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USC football practice notes: Helton explains playcalling takeover (10/30)

Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy
Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy
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USC football head coach Clay Helton explained his decision to take over playcalling duties as the Trojans opened preparations for Oregon State on Tuesday.

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Clay Helton has had an itch that he finally opted to scratch this week. The head coach announced on Monday that he has taken over playcalling duties for offensive coordinator Tee Martin. Tuesday was a chance to go into further detail on that decision.

“The playcalling is something I’ve been itching to do, to get back more involved with the offense and I felt it was an appropriate time,” Helton said.

Careful to heap praise on Martin for the job he’s done thus far (“He helped win a Rose Bowl and Pac-12 title”), Helton framed the decision around his own capabilities and desires.

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“When I first took the job I knew how big the job was at USC. I wanted to be able to get comfortable in my own skin as a head coach,” he said. “Now being third year in, I know the groundwork, I know where everything lays and feel extremely comfortable to be able to lead an offense as well as a team. It’s something that I’ve wanted to do.”

Helton hopes to make this change permanent, taking the next four games to make sure he can manage both his head coaching responsibilities and playcalling.

“I truly believe I can,” he said. “But I’ll always do what’s best for the team.”

Playcalling wasn’t the only big change announced on Monday. Helton also relieved offensive line coach Neil Callaway of his duties, axing his assistant of three years and family friend of decades.

“[It was] probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do because he’s like family to me,” said Helton. “He’s a great coach, he’s a great man, somebody that I love dearly and it was a very hard day.”

Monday was also an odd day in light of Helton’s comments on Sunday night during his weekly media conference call. At the time, he told reporters that he would wait until after the season to evaluate any staff changes. Less than 24 hours later he announced not one, but two shifts.

Helton explained that while he had been considering changes, he did not know for sure he would go through with them until Monday morning.

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“I had a very sleepless night Sunday thinking through things,” he said. “I didn’t want to rush into an emotional decision. I wanted to make sure that everything was exactly right and it was the right time.”

On Monday, Helton met with athletic director Lynn Swann as he does every week. He said he told Swann what direction he was going to go and once he received support from his boss, he moved ahead with alerting his two assistants of his decisions.

Notes and tidbits

  • Why now?… Helton opted to out Callaway now instead of at the end of the season. Why not stick it out? Once he made the decision, the head coach didn’t want to leave Callway in limbo. “I just couldn’t look coach in the eye for four weeks and allow him to work and know that change was coming. I didn’t think that was respectful to him,” said Helton.
  • Who called plays?… One of the great debates around USC’s coaching staff under Helton has been the question of who has actually called plays. Rumors of Helton and his brother Tyson, the Trojans former quarterbacks coach, overriding Martin’s calls have run rampant since he was tapped to call plays in 2016. Asked point blank about playcalling logistics, Helton said Martin has called “the majority” of plays with the head coach contributing three to four specialty calls per game, usually downfield shots, trick plays or redzone calls. He said Tyson Helton would offer “suggestions” on third down.
  • Safety solutions… Safety Marvell Tell was back practicing for the Trojans after missing the Colorado game but USC was still down another defensive back thanks to Talanoa Hufanga’s broken collar bone. Ajene Harris stepped in for Tell on Saturday and it seems he will continue to be the solution to the safety depth problem.
  • No QB controversy… JT Daniels was cleared from concussion protocol in time for Tuesday’s practice and returned to take first team reps ahead of Jack Sears.
  • WRs filling in… With USC’s depth at defensive back in dire straits, wide receivers Michael Pittman and Trevon Sidney stepped in to take late reps for the scout team defense at cornerback.
  • Playing in Corvallis… The Trojans will travel to Corvallis shortly after Halloween, a fitting time to return to the scene of many past nightmares. “It should be a great test for us, going to Corvallis,” Helton said. “It is always a hard place to play. The fans are very proud of their football there. It’s a loud place, hostile place.”
  • Bad weather?… The forecast for Corvallis on Saturday includes high chance of rain, so USC is getting ready for the elements early. They practice quarterback-center exchanges, quarterback-running back handoffs and receiving with wet footballs throughout the day.
  • Oregon State’s comeback… Helton praised the Beavers for their impressive comeback to beat Colorado in overtime last weekend. Down 31-3 after the second half kickoff was returned for a touchdown, Oregon State made a quarterback change, installing senior Jake Luton behind center. His introduction, and three touchdown passes, sparked the comeback which saw the Beavers win 41-34.
  • Offensive standouts… Local Narbonne-product Jermar Jefferson already has 1,000 yards at running back during his “terrific freshman season,” Helton said. He also credited leading receivers Isaiah Hodgins, Timmy Hernandez and Trevon Bradford for their playmaking ont he outside: “I thought they really paved the way making plays for Jake [Luton] in that second half.”
  • Defensive standouts… The Beaver defense was able to hold Colorado’s electric offensive in check, Helton said. He singled out safety Jalen Moore and linebacker Shemar Smith for their “unbelievable nose for the ball.”
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