Clay Helton’s biggest takeaway from USC’s season-ending loss to Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl last year was watching the Buckeyes shuttle their defensive linemen in and out and never lose a step. They didn’t have a two-deep as a roster formality. They actually used it. And by the fourth quarter, with the Trojans on their last legs, Ohio State looked like it could have kept playing into the early-morning hours.
During this fall camp, Helton has responded with some changes to the Trojans’ practice rhythms. In the first week, they often had two sets of seven-on-seven or 11-on-11 drills at the same time — Helton calls it “two spotting” — so that USC’s second and third team players got more reps to learn from and from which to be evaluated. The hope is that early this season in road trips to Stanford and Texas, where it will most certainly be a hot and humid night in the Lone Star State, the Trojans can be fresh when it matters.
Two spotting and other tweaks to the workflow may help. But you know what really helps? Having a Jay Tufele.
Tufele is a redshirt freshman defensive lineman from Salt Lake City, where he became the third-best defensive tackle recruit in the country. At 6 feet 3, he is built like a house on wheels, and while Christian Rector and Brandon Pili are the likely starters on the line for USC in its 2-4-5 defensive scheme, Tufele is emerging in fall camp as the foundation for Helton’s enhanced vision for the unit.
On Friday night, during a meeting with the entire team prior to USC’s Saturday scrimmage, Helton went out of his way to applaud Tufele as having the best camp of any Trojan thus far. The next day, Tufele tallied two sacks and was a constant presence in the backfield.
“You could really start to see it in spring,” Helton said. “I really believe when life is right off the field, it comes on the field as well. All of a sudden, he’s the first one in study hall and the last one to leave. He’s making great grades. He’s putting in the extra work, can’t get him out of the weight room. He’s the guy that’s taking care of his body. He is really becoming a mature soul. Then you take that big body with that talent and the discipline that he has and you put it on the field, and man it pays dividends.”
Tufele had the body from the moment he walked on campus. But to play as one of two down linemen on USC’s defense means you have to be disciplined and do much more each play than pursue the football. The coaches decided to redshirt him, which was humbling for the highlytouted player. After taking a year to get better, he appreciated Helton’s praise.
“I’m really grateful for Coach Helton saying that,” Tufele said, “but I still know that I have a long way to go.”
Tufele's progress represents something greater to Helton about the state of his program in Year Three.
"Our youth is finally showing up," Helton said. "We have a true two, two-and-a-half deep right now that's pretty dang solid."