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UCLA Football Preview: Is Clay Helton on the Hot Seat?

After some tough losses this year, will Southern Cal head coach Clay Helton return? Will be be forced to overhaul his staff at the conclusion of the season?

NCAA Football: Colorado at Southern California Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

It’s #BeatSC Week, people!

This is shaping up to be one of those years where neither team is in any kind of national conversation except for how disappointing the season was and there’s also a good chance that neither team goes bowling. But no matter what, laying a beatdown on Southern Cal is never a bad idea.

Right now, even us humanities majors can tell you that there’s no mathematical possibility of the UCLA Bruins getting into a bowl game and the USC Trojans are not much further behind. They have to win one of their next two games and UCLA could be the team that knocks them out of bowl contention. Their last game is against Notre Dame and, unless the Irish completely implode, there’s pretty much no way Southern Cal will win. But, wouldn’t it be nice to bring on the bitter end of Southern Cal’s season?

Let’s take a look at the coaching staff and special teams unit that the Trojans will attempt to beat the Bruins with.

Coaching Staff

In talking to some Southern Cal fans, many are actually secretly rooting for a UCLA win. They’re not happy with head coach Clay Helton and, if he somehow manages to win the next two games, there’s a much smaller chance he gets fired at the end of the season. If he loses, chances are good he’s gone or, at the very least, he’s forced to make some major changes within his staff. While the UCLA fan base can be temperamental, the Southern Cal fan base has an even harder line—be in the national championship conversation every year or take a hike.

While this year hasn’t gone as planned, Helton has had a pretty good career with Southern Cal. He started off as the quarterbacks coach in 2010, moved up to offensive coordinator in 2013, and has been the head coach since October of 2015 when previous head coach Steve Sarkisian was dismissed mid season. He has a 73% overall win percentage and was the first Southern Cal head coach to notch ten wins in his first two complete seasons. He was the AP Pac-12 Coach of the Year in 2017, and is currently under contract until 2023.

The Trojans’ offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Tee Martin. He is in his seventh year on staff and started out as wide receivers coach, then added passing game coordinator duties in 2014 and became the offensive coordinator at the end of 2015. Under Martin, Southern Cal has posted consistently good offensive statistics and has produced players like wide receivers Deontay Burnett, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marquise Lee, and Nelson Agholor and quarterbacks Matt Barkley and Sam Darnold and, although you’ll never convince me that Barkley has panned out in the NFL, it looks like Darnold may fare better. The interesting part of Tee Martin is that he is currently an offensive coordinator in name only as Clay Helton took playcalling duties away from him midway through this season.

Finally, we have defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. He was actually at Southern Cal in 1992 as a defensive assistant, then left for a coaching career in the NFL that spanned two decades. In 2010, he returned to the Pac-12 as UC Berkeley’s defensive coordinator, and eventually ended up at Southern Cal in 2013. He has been with the Trojans ever since, save 2015 when he went to the San Francisco 49ers as their linebackers coach.

Like Martin, he has produced amazing players like linebackers Uchenna Nwosu and Cameron Smith, lineman Rasheem Green and safety Marvell Tell III, and consistently coached defensive units that have played well, though not nearly as well as they should have considering the talent level Southern Cal continually has at its disposal.

Special Teams

Bruin fans have seen special teams kill games for UCLA this year. So, it’s important to avoid underestimating the importance of this unit for both UCLA’s own field position and pinning the Bruins’ opponents deep in their own territory. Redshirt senior punter Reid Budrovich has handled most of the punting duties this year and averages just under 40 yards. He was a teammate of Josh Rosen at Saint John Bosco. Chase McGrath and Michael Brown are covering kicking duties, both of whom sit at 80% for field goals on the season. Neither has a field goal outside of the 40-49 yard range, with Brown attempting none and McGrath attempting two and missing both. Freshman Alex Stadthaus is handling kickoffs, with an average of 63 yards per kick.

As far as returns, sophomore Tyler Vaughns returns punts for an average of 9.83 yards, and he has one long of 82 yards that he returned for a touchdown. He is the only Trojan with a punt or kick return this year, so as long as UCLA can maintain decent coverage, this shouldn’t be an issue on Saturday. Velus Jones Jr. is taking care of kickoff returns, averaging about 24 yards per kick with a long of 37. I’m honestly not too worried about defending their returns. It’s the punts and UCLA’s own field position that concern me more. The Bruins’ special teams unit needs to be able to cleanly field punts and kicks while gaining yards to put the Bruin offense in a good position to score. It also helps to minimize false start penalties at key points in the game, but I digress.


This game can go either way. I never would have called 13-9 but I also would never have called 50-0. It won’t be an easy game for either team. Both are coming off close losses and have had their struggles this year, but for the first time in a few years I think it’s actually going to be a good game. It would be nice for someone like Wilton Speight, who took a backseat to a freshman only to be handed the keys again, and for UCLA’s seniors, who lived through the mess of the last two Mora years and the first Chip Kelly year who remember what it feels like to beat these guys, to get a win on Saturday,

Go Bruins!