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USC’s Clay Helton remains hopeful about college football restarting this year

USC coach Clay Helton watches his players during warmups before playing against Stanford.
USC coach Clay Helton is trying to stay optimistic about the challenges the Pac-12 and college football faces in playing games amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

For an embattled coach, at the start of a make-or-break campaign, there was no better — and perhaps more brutal — measuring stick. One way or the other, a marquee, opening-weekend meeting with Alabama at AT&T Stadium in Texas would have set the tone for whatever was to come for USC and Clay Helton this season.

Perhaps it would have served as a springboard, launching the Trojans into Pac-12 title contention. Or maybe it would have been a wake-up call, vindicating every lingering doubt about the program’s direction.

Instead, amid the reality that is college football in 2020, there will be no matchup Saturday of dueling powerhouses. For USC, there may be no fall football at all.

The week college football was meant to kick off in earnest, pre- pandemic, workouts remain on hold at USC because of positive cases of COVID-19. On a Thursday night he otherwise would have finalized his plans for Alabama, Helton was at home watching South Alabama upset Southern Mississippi, soaking in what little college football he could find.

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Still, he’d prefer not to linger on what might have been or dwell on the Pac-12’s decision to delay. He has “mixed emotions” about the weekend, he says, but he’s put Alabama out of his mind. He has told his players to do the same.

“I’ve always been one that lives in the moment,” Helton said. “I’m focused on the priority of getting our team ready for the next opportunity.”

The Pac-12 Conference has had preliminary discussions about potentially holding a six- or eight-game college football season that would start in January.

Still, it’s impossible not to wonder how a standard fall season might have altered the path of the program — and, namely, the fate of Helton, who would have been coaching for his job in 2020, if there had been games to coach. That could still be the case in the coming months if the Pac-12 returns for some form of a season; though, a seven-figure loss within the athletic department could make paying Helton’s reported $20-million buyout and finding a new, worthy coach financially untenable.

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All of that could be unnecessary, of course, if changes made over the offseason have their intended impact. A revamped coaching staff and rebuilt defense under new coordinator Todd Orlando were supposed to debut against Alabama. Optimism abounds for both; though, even Helton has yet to see his new, full defense in action.

With public health officials still limiting gatherings in Los Angeles, USC has instead spent most of the past month since postponement on fundamentals. Before workouts were put on pause, players spent five of 12 allotted weekly hours working solely on technique.

“I’ll tell you, the two weeks we’ve had of that, it’s been a joy,” Helton said. “It took us back to the grassroots of football. Six to 12 kids out there at a time, you’re literally going back to the basics, fundamentals, techniques, it was awesome.”

That work was abruptly shut down on Aug. 26. Shortly after the decision was made, Helton called a team meeting to discuss it. He tried to keep a positive tone.

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“In this arena we’re in, those kids went 50 days of having no positive tests, being able to train in a safe environment, really having a great discipline about themselves to be able to allow us to do what we love,” Helton said. “At some point in time, it was inevitable that there would be positive cases. It’s how you react to those positive cases.”

He still has hope for a season. A major breakthrough in testing, which will allow for daily, rapid tests within the conference, could make a rescheduled season possible sooner than Jan. 1.

Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott says a new partnership will allow coronavirus testing results in 15 minutes, but will that mean football before Jan. 1?

But Helton doesn’t want to get ahead of himself. USC still doesn’t have clearance to fully practice. Community spread is still a problem in the Pac-12 footprint. And the conference still doesn’t know the potential cardiac impact of the virus on athletes.

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“It’s always great to have hope, but it’s important to be a realist,” Helton said. “We have more steps to go. But when they’re ready, we’ll be ready.”

USC will re-evaluate on Tuesday if it’s ready to return to workouts, after two full rounds of testing.

On the Saturday his team was otherwise set to clash with Alabama, Helton said he would be duct-taped to his cellphone, calling 2022 recruits, with whom contact was just allowed by the NCAA.

It’s not exactly the way he envisioned his Labor Day weekend.


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