Coaches’ jobs already on the line at Pac 12 media day

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SPORTS DIGEST

By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

Most sports fans have turned their focus to Tokyo for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games — a year late, but finally here — but I am having trouble staying interested.

My interest will perk up when the track and field competition starts July 30, but until then I will focus on the Dodgers chase of the Giants and looking forward to the start of football.

Speaking of which, the Pac 12 Conference held its football media day July 27 in Hollywood with 11 of the 12 coaches meeting face-to-face with reporters for the first time in at least 18 months.

USC is expected to win the conference this year, according to seven of nine prognosticators who also rank the Trojans between No. 10 and No. 22 in preseason national rankings.

If they finish somewhere between those projections, expect 60% (at least) of Trojans fans to be screaming for coach Clay Helton’s job at the end of the year. Trojans fans enter every year optimistic and if their team falls short of those expectations it must be the coach’s fault.

Helton may have his best roster ever. If he had more depth at running back it might be the most talent he has ever had.

The Trojans have eight starters returning on both offense and defense and their best recruiting class in years.

Kedon Slovis is on the preseason list for the Maxwell Award for the top overall college player and the Davey O’Brien Award for the best college quarterback.

Two receivers, Drake London and Tahj Washington, are on the preseason list of Biletnikoff Award candidates for best receiver and two running backs, Vavae Malepeai and Keontay Ingram are on the Doak Walker Award list as top running backs.

Malepeai is coming off an injury-plagued season. Ingram is a transfer from Texas. If either can establish themselves as the number one back, the Trojans should be hard to stop offensively.

Slovis has passed for more than 5,500 yards and 50 touchdowns in his two years as a starter. If he continues to progress, this will probably be his last year as a Trojan.

London, a junior like Slovis, has 72 career receptions, eight for touchdowns, leading a talented and deep receiving corps.

Four of last year’s starting offensive linemen return, which should give Slovis the time to find his receivers when they aren’t opening holes for Malepeai or Ingram.

On defense, not only do eight starters return but so do 15 of last year’s top 19 tacklers.

Outside linebacker Drake Jackson (he and London are sure to confuse some broadcasters this season) leads the way as a preseason All-America candidate and a candidate for the Chuck Bednarik Award for the top defensive player.

Cornerback Chris Steele is on the preseason list for the Jim Thorpe Award as the top defensive back in the country.

The Trojans have a tough non-conference schedule this year with all three opponents coming off of bowl seasons. San Jose State, which won the Mountain West Conference title last season comes to the Coliseum for the season opener Sept. 4.

The Trojans go to South Bend to play Notre Dame this year on Oct. 23 and then end the season hosting BYU Nov. 27.

The Trojans manage to avoid Oregon and Washington on the schedule this year, but their Pac 12 road schedule includes Washington State Sept. 18, Colorado Oct. 2, Arizona State Nov. 6 and California Nov. 13.

Stanford (Sept. 11), Oregon State (Sept. 25), Utah (Oct. 9) Arizona (Oct. 30), and UCLA (Nov. 20) round out the Trojans home schedule.

The Pac 12 Conference Championship Game will be played Dec. 3 in Las Vegas. If the Trojans aren’t there, their fans will be clamoring for Helton’s head.

Over in Westwood, coach Chip Kelly might be on the hot spot along with Helton. Kelly went 46-7 in four seasons at Oregon, but after going 28-35 in four seasons in the NFL, he has won only 10 games in three seasons at UCLA.

Dorian Thompson-Robinson is back for his fourth season at quarterback. Once a prized recruit out of Las Vegas, Thomson-Robinson has been beset by injuries in his three years and has usually had to outscore an opposing team that was piling up points and yards against the UCLA defense.

The Bruins open with three non-conference opponents: Hawaii Aug. 28, LSU  Sept. 4 and Fresno State Sept. 18. All three are at the Rose Bowl.

The Bruins open their Pac 12 schedule Sept. 25 at Stanford. Other conference road games are at Arizona Oct. 9, Washington Oct. 16, Utah Oct. 30, and USC Nov. 20.

The conference home schedule includes games against Arizona State Oct. 2, Oregon Oct. 23, Colorado Nov. 13 and Cal Nov. 27.

The Bruins were picked to finish fourth in the Pac 12 South Division at media day, behind USC, Utah and Arizona State.

The media picked only one Bruin, wide receiver Kyle Phillips for the first-team all-conference unit in a preseason media poll.

USC fans make more noise than UCLA fans when it comes to displeasure with the coach, but if Kelly doesn’t win at least seven games this season, he may be on a hotter seat than Helton.

DODGER DOLDRUMS: Over the previous four years, the Dodgers learned how hard it is to win a World Series, defeating the Tampa Bay Rays in six games last year, their third try in four years after not being in a World Series since 1988.

This year the Dodgers are learning how hard it is to repeat.

A defending champion has a large target every series. Every team gets up for the defending champ.

And ballplayers are human and become blasé after winning a title, often going into the next season with the feeling that all they need to do is show up to assure victory.

That’s the way the Dodgers look half the time this season, even when they are playing the Giants, who lead them by three games in the National League West standings.

Yes, the Dodgers have been hit hard by injuries this year. But the Giants have beaten the Dodgers four games out of five in the last nine days and they are missing their starting first baseman, shortstop and third baseman.

The players could be waiting for team President Andrew Friedman to make another trade at this week’s dateline to strengthen the starting rotation and help the whole roster regain its focus, but the players also need to play better.

They lost to the Giants, 2-1 July 27 when Cody Bellinger, playing first base for the first time this season, made a horrendous throwing error to allow the winning run to score in the eighth inning.

It was the 57th unearned run the Dodgers have allowed this season, the most in the Major Leagues. That’s the stat of a team at the bottom of the standings, not one at the top.

The Dodgers’ offense has never been in sync this season. Only Chris Taylor, Justin Turner and Max Muncy (maybe A.J. Pollock, too) are having solid seasons this year.

Corey Seager, Mookie Betts and Bellinger have been hampered by injuries and Will Smith and Gavin Lux are still learning to hit Major League pitching.

Yes, the Dodgers miss Kike Hernandez, who was voted the American League Player of the Week last week with the Red Sox, and Joc Pederson. They were steadier than Matt Beatty, Zack McKinstry, Luke Raley and Billy McKinney, but a team can’t always resign all of its free agents.

And, yes, closer Kenley Jansen blew saves in three straight opportunities recently. As I have said repeatedly, Jansen isn’t the pitcher he was in 2017 and 2018, but he is still among the top 10 closers in the game. All closers blow saves.

Jansen will probably blow one or two more down the stretch. But he bounced back to close out the Rockies July 25 and manager Dave Roberts continues to trust him at the end of games more than anyone else.

The vaunted Dodgers rotation also is shaky right now, down to four out of the seven starters the team was boasting about in February. The Dodgers are now force-feeding Josiah Gray at the Major League level instead of waiting to promote him in September.

There are plenty of starting pitchers available before Friday’s trade deadline, but most teams are asking for minor league catcher Keibert Ruiz in any trade package and Friedman is reluctant to trade the team’s best prospect.

My solution is to trade Smith, who has proven he can hit at the Major League level, and promote Ruiz to take his place. Ruiz is already better defensively than Smith and isn’t that far behind him as a hitter.

The Dodgers could also add a bullpen arm at the trade deadline, but they will get some bullpen help in the next week or two when Corey Knebel comes off the disabled list.

Hopefully, Clayton Kershaw won’t be far behind Knebel. Those two additions, plus a healthy Seager and Betts, would vastly improve a Dodgers team that is only 48-39 after starting the season 13-2.

Finishing behind the Giants in the National League West would force the Dodgers into a one-game Wild Card playoff, probably against the San Diego Padres.

The Dodgers want to avoid that at all costs.

It’s too early to panic and the Dodgers know how to go on a 42-8 year, like they did a few years ago. The Giants have avoided a major slump all year. They are about due for one.

But the Dodgers can’t wait for that to happen. They need to add a starting pitcher, get some injured people healthy and quit giving their opponents extra outs — which always equals extra runs — with defensive lapses.

They still have two months to go, plenty of time to catch the Giants.

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