For fans of storied college football programs, a reassuring feeling surfaces every year. Bolstered by NFL Draft hype and heralded recruiting classes, institutions such as USC always feel on the verge of national dominance. This perspective has no reason to falter for Trojan fans this year, as head coach Clay Helton’s squad will more likely than not vie for a spot among the top few programs in the country.
Even though Helton watched a significant group of talented players graduate or leave for the draft over the offseason, he was thrilled to maintain consistency in the coaching ranks.
“To be able to keep all three coordinators in Clancy Pendergast, Tee Martin and John Baxter, I think, was absolutely huge for us,” Helton said at his Pac-12 Media Day press conference.
It’s no surprise Helton values steadiness going into his second full season as head coach. This fall, Helton may solidify his status as the stabilizing force and leader USC has long needed since former head coach Pete Carroll left the program in 2010.
Hired to the coaching staff following Carroll’s departure, the 45-year-old Helton originally served as the quarterbacks coach. In 2013, he took the reins as interim head coach for one game, leading USC to a 45-20 win over Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl.
When former head coach Steve Sarkisian was fired in 2013, Helton was again named interim boss. He proceeded to steer a floundering Trojan team all the way to the Pac-12 Championship game, earning the job permanently in the process. And Helton has fared well to date, with the Trojans boasting a 12-3 conference record during his time at the helm.
Perhaps this is no surprise: The bulk of Helton’s offensive experience has come through his positional coaching over the years, and as a former quarterbacks coach, he surely benefits from having a playmaker like redshirt sophomore signal caller Sam Darnold at his disposal.
The Trojans weren’t predicted to succeed to the extent they did in 2016, but with the emergence of Darnold, his teammates flourished en route to a Rose Bowl victory. The new year marks another opportunity for Darnold to prove his doubters wrong, and Helton has watched his quarterback take strides in the cerebral part of his game.
“We all see his skillset,” Helton said, “But how he’s approached this off-season from a work-ethic standpoint and trying to progress as a student of the game — our kids see that.”
“Obviously there are some grand expectations for him, but he’s welcomed those,” Helton said. “That’s part of being a USC quarterback. That’s why you come to USC. You’re the face of the program, and you’re the leader of the program.”
While Darnold and Helton steer the offense, defensive coordinator Pendergast and junior linebacker Cameron Smith will spearhead the defense.
Third-year star Smith, who is on the preseason watch lists for the Nagurski Award, Lott IMPACT Trophy and the Bednarik Award, will be responsible for utilizing his top-notch instincts and scheme knowledge. Pendergast will aid Smith as he continues to bring a wealth of NFL knowledge to the Trojan defense.
Despite possessing a strong veteran core, Helton knows that the biggest question facing USC is the team’s lack of experience in some areas. Thus, the head coach stressed that the summer was vital for getting everyone on the same page by the first gameday in September.
“It’s going to take a lot of hard work during camp and a lot of young guys developing in a hurry for us to get there,” Helton said. “But those are always going to be our expectations, and we welcome them.”
Last year, the first few games of the season threw the Trojans into what seemed like an insurmountable deficit. Three losses in the opening four games essentially concluded any preseason national title aspirations USC had. But the Trojans weren’t out of the wider bowl game discussion, and for good reason. By the end of the season, Helton and company had turned it all around.
Still, that’s not the pattern the Trojans want to slip into in 2017.
“You can do all you want in October and November, and we’ve been really good,” Helton said. “But if you don’t start fast, it’s hard to get where you want to be.”
Wins and losses matter too much at an elite college football institution for Helton to lose sight of the bottom line.
“We’re such in a production-based business, and everybody wants instant results,” Helton said. “The reality is this: It’s easy to go from where we were [last year] to No. 3 in the country. It’s harder to go from 3 to 1. And that’s our challenge right now.”