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Five questions USC football faces as it begins spring practice

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LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 18: Head coach Clay Helton of the USC Trojans.

USC coach Clay Helton heads into spring practice looking for improvement after last season ended with the Trojans losing to Oregon in the Pac-12 title game in a pandemic-shortened season. (Harry How / Getty Images)

USC had all of one spring session last March before the pandemic stole any semblance of normalcy, shutting down college football until midway through the fall.

We’ll never know where the Trojans might’ve stood last season with a full spring to develop but, a year later, many of the same questions remain — from the quarterback’s development to the offensive line to the head coach’s job security.

Five of those questions loom over USC as it opens spring practice on Tuesday:

Who will take over at left tackle?

There were similar concerns last spring following the departure of Austin Jackson, who wound up being drafted in the first round by the Miami Dolphins. Luckily for USC, it had another likely first-rounder waiting in the wings.

But now that Alijah Vera-Tucker is also on his way to the NFL, the spring questions for USC start at the left tackle spot, where the answer is much less clear this offseason.

New offensive line coach Clay McGuire has no shortage of options vying for time as the Trojans’ blindside protector, but none have much experience in that spot. Right tackle Jalen McKenzie is the most veteran of the candidates, but the junior had issues on the right side last year, not to mention moving him left would create a vacancy on the right.

That likely means all three of the freshmen offensive tackles who earned their way onto the depth chart in 2020 will get a serious shot at a full-time role. Courtland Ford seemed to have the edge last season, earning a start against Washington State. Jonah Monheim and Casey Collier also are expected to have their shot this spring to earn a place on the starting offensive line.

How will the run game look different?

Texas running back Keaontay Ingram leaps over Utah defensive back Tareke Lewis during the 2019 Alamo Bowl.Texas running back Keaontay Ingram leaps over Utah defensive back Tareke Lewis during the 2019 Alamo Bowl.

Texas running back Keaontay Ingram leaps over Utah defensive back Tareke Lewis during the 2019 Alamo Bowl. Ingram will be playing for USC this season. (Eric Gay / Associated Press)

After USC’s worst season on the ground in two decades, running backs coach Mike Jinks made clear in January that the Trojans’ run game desperately needed to change. The question is what those changes might look like.

The first order of business, Jinks had said, will be finding a lead back, as opposed to just riding the hot hand. As known quantities, seniors Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr would seem to have the advantage in that regard. But considering how poorly the rushing attack fared with that pair at the top of the heap last season, USC’s staff might believe it’s time for a change in the backfield.

That’s where Keaontay Ingram could come in. The Texas transfer back signed with USC in the offseason for a reason, the expectation being he could take the reins in the backfield. Either way, Ingram will add an element of power that disappeared when Markese Stepp transferred to Nebraska after the season.

Don’t be surprised, however, if Ingram emerges as more than that.

After an uneven sophomore season, what should we expect from Kedon Slovis at the start of Year 3?

USC quarterback Kedon Slovis throws a pass against Oregon during the Pac-12 title game in December.USC quarterback Kedon Slovis throws a pass against Oregon during the Pac-12 title game in December.

USC quarterback Kedon Slovis throws a pass against Oregon during the Pac-12 title game in December. Will Slovis bounce back after an inconsistent sophomore season? (Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Slovis was so good as a freshman that a few wobbly throws and some less-than-pinpoint accuracy as a sophomore has some Trojans’ fans panicking, although USC’s quarterback was still named to the All-Pac-12 first team.

It is true that Slovis didn’t take the step forward many expected in his second season, but without a spring or a normal offseason to train, Slovis missed valuable time to develop. That won’t be the case in 2021 since he will have all spring to get fine-tuned with an offense that lost two of its top pass-catchers.

USC shouldn’t have any trouble reloading its options in the pass game, but needs Slovis to sharpen his footwork and maintain his confidence to have any hope of returning to the Pac-12 title game. That journey begins in spring.

Which freshman quarterback will emerge as the backup?

The top spot is safe, but there will be a much-anticipated battle during spring practice nonetheless.

USC signed two of the top freshman quarterbacks in the country in its 2021 class, and although neither is expected to be more than a backup this season, whomever steps into the No. 2 spot behind Slovis should have a leg up on becoming his successor.

Both Miller Moss and Jaxson Dart will have every opportunity this spring to establish themselves, and although it’s unlikely USC will name its backup before absolutely necessary, watching both take control of the Trojans’ second offense should tell plenty about where they stand.

After losing its top two interior lineman, how will USC look along its defensive front?

Jay Tufele opted out of last season, and Marlon Tuipulotu had a breakout season on the Trojans’ interior. But as both head to the draft, USC has plenty of interesting options to fill the void up front.

The most dynamic of those options won’t be seen until the fall. Korey Foreman, the nation’s top recruit, didn’t enroll early and won’t take part in spring practice. His impending arrival, however, is sure to loom over the proceedings.

He’ll pair with Drake Jackson to make one of the more imposing pass-rushing duos in the Pac-12. The other roles up front are still to be determined. Expect a major leap from Tuli Tuipulotu, who impressed as part of the rotation last season, as well as Nick Figueroa, who came out of nowhere to lead USC in sacks. But without Alabama transfer Ishmael Sopsher taking part this spring, there will be plenty of opportunities available on the interior.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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