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Donte Williams focuses USC football on Washington State among the madness of the week

USC interim head coach Donte Williams conducts practice Wednesday afternoon.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Since the moment he was pulled aside Monday afternoon and unexpectedly handed the reins of one of college football’s preeminent programs, Donte Williams has been caught in a whirlwind. While learning the language of USC’s offense, correcting “dumb mistakes” on defense, coaching his usual cornerbacks, reassuring the staff, and, of course, that small matter of keeping USC’s locker room together through an emotionally taxing transition, the Trojans’ interim coach hasn’t found much time for sleep.

“It’s almost like I go home and just basically take a shower and close my eyes and I’m right back at work,” Williams joked on Thursday morning.

Williams, who’s the first Black head football coach in USC history, will lead the Trojans into hostile territory against Washington State on Saturday with no head coaching experience at any level. But the cornerbacks coach and ace recruiter received a crash course the last few days, from his fellow USC assistants and from hours upon hours of film.

To prepare for his coaching debut, Williams sifted through games from past seasons and tried to put himself in Helton’s place.

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“I try to look at certain scenarios and go as fast as I possibly can, right there in the heat of the moment. How can I make the call?” Williams said. “It’s one thing to do it when you’re fresh, and it’s noon. I try to do those things as early as possible in the morning, when I’m still a little tired, or as late as possible at night. It puts me and my brain in a stressful state, and I’m able to make those decisions no different than all of a sudden you have Washington State, all the fans going crazy. I try to put myself in the most stressful situations possible and take it from there.”

It’s hard to imagine more stressful circumstances than the ones Williams walked into this week. Helton’s firing has far-reaching implications from the players to the staff, some of whom were deeply hurt by Monday’s decision. Recruiting requires major attention in the aftermath. On top of that, there are the numerous issues that emerged from last week’s embarrassing loss to Stanford.

And now, just five days after the head coach was fired, Washington State awaits. The Cougars’ sole win this season is over Portland State, an FCS school. But Washington State has two quality running backs in Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh, each averaging over 5.5 yards per carry. USC has yet to play on the road this season. Nor has it played in the rain, which is currently in the forecast.

The circumstances are certainly ripe for a letdown.

Williams has tried everything he can this week to avoid that kind of outcome. He preached accountability. He kept players in full pads Wednesday, when they often wore shorts under Helton. Defensive line coach Vic So’oto said he thought the practices felt more upbeat this week, too.

“I don’t know if it’s because of the news and everybody getting tighter, but we’ve been running around, having fun,” So’oto said. “It’s business as usual.”

But until Saturday, it’s hard to know for sure how smoothly the transition has gone for USC.

Players have done their best to compartmentalize Monday’s news. Coaches, too. Asked this week if it was difficult to not worry about his own future, which is now in question with Helton gone, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando shook his head.

USC fired Clay Helton and named Donte Williams its interim football coach Monday, making him the first Black coach in school history.

“It’s just having pride,” Orlando said. “That’s the biggest thing from our standpoint. We can do the best work in the country, there’s no doubt about it. That motivates me every day. I’ve been raised to go through tough situations. You just press forward. As bad as you want to mess with your head and there will be times where it is — it’s over, it’s squashed and you can’t get it back. Let’s deal in the moment.”

The moment is one Donte Williams never would’ve expected when this week started. But now that he’s here, USC’s interim coach is confident he can help salvage this season.

“You have to embrace when everything is against you, when the chips are stacked against you,” Williams said. “Right now, this team embraces that, and I think we’re going to show the world on Saturday what we’re all about.”


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