Clay Helton’s first full season at the helm saw a disastrous beginning. After a 1-3 start with losses to ‘Bama, Stanford, and Utah, Sam Darnold took the reigns and never looked back. That team won every remaining game, including one of the greatest Rose Bowl Games in history.
The next season, the Trojans, ranked in the top 5 in the AP Poll, were expected to make a run at the College Football Playoff. After stumbling in Pullman, the men of Troy were blown out at Notre Dame, snuffing out any hopes of a national championship run.
This next season will be Helton’s first without Darnold. Expectations are to be tempered by the question mark at quarterback, yet buoyed by the returning talent at every other position group. Yes, Ronald Jones and Deontay Burnett have departed for the NFL. There’s still elite talent in runningback Stephen Carr and wideouts Tyler Vaugns and Michael Pittman.
Success will be defined as a berth in a New Year’s Six Bowl. The only way to guarantee that is to capture a PAC-12 Championship. Depending on how important you believe Darnold was to last year’s team, this bar may seem either too high are too low.
Here are five reasons Clay Helton will have a successful third year:
1. Continuity at Offensive Line
All of last season’s losses included problems with the USC offensive front. In Pullman, multiple offensive lineman were hurt, and the Trojans relied too extensively on Darnold’s arm with a shaky rushing attack. At Notre Dame, the Trojan line could only sustain 76 rushing yards on 31 attempts, for a pathetic 2.5 yards per rush. In the Cotton Bowl, Nick Bosa and the Ohio State defense held the Trojan rushing attack to just 75 yards. Darnold was sacked or forced to scramble eleven times, resulting in a total of negative 18 yards.
Despite last year’s struggles along the offensive line, increased continuity and chemistry between the lineman should lead to a clean pocket and wide rushing lanes. Seniors Chuma Edoga, Chris Brown, and Tua Lobendahn all return, with the latter two as All PAC-12 honorable mention and All PAC-12 Second Team contributors respectively.
Having a stable offensive line will be especially important to Clay Helton’s team to help the quarterback find his rhythm. To aid the development of a quarterback without real playing experience, a stable offensive line and strong run game to lean on will give the quarterback time to learn and grow without taking too many hits.
2. A Forgiving Division Schedule
USC faces neither Oregon nor Washington for the second straight year. In the division, USC will face a road test early at Stanford, and has road games at Arizona and Utah. With the only other division road games at Cal and Oregon State, the Trojans won’t have to travel far. Other than these match-ups, USC has Washington State, Colorado, Arizona State, Oregon State, and UCLA at home. Barring at Stanford, USC should be favored in each of these games.
Odds aren’t everything, and they will never be. They do, however, show USC’s relatively easy path to a PAC-12 South title.
3. An Ascendant Secondary
Some things you can’t scheme for. With the spacing between wide receivers, there’s only so many ways for a coach to scheme against pass catchers. With USC’s secondary, Clay Helton should feel confident stacking men into the box and leaving corners on islands. Iman Marshall returns for his senior season, bringing veteran leadership and physicality to the Trojans. Isaiah Langley should be a solid starter opposite Marshall.
USC’s toughest games this season will be at Stanford, at Texas, at Arizona, at Utah, and home against Notre Dame. These all profile to be running teams. If USC can leave Iman Marshall and Isaiah Langley on islands and stack the box, they should find success in limiting the rushing attacks of USC’s toughest opponents. Especially against Arizona, SC’s secondary should allow Clay Helton to play with a spy to limit the explosiveness of Khalil Tate’s rushing.
With dependable outside corners, Clay Helton and Clancy Pendergast should be able to scheme with more emphasis on defending the run, which will be pivotal in USC’s toughest games.
4. Depth at Every Position
Nobody likes to discuss injuries. Still, injuries will ultimately affect every school’s season. USC’s recruiting clout guarantees solid depth at every position, and this season is no exception. Amon-Ra St. Brown, who has to compete to start in the slot, would be the number one or two receiver for every other team in the PAC-12. Every position group has capable backups, and no single injury should derail the Trojans’ season.
5. Defensive Experience Within the System
Every position group on the defense has upperclassmen and seniors who have been with Clay Helton throughout these three years. Malik Dorton and Christian Rector will anchor the defensive line, and have been with USC for all of Helton’s tenure. Porter Gustin and Cam Smith return as seniors, leaders of the linebacking core and the defense as a whole. The aforementioned corners will be joined by Marvell Tell III, a standout safety returning as a senior.
This Trojan defense should be familiar with the ins and outs of defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s unique 5-2 defense. Last season, Clay Helton and co. often relied on the heroics of Sam Darnold to win games. With more experience and development in all three levels of the defense, Helton should feel more confident relying on his defense to win more games.