Clay Helton signed a five year deal on November 30 of last year after serving as Southern Cal’s head coach following the tumultuous 2015 season partially led by Steve Sarkisian. Apparently, he had been auditioning to be the next Southern-Cal-Head-Coaching-Failure-Turned-Alabama-Success-Story. Many felt Helton was not the typical flashy Southern Cal hire, and the beginning of the 2016 season played out like many naysayers thought it would. But changing the quarterback and fixing issues on the offensive line made all the difference, because now Coach Helton is starting to look like a man fit to fill Pete Carroll’s shoes.
Helton joined the Southern Cal staff in February of 2010 as the quarterbacks coach after spending 10 seasons as an assistant at Memphis. He added the passing game coordinator role in 2012 and became the offensive coordinator in 2013. During his tenure as offensive coordinator, the Trojans recorded some impressive statistics, according to his bio:
As the coordinator of [Southern Cal’s] offense in 2015, the Trojans ranked ninth nationally in fumbles lost (5) , 11th in both passes had intercepted (7) and completion percentage (.667), 16th in fourth down conversions (.654) and 20th in passing efficiency (153.6). [Southern Cal] averaged 437.9 total yards and 33.9 points a game.
Not too shabby. While offensive coordinator, Coach Helton worked with the likes of Cody Kessler, Matt Barkley, and Justin Davis. But he is embracing a different attitude around Trojan football and trying to eliminate the Hollywood-type distractions that have been around the team over the past few decades. According to an ESPN article by Ivan Maisel from September,
Sark's replacement, Helton, hunts alligators. He's courtly and self-deprecating, two traits that every Southern parent demands. His mantra is "faith, family and football," and those items are not just in alphabetical order. And the only Kim hanging around the Trojans these days is Helton's father. Kim Helton was the head coach of the Houston Cougars for seven seasons and spent 12 as an NFL assistant.
To repeat, USC is not Hollywood, at least in the mind of its new head coach.
His players know he loves them and he is definitely tough on them. In the past, if you skipped class, you got two extra hours of physical drills. Under Coach Helton, your entire unit is punished. Trojan quarterback Max Browne says of the new policy, “It's one thing if you miss a class, you get punished yourself and only yourself. But when your teammates are also getting punished? That's a whole other element."
There were other changes on staff, including the hiring of Neil Callaway to coach the offensive line. maisel reported that apparently, Zach Banner took Coach Helton aside and told him the front five were going to take their new coach out to dinner, but Callaway wasn’t going to return because they were all going to kill him. Helton had warned his boys that they were literally going to think Callaway was “the devil”, but they’d thank him later. Well, with a 7-3 record and a decent bowl game on the line, I’d say Helton was right.
Tee Martin joined the Southern Cal staff in 2012 as the wide receivers coach, added the pass game coordinator duties in 2014, and became the official offensive coordinator in 2015. In 2015, he was named among the nation’s Top 10 recruiters by Sports Illustrated and Sporting News, as well as the Pac-12 Recruiter of the Year by Rivals.com. He has coached big names like Nelson Agholor, Marquis Lee, and Robert Woods. He was a legend at Tennessee, quarterbacking the 1998 national championship team, and was even offered a job by the Volunteers in 2012 (which he obviously turned down). He has been labeled a “player’s coach” and still keeps tabs on his boys that have moved on to the NFL. Incidentally, his own son will be playing for Southern Cal in 2017. As a quarterback turned wide receivers coach, he says he coaches the receivers like quarterbacks so they can see what the quarterback sees, and open their eyes to the big picture that is playing out on the field. His first outing as Southern Cal’s offensive coordinator didn’t exactly follow that happy ending Hollywood script, because for every offensive play Martin tried, Alabama had an answer. Since then, the shaky offensive line has improved and a quarterback switch has made his job a little easier.
After spending a season with the 49ers, Clancy Pendergast returned to Southern Cal for the third time as their defensive coordinator. Most recently, he had been with the Trojans in 2013 and created one of the nation’s best defenses at the time. He replaced Justin Wilcox, who was not retained after Helton was officially named head coach. During his most recent stint at Southern Cal, his defenses ranked in the top 25 in almost every major category. Before 2013, he had served as the defensive coordinator at Cal and had major success with that program as well. He is characterized as aggressive, which is something Helton needed in his defensive coordinator. The only negatives about the hire are that Pendergast isn’t exactly known as a top-notch recruiter. But Southern Cal hasn’t exactly hurt in that category in the past. What they needed was an aggressive defense that could replace valuable personnel like Su’a Cravens. The defense appears to be a work in progress this year, but you can see improvements week to week.
Place kicker Matt Boermeester is perfect this season on PAT’s. He has only missed five field goals all season, all of which were 30+ yards. Before the season started, Southern Cal had a hard time picking a punter, as Coach Helton wasn’t exactly happy with either of his options. His options were Chris Tilbey, who has a background in Australian Rules Football, and Reid Budrovich, a walk on from St. John Bosco. Tilbey has seen most of the action this year. His average punt was over 40 yards earlier in the season, but has dropped recently to just over 31.
Adoree Jackson has been Southern Cal’s primary kick returner. A beast on both offense and defense, in an LA Times article by Zach Helfund, Coach Helton says, "He's just ridiculous. He can go out there any time and make his play.” While Jackson is listed as a defensive back on the roster, he also has wide receiver and kick returner by his name. An all around talented athlete, he has drawn comparisons with Charles Woodson (they have similar stats) and has been named as one of the most exciting players in college football today. Southern Cal uses him primarily on defense, but there are roughly 20 offensive plays that are designed entirely around Jackson. They then filter those plays down to four to six options for game day, and choose plays based on the opponent’s coverage of him. According to his bio, “Jackson also is the 2-time defending (2015 and 2016) Pac-12 long jump champion for USC’s track team and he was fifth at both the 2015 and 2016 NCAA Meets to twice earn All-American status”. He missed spring practice to focus on track, which doesn’t seem to have negatively impacted his football skills at all. If you want to talk difference makers on special teams, this guy is it. We CANNOT give up good field position and allow this guy to get away from us. On our end, the punts are going to have to go out of the endzone so this guy becomes a non-issue. Otherwise, our kick return team is going to have to be sure to contain him.
I think they definitely have us beat on special teams. When you have a solid kicker and a talented punt returner, you definitely have an advantage over your opponent. The Bruins have struggled with all aspects of kicking this season, and our kick return game is barely getting going. Field position is a huge piece of the foundation of your offense, and I feel like we’ll be at a disadvantage on every series if we can’t down a decent punt or return for some yards.
Go Bruins! Beat SC!