In sports it’s often said that winning can cure any problem, and USC has won its last two games. Players say that it’s been this team’s embracement of interim head coach Clay Helton’s philosophy of being a family that has saved USC’s season.After the dramatic departure of coach Steve Sarkisian, Helton preached to his players that the only way they were going to get through their rigorous Pac-12 schedule was if they relied on one another. Though the season looked grim then, Helton was optimistic about USC’s future since his first day as head coach, saying that if USC started to play collective football as a family they could go on an “epic” run and win the Pac-12.
“He’s great. He’s one of those guys who is just so positive. He’s one of those people who never seems to be having a bad day — or if he is, you would never know it,” defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said after practice Wednesday. “He really knows how to lead. He has got a lot of energy. I’ve always been grateful for the great relationship we’ve had.”
United by one goal, USC players and coaches have rallied around Helton’s positive message of relying on one another. This can be seen on the practice field, where players have been given longer water breaks in between drills. Since Sarkisian’s departure, players socialize with other players of their same position and coaches more. And, they appear to have a lot of fun as they discuss technique and strategy.
“I think that we are just coming together as a group more, and we’re becoming a much more balanced and efficient team,” said cornerback Adoree’ Jackson. “Since Helton got here — with all the stuff going on — he told us that he is going to take care of us.”
In recent games, the USC defense played much more collectively against Utah and Cal as evidenced by when they were visibly swarming the ball carriers and making more group tackles. Similarly, USC’s offense has had to rely on each other in the wake of key injuries to starting offensive linemen and receivers. USC players say that they’ve been revitalized by Helton’s teaching that if they play together, the wins will come.
“He is such a positive coach, man,” redshirt senior defensive tackle Delvon Simmons said. “And we’re all buying into what he is selling, and I think that it has really helped us. We all want to work hard for him and get it done for him.”
USC coaches and players say that the family dynamic Helton has built on the field stems from his effort to get to know every member of the team. Since his first practice, the offensive-minded Helton has equally divided his attention between the offense, defense and special teams so that he can get a “feel” for every decision of the game. Sophomore safety Chris Hawkins said that Helton has helped the defensive secondary by spending a lot of time during film installing USC’s next opponent’s playing style in the scout-team offense, so that after they’re scrimmaging in practice, they’re better prepared for the games.
“Coach Helton told us that he is watching us and cares for us, and I know that he’s been working with the offensive scout team to get us right,” Hawkins said. “He’s been teaching us the tendencies of opposing quarterbacks and defenses. So, he has really been coaching on both sides of the ball.”
Hawkins added that the team has spent a lot more time together off the field at events that Helton started, like Tuesday night team dinners, in which coaches and players invite their families for barbecue. Consequently, Hawkins said that USC’s play has come off as more “put together” and “like a team.” Wilcox echoed Hawkins’ sentiment, as his defense has been filling gaps and collecting tackles as much more of a combined unit. Wilcox added that his trusting relationship with Helton has allowed him and his defense to execute his game plan in their past two wins.
“I think that team-wise, the more that you can do together, it is always beneficial,” Wilcox said. “You just put so much time and hours in. And we spend so much time on meetings and in practices working on X’s and O’s and technique and scheme and all of these things. But we have really started to see that these young guys are building that camaraderie and chemistry and that has led to a lot of success for us.”
In practice, Helton can be seen lining up as a defensive back and running with receivers in order to coach them through their routes. He’s gotten into three-point stances with the linemen in order to emphasize technique and physicality. And, he’s inspected countless field goals with Alex Wood and the special teams. Helton said he’s learned that in order to be a good coach and see progression in his team, he has to listen to his players.
“I want to be on both sides of the ball,” Helton said. “I think that as a head coach the whole team has to feel you at every position, and I want to make sure that I am part of that defensive structure because they have to know that you care and they have to know that you have their best interest at heart. They have got to feel your passion for them.”
The support Helton has received to remain the head coach after the season from the entire team has exemplified that USC players have responded to his message of being a family and are drawn by Helton’s positive demeanor. Quarterback Cody Kessler, who has had a long relationship with Helton, his one-time quarterbacks coach, says that the team and him are playing as hard as they can to not only win, but also to support their new head coach. And because Helton has been “100 percent real in practice, every day,” the whole team trusts and enjoys playing for him.
“Coach Helton has been a genuine guy to me since day one,” Kessler said. “He hasn’t changed, and that is something you really look [for] in a coach.”
Helton has repeatedly called the USC head coaching job his dream job and calls himself “the luckiest man in the world for the chance to represent USC in the Coliseum on Saturdays.” Understandably, Helton says that he’s been extremely “humbled” by how his players have embraced his message of playing as a family and winning because of it.
“It is very humbling. It shows you probably the number one thing that I’ve learned in this entire experience — how important relationships are in this business,” Helton said. “Those relationships between coach and players are invaluable. I want them to know that I have the utmost trust in them, and I know that I have their trust. And when you have that, you are going to be a very cohesive football team.”
USC’s two straight wins were largely fueled by significant contributions from freshman and sophomore players. Helton attributes the younger players’ ability to step up in these situations to new 45-minute Monday practices, which he added a week before the Notre Dame game. Helton said he created Monday practices for a chance to give the redshirt freshmen and players who do play in games extra reps to develop their fundamentals, while the veterans watch film and get some much-needed rest to combat the physically grueling season.
“As we rally together as a Trojan family during a hard time, you’ll see the true character of what Trojans are made of,” Helton said in his introductory press conference.
Since then, USC has put itself into prime position to accomplish the same goal they’ve had all year long — win the Pac-12. And under Helton, both sides of the ball have looked much more efficient and confident to win out.