After starting the season 1-3, many people around USC were expecting the worst. No bowl game, another midseason head coach firing, and a poor recruiting class in a strong year on the west coast were some of the most common concerns. At that point, there seemed no way the Trojans would be competing for a Pac-12 South title not to mention even winning 7 or 8 games. Flash forward to now and all of a sudden USC is certainly one of the 10 best teams in the country and will be playing in the Rose Bowl on January 2nd. There are a number of factors that played into this stunning turnaround, but Clay Helton deserves a ton of credit for the job he has done.
Through the first four games of the season, it was hard to make an argument that any position group on the roster was playing well. Justin Davis was not getting any room to run, JuJu Smith-Schuster looked a shell of his All-American self, and the defense was not stopping anyone. The Trojans were in complete disarray on both sides of the football and the team’s 1-3 start was disappointingly well deserved. However, against all the odds, Helton was able to bring the team together and galvanize a talented yet struggling football team.
The easiest way to notice the impact Helton has had on the mentality of the team is on defense. It was been well documented that after every turnover, the players always bring the ball back to their head coach. This may be a small gesture but it means a lot more than that. Clay Helton is an offensive coach who has never worked on the defensive side of the ball. This one-sided background is very similar to that of previous coaches Steve Sarkisian and Lane Kiffin.
The big difference between Helton and those two though is the relationship Helton has with his defensive players. It is obvious that Helton is not a head coach who simply specializes in what he likes to do (in his case that would be offense). A lot of this happened under Kiffin and Sarkisian and the result was an uninspired defense that never reached its full potential. Under Helton, however, the Trojans have become one of the best defensive units in the Pac-12 who have shut down some of the nation’s most electric offensive groups. It is clear that no matter which side of the ball a guy plays on, he is always giving it everything he has for his head coach. Helton’s ability to connect with all of his players is something that has been missing from USC since Pete Carroll left and is clearly playing a big role in the revival of the program.
One of the most underrated differences from the beginning of the season to now has been Helton’s growth as a true head coach. From key in-game decisions such as when to punt or when to go for it or better clock management, Helton has made huge strides in the strategic side of his job. Earlier in the season, Helton would often burn multiple timeouts throughout the half on third down plays and situations that really did not require the use of a timeout. In addition, the Trojans would also be overly conservative towards the end of the half even if there was enough time to put points on the board. This was infuriating for many fans to watch as it was the most obvious sign of Helton’s inexperience.
Thankfully, Helton has taken note of these poor decisions and adjusted his clock management. The Trojans rarely waste timeouts, giving them the ability to construct drives with minimal time left on the clock. This alteration has not yet had a concrete impact on any game due to the Trojans controlling basically every game during their 8-game winning streak, but this could certainly come into play against Penn State in the Rose Bowl or further down the road next season. Helton’s development as a game manager has been a massive area of improvement that will only become more and more important as the Trojans continue their ascent to the pinnacle of college football over the next few years.
Another area Helton has improved which may have gone unnoticed is in recruiting. As many know, the Trojans had been struggling in recruiting at the start of the year, often putting their efforts towards average 3-star recruits rather than game changing 4 and 5 star players. Since USC started consistently winning football games though, this has changed. It may not be apparent in the commitment list, but the Trojans have been making some serious strides on the recruiting trail.
Top safety prospect Bubba Bolden appears to be leaning back towards SC after de-committing earlier this year, high end four star tackle Austin Jackson is similarly trending towards the Trojans, and Helton and company already flipped four star QB Jack Sears. Much of the recruiting fireworks have not yet occurred (signing day is still two months away) but SC is in great position to finish strong just like the past few years. In comparison to earlier in the season when the Trojans were struggling to make an impact with highly ranked recruits, this area of the program has come a very long way.
The Trojans’ turnaround this season from 1-3 to 9-3 has been nothing short of incredible. Helton appeared destined for a mid-season firing and there were serious doubts over whether USC would even be playing football in December. Sam Darnold’s ascendancy has been perhaps the biggest reason behind the Trojans’ run, but Helton’s ability to galvanize the players and improve himself as a head coach has completely changed the culture of the program. Even if the Trojans come up short in the Rose Bowl, the 2016 season will surely be a success. Heading into 2017, there is going to be a lot of optimism around the Trojans and much of that can be put down to the excellent job done by Clay Helton.