It has been a season of unfortunate events, filled with crucial injuries, losing streaks, coaching changes, a green quarterback and boos from the home crowd calling for the head coach’s firing. But heading into rivalry matchups amidst all the chaos, Clay Helton felt confident.
“I have a lot of support,” Helton said . “[Athletic Director Lynn Swann] every Monday, walks into my office and has given me nothing but, ‘Coach, we’re in this for the long haul.’”
In a team meeting, Helton addressed speculation about his job security, saying that he has a lot of support from administration.
“I just let the boys know that my plan is to be here a long time … another 15 years,” Helton said. “I’d like to do it ‘til I’m 60.”
Redshirt sophomore Tyler Vaughns was confident before the season and did not expect the team’s spiraling trajectory.
“Things happen, certain little knicks and knacks we had, certain little injuries we had hurt us throughout the year,” Vaughns said. “So we just [have to] overcome it and ball out for the rest of the time here.”
In practice, the team shared Vaughns’ mindset and was determined to work hard this week to beat its next opponent, UCLA. After a pedestrian performance against Cal that knocked the Trojans out of Pac-12 contention, Helton feels that the emotions behind the cross-town rivalry motivated players to bring intensity and grit to the practice field this week.
After practice ended players were putting in work on their technique to hone their craft for the game. With injuries to the receiving core this year, Redshirt sophomore Trevon Sidney was working after practice to make the most of the opportunities to play.
“We were more of a team [last year]; it’s a new team now,” Sidney said. “I feel like we still have some connecting to do. We’re just a younger team.”
Despite freshman quarterback JT Daniels’ lackluster performance against Cal, where he only threw for 180 yards, he has shown improvement throughout his rookie season.
“I see [Daniels] being more poised in the pocket and really trying to read out the defense,” Vaughns said.
Vaughns isn’t worried about experiencing new looks against UCLA, and thinks that the receivers and Daniels will find success if they communicate and stay on the same page.
Leading up to UCLA and historic rival Notre Dame the week after, the Trojans are facing more media attention than usual.
“The noise doesn’t affect me, but it affects 18-21 year olds,” Helton said. “In the heart of chaos, your leader is supposed to be the one that provides calm.”
Helton reiterated that the team’s focus at this point in the season is primarily to win football games and send the seniors out on top with rivalry wins.
“The only pressure I have is that I want our seniors to have a great experience these last two games and be able to come out with a victory,” Helton said.
Redshirt sophomore running back Vavae Malepeai was limited with an ankle injury sustained against Cal, in addition to senior running back Aca’Cedric Ware with a shoulder injury. Junior wide receiver Michael Pittman returned to practice, but was held out of contact after a shoulder injury that kept him out of the Cal game. Senior offensive tackle Chuma Edoga is nursing knee pain and did not practice on Tuesday.