by Garry Paskwietz
There isn’t a lot of flash in Clay Helton.
That may be surprising to those people who think the USC football coach needs to have a high energy style, to be a celebrity in his own right the way it used to be with Pete Carroll.
Other coaches have tried to copy the Carroll way but the biggest problem was that they were not Pete Carroll. His style was unique because he was unique. With Helton, one of the biggest things we’ve seen to benefit the 2016 Trojans is that he seems to understand who he is as a coach, and doesn’t try to be somebody he is not.
We saw it from the very beginning when it came to picking his coaching staff. He went with people he knew, people he trusted, and wasn’t swayed by chatter that he needed to hire some “big names”. That included hiring Tee Martin as a first-time offensive coordinator, and putting Kenechi Udeze in charge of the defensive line, the first time the former USC All-American had ever been a full-time position coach.
We saw it with the way his team responded to the opening game performance against Alabama, and early losses to Stanford and Utah. Helton set the tone by talking about the need to get back to work and focus on attention to detail, not by using some false bravado that simply wasn’t genuine.
Of course, the biggest change we saw in this USC team was the move of Sam Darnold into the starting role, and that also told us a lot about Helton. You have to go back to the naming of Max Browne in the first place to understand Helton’s thought process on this one, as it really did have to seem like the right thing for Helton to reward the patient veteran who had done everything right as he waited his turn, even as you had a sense the young back-up might be the better choice.
Helton went with Browne, things did not start as well as he hoped, and he made the decision to switch to Darnold. He called it the hardest move he’s ever had to make to tell Browne he would no longer be the starter. Max was a player he had recruited and had always had a great relationship with, now Helton was in the head coach chair and had to absolutely crush his dreams.
While it was a hard thing for Helton to do personally it was absolutely the right decision for the team, and it turned out to be one of several right decisions that Helton and his staff made on the way to an 8-game winning streak. Suddenly we saw Tee Martin, with help from Tyson Helton, operating the offense with balance behind a new quarterback who was spreading the ball around. A defense under Clancy Pendergast started to get pressure from all angles, including from a d-line under Udeze that got better as the year went along. And the special teams under John Baxter showed tremendous improvement as well.
Helton orchestrated it all and kept the team from getting too high or too low as the win streak began to build, and a lot of people took notice when the Trojans showed up well prepared and focused in Seattle for a decisive victory over a Washington team that is taking part in the college football playoff. The season ending finale against Notre Dame showed another side of the team under Helton, an exuberance and connection with the Coliseum crowd showing their appreciation for what this team has accomplished.
Not bad for a coach who was the subject of intense scrutiny not too long ago but who methodically went to work to make things better, and whose efforts will culminate with a Trojan return to the Rose Bowl. That’s heady stuff for someone who was supposed to be learning on the job and finding his way. If that way continues to lead to Pasadena it won’t be because of flash, it will be because of substance.