Clay Helton has been at his best as USC’s head coach in these moments. Put him in a hole — heck, maybe even one he helped dig himself — and he’ll muscle his way out of it. He didn’t want to be back here again, with two early-season losses sending the Trojans tailspinning out of the top 25, but he’s not going to wallow in the outside negativity pushing against the inner walls of his program.
“I don’t want [people to] mistake being upbeat [for saying] that I don’t have a care, a concern and an effort level to make sure that our seniors are … Pac-12 champions again,” Helton said. “When times are tough, you get to see exactly who you are and you have the availability to lead. I love being a leader.”
For the rest of this season, Helton will call on his experience in 2015 and 2016. Those turnarounds will provide him comfort, but he is not comfortable with where things currently sit, particularly on offense. So at Monday’s practice — pushed up a day in the weekly schedule because of a Friday night game against Washington State — Helton spent most of the day working with Tee Martin’s unit, up close and personal. He was extra throaty, extra salty, with some extra profanity thrown in for good measure. And, near the end of practice, when left tackle Austin Jackson threw a punch at a scout-team defensive player in a scuffle, Helton yelled, “I like it! Let’s go!”
“I wanted to be an offensive coach today,” Helton said. “Sometimes, you get to be the head ball coach and decide where you stand, and today I wanted to coach my butt off.”
Is Helton going back to his roots as an offensive coach enough to spark something in the Trojans, who are No. 93 in total offense nationally, as they prepare for Mike Leach’s Cougars, who are surprisingly No. 3 in total defense?
USC fans hoping for knee-jerk reactions to the 1-2 start won’t get that from Helton. Since the loss Saturday, he has effusively praised special teams coach John Baxter and offensive line coach Neil Callaway despite their units’ disappointing performances.
In 2015, as USC went from a 3-3 start to an 8-4 finish and a South division championship, Helton himself was the change. He took over for Steve Sarkisian and received full credit for the turnaround when he was named permanent head coach entering the Pac-12 title game.
In 2016, as USC went from a 1-3 start to a 10-3 finish with a Rose Bowl championship, Helton initiated the change by switching his starting quarterback from Max Browne to Sam Darnold. Martin said Tuesday that the Trojans altered their ways accordingly, speeding up their tempo in practice and the tenor of their play-calling to go with what Darnold did best.
In 2018, though, the status quo is likely to linger. Helton is as loyal as anyone and is unlikely to turn a beloved assistant into a scapegoat midseason. A quarterback change does not make sense, as JT Daniels has shown even in two losses why he will remain the present and the future of this offense.
This year, the change will have to come from within. The Trojans began to realize that Saturday night as they processed their shocking 37-14 defeat in which they let Texas score the last 34 points.
Senior running back Aca’Cedric Ware came out of the locker room and told reporters, “Practice this week to me, to be honest, I felt was kind of lazy, kind of slow. ... You can’t blame everything on the coaches. It’s on us. I’m gonna make sure we find some leaders on offense.”
The Trojans’ frustration traveled with them from the team bus to the plane home. To more than just Ware, it came down to poor practice.
“The man in front of you, you gotta challenge him every day,” sophomore wide receiver Tyler Vaughns said. “We’re all leaders. We’re all alpha males here. We all did whatever just to get here, but we gotta show why we deserve to be here, why we deserve to wear the jersey.”
Helton said at last Thursday’s practice he noticed a subpar effort from the offense and called them on it.
“I also let them know it doesn’t always have to come from the coach,” Helton said.
Monday, USC went back to the practice field looking for leaders. Helton had told the Trojans on Sunday to look toward the seniors. The only team captain from the offense is senior center Toa Lobendahn, but Ware has already found his voice, and Helton believes it’s in so many of them.
“These guys that are seniors, they’ve been in some hard times and they know how to get out of it,” Helton said.
Alongside Helton, the seniors learned how to flip the script on a season. They have not yet been able this season to do the same during a game. Against Stanford and Texas, when things didn’t go USC’s way, the Trojans could not stem the tide and were washed away.
This week, at minimum, they can count on being able to look to their coach and see that all is not lost, despite what they may be hearing or reading elsewhere.
“The beauty of college football,” Helton said, “is we all have jobs. As a coach, your job is to find a way to win and help your players to win. The job of the players is to go execute and perform. The jobs of the media is to report and to give your opinion. And the job of the fan is to show great passion, and passion comes from winning and losing. Right now, I understand the passion that comes with losing. If you can’t handle it as a coach, you shouldn’t really be in the game.”
Helton said that strong safety Isaiah Pola-Mao, who started the first two games, will have season-ending shoulder surgery Thursday. CJ Pollard and Talanoa Hufanga will continue to rotate at the position. … Offensive guard Andrew Vorhees, defensive tackle Malik Dorton and inside linebacker John Houston are all battling injuries but practiced Monday.