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Clay Helton talks full pads fallout, impacts of Andrew Vorhees and Todd Orlando

USC head coach Clay Helton met with the media on Thursday morning. He spoke about USC’s first fall camp practice in full pads, offered an injury update on two key players, and gave his thoughts on what the return of Andrew Vorhees means to the offensive line and what defensive coordinator Todd Orlando has meant to the entire program.

Helton opening statement: “You blink your eyes and it’s already practice six today. We just finished the acclimatization period and actually gout our first full-pad practice yesterday, which we jumped right into some live scrimmage situations so we can get some much-needed tackling. It’s the first opportunity to be able to get that and I was, to be honest with you, really pleased. We put a lot of investment not only into our tackling drills and our fundamentals, but also ball security situations offensively, and it really was a clean scrimmage atmosphere with not a lot of missed tackles and no balls on the ground.

You always get what you invest in and it was awesome to see that both live and on tape last night and this morning, to be able to see us practice it, and you get what you invest in.

Two big days for us as we prepare for Saturday. Saturday will be another scrimmage atmosphere. We will go to the Coliseum. We are going to go to the Coliseum in the morning to feel what that feels like. We’re going to do that the next three Saturdays, in preparation for an early kickoff against Arizona State.”

Helton on what he took away from Wednesday’s first day in pads:

“I came away yesterday saying there’s still a lot of work left to do. We’re very thankful to have three more weeks prior to the season coming to fruition. But I’m really proud of the kids’ effort and I’m really proud to see our fundamental drill work carrying over to live team situations. Probably the most work we have to do is the continuation and the implementation of some new systems, both defensively and special teams-wise to get rid of that little bit of confusion that creates hesitation. And hesitation in this game will get you beat or get you hurt. But the reps this week and what the kids have accomplished I think have been very good. I’m very pleased right now.

In the team periods, what I was really impressed with was the open-field tackling by the secondary and the linebacking corps. In college football, with our hashmarks, there’s so much grass to cover out in space and that’s been a huge part of college football as we’ve seen probably over the last three or four years with the RPOs and the ability to not only to push the field vertically, but horizontally. I was extremely pleased with the scrimmage, as far as the DBs’ phyiscality and the ability to get the ball on the ground. The linebackers, the thing that I saw that carried over from TO’s (Todd Orlando) drill work to the scrimmage was the ability to separate from blocks and make open-space tackles. Anytime you’ve got a 300-pound man coming at you and he locks up on your, you’re pretty much done. They were able to create separation through contact, get off blocks, not being magnets, getting off blocks and then making those open-field tackles. It was a good first day. Now, we have more to do, but that’s what stood out to me was just the open-field tackling in space. Usually you get to the early part of camp and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, okay, we’ve got to get some people down.’ But we’ve really spent three weeks, both in OTAs and this week, of truly teaching tackling fundamentals, whether it’s gator tackles, whether it’s proper upper-body tackles, getting our head out of place, getting our body in the correct place, and it’s really paid off. So that’s my message to the staff this morning in this staff meeting we’re getting ready to have.”

Helton on the development of wide receiver Drake London:

“I see just the confidence level. I think we saw that in the second half of the season. I always love to be able to see when a freshman walks in, when the light clicks on. And everybody’s different. Robert Woods, it was Game 1. The light just clicked on. For Nelson Agholor, I’ll never forget, it was the Oregon game. All of a sudden it’s Game 5 or 6 and you could see his eyes and you could see everything slow down. And then he goes for about 150 yards worth of catching balls. For Drake it was the second half of the season last year. Really what stood out to me was the Colorado game, where he basically made two huge third-down plays for us, that was able to help us in the fourth quarter. You’ve watched him grow. Everything’s slowed down for Drake. You can see his eyes. You always tell with a freshmen. They either have dear-in-the-headlights eyes, or everything just kind of slows down and they look calm and confident. His confidence is there. And, he went from a high school basketball body, to now a 6-foot-4 plus, 215 to 220 pound receiver that is really a huge target for a quarterback. I like where his confidence level is and I like where his playmaking ability is and I like what he’s done physically to handle the college football game.”

Helton on injury updates, include Bru McCoy and Drake Jackson:

“Bru is actually back. He was in scrimmage situations yesterday, which is very good for him. Drake is still—we’re being a little bit slower with him. Obviously after having a season under his belt and having a little bit of maturity, we’re just being really careful with him. I hope to see him in the near future, but right now we want to be overprotective of his hamstring. Bru is just further along and now he’s been cut loose and really has had some good days back to back. Looking forward to continuing to see his progression.

We’ve had no major injuries. We’ve had some bumps and bruises, but nothing that is detrimental to anybody as far as I see in missing a first game.”

Helton on the development of inside linebacker Palaie Gaoteote:

“I have been so impressed with the relationship between him and TO (Todd Orlando) and his ability to take TO’s coaching. EA has always been an explosive athlete, a raw talent. And Todd has been really, really hard on him, to be honest with you. He has done some hard coaching. I’ve always believed you coach your best players the hardest and that’s what he’s doing with EA. In doing so, EA is becoming a better fundamental football player, in my opinion, just watching early tape here, rather than just that raw talent and relying on ability, he’s becoming a more technician of the game. It’s still early, but I even told EA yesterday how proud I am of him because he’s taking hard coaching. He’s accepting hard coaching, and that’s what great players do. The ability to take advice and transfer it over to team situations, and this is a really good relationship, probably as good of a thing as could have happened to EA in his career.”

Helton on the return of offensive lineman Andrew Vorhees to full health:

“It was like getting a great Christmas present. You forget how big a man and how strong a man that is and how much knowledge the guy have. And when you throw him in there and that experience and the amount of reps he’s had, plus his leadership. He’s just one of those blue-collar guys that sets an example for the rest of the offensive line and our offensive players. It’s great to have him back. Much-needed. Much-missed. And now you’re looking at a line that really is an older bunch right now. There’s a big drop off of youth from ones to twos, so hopefully we can stay healthy, but the experience of that One group, and Andrew is one of those guys that just bring a wealth of knowledge, toughness and experience. It’s great having him back.”

Helton on the tight end position:

“We’ve had the ability with Jude [Wolfe] now maturing, coming off a redshirt year. Obviously EK (Erik Krommenhoek) is a vet. Josh has been around a bunch, also. I see them being more prevalent in the pass game in how Graham is using them. Matter of fact, Jude had a big touchdown catch yesterday for an explosive play. It’s neat to see those guys. Obviously EK’s been a steady force for us for a while, but it was really neat to see Jude get involved and gain some confidence, and really made two or three nice plays in the scrimmage yesterday. One for a big score. I know in these early days, I’ve seen Graham use that tight end position a bunch as far as his personnel groupings, and it’s been nice to see the playmaking ability of those kids in the passing game.”

Helton on working to distinguish the offensive line starters:

“That One group that we’re working right now. You’re looking at Andrew Vorhees and Liam Jimmons, who have both been guards and tackles. You’ve got Jalen McKenzie and Alijah Vera-Tucker, who have both been guards and tackles. And then Brett Neilon, who has been a solid force. So you see that experience across the board, and they’re all juniors and seniors. All these kids that played young are now old, and you can see when they step out there, they’re grown men. There’s not one under 300 pounds. They’re athletic. Most of them are 310-315, so they’re a bigger group, knowledgeable group. It’s what you want to develop an offensive line into being. But the ones that are right behind, that I really think are going to, as we go through this miniature season that is going to be unprecedented as far as what could happen to you. We’re seeing across the country, you could have a positive test where a young man has to step down and the next guy has to be ready. Or an injury and the next guy has to step up. And the guys that have stood out to me, one is Justin Dedich, who actually came in last year and helped us when Brett was down. He’s playing both center and guard right now. And Liam Douglass, I think going into his third season, has stepped forward as a guy we can count on. There’s some young talent that is stepping up. I think a Jonah Monheim, a Courtland Ford has really shined for us. Jason Rodriguez is gaining some maturity. We have this great blend of upper-level experience and talent, and right behind it some really young kids that will be needed this year to contribute, but also I think have very bright futures for us down the road.”

Helton on the petition to allow parents into the stands for games this year:

“I think our state and county have done the right things in trying to make the safest environment possible, and as we’ve seen, things have changed. It seems to be changing each and every month. And so, we’re fortunate to be in a situation right now, and very grateful right now where we’re going to get the opportunity to play as staff and players. I know right now that is a city and state decision. It’s not a Pac-12 decision. It’s not a USC decision. And the city and the state have done what’s best for the community. So hopefully it will change. I know all parents—I’m a parent. I’ve got a son that’s in high school. I would love to see him play as long as it’s safe and the environment is safe. I know the city and state will do the best decision for our community. And as we have been, as Trojans, we’ll always support their decision and respect their decision. Our prayers are that things do continue to get better—that we see infections continue to decline to the point where we are even more grateful to have parents involved in the stands. That’s my prayer. I hope that we continue to see a decline in infection rates and when the city and the state feel like it is time and we are in a safe place, I know they’ll make the right decision for the community.”

Helton on Liam Jimmons’ development and position switch from defensive to offensive line:

“He’s a very unique story, and if you remember he was a tight end/defensive end in high school and was about 240 pounds, and came to summer camp and we absolutely wore him out one day. He earned his scholarship that day, just the way he was able to compete and really able to take coaching. We didn’t quite know what he was going to be just because of his body frame. You knew he was going to be a kid that, ‘Okay, he’s 240 right now, but three years from now he’s going to be a 300-pound kid.’ His heart was in defense when he first came here and we always allow kids to play the position that they want to play at first, and then we judge what is best for the team. I remember Marqise Lee, who we thought was going to be a first-round draft pick corner, came to us and said, ‘Coach, I want to be a wideout. Just give me four days.’ It didn’t take four days. It took four plays and you knew exactly what he was. In Liam’s case, he provided us a great role on the defensive line, but as he grew and we saw his athleticism that could transfer over to offense and the need for a player like himself on offense. We thought that he could flourish there and actually be a pro prospect there. Where he was a contributor on defense, we thought his value and worth would be even more on offense. And credit to him. He accepted that. We defined his role and he accepted his role and now he’s starring in that role. And now he’s got an opportunity to be a major contributor and earn a starting spot. I’m proud of him. Every story is different. Sometimes it happens early for guys. Sometimes it’s like Nico Falah—I remember him being late in his career and really flourishing late and developing late, and now he’s been in the NFL. I see Liam as that same case and proud for him. He’s put a lot of work into it to get to this spot.”

Helton on Orlando’s influence on the entire program:

“I’ll tell you what TO does. He brings an attitude. Not only is he a great fundamental coach, but he brings an attitude with him and it is an attitude of toughness. It’s what our mantra is this year: Toughness, discipline and being united. And that’s on and off the field as we deal with 2020. What’s been nice, when we walked into this camp, our No. 1 priority was for our players to get to know all our coaches because we had missed spring, we had missed being around each other in summer workouts. With the OTAs and with training camp, we actually have put our coaches in front of our team via Zoom, to be able to talk philosophy and talk about our culture. And TO is one of those leaders. We’ve actually flopped fundamental technique work, moving our offensive players to actually doing defensive tackle drills with our defensive coaches, so they get a feel for our defensive coaches. Plus it will help in special teams. Bringing our defensive players over and working with our offensive coaches as far as ball security and learning how to catch the ball properly to help with interceptions and being able to hold onto the ball. I remember Isaiah Pola-Mao at Cal last year, where he made a great pick and then all of a sudden lost it. So what it’s allowed us to do. It’s allowed our players to get a feel for our total football family as a coaching staff, and allowed for the defensive players to get to know Graham Harrell and our offensive staff, and our offensive players to get to know TO and the defensive staff, and get to know us all and what our culture is. TO has been a huge part of that. He’s really brought a great energy and a great attitude of toughness to our entire team.”

Erik McKinney

Erik McKinney began writing for WeAreSC in 2004, during his junior year at USC, covering the Trojans football team and recruiting. He then moved on to ESPN.com in 2011, where he served as the West Region recruiting reporter and then the Pac-12 recruiting reporter. He took over as publisher of WeAreSC in January, 2019.

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