Helton focuses on changing the culture

Redshirt sophomore Tyler Vaughns has a total of 14 receptions for 157 yards so far this season. (Emily Smith | Daily Trojan)

With its second home game fast approaching, USC took the field for one last practice on Wednesday night to prepare to host Washington State Friday. After suffering a battering on the road and a fall from the AP rankings, the team has had one goal this week — changing the culture on the practice field, in hopes that changes will follow in the Coliseum.

The team seems to agree that a different outcome is within reach. Freshman quarterback JT Daniels, senior running back Aca’Cedric Ware and head coach Clay Helton all repeat the same phrase every day: “We’re close.”

It’s a mantra for a team stacked with talent that seems to refuse to gel, for a 1-2 start that could have been 3-0 instead. It’s not a far-fetched platitude either. At times, the Trojans have shown glimpses of a team that could easily become a Top-25 powerhouse.

Yet Helton noted that the team has been unable to string together four complete quarters to create this outcome. Against UNLV, the team’s slow start was saved by a miraculous fourth quarter. Against Texas, the opposite occurred, with a dominant first quarter giving way to a messy collapse.

And the dominant factor in this season-opening disaster has been the team’s propensity for making sloppy mistakes. The Trojans gave up 99 yards — the length of an entire football field — in penalties against Texas. Over the course of their two losses, they tallied more yards in penalties (134) than rushing yards (109).

What does it take to smooth out this lack of discipline? Part of that answer has to do with the culture of practice, something  Helton tackled early this week during the quick turnaround of a Friday game week.

Helton took over offense practices himself on Monday, and on Tuesday he said that this week of practices has been “one of the best we’ve had all year.” The team came to compete after tallying two road losses, and Helton described the atmosphere at practice as “prideful” and “intense,” a welcome change to the sluggish pace of recent weeks.

The focus for the offense remains on the line, which has remained inconsistent throughout the opening three games, failing to protect Daniels in the pocket against UNLV and Stanford, then recording negative rushing yardage on the road at Texas.

In preparing for Washington State, Helton is attempting to boost the confidence of the line before it faces a physical front from the Cougars’ defensive line. He felt that practice this week has highlighted a shift in culture along the line.

“They’re a physical bunch of kids,” Helton said. “I believe in them. I believe they can get the job done.”

Personnel report

On Tuesday, safety Ykili Ross announced that he will be leaving USC to pursue a different program. In his statement, Ross said that “neither my talent nor my passion for the sport/game was being utilized to its maximum potential,” adding that his “development as a ball player and dedication to the team was not being showcased/invested in.”

Sophomore right guard Andrew Vorhees is expected to play in the Washington State game Friday after straining his MCL against Texas. Helton reported that Ware, who leads the team in rushing yards so far this season, has been struggling with a nagging knee injury, but remains likely to play on Friday.

“It flared up earlier in the week, so we limited his reps,” Helton said. “He looked better today.”

Sophomore left tackle Austin Jackson returned to practice after sitting out on Tuesday with an illness.