After four years as the USC wide receivers coach, Tee Martin is ready for the challenge that being an offensive coordinator brings.
Martin was the first appointment from newly named full-time head coach Clay Helton, and just as much of an internal promotion.
While both were worthy of opportunities to take their next step forward as coaches, USC having a first-time head coach overseeing a first-time offensive coordinator makes for an interesting, albeit somewhat precarious situation. Though there are some advantages.
“I really wanted the best for our team,” Helton said. “Obviously, you look at everybody that’s out there and you evaluate within your own staff. At the end of the day, what I was looking for was a dynamic coach that could lead an offense and believed in what I believe in. A guy that could be on the same page.”
The chemistry and continuity was a big check in pro column for Martin, especially given Helton’s stylistic plans for the Trojans. He’s stressed a physical and aggressive mode of attack, rooted in establishing a power run game.
“It would be crazy for us to try to drastically change something that’s really good already.”-Tee Martin
How that gets deployed is ultimately the question that the two will have to figure out, Martin especially.
Neither has had the ability to craft or install their own playbook since coming to USC, leaving doubt as to whether or not the Trojans would run the same offense going forward.
For now though, expect much of the same.
“We’re going to do what we do,” Martin said. “It would be crazy for us to try to drastically change something that’s really good already.”
Minimal change was always the likely scenario given the personnel that the Trojans have and continue to recruit. A wealth of fullbacks and tight ends aren’t going to magically appear on the roster overnight.
But while it’s certain that USC has the talent to be one of the nation’s best offenses, the fact remains that for much of the four years that Helton and Martin have worked together on staff, the offense has lacked consistency and ultimately underachieved.
Nov 21, 2015; Eugene, OR, USA; USC Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler (6) throws an incomplete pass to USC Trojans wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (9) against the Oregon Ducks at Autzen Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports
That was the most evident over the final eight games in 2015 with Helton running the show, as there wasn’t anything remotely special or ‘really good’ about the offense.
Timely turnovers, along with both stellar and awful defensive performances overshadowed their ineffectiveness. They averaged only 26.8 offensive points per game and scored touchdowns on 29.7 percent of drives, down from 39.3 percent to start the year.
Much was made of the renewed commitment and success of the running game, yet they averaged just 4.22 yards per carry under Helton.
Then there was the baffling nature of the passing game. After the best form of his career to start the season, Cody Kessler and his Heisman campaign crashed and burned after Sarkisian was fired.
His 140.0 passer rating in the final eight games of the season was the lowest extended stretch since the first eight games of his career, when he registered a 135.7 mark.
Put it all together and the task of turning around the offense’s fate is a monumental task for a first-time offensive coordinator, who’s already played a big part in the mechanics.
Oct 11, 2014; Tucson, AZ, USA; Southern California Trojans receivers coach Tee Martin against the Arizona Wildcats at Arizona Stadium. The Trojans defeated the Wildcats 28-26. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
“We’ve always made decisions together as an offensive staff,” Martin said. “Even though it may not have been my responsibility, I was always sitting in there and helping make those decisions.”
From input on play calling to game planning, along with implemented packages appropriated from prior coaching stops at New Mexico and Kentucky, Martin stressed over the weekend that he’s given a lot to the USC offense since being hired in 2012.
So how does one go about correcting problem areas without wanting to make wholesale changes to the scheme?
Perhaps rationalizing it as sticking to what works is a subconscious nod to the fact that Helton has already addressed one major aspect of the offensive struggles.
After a season in which USC ranked 102nd nationally in sacks allowed, offensive line coach Bob Connelly was fired.
That raises yet another question: Can it be as simple as finding a successful offensive line coach to foster successful offensive line play, which would in turn allow the Trojan offense to play at their full potential while committing to the same scheme?
If you’re Martin, you’d like to say yes.
USC returns just about everybody on offense, with the exception of arguably the two most replaceable players: game manager Cody Kessler and oft-injured tailback Tre Madden.
Sprinkle in high-ceiling gunslinger Max Browne, Biletnikoff front-runner JuJu Smith-Schuster, uber-talented backs Justin Davis and Ronald Jones, a whopping nine returning starters on the offensive line and the Trojans can be scary good.
That’s if it works as it should. And again, in Helton and Martin’s time on campus it often hasn’t, which means the first task of their partnership is to prove that it can overcome the failures of their previous bosses, with them now calling the shots.
The last eight games of 2015 weren’t an indication of a fix, putting a magnifying glass on Martin’s first offseason as offensive coordinator.
“I really like the continuity going into spring ball with the guys that have a part of this system,” Martin said. “Moving forward, yeah, we’ll do some new things. We’ll add some wrinkles here and there. We’ll explore that in the spring as we start game planning for our first game.”
That first game is against perennial superpower Alabama, further stressing the need for wrinkles to help get USC over the hump, along with hauling in a successful line coach.
“We’re going to take our time getting the right guy for the offensive line position,” Martin said. “He’ll have his ideas. He’ll have his input.”
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The Trojans aren’t confined to rushing to make their hire. The recruiting dead period is in effect until January 14th, which allows for waiting until both the bowl and NFL seasons end, if they should so choose.
Though one thing is clear. USC will have to go outside, unlike they’ve done so far this offseason, as there isn’t a potential superstar waiting in the wings.
Tee Martin, despite his relative inexperience as an offensive coordinator, has long been seen as a guy destined to climb the coaching ranks. Known as a heralded recruiter for years now, this is his chance to make an even more significant impact.
“He’s the next big thing in college football,” Helton said. “I think we’ve won the lottery having a guy like that.”