s a full-grown man now, and I think he’s developed a lot of core strength. He’s always had a lot of arm talent, but now he’s making every throw on the field. You’ve got to have some special strength and arm talent to do that.”

Helton fired defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast after USC gave up 49 points to Iowa in the Holiday Bowl, hiring former Texas coordinator Todd Orlando to replace him. Although Orlando didn’t get spring practices to teach his defense, he’s hoping a month of training camp will be sufficient.

“We’ve put a whole new system in, and we’re trying to learn as much as we can,” safety Talanoa Hufanga said. “You just try to be smart, absorb everything and run with it. More than anything, (Orlando) emphasizes run-and-hit, so that’s what we’re trying to do.”

LOADED LINEUP

Tailback U. returns four quality running backs, with seniors Stephen Carr and Vavae Malepeai backed by Markese Stepp and speedster Kenan Christon. Sharing carries will be tricky if all four are healthy, but it’s a problem that most schools would love to have.

The Trojans are more top-heavy at receiver, but that top should be among the nation’s best: Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown lead the way, with USC basketball player Drake London and former five-star recruit Bru McCoy also ready to contribute.

SLICK SECONDARY

USC’s secondary might be the best on the West Coast with the return of four regular starters from 2019, when it had the Pac-12’s fourth-best pass defense. Hufanga and Isaiah Pola-Mao are back at safety with Olaijah Griffin and Chris Steele at cornerback.

BIG BLOCK

The USC offense got a major boost three weeks ago when lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker reversed course and returned to school for another season. Vera-Tucker had opted out in September. His hulking presence is expected to protect Slovis’ blind side at left tackle.

VIRUS UPDATE

The football program paused workouts in August after a coronavirus outbreak among USC athletes apparently traced to parties near campus. The Trojans haven’t had a reported positive test in several weeks since.

SCHEDULE SCRAMBLE

The pandemic wiped out two huge nonconference games: The Trojans’ high-profile season opener against Alabama in Arlington, Texas, and the classic intersectional rivalry game against Notre Dame. USC and the Fighting Irish hadn’t missed their matchup since 1945, and the Trojans were scheduled to host this year. Starting with their visit from the Sun Devils next weekend, the Trojans are left with six scheduled games and a seventh to be determined.

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More AP college football: https://apnews.com/Collegefootball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

Copyright © 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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