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USC Sports

Clay Helton ‘really excited’ to take over play-calling duties for USC

Clay Helton, Cody Kessler
USC offensive coordinator Clay Helton works with quarterback Cody Kessler during a team practice session in October 2013.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Clay Helton finally has the responsibility to go with the title.

Helton, USC’s offensive coordinator since 2013, will be the play-caller when the Trojans open the season against Arkansas State on Saturday night at the Coliseum.

Coach Steve Sarkisian announced last week he was relinquishing play-calling duties to Helton so that he could give attention to all units during games.

“Really excited about the opportunity,” Helton said after Tuesday’s practice.

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Helton, 43, has experience calling plays for USC. In 2013, after Lane Kiffin was fired, interim coach Ed Orgeron made Helton the play-caller. The Trojans won six of their eight remaining regular-season games.

After Orgeron left the program, Helton called plays in the Trojans’ Las Vegas Bowl victory over Fresno State while serving as interim head coach.

“It’s not really different for us,” quarterback Cody Kessler said of the switch. “Coach Sark and coach Helton are always on the same page anyways when it came to play-calling.”

Helton, also the quarterbacks coach, was in the coaches’ booth in the press box during games last season, providing Sarkisian with information. He will be on the sideline this season. Receivers coach Tee Martin will move from the field to the coaches’ booth.

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“That’s going to help me out a lot more,” Kessler said of having Helton on the field. “Because instead of having to go over and get on the phone and call upstairs to him, I can walk over, he can pull me to the side, we can sit down and kind of show me visually also what he sees or what’s going on out there.”

Helton echoed Sarkisian, who has said the two of them began the transition during spring practice and continued during training camp. They often donned headsets to practice communication.

During a radio show appearance Monday night, Sarkisian said Helton had turned down several opportunities to take jobs elsewhere after last season. He intimated that increased responsibility for Helton was offered as an incentive to remain with the Trojans.

Helton, a USC coach since 2010, declined to discuss the issue. He said that after recruiting Kessler for two years, coaching him at USC and with the program no longer under NCAA sanctions, “you finally got to a place where you think you can win a championship. Why would you leave?

“Whether it’s as an offensive coordinator helping with game plans or as a play-caller, you don’t leave that situation. “

Helton noted “every play-caller is a little bit different” with their own idiosyncrasies. “But we’ll try to stay within the format of the system,” he said.

Helton coached at Memphis for 10 seasons before joining Arkansas State’s staff in early 2010. He was with the Red Wolves for less than two months before Kiffin hired him as quarterbacks coach.

“They welcomed me with open arms,” he said of Arkansas State. “We went through recruiting, signed a great class and I got the opportunity to come out here. This is something you can’t pass up.”

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Smith could start

Linebacker Cameron Smith enrolled at USC in January to get a head-start on learning the defense. The move paid off.

With senior Lamar Dawson still limited because of a rib injury, Smith will play a lot and could possibly start against Arkansas State.

“I’m just trying to learn every day,” Smith said, adding, “and be prepared as possible and just be ready if that’s the case.”

Sarkisian said the 6-foot-2, 245-pound Smith has been making plays since spring practice, and that he shared qualities similar to Hayes Pullard, who was a four-year starter.

“It takes smarts to play that position,” Sarkisian said. “You saw it with Hayes for how many years Hayes did it. “And Cam definitely has that, a really good sense and a good feel in there.”

Quick hits

Chris Tilbey, a sophomore punter from Australia who played at San Francisco City College, has been added to the roster as a “blueshirt,” Sarkisian said. Blueshirts are players who were not officially recruited. After the start of training camp, they can be awarded scholarships, which count against the following year’s recruiting class.

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gary.klein@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimesklein


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