Clay Helton was hired at a very turbulent time for the USC football program, and the athletic department as a whole. After serving as interim head coach over the second half of the 2015 season, leading the men of Troy to an underwhelming 5-4 record, Helton’s hiring was extremely disappointing for most Trojan fans. Obviously, with USC’s cache as a preeminent college football program, many were expecting a headline name to be walking in the door at Heritage Hall. Soon to be departing Athletic Director Pat Haden claimed to be making a public search for a new head coach for the University of Southern California’s headline sports team, yet Helton’s subsequent hiring was met with many skeptical views about whether or not there was actually much of a search. The last few years of Haden’s reign had been mired with baffling decisions in head coaching hires (and firings) combined with not standing up to the NCAA’s tyrannical sanctions ruling. As a result, it was not entirely surprising to see another uninspiring head coaching hire. However, contrary to the vast majority of the USC fan base, Haden’s conservative hiring may actually become to be a blessing in disguise.
Helton has been coaching at USC since 2010 in a variety of roles ranging from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator. Prior to coming to SC, Helton worked at Duke, Houston University and Memphis University before being hired by Lane Kiffin as the quarterback coach in 2010. Helton is a coach that values togetherness and hard work. He is a hard-nosed, genuine person that coaches a sense of unity that pushes his team to play as one on the field. Just about every player to have played under Helton is always effusive in praising how much he cares about his players (Su’a Cravens and Cody Kessler were his two biggest proponents for the full-time job). Even though it is not always a great sign that players adore their coach, Helton is a different story. When Steve Sarkisian was fired midway through the 2015 season due to addiction problems, the team was in a tailspin. Having just lost to a subpar Washington team at home, destroying all hopes of a playoff run, USC football was at one of the lowest points since the Reggie Bush sanctions were handed down. Helton came in and immediately changed the aura of the team, nearly guiding the Trojans to an upset victory over Notre Dame less than a week after taking over as head coach. Even though the Men of Troy ultimately fell short against the Fighting Irish, the passion the team displayed was much different than what it was under Sarkisian. Throughout the rest of the season, it was obvious that every player left it all on the field every single game, something that had been missing for years.
Obviously, effort and heart don’t mean everything and won’t get you very far against the top competition. This is just one aspect of what Helton needs to instill in his players in order for USC to return to the top of the college football universe. Over the past few years, the biggest problem at USC has not been talent, it has been woefully inadequate coaching. Previous assistants such as Keith Heyward, Justin Wilcox, Monte Kiffin, and numerous others prevented some of the most talented high school football players in the country from developing into good college football players. Helton has seen this issue come up over and over again since arriving at USC in 2010. He used these experiences in a constructive manner by hiring a coaching staff that is widely regarded as an excellent group of assistants. Clancy Pendergast has been an extremely successful defensive coordinator in both the NFL and at the college level—a stark contrast to the inept Justin Wilcox. Neil Callaway has been an offensive line coach for over 25 years, helping to coach some of the best running games in the SEC during his career—wildly different from Bob Connelly’s pitiful reputation. These two coaches are just two of the very strong group of assistants Helton brought in to help lead his team. Most of the coaches are not very experienced—it is showing on the recruiting trail so far for the 2017 class—but each has been very successful at every previous stop in their careers. Recruiting is vital to the health of a football program and that is currently lacking for SC in what is a strong class on the west coast, but then again, USC sells itself. Nobody can argue that if the Trojans go out and win ten games and a Pac 12 title, USC will be guaranteed to sign a top 5 class. Additionally, there are eight months to signing day and this is not the first time that the recruiting trail has looked troubling. USC fans need to remember one thing: winning and new offensive coordinator Tee Martin never fail in recruiting.
This brings us to Martin. Even though he is going to be a first-year offensive coordinator, he has worked closely with previous OCs as a wide receivers coach where he helped develop players such as Nelson Agholor, Marqise Lee, and Robert Woods. Martin previously operated as a passing game coordinator, giving him experience in game planning that will now constitute a vast majority of his responsibilities. Additionally, Helton has experience running an offense and can assist Martin in his new duties. When discussing the offensive philosophy that will be implemented next season, Martin has stated that it will be very similar to what USC ran once Helton became head coach midway through 2015. This power running style will harken memories back to the glory days of the mid 2000’s where LenDale White and Reggie Bush would pound opposing defenses, opening up the play action pass for Matt Leinart. Obviously, expecting USC to return to that level anytime soon may be a slight bit optimistic, but this is something the coaches and players can aspire to.
The Trojans are returning one of the best offensive lines in college football combined with a dynamic one-two punch in the backfield of Justin Davis and Ronald Jones II. Callaway is well equipped to get the best out of SC’s talented o-line, an imperative for USC’s success on the offensive side of the ball. Even though the excellent, albeit very limited, Kessler has moved on to the NFL, the Trojans will be promoting a quarterback that has a much higher ceiling than Kessler. Sam Darnold and Max Browne have the talent to be outstanding quarterbacks, and from all accounts, both players were very solid in spring practices. On defense, the secondary looks to be filled with excellent defensive backs that have all shown flashes of the players they can become. The front seven is similarly talented, but the Trojans are going to need young players to step up and contribute—while not getting injured on the defensive line. Three years ago when Pendergast was the defensive coordinator for one season, USC had one of the best defenses in the Pac 12 with virtually no depth. Therefore, Pendergast knows how to work through potential depth issues while still operating an extremely effective defense. USC has a number of game changers on both sides of the ball, but in the end, the season will be defined by the one factor that has continued to plague the men of troy since Pete Carroll’s departure: coaching.
No matter how many positives Helton brings to the table, he needs to work together with his assistants to get the full potential out of his players. The talent is there, it is now up to the coaches to turn excellent talent into excellent production. Helton’s passion for his job is a factor that has been absent from Howard Jones Field since Carroll’s. Helton can use his authentic personality to connect with his players and push them to new heights. Last season may not have been as successful under Helton as fans would like, but a full offseason implementing a new culture to the team will illustrate Helton’s imprint on the program. The Trojans may have a ridiculously challenging schedule, potentially limiting the upside of the team, but Helton’s time at USC does not have to be characterized by 2016. A solid season on the field and off the field can give Helton a good first season as a full-time coach before launching a playoff run in the coming years. 2016 may not be the year USC finally returns to its perch atop the college football landscape, but Helton will be able to start establishing his culture in the locker room that will have a positive impact on the program for years to come. Fans should not be too upset if the team finishes 9-3; 2016 is just the beginning of what will be a powerhouse in the years to come.