Without much fanfare or the typical breaking news flash on the ticker of an ESPN telecast, USC quietly made another splash in filling its coaching vacancies Thursday afternoon.
Clay Helton is not a name that jumps off the page the first time you see it. He doesn’t have the championship hardware Monte Kiffin does, he doesn’t have the recruiting credentials that Ed Orgeron has displayed these past few weeks and he doesn’t have the experience of working in a BCS conference. But despite what he lacks, the 37-year-old makes up for it with his knowledge and versatility.
The newest member of the Trojans staff is a jack-of-all-trades. He was hired back in 2000 by the University of Memphis to serve as the running backs coach, but as the program soon found out, Helton’s expertise extended far beyond the running game. After three seasons, he began working as the receivers coach, where he groomed three of the school’s most promising wideouts in decades: Maurice Jones, Ryan Scott and Duke Calhoun.
As the Tigers receivers posted historic numbers for the school in 2003, with records in both completions and receiving yardage, Helton’s coaching prowess was finally displayed.
But not until 2007 did the former Houston University quarterback receive proper recognition for his offensive ingenuity and coaching prowess. In January of 2007, he was promoted to be the program’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, a role that allowed him to flourish under his own rules.
In his first season, with a relatively inexperienced offensive line, the Tigers adapted quickly to Helton’s new schemes, as they finished No. 13 in the nation in passing offense — marking the first time since 1999 the team reached the Top 25 in an offensive category. Despite major injuries at the quarterback position in 2008, Helton’s unit finished the season ranked 13th in the nation in total offense, in what can only be described as a testament to the work ethic the former-UH assistant coach instilled in his players.
While his list of accolades doesn’t include BCS appearances (five total bowl appearances, two in the New Orleans bowl) or coaching a Heisman Trophy finalist like a Matt Leinart or Reggie Bush (although he mentored DeAngelo Williams, who finished seventh in the 2005 voting), his knack for teaching student-athletes to grasp an offense as he sees it, makes him more than admirable fit with the Trojans.
His resume might not make you “ooh” and “ahh” now, but as young talents like Matt Barkley, Brice Butler and Marc Tyler mature before your very eyes in the years to come, remember Helton’s name and the impact he likely had on it all.