USC has endured a tepid start to 2016 and thanks to a brutal opening schedule, the Trojans are entering a tough road matchup with Utah at 1-2. With the incredible tradition of the USC football program comes very high expectations. A losing record in which the team was clearly outplayed in both losses is not up to standards of a typical USC team.
Coming into the season, many of the primary concerns about Clay Helton was his inexperience as a head coach. So far, Helton’s lack of coaching experience has proven to be a severe detriment to the team’s performance on the field and the program as a whole. USC has the talent to perform far better than 1-2 no matter the opponents, and off the field the Trojans are struggling to retain top talent from Southern California.
Helton’s clock management has been extremely poor while his decision making has been overly conservative. Throughout Helton’s time at the helm, timeouts have been consistently wasted due to an inability to get the play call on to the field fast enough. The Trojans showed noticeable improvement in this area against Stanford, but the team still had an extra point attempt where only eight players were on the field due to a miscommunication.
Although Helton is not the team’s official offensive coordinator—that title belongs to Tee Martin—he still has a significant impact on the team’s play calling. The result has been a flurry of 3rd and long running plays and a punt in the fourth quarter against Stanford where the offense should have stayed on the field. There are times to be conservative and play the field position game when the defense is playing well, but the Trojans had huge issues stopping Christian McCaffrey and company the entire game. Giving the ball back to the Cardinal in that situation basically ended USC’s chances of winning the game when a first down conversion could have been a significant momentum builder.
Many of these decisions are typical for an inexperienced coach, but it is hampering the Trojans’ play on the field. Helton has enormous pressure on his shoulders especially being Pat Haden’s selection over multiple candidates with far more experience. These circumstances have given Helton no time to make first year coaching mistakes that have been a constant problem so far in 2016.
While Helton’s decisions from the sideline have been questionable, his impact off the field has been even more of a negative. The Trojans rank a decent 16th in the national recruiting rankings, but six of the top 10 prospects in California are committed and only one is planning to attend Southern Cal. The foundation of USC’s top recruiting classes over the past decade plus has been a virtual fence around the prospect hotbed of Southern California. The 2017 class looks to be an exception, and this is very bad for SC.
Throughout the team’s sanctions, USC has still been able to reel in many of the top prospects from California. This has kept many Pac-12 competitors from overtaking the Trojans in terms of talent despite USC’s scholarship limitations. If the 2017 trend continues, this advantage could be squandered, thus putting USC on an equal level to other schools on the west coast. The result would be a far more competitive conference that would require better coaching to overcome opponents—something Helton may not be able to provide.
Another key aspect of being a head football coach is handling the different personalities of the team. Success is usually the best strategy to keeping players happy, but true leaders show their qualities when the team is struggling. From all indications, Helton has not stepped up with the team struggling mentally after a poor start to the season.
Even though the E.J. Price punching rumors were false, there have been multiple reports that there will be multiple transfers this offseason if Helton stays as head coach. For a program that does not appear to be reloading with a top recruiting class, if the Trojans lose a number of key contributors to transfer, SC could be in serious trouble for 2017.
Thanks to the brutal NCAA sanctions, depth had been a major problem for about five seasons. With the scholarship numbers now finally creeping back up towards the 85 mark again, losing multiple players to transfer would be a crippling blow. Helton may not last the rest of the season if the team’s downward spiral continues, but if he does, roster depth (made up of college ready players) could once again become a big problem in 2017 and beyond.
Entering the 2016 season, optimism was abound, but there were a number of concerns surrounding a Trojan team being led by a first time head coach. Three games in, many of those concerns have become realities and the team is already struggling to avoid falling out of contention in the Pac-12 South. Helton is clearly still learning the ins and outs of being a head coach at a major program, but that is not an excuse for underperformance at a school like SC. If Helton does not turn around his team’s fortunes starting tomorrow against Utah, he may not even make it through a full season leading the cardinal and gold.