Offensive coordinator Clay Helton to call plays for USC

USC offensive coordinator Clay Helton led quarterback Cody Kessler and the Trojans to a victory in the Las Vegas Bowl during his first stint as interim coach.

USC offensive coordinator Clay Helton led quarterback Cody Kessler and the Trojans to a victory in the Las Vegas Bowl during his first stint as interim coach.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

For the first time since 2009, a USC head coach won’t walk the sideline during games with his eyes focused almost exclusively on a play-call sheet.

Offensive coordinator Clay Helton will assume play-calling duties this season, Coach Steve Sarkisian said Saturday.

It’s a major shift for a program that saw Sarkisian, who is beginning his second season, and predecessor Lane Kiffin call plays.

“I’m still going to have input, especially in third-down and red-zone scenarios,” Sarkisian said after a mock-game at the Coliseum that was closed to the media. “But I also want to focus on being a really good head coach.


“And I want to be with our defense, and I want to celebrate with [cornerback] Adoree’ [Jackson] when he gets an interception and not have to go right back and look at my call sheet.”

The change, Sarkisian said, has been in the works since spring practice and was not part of the fallout from last week’s apparently inebriated appearance at a USC booster event that led to Sarkisian apologizing and then saying he would seek treatment to find out whether he has a drinking problem.

Helton called plays for USC when he was interim coach for 2013 Las Vegas Bowl, a game the Trojans won, 45-20. In a switch from 2014, Helton will be on the sideline during games this season. Receivers coach Tee Martin will be in the coaches’ booth in the press box.

Helton was not made available to the media Saturday.

Relinquishing play-calling duties was “a little” difficult, but Sarkisian said he began considering the idea after evaluating the Trojans’ 9-4 season in 2014.

“I love calling plays — that’s what I do … how I got into this profession and worked my way through it,” he said, adding, “But I want to be a great head coach. I don’t want to set offensive records and finish 8-5 or 9-4. I want to win 13 games and 14 games.

“To do that, me being in defensive meetings, me being in every special-teams meeting, me really understanding the nuances of those things is critical to our success.”

Sarkisian wore a headset during portions of training-camp practices to communicate with Helton. He said he would “chime in” this season when he wanted a specific play, but not at inopportune times.


“The one thing as a play-caller you don’t want is somebody jumping in in the middle of it,” he said. “I don’t want to be interjecting all the time. It’s hard to get a rhythm that way.”

So images of USC’s head coach staring at a play sheet on the sideline — the super-sized version Kiffin carried and the smaller sheet favored by Sarkisian — could be a thing of the past.

“I just felt like we’ll be a better team for it,” Sarkisian said. “Time will tell.”

Madden will start


Senior Tre Madden will start at tailback against Arkansas State.

Madden has looked sharp since returning from a foot injury that sidelined him last season.

Junior Justin Davis, the leading returning rusher, was slowed early in camp because of a hamstring injury and then suffered a rib injury upon his return.

Freshmen Ronald Jones II, Dominic Davis and Aca’Cedric Ware will back up Madden. Senior fullback Soma Vainuku could also play tailback.


Jones, from Texas, did not finish practice twice this week, but Sarkisian said he has worked through homesickness issues and was doing much better.

Former USC stars LenDale White, from Colorado, and Dwayne Jarrett, from New Jersey, also struggled initially with homesickness.

Quick hits

Quarterback Cody Kessler, center Max Tuerk, defensive lineman Antwaun Woods and linebackers Anthony Sarao and Su’a Cravens were elected team captains. Kessler and Tuerk were captains last season…. Sarkisian said junior walk-on Alex Wood would kick field goals and handle kickoffs in the opener.


Twitter: @latimesklein