Sometime soon, Clay Helton might be singing a different tune.
But Thursday, the USC football coach only chirped the praises of new Trojans athletic director Mike Bohn — the man who, having been formally introduced by the school earlier in the day, will soon decide the fate of Helton’s faltering tenure.
“What an exciting time for our university today,” Helton said, opting for an optimistic message during his Thursday evening news conference. “I think [USC President] Dr. [Carol L.] Folt has done a wonderful job across our university in hiring quality people in her transition. Today was no different.”
Helton spent plenty of time around Bohn after the athletic director was introduced Thursday. The coach said Bohn met with all 21 of the school’s head coaches, visited with the football team, and came to Helton’s office to visit individually with the fifth-year coach.
Helton used the words “awesome,” “positive,” and “exciting” to describe their initial interactions, ignoring the wide speculation that the hiring of Bohn is a possible precursor to his firing at the end of the season.
“To see [Bohn’s] energy and his positivity hitting the ground running today was awesome,” Helton said. “I just really appreciated him. To take the time on this day to sit down with all 21 coaches, to sit down with me personally, to take the time to visit with our team, that’s big-time. That’s hitting the ground running and touching the people that matter.”
After winning 21 games during Helton’s first two full years, the Trojans have won only 10 of 21 since.
After trips to the Rose Bowl and Cotton Bowl, USC missed the postseason last year and could be headed toward a mid-tier bowl game this campaign. The Trojans are 5-4 overall and 4-2 in the Pac-12 entering a Saturday game at Arizona State.
Thus, the biggest question surrounding Bohn’s arrival might not be whether Helton goes, but whom the new athletic director would pick as his replacement.
Helton tried to spin away from such skepticism, insisting he heard nothing but support from the longtime collegiate administrator USC poached from Cincinnati.
“We just got to know each other a little bit,” Helton said. “He said, ‘Man, I’m rooting for you. I’m cheering for you. I’m cheering for this team. I’ve been watching you all, and what you’ve done through injuries and things like that.’
“He said, ‘I thought you put it best on Saturday: Just keep fighting and keep going out there and trying to get wins for these kids.’ ”
Whether there is any number of wins that would save Helton’s job remains unclear. Helton has long been on the hot seat. Bohn is in a position now to fire him.
Still, Helton extolled the virtues of his new boss.
“I’ve been thoroughly impressed,” Helton said. “I’m really excited for our university and the future that it holds with him at the helm.”
Helton said freshman defensive lineman Drake Jackson and sophomore safety Talanoa Hufanga, who both sat out the last two games with injuries, practiced all week and he expects “to get something” out of each against Arizona State on Saturday. Jackson has been battling an ankle sprain, while Hufanga was dealing with a shoulder ailment.
Junior running back Stephen Carr will be a “game-time decision,” Helton said. “I think it’s 50-50 at best. Maybe one more week away. We’ll see.”
Helton indicated that freshman Kaulana Makaula is likely to start at nickel back this week, with freshmen Adonis Otey and Chase Williams also options at the position.
Outside linebacker Hunter Echols will have season-ending shoulder surgery. “He’s had it for a little bit,” Helton said. “It’s gotten to the point where it hurts enough where he doesn’t feel productive, doesn’t feel confident.”