With USC football struggling and corners of Trojan fanbase calling for a change at the top, Clay Helton spent much of Tuesday addressing his job security.
How much longer will Clay Helton be the head coach of USC football? It’s a question that has been on the mind as the Trojans enter rivalry week with UCLA with a disappointing 5-5 record and bowl eligibility still undetermined.
It’s also been an unavoidable topic of discussion for USC’s players and coaches, between media asking questions and fans voicing opinions on social media.
Helton himself addressed it with the team to start the week. The swarm of speculation around his job security does not bother the head coach, but he knows the players have heard it and want to know where their head coach stands. It’s the responsibility of a leader to provide the calm, he explained.
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“I let the boys understand that my plan is to be here a long time,” Helton said after practice on Tuesday. “Like I told them, my plan is to be there for another 15 years. I’d like to do it until I’m 60 right here. That’s my plan. Know this, I’m not going anywhere.”
It may be Helton’s plan to remain at the helm of the program, but the plan that matters is that of athletic director Lynn Swann, who was on hand for Tuesday’s practice.
According to Helton, the AD has his back.
“Lynn, every Monday, walks in my office and has given me nothing but, ‘Coach we’re in this for the long haul. We’re going to get this thing done.'” said Helton. “That’s what I have felt from Day 1. It’s what I felt after the Cal game also. I know that in my heart I’m going to be here.”
Helton pointed to the example of Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, whose Irish fell to 4-8 in 2016. The coach and program bounced back and are now competing for a playoff berth.
“That’s my plan also,” he said.
Swann may be behind him, but the more vocal majorities of USC’s fanbase are skeptical. Helton insists it doesn’t bother him.
“College coaches get to go out there, win games and raise kids. The media gets to report and give their opinion. And the fanbase gets to show their passion,” Helton said. “Some of it’s great passion and some of it’s passion that’s frustration. That’s what makes our game great. It’s a passionate football game. But we all have jobs. I’m going to my job. Y’all do your job. And the fans will bring that passion. That’s what makes college football so good.”
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Asked if there is any concern about losing the fanbase, Helton laid out his priorities.
“The people that I want to make sure love me at the end of the day are God, my wife and these kids that are behind me in this locker room,” he said. “The fans, when you do your job obviously, they will always support you. And I’ve had a ton of support.”
Support in the fanbase may be sinking, but Helton can undoubtedly claim the belief of his players. After practice, Trojans from Tyler Petite to Michael Pittman gave the head coach their vote of confidence.
Quarterback JT Daniels turned the attention away from the coaches and onto himself and his teammates.
“If every player on this team was executing their job and we weren’t winning, I would say ‘yeah there is a coaching problem.’ That’s not happening,” Daniels said. “Coach Helton isn’t the reason when I make the wrong decision or a player drops a pass or there’s a blown assignment. That’s not a coaching thing, it’s a player thing.”
With his athletic director and team still in his corner, Helton’s ultimate message on Tuesday was about quieting the noise and focusing on the coming challenges on the field.
“The only pressure I feel is to help a bunch of seniors and a bunch of kids go out and get the Victory Bell one more year,” he said.
Notes and tidbits
- Special rivalry… What makes the USC vs. UCLA rivalry so special? “It’s unique in the fact that you’ve got two great universities in the same city,” Helton said, comparing the rivalry to others nationally between cities and states. “We all live together so it makes it even a more spirited contest.”
- Bouncing back… As hard as it might be for a team to pick itself back up off the ground after a frustrating loss like USC’s this past weekend, Helton is happy to have the rivalry game provide a natural boost. “It’s not hard to get up for a USC-UCLA game.”
- From Week 1 to now… Despite their 2-8 record, Helton credited the Bruins with improving week to week on both sides of the ball. “There’s been several close contests and have just come out on the short end of the stick.”
- Offensive players to watch… Helton singled out quarterbacks Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who may remain out injured this week, and Wilton Speight, along with running back Joshua Kelley, wide receiver Theo Howard and tight end Caleb Wilson as Bruins who have stood out to him on tape.
- Lead horse… Kelley has been a key part of head coach Chip Kelly changing up some things schematically since the start of the season, introducing difference personnel packages from the tradition spread he ran at Oregon. “I think he knows that that’s his lead horse and he’s feeding him out of those heavy packages. So it’s a little bit different feel,” Helton said.
- Defensive players to watch… Helton called UCLA cornerback Darnay Holmes, “one of the premiere corners out there in the country right now,” while also noting the importance of Adarius Pickett, the Bruins’ physical, run-stopping safety.
- Out in three… Running back Markese Stepp may be called into action with USC’s depth at the position thinned by injury, but Trojan coaches have been hesitant to burn his redshirt. The freshman himself, who says he has played in three games and thus has one more game to play before his redshirt runs out, isn’t particularly concerned with holding onto his eligibility: “My plan is to get out in three years regardless.”