By Johnny Curren
With the start of spring practice now less than a week away, Clay Helton has to be feeling pretty good as he kicks off his second year as the head coach at USC.
You certainly wouldn’t have predicted this one month into this past season, a point in time when the Trojans were floundering on the field at 1-3.
After inserting quarterback Sam Darnold into the starting lineup in the fourth game, however, USC played like a different team, ultimately closing the campaign out with nine consecutive victories. The season was capped by a dramatic 52-49 victory over Penn State in the Rose Bowl that put the team’s tight-knit, never-say-quit attitude on full display for the entire college football world to see.
And so, with Darnold back – for at least one year anyway – it’s no wonder that expectations are sky-high for Helton and Co. heading into the 2017 schedule, particularly when you factor in the stellar recruiting class that the staff just put together.
This current offseason hasn’t come without its challenges, however, and whether or not Helton is able to ensure that his team isn’t negatively impacted by them in any way is worth keeping an eye on.
To begin with, there is the defection of the well-liked Tommie Robinson. It wasn’t a good look when the now-former USC running backs coach bolted for Ed Orgeron and LSU on Feb. 7, particularly after Helton brought up the continuity of the Trojans coaching staff as one of USC’s big selling points at his signing day press conference less than a week earlier.
To Helton’s credit, it appears as though he immediately went out and filled the vacant slot with a very solid replacement. While nothing is official, there are reports that Indiana’s Deland McCullough will be hired on as USC’s new running backs coach. Energetic and respected, he’s coached a unit at Indiana that has broken 19 school rushing records during his six years on campus there.
But while McCullough looks to be a great hire on paper, the only thing that really matters is how the Trojans running backs ultimately perform under him. We should get an idea how that will play out starting this spring.
Word also got out in early February that placekicker Matt Boermeester, whose 46-yard field goal with time expiring served as the difference in the Trojans’ victory over Penn State, had been suspended from the team for a ‘code of conduct’ issue. No update has been provided on the university’s investigation into the matter since that time, so the question now is, ‘is the team prepared to move on without him?’ Redshirt-freshman Michael Brown is the heir apparent, but is he capable of stepping in right now as a reliable option if he needs to? Does Helton have a backup plan if not?
There are also the key losses from last year’s team to consider. Not only do the Trojans lose senior starters like Zach Banner, Chad Wheeler, Justin Davis, Taylor McNamara, Darreus Rogers, Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, Leon McQuay III and Michael Hutchings, but a trio of underclassmen in Damien Mama, Adoree’ Jackson and JuJu Smith-Schuster.
With a roster that is stocked for the first time since the pre-sanction era at USC, there is little doubt that the Trojans have the numbers to fill those gaps. The raw talent also appears to be there, but perhaps more importantly, have those younger players who have been waiting in the wings developed under Helton and his staff – to a point where they are ready to step in and make an impact?
That question, and many more are sure to be answered soon – starting Tuesday on Brian Kennedy-Howard Jones Field.
The good news for Trojans fans is that Helton has shown an ability to deal with, and to overcome obstacles before, both earlier this season, as well as during his prior two stints as interim coach at USC.
It’s that prior experience, coupled with his father-figure persona and ‘faith, family, football’ mindset that has helped to unite his team, that would certainly appear to point to the fact that he’s more than up for the challenge, and that the Trojans are poised to continue on their forward path.