USC football: Clay Helton’s priorities include simplification, competition and more

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

Clay Helton has a plan to turn USC football around after a 5-7 season and it includes simplification, discipline, turnovers and competition.

SPRING CAMP. Day 1 Practice Notes

USC football has four priorities in Spring Camp, according to head coach Clay Helton. Give the head coach credit, they’re the exact right ones.

On Tuesday, after the Trojans wrapped up their first practice of the spring on cloudy Howard Jones Field, Helton laid them out: Simplification. Discipline. Turnovers. Competition.

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Helton identified those areas for emphasis by evaluating what went wrong in 2018. The next step is addressing each, and the head coach has a plan to do just that in Spring Camp.

“We’ve learned from out past, now it’s time to focus on our future,” he said.


USC fans should get used to hearing the word “simple” this offseason. That’s how just about everyone, from players to coaches, have described new offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s Air Raid scheme.

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It’s by design.

Helton targeted the Air Raid in part because it would cut out the complexity and give USC’s athletes the chance to shine.

But simple wasn’t only a directive for the new Trojan offense. Helton also asked defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast to simplify the defense, making it easier for the personnel to be in the right place and to make plays.

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“We basically created simple, effective schemes to allow our kids to play faster,” Helton said.


The Trojans ranked 123 nationally in penalties in 2018. That number isn’t just embarrassing, it cost them dearly. Helton pointed to the four games USC lost down the stretch by narrow margins. Penalties played a role in those losses, so the head coach is taking very visible measures this spring to cut them out.

Referees will be present at all 15 Spring Camp practices USC holds this year. That’s a departure from previous years when officials would appear only on scrimmage days.

Yellow flags certainly flew on Tuesday, but Helton plans to use each piece of laundry as a teaching moment, and a threat.

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“As soon as a yellow flag is on board, that player is out and he will suffer the repercussion of what it means to make a mistake football team-wise,” Helton said.

Fundamental mistakes will be addressed on the tape, but presnap penalties will be addressed there and then by Helton.

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Assistant coaches were also in on the act on Tuesday. When freshman defensive back Briton Allen was flagged for pass interference, new DBs coach Greg Burns called over both Allen and the official, asking for clarification on the call. He coached the player directly on the downward tug of the jersey pointed out by the referee.


Turnovers, both for and against, were a major problem for USC in 2018. They ranked 120th in turnover margin, generating just 10 while losing 20.

“We talked about ‘it’s all about the ball’,” Helton said. “But we didn’t live it.”

Living it will be an emphasis in the spring, as demonstrated by the opening drills of camp. On Brian Kennedy Field, the entire defense cycled through a trio of turnover-centric drills like punching the ball out from behind, stripping the ball as the second man to the ball and swiping the ball out of the quarterback’s hands in the pocket.

On the far side of Howard Jones Field, USC’s offensive skill position players ran through a ball security gauntlet, securing the ball while being swatted and punched with pads by an array of assistants and coaches.


Helton saved arguably the most important emphasis for last.

Every coach preaches about competition at some point or another, but Helton is taking pains to make competition more tangibly felt.

At the end of Spring Camp, Helton will level with each player, telling them what the starting lineup would look like if a game was played that day. But he intends to make it clear that things can and will change with every week of practice.

“This field has always been about competition. I don’t want any player on this football team to feel comfortable with his position. He’s always fighting for a job. He’s always competing for a job,” Helton said.

The competition will continue through the season.

USC has always released a depth chart during the week. Now Helton will wait until Friday to release his two-deep.

“Every Friday whoever is playing best in that moment will step out there first on Saturdays,” Helton said. “I just want the kids to feel like practice matters.”

Talking about simplicity, discipline, turnovers and competition is the easy part. The tough part is turning the words into results.

At the very least, Helton has the right words prioritized this spring.