USC Football: Clay Helton explains defense-heavy captains vote

Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy
Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy /

USC head coach Clay Helton explained the Trojans’ decision to elect three defensive players as team captains for the 2017 season.

When the 2017 USC Football team was tasked with voting for their team captains, they were instructed to pick two representatives on offense and two on defense.

Normally, the vote goes forward as expected, but this year something different happened. Three of the four biggest vote getters came from the defensive side of the ball, with Uchenna Nwosu, Cameron Smith and Chris Hawkins joining Sam Darnold.

“It was so amazing the votes that came in for those men,” Helton said. “It was so much larger than everybody else and it just speaks volumes for what they’ve done in the offseason and what they’ve done on this football team for multiple years.”

This isn’t the first time three defenders have been chosen as team captains. The 2015 team voted in five captains, including Su’a Cravens, Anthony Sarao and Antwaun Woods from the defense. In 2010, Michael Morgan, Malcolm Smith and Shareece Wright wore the C on their jerseys. However, those defenders were balanced out by two offensive captains — Cody Kessler and Nelson Agholor in 2015 and Matt Barkley and Stanley Havili in 2010.

In 2017, Darnold will stand as USC’s lone offensive captain for the first time since Matt Leinart in 2004.

Of course, Darnold won’t be the only leader on the offensive side of the ball. A leadership council set up by Helton this offseason includes senior right guard Viane Talamaivao, receiver Deontay Burnett and tight end Daniel Imatorbhebhe.

SEE MORE: USC’s New Leadership for 2017 Takes Shape

With that support system around him, Helton believes Darnold has the right mentality to handle the captaincy.

“With Sam, it’s his poise, his demeanor, how he handles himself day in and day out on a consistent basis,” Helton said.

More than anything, the captain’s vote puts into sharp perspective just how much of a role defense will play in the Trojans’ fate this season, even though the spotlight has often focused on Darnold and the offense..

With team leaders at every level of the defense, that side of the ball is not short on characters.

Helton has raved about Nwosu’s “lion” mentality leading the defense at strongside linebacker. On Tuesday, he called him “the rock of our defensive front.”

In the middle, junior linebacker Cameron Smith was a no-brainer for the honor of the captaincy.

“The way he’s played and conducted himself, I think speaks volumes,” Helton said.

More from Reign of Troy

And if there was any skepticism about Hawkins as a captain, Helton answered it unequivocally.

“I think of Chris Hawkins as a guy that was unselfish last year splitting time with Marvell [Tell] in that defense,” Helton said. “[He’s] a graduate of this institution. I don’t know of anybody that worked harder in the offseason than Chris.”

Hawkins is often cited by younger Trojan defensive backs as the player who took responsibility for guiding them. Helton credited the safety for leading the newest batch of players in the secondary this summer.

Together, those three loom as massive figures in the defensive line up. If the offense will go as Darnold goes, then the defense will be steered by Hawkins, Nwosu and Smith.

CHECK OUT: USC’s Defense Should Only Get Better in Year 2

“I couldn’t think of four better guys and it was obvious to the team based on the votes,” said Helton.