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Full quotes as Clay Helton talks signing day, Pac-12 Championship Game

Clay Helton address the media on two fronts Wednesday afternoon, as the day marked the first day of the early signing period for the 2021 recruiting class, as well as his final media appearance before Friday night’s Pac-12 Championship Game.

Helton addressed both the 20 new player additions USC announced today, as well as the mindset of the team going into Friday’s game, and a potential important injury replacement at running back.

Clay Helton opening statement on Signing Day, and two days before the Pac-12 Championship Game:

“Obviously a busy, yet exciting week for our team and our staff. It’s one of those weeks where you gotta embrace and love the grind and love what college football is all about. In 26 years of being a college football coach, this has been maybe the most unusual but the most fun I’ve had in a week. To be able to have back-to-back short weeks. To be able to have one opponent and then switch an opponent, game plan and prepare, and signing day, has been challenging, but a lot of fun.”

“Starting with our football team, I think they’ve done a tremendous job in their preparation. We have an important practice today we’ll treat really like a Thursday of game week, making final preparations. We’ve really had an opportunity to catch up. I think our staff has done a wonderful job at that on a short week and we’re finalizing putting gin the plan today. And the kids have been in a great space all week. I’ve loved their mental focus and I love their preparation and we look forward to the opportunity to compete with Oregon in a great championship game and try to go 1-0 on the week again.”

“From a signing class standpoint, extremely excited about the 20 young men that we signed this morning. I know this gets said a lot but it filled a lot of needs that we need for the future. This is a veteran team that we have – probably will lose some attrition to the NFL and graduation – and to be able to sign two really talented quarterbacks in Jaxson Dart and Miller Moss was really exciting. A great running back from Texas in Brandon Campbell. Three wideouts that we’re really excited about in Kyron Ware-Hudson, Michael Jackson and Joseph Manjack. Two what we call our Y-bodies that can flex out or attach to the offensive line, push the field vertically at our Y position, in Michael Trigg and Lake McRee. Bolstered our offensive line with Mason Murphy and Max Gibbs and Ty Buchanan. Continued to build on our defensive line. Two huge people in Jay Toia and Ishmael Sopsher, as well as Colin Mobley out of Maryland as an edge player.

Really brought in I think a captain intangibles and a tremendous player at linebacker in Julien Simon. And then we bolstered our back end. After not signing a DB last year, this was an important class for us, and to bring in the three safeties of Anthony Beavers, Calen Bullock and Xamarion Gordon, as well as coverage players like Prophet Brown and Jaylin Smith really has helped us in the back end. Very excited about this group. I think ultra-talented group, but as much as they are talented, they are great people and great students that fit our culture.

Ten of these young men are from the state of California. We continued our west coast footprint, ten from California. One of the top players from the state of Utah, one of the top players from the state of Washington and one of the top players from the state of Nevada. But one thing that I’ve learned about this brand is you can take it anywhere and be successful and we were able to garner four kids in the state of Texas, which has been really good to us the past couple years, one of the top players out of the state of Florida, a great player out of the state of Louisiana and obviously, like I said, a great player out of the state of Maryland.

So 20 young men. We’re right in a great spot right now. Obviously there are some big fish that are yet out there, that when you’re at USC, you’ve gotta compete for, and compete over the next couple of days or if it goes all the way to February. We’re in a terrific place right now for it being the first signing day, and got a little work to do as we continue until February.”

Helton on changing the narrative from last year’s low-ranked recruiting class:

“Last year in only having 12 scholarships and really signing nine of the 12 being big men, you knew it wasn’t going to be an excessively sexy class or maybe a high-ranked class, but it was a class that I thought would help us with championships in the future because I think big men win championships. As we went into this year, the most important thing – I was so excited about our team – but I was very nervous that recruits weren’t going to get to see our brand of football or watch these kids play together and see the excitement of what it means to be a USC Trojan and to see where this team is headed and what it can accomplish. And so I’m so glad that we got the opportunities this fall to be able to play, to be able to show the talent that is on this team and guys coming in and being able to play with that talent and helping us on our way to competing for national championships. And these kids saw that and really drew to it. A lot of these kids have been committed for a long time and it speaks to their character and their rock-solidness for how they felt about our program and our culture and where it’s headed. I’m really happy about today, but more importantly than winning the day, it was really about winning championships. And these men that are coming in are not only talented, but they’re the right guys and they’re the right guys to help us win championships. It’s a good day. We have some more work to do, not only through this week, but through February to finish off this class.”

You know what I really thought happened in this recruiting class – I’m very appreciative for our staff because this was an unusual year. Living in the world of technology and having to recruit with technology, we really felt like relationships were going to be ultra-important and I think one of the greatest gifts you can give somebody is your time. So we duct taped phones and ipads to our heads and then just went as hard as we could in building relationships and spending the time with recruits in gaining their faith, their trust and then putting a product on the field. We’re so glad to have a full boat this year, that always helps. But we also signed some really quality players that can help us in the future. It was a very good day and hopefully we’ll have continued good days in the near future.”

Helton on how they were able to sign two quarterbacks, in Moss and Dart:

“It’s USC. And I’m very appreciative to both young men because they are – in my time here, this is my 11th season and one of the things I know about that room is the guys that walk in that room are not fearful of competition. They welcome it and all they want is a chance to compete. In these two guys’ cases, in evaluating them and getting to know them, first of all they started off having those winning intangibles that a quarterback has to have. Winners win and they’re winners. Obviously they have the mechanical things that you look for, from decision making, timing, accuracy, but they also lift their programs up. And we saw that with both kids. You saw Jaxson this year and what he was able to accomplish at Corner Canyon, winning a championship, putting up the numbers that he did. Really coming on the scene and exploding. And you saw what Miller did. We didn’t get to see him this year play, but we watched him his junior year, what he did for Bishop Alemany, how he raised that program and kind of put it on his back. We’re excited about both kids and they have that intestinal fortitude to believe in themselves, belive in what they can do. They saw that we have not signed a quarterback last year, that there was a two-year gap, and that there was an opportunity to compete at a very young age and play at a very young age. And that’s all you want as a quarterback, is to be able to step in a room, compete and the best guy plays. That’s what this place has always been and always garnered is championship level quarterbacks and we’ve very fortunate to get both Miller and Jaxson. I cannot wait to work with both of them.”

Helton on the rise of Jaxson Dart:

“Really he came on the scene in the fall, and having a chance to watch his tape and how he progressed from his junior to senior year and what he was accomplishing, he has every aspect that you want in a quarterback. And it was his consistency of play that really stood out to me. I’ve always believed quarterbacks are like that great golfer, that great pitcher. They take that swing or they release that pitch and they move on to the next pitch. For him, it didn’t matter if it was a good play or a bad play, he was able to move on and consistently play at a high level. And obviously what he was able to do for his team, he put them on his back and carried them to a championship. So, it was really neat to watch him, and then to get to know him and his family, you can tell that he’s a winner and a winner at heart. It was neat to get to know him this fall. Expecting great things from him and looking forward to coaching him.”

Helton on USC directing more resources to recruiting:

“I’m very appreciative to Mike, the university and the administration for what they’ve done for us. We identified some areas that we needed to strengthen and recruiting was one of those areas, and bolster both resources from a personnel side–personnel assistants as well as recruiting assistants – to the technological side–a video production and graphics and graphic art design–and those things that really jump out at people. And then to acquire a company like J1S and to create BLVD Studios and what that’s going to mean for Name, Image and Likeness in the future, it stands out to recruits. That is a huge piece of this, is the work ethic our staff had, combined with the resources that we were given. You get those two things, you’re gonna have production. I’m very appreciative for both—the work our staff put in and the resources that Mike and the administration gave us.”

Helton on running back Vavae Malepeai’s standing for the championship game:

“Right now, does not look good. He has an MCL sprain, which is usually a multi-week. Has not practiced this week and does not look good for the game, going in.”

Helton on recruiting California and the West Coast better this year:

“I’m really proud of our West Coast footprint. Ten kids from California, one kid from Utah, one kid from Washington and one kid from Nevada, and elite players. Proud of what we’ve accomplished. Like I said, there’s some big fish that are still remaining out there and so the job is not done yet. But from what we acquired today, was very proud of the job our coaching staff did in acquiring where you have to be great at, and that’s at home first. Definitely I thought that not only last year we did it with big men, but this year you really look at the skill positions, especially at the defensive back position, that really stood out to me. This was an unbelievable year on the West Coast for defensive backs and to be able to have a day like we had today was very advantageous for us for the future.”

Helton on the recruiting efforts of Donte Williams and Craig Naivar with defensive backs:

“I can’t thank them enough because the energy and the enthusiasm and the work ethic and the love for recruiting was just evident from Day 1, and the relationship builders that they are. And the product they put on the field, kids can see all of a sudden how much improvement our secondary has had from last year to this year. Talanoa Hufanga has become a national star in front of our eyes. You look at the improvement of Chris Steele and Olaijah Griffin, the years that they have. Isaiah Pola-Mao. So not only is it the work ethic, enthusiasm and energy they bring to recruiting, the kids are seeing gosh almighty, these guys not only recruit, they’re great coaches. And I think that’s what stood out. Donte and Craig may be known as great recruiters, and they are, but they’re even better coaches and the product on the field they’re creating, it was evident to kids and it was really easy. When you saw these kids commit early and then never flinched whatsoever, it speaks volumes to the relationships they had with the kids, but also the beliefs the kids had in them.”

Helton on the team’s resiliency this season:

“I think it really started March, 15, and every day from then to this Friday. Every situation, every adversity that we’ve faced. We were talking about it the other day. I was like, guys, do you remember when we were lifting outside under tents, just hoping for the chance to step on the field and actually play and actually be together as a team. And then walking in and saying, you know what, let’s just try to go 1-0 every week and see where it takes us. See if we can be a part of the national discussion. Let’s see how good we can be in the opportunities that we get given. And maybe it will equal a championship. And so see those kids battle through each and every step, those games that were close may not be won last year. The kids have gotten older, they’ve hardened, they’ve gotten so close and bonded together that this is one of those years they’ll never forget. They’ll be 80 years old looking back at this and saying hey, I was part of a team and part of a family that fought through every possible situation you can imagine in 2020 and put themselves in a place to play for a championship. And hopefully we can do our job one more time and carry a Pac-12 title home.”

Helton on the differences in recruiting this year compared to last:

“I think it’s really a culmination of the resources that we’re given as well as the work ethic of our coaching staff and the relationships that we’ve built. Everybody pulled in the same direction. We had a detailed plan of where we wanted to go. We had the numbers, which was very important this time around. And we knew exactly what we wanted to accomplish and who we wanted to accomplish it with. And we were able to have some early success in the spring and in the summer, and by building those relationships, we held onto those relationships for the most part. That was an important piece. And then you look up towards the end, we’ve garnered some great additions today and hopefully we’ll continue that in the near future. I think everybody pulling in the same area, the work ethic that’s happened and the resources that have been given. I’ve got a great staff, from a coaching staff, a recruiting staff, an operations staff, graphic design staff, video production staff, they’re all in it. We’re all in it together and we have this enormous text thread and we celebrate all wins. It’s hilarious to be able to see these guys celebrate every win and every kid and just celebrate each other. It wasn’t about oh, this guy signed this guy, this guy signed this guy. It was just a whole building, a whole floor, the third floor of this JMC (John McKay Center) that just celebrated every recruiting victory together. It was really neat to see. It was a lot of fun. I felt that one unit, one goal, and everybody celebrating every win and really didn’t care who got the credit. It was about our team and our university and we’re reaping benefits today because of it.”

Helton on USC’s perceived lack of respect in the CFP rankings:

“I’ve always thought respect is earned. When we went into this we knew we were behind the sticks. Our goal was to be 1-0 every week. We felt like wins were important and somehow, someway our chance of being recognized nationally would need to be an undefeated season with the number of games that we had. We did lose a game (Colorado cancellation), which was unfortunate, but we have a chance to build a resume of six games and show who we are. I am biased, and you have to realize that. I’m the head coach at USC and I love these kids and I love what they’re about. Do I feel like we’re a top-10 team? Yes. The committee’s job is to pick the four best teams and they’ve done a wonderful job. Our job is to go 1-0 every week and we have a chance to go 1-0 this week. Not everybody gets a chance to play in a championship game this week and be a Pac-12 champion or a conference champion. So this is a huge week for our resume and we’ll see where it takes us. Obviously you gain respect by earning it and we’ve got to go out there this week and earn more respect. That’s what’s kind of got a chip on our shoulder right now, so we look forward to the next opportunity.”

Helton on the dynamics of recruiting a second quarterback:

“We had a great quarterback in Miller Moss that we were able to commit in the spring. And to be able to evaluate Jaxson and to see his talent level and to bring two great quarterback in that room, that we both knew had competitive hearts and didn’t care who was in the room. It takes a lot of courage to just walk in the room and say hey, Kedon Slovis is there. Imagine that. And then to have two quarterbacks walk in the room at the same time just speaks volumes to who those guys are. We came into the recruiting process knowing that we had skipped a year last year, that we needed to sign two. What I’ve always said with quarterbacks, just be clear, be transparent, be honest, tell them exactly the situation, what you plan on doing and let them make the choices for themselves, and those guys that want to be in that situation will choose it. And credit to both those kids, to say you know what, I know how important it is to be at USC, not only for my football career, but my academic career and my life after football. That’s why kids choose USC, especially at the quarterback position. And so both those kids chose. Good for them. Both those kids wanted to compete. Good for them. We’re very fortunate because we’ve got two good young men walking into this program.

“We, after watching Jaxon’s film, we thought that he was a special talent just like Miller. To see what he was doing with his football team and producing a championship, it was clear that this is somebody that we wanted to recruit. Was, again, very communicative to all the quarterbacks that we were recruiting. And credit to Jaxson. He said coach, this is a wonderful opportunity and I’m going to investigate it. I want to build a relationship. And at the end of the day, it’s what he was looking for. It’s always about finding the right fit for a kid and he found his right fit, and he’s the right fit for us. It’s awesome to be able to acquire two great quarterbacks that are going to compete against each other, but it was really neat to watch that kid play this year and see the bright future that he has.”

Helton on Markese Stepp:

“I think Markese is on the verge of exploding. It has not been the easiest of roads in dealing with an injury, especially the one he had, at running back. And then to go through some dings early in this season. But what I appreciate about Markese, is when he’s called upon, he does his job. And he was called upon in a critical moment last week on a third-and-short where we needed a powerful back to make a play when Vavae wasn’t feeling all that great. And to walk in there and to do his job and get that first down for us, spoke volumes to the kind of kid he is and the type of competitor he is. Now all of a sudden you look and Vavae’s probably not playing in this game, now your role increases and gets even bigger. I can’t wait to watch him play. I know he’s looking forward to it. His practice yesterday might have been the best practice of the year for him, the way he was racing up and down. He took every ball and I’m talking about ran out of the back of the endzone, going 100 miles an hour. It’s neat to see his enthusiasm and how excited he is for this week, and I look forward to watching him play. I really do. I think he’s right on the verge of doing something special and we need him to. I look forward to it.”

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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