What Does Clay Helton Bring to the USC Offense?


On Saturday afternoon following a mock game at the Coliseum, USC football coach Steve Sarkisian did what his predecessor Lane Kiffin couldn’t do. He announced that he was handing over the play sheet to Clay Helton, who already held the title of offensive coordinator.

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Now, that title is official. And now, per Sark’s own admission, he can focus on the duties being a head football coach and not just a glorified offensive coordinator tasked with talking to the media on a daily basis.

That should be good for everyone, especially USC’s offense.

After Kiffin was fired five games into the 2013 season, Helton assumed the full offensive coordinator duties under interim head coach Ed Orgeron and turned around an inconsistent offense.

Though he’s not Kiffin or Sarkisian, Helton gives the Trojans what they couldn’t as play calling head coaches.

USC went 7-2 in their final nine games, while finding solid production from sophomores Cody Kessler, Nelson Agholor and Buck Allen.

All of whom were question marks under Kiffin at the beginning of the year, but thrived in Helton’s game plans when trusted to perform.

What does Helton’s appointment as the play caller do for USC’s offense two years later?

For starters, he in theory should bring much more balance. In his nine games at USC as an acting offensive coordinator, his play selections were divided up as 55 percent run and 45 percent pass.

That’s a stark contrast to the 2-to-1 running game that Kiffin deployed early in 2013, and a near 50/50 split that Sarkisian toyed with at times in 2014, despite claiming to have a run-first offense.

Yards per play during the 2013 and 2014 seasons, sorted by offensive coordinators.

In looking at per play yardage breakdowns, Helton gives the Trojans the best of both worlds.

With him calling plays, USC’s running game has been as potent as it was under Kiffin, while the passing game has been as efficient as it was under Sarkisian.

Getting the most out of the running and passing game is key for the Trojans, who for years have struggled to put both together on the same day.

Since Kiffin was fired, the Trojans have simultaneously had 200 passing yards and 200 rushing yards just nine times. Helton was the play caller for five of those, including topping the 240-yard mark in both three times, which Sarkisian hasn’t done.

But the data isn’t the be all and end all, given that USC not only has a veteran quarterback now, but run a different offense than they did in 2013.

The Trojans were one of the slowest teams in the nation back then, averaging just 66 plays per game. And yet Helton still was able to have games like a win over Cal in 2013 when USC had 256 yards rushing and 243 yards passing on just 51 plays.

In 2014 with Sarkisian’s newly installed spread/pro-style hybrid offense, the Trojans started working much faster, averaging 75.6 plays per game.

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So it’s last year’s Notre Dame game that USC will hope serves as an indication of how good the Trojans can be with Helton calling plays.

Sarkisian relinquished the offense to him following the blowout at UCLA, and lo and behold the offense exploded for a seven-touchdown shellacking of the Fighting Irish.

Yes, Notre Dame had a bevy of injuries on defense and was in a November tailspin. But it was the efficiency and balance in how the Trojans moved the ball that made it the ideal showing for the full potential of the offense.

USC finally re-committed to an up-tempo pace and ran 93 plays. They were nails on third downs, converting a season-high 13 times on 18 tries for an astounding 72 percent conversion rate.

Mar 3, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans offensive coordinator Clay Helton at spring practice at Cromwell Field. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Kessler had the best game of his career, while averaging a healthy 9.3 yards per pass attempt with a more vertical passing attack.

And on the ground, the Trojans topped the 200 yard mark, as both Buck Allen and Justin Davis carried the ball 19 times, gaining 93 and 81 yards, respectively.

Efficiency and balance. That’s where Helton excels.

There wasn’t one running back favored over the other, leaving the lesser-used man rusty on the sidelines.

Nor was there a blatant funneling of targets to the No. 1 receiver, as nine different players caught passes.

It was quintessentially what Sarkisian has said he wants to do all along, but was unable to himself as a head coach having to manage calling plays on top of all of his other duties.

READ ALSO: USC’s hurry-up no-huddle offense is key to Cody Kessler’s success in 2015

The gross numbers might not reach those of the Notre Dame game on a weekly basis. Though with Sarkisian not tasked with exclusively running the offense, they will be in the position to put up those numbers more often.

It all comes down to how much trust Sarkisian can put in Helton.

He said he’ll still be involved on third downs and in the red zone, a situation that David Shaw has crafted for himself at Stanford. The jury is still out on how well that is working.

The Cardinal saw their third down conversion rate drop eight percentage points last year. More alarmingly, they were dead last in the Pac-12 in red zone efficiency, just one year removed from a 90 percent red zone scoring rate.

Sark was self-aware enough to give Helton the reigns. He needs to be self-aware enough to manage that delegation as efficiently as Helton will manage the offense.

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