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Clay Helton says USC would need four weeks to ramp up before fall camp

USC football coach Clay Helton speaks at a news conference in November 2019.
USC football coach Clay Helton, shown in November, suggested Friday that his team would probably need a “minimum of four weeks” of ramp-up before safely proceeding with camp in the fall.
(Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

With college sports shuttered, his Trojans stuck in isolation and the status of next football season in flux because of COVID-19, Clay Helton is trying to focus on the silver linings.

Late-afternoon walks with his wife, Angela. Extra time with their three kids. Beautiful sunsets from his balcony. The work of teachers everywhere. The wonders of the Zoom app.

“Everything has a silver lining,” the USC coach said.

The panic over the upcoming season remains pervasive, as hard decisions on how to proceed post-pandemic approach in the coming months.

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Pac-12 Conference Commissioner Larry Scott said this week he hoped decisions on the season’s start date might be made by May 31, when the conference’s suspension of team activities is scheduled to expire.

L.A. Times Rams beat reporter Gary Klein recalls covering the 2005 BCS national championship game between USC and Texas, which is considered one of the greatest games ever played.

Helton wouldn’t speculate on the future of the season when reached by phone Friday. But while he considered what a return to college football normalcy might require, Helton did suggest that his team would probably need a “minimum of four weeks” of ramp-up before safely proceeding with camp in the fall.

That ramp-up period, Helton said, has been a point of discussion on recent conference calls with Pac-12 coaches. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly suggested a similar timeline with reporters this week, while Scott mentioned the possibility of a “longer-than-normal” training camp “to somehow accommodate for the fact that we’ve missed spring.”

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Not all coaches have requested the same level of caution. Washington coach Jimmy Lake, who was hired this offseason, told reporters that he believed “almost 30 days [of practice] would be good enough” on their own.

“There are a lot of new coaches, new coordinators coming in, even in our league,” Helton said. “We’re one of them. To be able to get [the players] in functional football shape as well as being able to physically put in those systems is crucial.”

No offseason training or practices will be allowed until USC re-opens its campus to students. With fall camp still slated for the start of August, staying on the current football schedule with a month of ramp-up would require campus to re-open by the start of July.

A memo from USC’s provost office Friday said that campus would not be open to students through at least the university’s first summer term, which ends June 30. A decision on the second summer term, which stretches from July 1 to Aug. 11, would be made late in April, the memo said.

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That decision could have a profound effect on USC’s football plans. If university leaders opt to keep campus closed to students for that second summer term, it’s unclear how any sports at USC would be able to proceed before Aug. 11.

USC is scheduled to open the season Sept. 5 against Alabama in Arlington, Texas.

In the meantime, Helton and his staff have tried to keep players engaged. Thanks to an NCAA decision this week, coaches are now allowed four hours of instruction per week, as opposed to two. Strength and conditioning coach Aaron Ausmus has also continued to film workouts and post them on a private Instagram feed for players.

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Ausmus explained on USC’s “Trojans Live radio” show that players will still need time to reacquaint themselves with a training regimen before being ready for football. Helton reiterated that necessity Friday, comparing the process to former USC cornerback Adoree’ Jackson’s re-acclimation to football after track season.

“We took the time to take a month to get Adoree’ in football shape, before we even thought about putting him in a situation where he could hurt himself,” Helton said. “I think this is going to be very similar.

“You’re going to end up having a situation, where … you come together, and you’re getting back in football shape as a team, as well as doing physical installations, probably like NFL OTA’s, and going through things without contact. Then you start physical training camp, when everyone is ready to put that type of pressure on the body.”

USC admission rates rose significantly for fall 2020 as the coronavirus outbreak deepens uncertainty over students’ college plans.
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When that might happen, Helton can’t begin to know.

“We’ll get back to it,” he said. “The game will open up at some time. But right now, let’s put priorities first.”

Until it does, Helton will have to settle for coaching his own kids on their schoolwork. Unlike with his players, that patience is quickly wearing thin.

“The kids are over-coached right now,” he said, with a laugh. “I know they’re already sick of me.”


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