Last January, as he sat down for the first time with the man he hoped might reinvent USC’s offense, Clay Helton wanted there to be no confusion about who would call its plays.
Recent history had given reason to wonder. Last season, Helton stripped his previous offensive coordinator, Tee Martin, of play-calling duties midseason, then fired him a month later.
So, as he sat down with Graham Harrell for the first time, Helton assured the North Texas offensive coordinator that he wouldn’t cross that line with him at USC.
For Harrell, it was an important line to draw.
“He made it clear that he would let me call it,” Harrell said on Monday. “I think if you ever want any kind of rhythm, he’s got to let you do that. That was clear. During the week, he sits in and he watches and he helps with the game plan and stuff like that. He’s a great asset to have. He’s coached offensive football for a long time. But when it comes to game day, he lets us do our thing.”
That remained the case in Provo, Utah, last Saturday, as USC’s offense sputtered in a loss to Brigham Young, leading the most paranoid among USC’s fan base to wonder if Harrell was indeed still calling the shots.
But on Monday, Harrell laughed off any suggestion otherwise. When asked if he’d change any plays he called on Saturday, he smiled and shook his head.
“Nah,” he said. “I liked them all. That’s why I called them.”
Not all of them worked as Harrell planned, even as USC put up 452 yards. But it’s that unfettered belief in himself and his offense that made Helton confident in Harrell in the first place.
That was clear to Helton after just one meeting with the 34-year-old former quarterback, and it’s still clear now, even as USC’s offense has looked uneven through Harrell’s first three games.
“He’s a pretty confident dude,” Helton said. “He believes in this system, and that’s what really made me fall in love with it. Not only the system, but his confidence in it.”
At North Texas, where he spent three seasons calling plays, Harrell had every reason to leave confident. In his final two seasons as coordinator, Harrell’s offense ranked in the top-25 nationally in both scoring offense and total offense.
But in his inaugural season, there were lessons for Harrell to learn as a play-caller. The most important of them being that his quarterback’s confidence in the play calls mattered more than his own.
“As you go, you’re always learning, always evolving,” Harrell said, “but I think that was the biggest lesson I learned calling plays. [You have to] figure out what that quarterback executes at a high level. What does he feel comfortable with? What does he see well? And if you call those plays, usually they work.”
On Saturday, as freshman Kedon Slovis threw two first-quarter interceptions, Harrell tried what he could to get his quarterback comfortable again. He chose to lean more on the run game than usual, even as BYU held the Trojans to 3.8 yards per carry.
On USC’s first possession of overtime, Harrell dialed up two straight runs for leading rusher Vavae Malepeai. In hindsight, after Slovis threw his third pick on the next play, the decision was questioned. But Harrell defended the choice on Monday, reiterating that it was his alone.
“I just call what I feel to be honest with you,” Harrell said. “There was never a discussion about it.”
Discussion over USC’s play-calling likely will drag into Friday’s crucial showdown with No. 10 Utah. But as far as Helton is concerned, there’s no doubt in his offensive coordinator or his play-calling duties.
“He’s doing a terrific job,” Helton said. “He’s putting our kids in position to win ballgames. We just lost a close one in overtime, but I thought he put us in position to win the game. I’ve been thoroughly impressed with him.”
Following two offseason transfers and nearly three months of constant fevers from an illness a multitude of doctors was unable to diagnose, USC freshman wideout Bru McCoy finally was able to participate in practice on Monday.
McCoy was still limited. He took part in warm-ups, caught some passes at half-speed, and even ran with the team during strength and conditioning.
But while his fevers have begun to break, progress remains slow. It may still be awhile before the touted Santa Ana Mater Dei receiver is able to fully participate.
There’s also still the matter of his eligibility waiver, on which the NCAA has still yet to rule.
“It’s good to get him back and just get him started again,” Helton said. “He’s a long way off from being where you need to be, but it’s so good to see him healthy, see him smiling.”
Defensive end Christian Rector (ankle) returned to practice on Monday and is expected to be available for Friday’s game against Utah. … Nickel corner Greg Johnson, who left Saturday’s game, remains in the concussion protocol and was not at practice on Monday. … Reserve guard Andrew Vorhees, who has rotated periodically with Jalen McKenzie, is out “indefinitely” with a foot injury, Helton said.