Jason Gill was hired away from Loyola Marymount in July to take over the Southern California program and put it back on the right path. In 2006, USC unceremoniously pushed national championship-winning head coach Mike Gillespie out after he had his second losing season in 20 years. Since then, the Trojans have had more head coaches (Gill is the fourth) than winning seasons (two).
Gill knew from the moment he accepted the job there would be lofty expectations.
“When I got hired here, I’m like, what are the expectations? Expectations come from standards that were set,” Gill said. “The standards at this school are the highest standards in the United States of America: 12 national championships and more big leaguers than any school in the history of the game. We have the highest standards that are set.”
Gill doesn’t think anyone will ever be able to replicate legendary USC head coach Rod Dedeaux’s early 1970s run of five straight national championships. However, he sees no reasons why USC can’t consistently be a top 15 team.
“That can be achieved,” Gill said. “It’s going to take special people, special players that want that, that want to put in the time to get that done because they have the talent and whether it’s this year, next year, two years from now, or if I’m lucky enough to be here eight years from now, we’re going to bring it back. Cause it’s here. It’s just been lost. Somewhere, in the last 15 years, [the standards have] been lost.”
Gill has no grandeur that him being named head coach suddenly makes the Trojans an immediate national championship contender. Instead, he said it will be up to the players.
“I can only pass on information [coaching] that’s been given to me through people that were smarter than me and hand it to them,” said Gill, referencing his time spent playing and coaching under Augie Garrido and George Horton. “[The players] choose whether they take that or not, and they choose whether to apply it or not. Not me. If they choose to take it and apply it, they’re setting standards.
“It’s their responsibility to bring back those standards, so when they do something and they do it very well, I tell them, ‘Hey, today you set new standards. Way to go.’ Now I can hold you to those standards. So when you do it below that standard, you’re going to hear from me because you’ve already set the standard. So I don’t set that standard. They do.
"It’s my responsibility to police it. I police the standards, but their responsibility is to bring back those standards,” Gill said. “Get them back up and I’ll police it for you. I’ll tell you when you’re not doing it, and I’ll tell you when you’re doing it. But I can’t change the culture. I can’t go inside your brain and say think this way. You have to change the culture.”
For Gill, resetting the standard and changing the culture starts with pitching and defense. It’s the principles he has always tried to build his teams around.
“Whether it was here or Timbuktu, we would have been doing the same thing. I have to be confident in our ability to play catch and throw strikes,” he said. “If you can throw strikes and play catch behind the guy throwing strikes, then you’re going to be in a lot of games. That took up a lot of our fall. We were pretty far behind, in our opinion, on that. So we didn’t really incorporate a lot of offense.”
To attack the perceived deficits on the mound, he went out and nabbed Ted Silva as pitching coach. Silva coached on Darin Erstad’s staff at Nebraska the past eight years, but Gill’s Cal State Fullerton teammate brings the Titans’ pitching philosophies. The Titans and the pitching coaches with links to Fullerton are always some of the stingiest with walks. Silva’s Nebraska pitching staff was No. 12 in the country in walks allowed per nine innings last season and was in the top 17 three of the last five years. USC was No. 190 last year, and its best walks allowed per nine innings national rank during Dan Hubbs’ seven-year tenure was No. 186.
The Trojans have really struggled with giving away free bases, so Silva made a commitment to simplify USC’s pitching approach. Initially, he focused on fastball command. Nothing else.
“This is what we’re going to do with our fastball and until we’re good at it, we’re not doing anything else. You’re not spinning a ball. You’re not throwing a changeup. We didn’t get to breaking ball until I would say early November,” Gill said of Silva’s fall approach. “We’re developing pitchers. We’re developing young men and in my opinion, he’s one of the best in the country, and soon the whole country is going to know that.”
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USC features a roster littered with electric arms, so if those dynamic arms begin throwing strikes more consistently, the Trojans could be dangerous. Early results were positive.
Kyle Hurt (3-7, 5.69, 81 K, 47 BB in 74.1 IP) did not pitch in the summer, choosing to stay on campus to work on retooling his body. He’s added some weight and strengthened his core, which should help him be more consistent in the delivery of his fastball that was 94-96 mph in the fall.
Sophomore right-hander Chandler Champlain (1-4, 6.40, 32 K, 28 BB in 45 IP) was sitting 93-95 while Quentin Longrie, who returned following an injury-plagued 2019 season that saw him pitch just eight innings, was up to 95 mph from the left side and throwing strikes. Silva worked with him to shorten up his breaking ball into a sharp breaking sider.
Southpaws Isaac Esqueda (3-5, 3.94, 57 K, 37 BB in 64 IP), John Beller (2-2, 3.86, 55 K, 22 BB in 49 IP) and Alex Cornwell will also factor in the battle for weekend rotation roles. Cornwell has not pitched his first two years at USC because of injuries, but he was touching 94 mph with “real good spin” in the fall. Esqueda and Beller both had solid summers pitching in the Cape Cod League where each averaged more than a strikeout per inning and less than a hit per inning. Perhaps most importantly, they combined to have 16 walks in 61 innings. They were held back early in the fall because of their summer workload, but they are expected to be featured prominently in the spring.
Between the six pitchers, Gill and Silva are confident they have three Pac-12 weekend starters and can use the other three pitchers in some fashion in the bullpen. There are a handful of other pitchers bringing 90-95 heat that Gill is confident can fill other gaps. Sophomore Carson Lambert (3-3, 4.86, one save) was tied for the team lead with 27 appearances last year. Gus Culpo and Brian Gursky struggled in 2019 but could become valuable bullpen arms. Culpo was injured for much of the 2019 season while Gursky is “starting to figure things out and throwing strikes.”
The coaches are also excited about 6-3, 200-pound freshman right-hander Ethan Hoopingarner and think Yale graduate transfer Ben Wanger (2-0, 0.90, six saves in 2018) will contribute out of the bullpen as well.
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“On the mound, we’re physical and have a lot of over 90 arms. You start adding those pieces up, and you’re talking about 10-11 arms that I’m starting to get confident in, which is a lot of arms,” Gill said. “We have to prove it. We have to do it. We have to earn it. But optimistically, yeah, I’m excited about those arms. There’s some big arms in there, and they’re competitive. They’re getting after it.”
It’s that attitude that has Gill cautiously zealous about his team and their prospects going forward.
“I don’t want to get too far ahead of it as if we are an elite baseball team because we’re far from that, but I can tell you that if they continue in the direction they’re going, I think that we’re going to definitely contend in the postseason,” Gill said. “I’ve asked them to change their life. I’ve asked them to change their style of how they’ve went about their stuff. That’s not easy to do. They’re used to doing something, some of them for three years, and then I come in and say, ‘You’re not allowed to do that any more. This is how we do things here.’”
Some of those changes included being cleanly shaven, never walking on the field and weightlifting three times a week at 6 a.m. Gill said it took a few weeks before everyone got on the same page, and the players realized the rules weren’t intended as punishments but as team-unifying endeavors. One of the things appreciated by the players has been the coaching staff’s willingness to communicate and explain why certain changes were implemented.
“Through a lot of communication, we’ve come to a point where we are eager to get back onto the field,” Gill said. “They’re having fun at practice. They like coming to Dedeaux Field. The pitchers didn’t want to put down the ball. The position players didn’t want to stop coming to the field. They’ve been coming out here on their own practicing.”
While the fall was positive, Gill still has some question marks as USC heads to the spring. The Trojans didn’t focus on offense, so they barely got into the offensive playbook.
“I think our swings are fine. I think we have guys that can hit,” he said. “I just think when you come up against guys that can throw strikes and play defense against you, then you have to figure out ways to score runs. And we haven’t really implemented any of that. So I guess that’s where we need to start January.”
The Trojans have some significant holes to fill in the lineup after losing five everyday players. They do return a dynamic duo on the left side of the infield with Jamal O’Guinn (.281, 5, 29) and Ben Ramirez (.273, 0, 24), who have yet to fully tap into their potential their first two years on campus. Both have some physicality as does a glut of first basemen that are battling for at-bats. Sophomore Clay Owens (.275, 3, 16) started both of the Trojans’ fall games at the spot. He made some big strides during the fall on the defensive side, but it’s his hitability factor that Gill noted.
“I think Clay can roll out of bed and hit,” Gill said. “That guy could come literally like 10 minutes after waking up and see 95 and hit it.”
Senior John Thomas and Wanger could add some veteran leadership and tough at-bats to the lineup. Thomas came up with clutch hits throughout the fall and is a strong defender. Wanger brings a different element and experience. The 6’3”, 200-pound Ivy League graduate helped Team Israel qualify for the 2020 Olympics this summer and is a former all-conference player. He suffered a serious hamstring injury early in his senior season in 2019, which caused him to redshirt and led him to USC. He was still bothered by some hamstring issues this fall, so it was a little difficult for the coaches to judge him. The one thing that was obvious is Wanger’s light tower power.
In the outfield, Preston Hartsell also has elite power. He made some adjustments to his swing and is now starting to use the entire field better, including hitting an opposite field home run in an intrasquad game. The ball traveled to left field where it usually doesn’t travel well at Dedeaux Field. He also hit a home run to center field and one to right field. Trevor Halsema is another outfielder/designated hitter type that brings some physicality.
Brady Shockey (.295, 2, 14) is the Trojans’ most experienced outfielder with nearly 300 career at-bats. He had a strong fall and led the team in home runs. The senior doesn’t have the wow factor, but Gill called him a “really efficient baseball player.”
“He’s one of those guys that’s not a super fast guy, but a really good base runner. (He) doesn’t have a great arm, but it’s always one hop on the bag,” Gill said. “Very good baseball player. Extremely good hand-eye coordination. Made a couple of adjustments that he had been working on that I think are going to help him out.”
The biggest surprise of the fall was the rapid development of freshman Tyresse Turner. Gill raved about the tools of the 5-foot-10, 170-pound quick-twitch athlete.
“You wouldn’t know because he’s just a little guy, but it’s different. He runs the bases different. He runs down balls different,” Gill said. “He’s going to open some eyes. He’s lightning fast. He’s a true switch hitter, hit a home run in the fall from the right side and the left side. He’s electric. He’s a next-level player. I mean, he’s a freshman, but it’s different…”
The Trojans moved Turner from shortstop to the outfield, but if they eventually move him back, Gill believes he could become the Pac- 12’s best shortstop within two years. Gill compared him to Angels infielder David Fletcher, who Gill coached at Loyola Marymount. While Fletcher was a better fielder, Gill said Turner’s feet work faster than anyone he’s ever coached.
Rhylan Thomas and Miko Rodriguez are a couple of other newcomers that could factor into the outfield battles. Thomas is a speedy freshman while Rodriguez has unlocked some potential plus tools since transferring after a year at Texas A&M.
The biggest area of concern for USC is behind the plate where sophomore Tyler Lozano (.267, 0, 9 in 60 AB) and freshman Taylor Johnson are battling. The Trojans have dynamic pitching but have to be able to catch and throw the ball from behind the plate. They had 20 passed balls and eight errors from the catcher position last season.
“That position is a defensive position,” Gill said. “I told both of them before they left, I don’t care if they hit .100. We got to get better behind the plate. They got to be able to catch because I feel like on the mound we got some arms, man.”
USC’s new head coach is bullish on the pieces the Trojans have, but understands they still have to connect them to complete the puzzle.
“I don’t want to disrespect anybody I’ve ever been around, but this is as talented of a team that I’ve been around [since] maybe 2005 with Fullerton. When you’re just talking about pure talent, yeah, this is as talented of a team since then easily and that team had a lot of really good players,” Gill said. (The 2005 Titans had six eventual major leaguers and five other players reach AAA.) “This team has a lot of really good players on it. We have good talent. Now, we have to become good baseball players and then a good baseball team because at the level we play, those things matter. It’s not all about talent. You have to learn how to play the game the right way. Then the team has to learn how to win with that talent and play good baseball together.”
“I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself because I understand what’s about to happen and what’s about to happen is not easy. It’s really hard, and a lot of times when that early failure may happen, sometimes that’s hard to recover from. But if they can remain positive, energetic and understand that we have a set of standards here…
“Standards have been set here. It’s our responsibility to bring them back.”