USC football’s issues under Clay Helton are well-documented and numerous. Which problems can be resolved as the team attempts to return to elite status?
From the outside looking in, the Clay Helton era at USC has been largely successful with the head coach claiming a Rose Bowl victory in 2016 and a Pac-12 title in 2017. However, if one digs inches past the surface, they discover a program rife with debilitating habits.
A day after the Trojans fell to Notre Dame 24-17 in a contest that featured many of the issues USC experienced throughout the season, athletic director Lynn Swann announced that Helton is returning to lead USC in 2019, much to the chagrin of the Trojan fan base.
Helton’s tenure prior to 2018 as USC’s head coach has been a rollercoaster ride for everyone with a rooting interest in the team. The program experienced the highs of watching Sam Darnold emerge as an elite quarterback in 2016 and the lows of seeing him struggle with turnovers after being anointed a Heisman front-runner prior to the 2017 season. There was the tremendous victory over Penn State to bring home USC’s first Rose Bowl victory since 2008 and embarrassing defeats at the hands of Alabama, Notre Dame in 2017, and Ohio State.
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When Darnold entered the draft following last season, everyone around the USC program had one simple question: Was Darnold masking USC’s fatal flaws for the past two seasons, or was Helton actually doing well to overcome his quarterback’s proclivity to turn the ball over?
Well, after 12 games, a 5-7 record, and an inordinate amount of mistakes from a talented USC roster, the jury is in, and Helton’s management of his organization is the problem.
So what are the primary issues with USC, and what can Clay Helton do to return USC to elite status?
Lack of Competition
A recent quote from Clay Helton sent shock waves through the USC fanbase when he proclaimed:
"I cannot wait to get [JT Daniels] to training camp. And Jack and Matt. I can’t wait to be able to work. You know, [JT’s] had one training camp where he had to compete with two other guys. He had one camp and it was a competition. He’s learned so much this year already. To be able to get him to a spring camp and another fall camp is just gonna be leaps and bounds to where he’s gonna be at."
This sounds like there will be no QB competition at all entering the 2019 season. It’s already JT’s job. Maybe a more optimistic person would simply believe Helton was singing Daniels’ praises, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.
So what do you do if you’re Jack Sears or Matt Fink? Maybe they are happy to go to practice and games to cheer on JT, and they look forward to getting their degrees and moving on in life. However, that’s not the type of player USC recruits. If either of these two wants the chance to compete for a starting role, they may be better off taking their abilities elsewhere.
One conspiracy-type thought is that Sears was relegated to third-string this season with the hopes that he never entered a game. The official excuse was that Sears did not know the offense as well as he should, however, it was clear from Fall Camp that he earned the backup QB role at a minimum (he was more athletic, higher completion percentage than Daniels by a significant margin). If Sears never played, the coaches’ choice to start Daniels would never have come under fire.
On top of that, there is the Toa Lobendahn saga. The embattled senior struggled with the accuracy of his snaps for the entire 2018 season, which forced Daniels to catch balls off the ground or elsewhere in nearly every game this season.
The issue came to a head against Cal during USC’s first drive of the second half. With USC up 14-0, Lobendahn snapped a ball well over Daniels’ head into the end zone, which Daniels eventually recovered for a safety. After the free kick from USC that left Cal on the 50-yard line, Vic Wharton III repeatedly torched freshman corner Olaijah Griffin to cap a three-play, 50-yard drive that left the Golden Bears down five.
USC went on to lose the game 15-14, and with the errant snap by Lobendahn the obvious momentum shifter. When asked about the snapping issue after the game, Helton had this to say:
"[Toa] is our best center. He is our best man at that position. It is something that has plagued us throughout the year…Toa is one of the loves of my life. He is our center."
The alarming part of that quote is the fact that Helton actually acknowledged that Lobendahn’s snaps plagued the offense throughout the season, yet he did nothing about it. As a coach, it is completely unacceptable to compromise the integrity of the team due to personally liking a player.
What is even more incredible is the fact that Lobendahn missed the first game of the season against UNLV, and backup center Brett Neilon performed well in that game. The straightforward fix was to move Lobendahn to guard (where he played earlier in his career at USC) in lieu of Andrew Vorhees (USC’s lowest-rated starting offensive lineman according to Pro Football Focus) and insert Brett Neilon at the center position to solidify the offensive line. But the change never occurred.
In the end, the lack of competition at USC breeds complacency. Players who know they won’t lose their starting job play worse because there aren’t any true consequences for poor performance or lack of discipline. In this day and age in which five-star recruits are treated like stars before stepping foot on campus, it’s too easy for them to become complacent if they don’t have to battle daily for their job. Cameron Smith said it best this week when he claimed the team spent the whole season without “a sense of urgency.”
“You don’t go 5-7 without a buy-in problem.”
Lack of Physicality
Another issue that Clay Helton’s regime is either unaware of or unsure how to resolve is a lack of physicality. Helton began his time with USC when Lane Kiffin was the head coach under NCAA sanctions, and that experience left a sizeable impression on him.
Due to the sanctions and USC’s reduced scholarship numbers, Kiffin was (rightly) very concerned with the depth he had at his disposal. As a result, USC’s practices featured less full-contact than the Pete Carroll era in an effort to avoid injuries.
However, today there are no NCAA sanctions on USC, and the team was at full strength in terms of scholarship players at the beginning of the 2018 season. Yet, USC once again believed one full-contact practice a week was enough.
In addition, the team seldom chose to practice ones vs. ones in full contact situations and generally omitted full-contact, short-yardage practice as well. Under Carroll, these competitive situations were critical to developing a culture of competition and physicality.
Helton even commented in October about how great it was to see top guys squaring off in practice:
"It was neat to see [Iman Marshall] go against Michael Pittman as hard as they did all day. It was back and forth. And then all of a sudden you look up and there is Devon [Williams] going against OG, and the same competitive juices were going."
This is the way it should be all the time at all positions. In his comments, you can infer that Marshall and Pittman squaring off inspired the two freshmen to raise their level of play and attempt to get better by challenging one another. That’s what players should demand from each other every day. By the way, Marshall and Pittman were two of USC’s best players this November. Maybe there is something to that.
Another sanction era practice that continued until this season was “No Pads November.” Due to the sanctions, USC couldn’t afford to lose any more players during practice in November, so they opted to forgo padded practice. In the post-sanction years, there was legitimate apprehension that this practice only exacerbated existing physicality issues. Last season, opponents of “No Pads November” felt justified in their concerns when Ohio State dominated the USC offensive line in last season’s Cotton Bowl.
This year, USC’s seniors decided to do something different, as detailed by Coach Helton on October 31st:
"No we actually came in full pads yesterday, and we’ll continue that. That is something our seniors want this time around. They want a sense of urgency [and] to have a great November."
It is fantastic that USC’s senior leaders (likely spearheaded by Cameron Smith and Porter Gustin) wanted to have physical practices. The record of the team may not have reflected an attitude transformation from the players this November, but USC resembled a much more physical unit against Notre Dame this time around.
But why is that decision even left in their hands? This must come from Helton moving forward because physicality can only be entrenched in a program by practicing it in everything you do. You can’t just flip the switch between practice and games and expect to maul the opposition like Alabama and Clemson.
The final basic areas that the Trojans must improve in for Clay Helton to retain his job past 2019 regard structural issues with USC’s schemes and failures in attention to detail.
The most important move USC can make this offseason is hiring an elite offensive coordinator who fully implements his offensive system without interference from the top. USC’s current offensive scheme is a hodgepodge concoction of Clay Helton’s pre-USC experiences and Kiffin and Sark’s offenses.
The result is an offense with no semblance of an identity. In 2016, Helton discussed his offensive philosophy with Sports Illustrated:
"Going into this, I think we’re going to be extremely balanced…One of the staples I think is imperative for this team, and how you win championships, is when it’s time to run the ball—and everybody knows you have to run it in games—you have ability to…[We must] be a balanced offense and run the ball when [we] must."
In the previous two seasons, the general sense regarding the USC offense was that they attempted to be balanced to a fault. It felt like the coaches disregarded whatever was working best in a specific game and called the opposite in an effort to even out the pass and rush attempts.
Then, despite proclaiming that USC wanted to be a run-first team prior to the 2018 season (likely to appease fans of old-school Trojan football) USC found most of its success through the air thanks to abysmal run blocking. USC ranked 77th in the nation in S&P+ rushing, including the disastrous effort against Texas, in which the Trojans actually posted a team rushing total of minus-five yards (running backs combined for 24 yards on 12 carries).
So what needs to change? First, USC’s next offensive coordinator must tailor the offense to fit the skill set of the quarterback who starts for the Trojans.
With a massive void at the QB position looming last offseason, USC fans prepared to have either redshirt sophomore Matt Fink or redshirt freshman Jack Sears step in to lead USC. However, in late December, USC commit JT Daniels reclassified to become a senior in order to enroll at USC in the fall of 2018. The move was met with jubilation from the Trojan fanbase as the quarterback of the future headed to campus.
Flash forward to today and the results of Daniels’ first season as USC’s starting QB are mixed. He finished his first campaign with a 59 percent completion rating, 2,672 yards, 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
At times, Daniels looked terrific. The Mater Dei product threw for 244 yards with 26 completions in 31 attempts in the first half against the S&P+ eighth-ranked Notre Dame defense on Saturday. Yet, there were many instances this season where the offense went completely stagnant and Daniels struggled with accuracy and mobility.
Meanwhile, when Jack Sears made his only start of the season against ASU, it was evident that he fit the current USC scheme better than Daniels. After a shaky start, Sears completed 70 percent of his passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns (and had a momentum-shifting TD dropped by Tyler Vaughns) and used his speed to evade the Sun Devil rush on multiple occasions.
By all accounts, Daniels is the more talented signal-caller and has the brightest future of any quarterback at USC. But scheme matters and USC must take that into account when choosing its starter.
Next, the OC must reestablish USC as a proficient rushing and short yardage team. The first step will be to get Markese Stepp in the game as much as possible. A redshirt freshman next season, Stepp already has the look of a bruising NFL back at 6-foot, 230 pounds with excellent quickness and a propensity to fall forward to finish runs. Getting Stephen Carr healthy after a lukewarm 2018 will also be crucial to the USC ground game in 2019 because Carr flashed star potential in 2017.
Make these adjustments, maintain the play of the receivers, (and maybe throw a pass to a tight end every once in a while) and USC will once again strike fear into opponents’ hearts.
As far as game management goes, there are details that must improve if USC wants to compete for championships. Helton has to be more decisive and ensure that his players are aware of their roles to avoid wasting timeouts in the middle of quarters. There is no excuse for burning timeouts in order to decide whether to go for it on fourth down in the third quarter.
The offense must have more tempo to it when facing a deficit (or just in general to maximize USC’s depth advantage). You can’t move slowly when Stanford has a lead in the second half.
In addition, the redzone offense cannot finish 96th in the country. The gameplan in the redzone must be second-nature to coaches and players and everyone must expect to score touchdowns. Enough of this “expecting something to go wrong” attitude.
Finally, there are the in-game adjustments. Well, there actually aren’t any from the looks of things. USC was outscored by its opponents 90-48 in the third quarter this season and 163-128 in the second half overall. USC constantly displayed an inability to alter its gameplan in order to counter adjustments made by their opposition.
For example, after JT Daniels threw for 244 yards in the first half against Notre Dame, he only mustered 105 yards in the second half with 60 of those yards coming on the Trojans’ final drive (which was semi-garbage time). Notre Dame began dropping eight men into coverage to confuse the freshman on early downs, and then turned up the heat on third-and-long to force Daniels into quick (and poor) decisions. The Trojans have the depth to terrorize their opponents in the second half. It’s time they impose their will on lesser opponents.
Can they get it done?
This is the million dollar question and it is going to go one of two ways.
The pessimistic outlook is Helton and Swann meet, make a couple lukewarm changes to the staff, (due to administrative restrictions or personal ties) and Helton remains heavily involved with the scheme of the offense because they hire a wet paper towel to coach the offense.
The team doesn’t alter its practice habits because there really isn’t much of a culture shift within the coaching staff. USC looks strong in fall practice playing against each other but is shocked when Fresno State actually believes they can beat the Trojans, which they do. Players become selfish even earlier this season, and discipline issues continue to arise both on and off the field.
USC tells Daniels to go win games for them every Saturday but he is only able to do so much. The Trojans win eight games, and Helton is retained because the team “improved.”
The optimistic outlook is that Clay Helton sits down with Lynn Swann in the coming weeks and cleans house with his staff in a similar fashion to the Notre Dame situation he and Swann continuously allude to. That means new blood with no ties to USC or Helton. They give a new OC free rein and start seeing improved player development under new position coaches.
The team practices much more physically (because the new coaches demand it) with ones vs. ones, and special teams time is cut dramatically. The best players play because Helton’s job depends on it, players lose playing time due to penalties, and USC has all its timeouts at the end of halves in most games.
USC is in the unique position to dominate the west coast, and they will only if they commit to competition and elite assistant coaches.