What’s wrong with USC’s Kedon Slovis? Not much, according to those around him

What’s wrong with USC’s Kedon Slovis? Not much, according to those around him

Shawn Seaman has seen Kedon Slovis throw countless passes since taking him on as a budding sixth-grade quarterback. But when they started throwing sessions last spring, Seaman preferred to go slow with his star pupil’s arm. Just three months earlier, Slovis had suffered an elbow injury from overtaxing that right arm; it was no exaggeration to suggest USC’s season rested on its recovery.

As they gathered at a park near the quarterback’s home in Arizona, Slovis kept pushing it. His arm, he told Seaman, had never felt better.

The coach could see for himself. Physically, Slovis had never looked bigger. There was an extra zip on his passes. “The ball was just popping out of his hand,” Seaman said. So much so that the primary target of Slovis’ passes — his father, Max — wore through a pair of receiver gloves.

Through three games of his sophomore season at USC, that extra pop hasn’t always been palpable. Some passes have wobbled. Others have been off-target or thrown into danger, leading some to wonder if something isn’t quite right with his arm.

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But Seaman, who works as an electrical engineer by day, is incredulous of any such suggestion. Slovis’ elbow, Seaman says, is fine. So are his mechanics. And his confidence. And any other aspect of his game offered up as reasoning for a less-than-sharp start.

“What I’ve seen looked pretty normal,” Seaman said. “I didn’t see anything that would make me concerned at all. I just think people have latched onto something, and it’s much ado about nothing.”

It appears that way on paper. Slovis has completed 70.7% of his passes through three games, one percentage point behind his rate from last season but still good enough for sixth-best in the nation. Only seven quarterbacks are throwing for more yards per game than Slovis’ 323.3.

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And then there’s the two game-winning drives he’s led to start USC’s season. No quarterback has been more precise in the fourth quarter, when Slovis has completed 80% of his passes.

The nitpicking is at least in part a product of increased expectations from his stellar freshman season. Still, there’s been something undeniably off about Slovis through three games.

He admits he hasn’t been as sharp as he’d like.

USC quarterback Kedon Slovis throws a pass against Arizona.

USC quarterback Kedon Slovis throws a first-half pass against Arizona on Nov. 14 in Tucson, Ariz.

(Christian Petersen / Getty Images)

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“I have to execute better,” Slovis said Saturday after a win over Utah. “We left a lot of points on the board, and that’s mostly because of my play and not being disciplined. So I think if you see my play increase, we’ll put up a lot more points and have a lot more success offensively.”

The coaches who work closely with Slovis see no cause for concern. Seaman, USC coach Clay Helton and offensive coordinator Graham Harrell all pointed to issues with slick game balls as an explanation for his inconsistency through two games.

“He thought the ball was going to slip out of his hand,” Harrell said, “so he wasn’t throwing with a ton of confidence.”

Slovis initially blamed those issues on mechanics. But when he broached the subject with Seaman in a phone call, the coach told him otherwise.

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“Your mechanics don’t go from being just fine in practice to changing that much in a game,” Seaman said.

Slovis had his spiral working more consistently against Utah. But he also had a sack fumble returned for a touchdown and a pass intercepted in the end zone. As another defense sat back largely in zone coverage, baiting him into unnecessary risks, the discipline in his progressions began to break down.

“We always say reads are sacred, go through your progressions, and we took a couple times and skipped progressions the other night,” Helton said. “I know he’ll correct that in a heartbeat.”

As a freshman, Slovis worked through similar discipline issues as defenses adjusted to him at the helm of a new USC offense. That led to a huge final stretch of the season that saw Slovis throw for 400 yards and four touchdowns in four out of five weeks.

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Defenses have settled into a similar approach again, forcing him to settle for shorter passes and the offense to rely more on its run game.

This season, that’s meant even fewer explosive plays and far more dink-and-dunk. Slovis’ rate of pass yards per attempt has dropped 1.6 yards from 2019, when he tallied 8.9 per attempt, good for 11th in the nation.

“I’d love to throw it down the field,” Harrell said, “but everyone is playing us to try and prevent that, and I don’t blame them.”

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The response from USC on that front has been mixed. Its rushing attack is averaging under 4.3 yards per carry and has struggled in short-yardage situations. Any efforts to spark explosive plays in other ways have also been sniffed out, as the Trojans are averaging two fewer plays of 20-plus yards per game than last season.

Still, in spite of those offensive shortcomings, Slovis has often found a way. Against Arizona State, he threw two late touchdowns on fourth-and-long plays. The next week, at Arizona, he completed his final 12 passes to lead a second consecutive fourth-quarter comeback.

It’s in those moments, Harrell says, that he’s seen the sophomore leap he’s long promised from Slovis.

“He probably hasn’t been his sharpest all year,” Harrell said. “But when times get tight, if that quarterback’s a real leader, if that quarterback’s a guy that can rally the troops around him and get guys to step up in big situations then good things usually happen. That’s what you see from Kedon a lot.”

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