Column: USC’s Clay Helton is at ease on the eve of his second season — even when the subject is O.J. Simpson
What would you do if O.J. Simpson walked into your office?
There was laughter around the patio table. Clay Helton smiled.
“I’m cordial to every person I’ve ever met,” Helton replied.
Would you let the soon-to-be parolee watch practice?
“Currently, right now, what USC, the administration and the athletic department have said is, ‘No, O.J. will not be a part of functions or invited,’ ” he said. “That’s been the statement by the university.”
Helton answered that question better than Pete Carroll did. Carroll, you might recall, said he would welcome the most infamous football player in USC history to a workout.
Pac-12 Conference media day Thursday was a different experience for Helton than it was last year, when he was a rookie head coach in the shadow of crosstown counterpart Jim Mora.
This time, he was the two-day event’s unofficial signature speaker. The Trojans are the preseason pick to win the conference and widely viewed as national championship contenders, resulting in increased attention for Helton. And yes, that included inquiries about the soon-to-be-released former USC running back.
Helton looked and sounded at ease with it all.
Instead of downplaying expectations, he embraced them. Instead of waiting for obvious questions to be asked, he addressed what was on everyone’s mind in his opening remarks.
“We understand what USC is about. It’s about winning Pac-12 titles; it’s about winning national championships,” he said.
“We know the expectations. We welcome them. We look at it as an opportunity, not an obligation. We came to USC to win championships and that will always be our goal.”
This is an interesting change in roles for Helton.
His charming qualities remain, but his team’s elevated status has revealed other parts of his personality.
Relaxed. Direct. Confident.
And why shouldn’t he be?
Helton survived that dreadful start, which reaffirmed his belief in his methods.
“Part of being a head coach is having the trust and relationship with your players that when you are in adverse times, they trust the process,” he said.
Helton wore a rubber wrist band that spelled out USC’s achievements: 11 national championships, 25 Rose Bowl victories.
“I know it’s our opportunity and our obligation to be able to change those numbers,” he said. “It reminds me each and every day we’ve got to work towards that.”
The Trojans finished last season with a 10-3 record and a No. 3 national ranking. They should know soon whether they can improve on that — they play Stanford in their second game and Texas in their third.
“Obviously, we love our home-field advantage,” Helton said.
He is also comforted by the presence of quarterback Sam Darnold, who just might be the No. 1 overall selection in the next NFL draft.
USC entered its season opener last year against Alabama with a quarterback making his first career start, Max Browne. Darnold replaced Browne four games into the season.
This season’s stability extends to the coaching staff. The Trojans retained their three coordinators, Tee Martin on offense, Clancy Pendergast on defense and John Baxter on special teams.
But there were also substantial departures, including dynamic two-way player Adoree’ Jackson, a first-round draft pick by the Tennessee Titans. Jackson was the Jim Thorpe Award winner, which goes to the nation’s top defensive back.
The team also has to replace its most explosive full-time receiver, Juju Smith-Schuster, and all-conference offensive tackles Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler.
If Helton was concerned, he didn’t let on. Not as if doing so would spare him the scrutiny he will encounter in the coming months.
As far as his players were concerned, the confidence Helton projected was nothing new.
“He doesn’t sound any different than when he was recruiting me, when he was the quarterback coach, offensive coordinator,” Darnold said. “That’s his biggest advice that he’s given me, to never change and to always stay yourself.”
Maybe it wasn’t Helton who changed, just the team’s circumstances. Whatever the case, he’s playing this new role as well as the last.
Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez
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