On Sunday, USC Athletic Director Lynn Swann made the announcement that many in the USC community feared.
“Clay Helton is our head coach and will continue to be our head coach,” said Swann in a statement. “I am a strong advocate of consistency within a program, sticking by a leader, supporting them and helping them and their team improve.”
Helton will get another chance to prove he can turn USC back into a national powerhouse. In order to do so, Helton has already made drastic changes on his coaching staff. USC announced that offensive coordinator Tee Martin, defensive line coach Kenechi Udeze and defensive backs coach Ronnie Bradford are no longer on the coaching staff, while quarterbacks coach Bryan Ellis has reportedly taken a job at Western Kentucky.
At times, I’ve been a staunch supporter of Helton, singing his praises after an unlikely Rose Bowl win in 2016 and a Pac-12 title last season. But after a season in which USC lost to Cal, Arizona State and UCLA, finishing with its first losing record since most current students were in diapers, it’s hard to say where the program is headed. Discipline both on and off the field is even more concerning than the 5-7 record. Of 130 FBS teams, only six were penalized more the Trojans, and the midseason departures of underclassmen Levi Jones and Bubba Bolden signal a lack of leadership on all fronts.
Issues of discipline and culture — which to Swann’s credit were spelled out in his press release — will be the most difficult problems to address. But USC’s inept and downright frustrating offense can be fixed immediately with the right hire at offensive coordinator.
This year’s combination of Martin and Helton calling plays clearly didn’t work (Helton took over play-calling duties from Martin after the Arizona State loss). At the season’s end, the Trojans are tied for 90th in scoring offense, averaging a measly 26.1 points per game. They amassed just 382.6 yards per game of total offense — which is basically a solid Sam Darnold game during his days at Troy. Even during USC’s last losing season in 2000, the team eclipsed 400 yards per game, averaging 415.9. Then-head coach Paul Hackett was fired after the season ended.
I believe in the development and progress of JT Daniels. I really do. His rookie season wasn’t always smooth sailing — by any stretch of the imagination — but that can happen to a true freshman starting quarterback in a major conference. Look no further than USC’s Matt Barkley, who posted nearly identical numbers as Daniels when he started as a true freshman in 2009. Then, Barkley tossed 15 touchdowns, with 14 interceptions and a 59.9 completion percentage. This season, Daniels had 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, while completing 59.5 percent of his passes. To say Barkley outgrew his early struggles is an understatement. He would ultimately become the school’s all-time leader in passing yards, a record he holds to this day.
Daniels, too, possesses the physical abilities to morph into a top-level passer. That’s why USC needs to bring in a true quarterback whisperer and offensive innovator. This person needs to be able to transform one of the most unwatchable offenses in college football into a juggernaut within the span of one offseason. He needs to help Daniels move from raw prospect to star. It’s certainly no easy task.
As the college football coaching carousel starts to turn, there aren’t many available names who fit those requirements – except one. Kliff Kingsbury was recently fired as Texas Tech’s head coach, following a 5-7 season (Swann should take notes). Before Texas Tech, he developed a sterling track record as an offensive coordinator at Houston and Texas A&M. With his air raid philosophy, Kingsbury has coached a 5,000 yard passer in Case Keenum at Houston, a Heisman Trophy winner in Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M and a current NFL superstar in Patrick Mahomes at Texas Tech. Despite his lack of overall success at Texas Tech, the Red Raiders ranked in the top-five in scoring offense in 2015 and 2016. At every stop of his career, Kingsbury’s offenses have been potent and his signal callers have flourished.
Given his offensive acumen and ability to coach up young quarterbacks, Kingsbury will be highly sought after as an offensive coordinator. He’s already been linked to his mentor Mike Leach at Washington State and the returning Mack Brown at UNC.
Therefore, USC needs to do everything in its power to land Kingsbury. The school may not have enough money to eat Helton’s buyout, but it certainly has enough to make Kingsbury one of the most, if not the highest-paid offensive coordinator in the country. The departed Texas Tech coach won’t remain in the coordinator ranks for long.
Swann gave Helton another chance, against all odds and conventional wisdom. He needs to return the favor by making a slam-dunk hire at offensive coordinator. It doesn’t get more slam dunk than Kingsbury. He may be the only coach capable of extending Helton’s stint as head coach.
Trevor Denton is a junior majoring in broadcast and digital journalism. His column, “T-Time,” ran every other Wednesday.