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Helton, Orlando preview USC spring ball

USC head coach Clay Helton and defensive coordinator Todd Orlando appeared on Monday night’s Trojans Live and delivered a few interesting notes and thought as the Trojans prepare to kick off spring ball on Wednesday afternoon.

* Echoing what Orlando and the defensive coaches said during their media availability last week, Helton was direct in stating that, “This is going to be a very physical camp.” Helton said they will use all eight days they are allowed to tackle. “Coach Orlando likes to hit and he likes to hit a lot,” Helton said, adding that Orlando said it’s going to be full tackle football. Helton said that individual drills and team drill segments will both focus on tackling and that USC is going to “make that a priority and improve at it.” Helton called Snyder a master of his craft when it comes to special teams. He said he brings a different personality and a different way of doing things than former special teams coach John Baxter, but the players have bought in.

* Helton said he’s been impressed with the way the new coaches have come together and the way the team has responded to them. The coaches have been able to work with the players during walk-throughs and in the weight room for the past four weeks and they’ve been able to put the installation in for spring. Helton said there’s a presence and good chemistry with the new staff, and a “really cool vibe right now.

* Helton mentioned that offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker will definitely get a look at the open left tackle position. In fact, Helton said Vera-Tucker is working on snapping right now, and is working toward being able to play all five positions along the line. Helton added that Jalen McKenzie is working on snapping as well. Helton said the most important thing for the offense this spring ball and fall camp is to “establish the five up front.”

* The Trojans will be shorthanded at several positions this spring, as players continue to recover from injuries or surgeries. Helton pointed out that starting on August 1, 30 USC players have undergone surgeries.

* Quarterback JT Daniels won’t participate in spring ball this first week, but Helton said they will see how he progresses over the next couple weeks and he could eventually take part in throwing on air to wide receivers, or in one-on-one situations later this spring. Helton said Kedon Slovis is fully healthy, after he was forced out of the Holiday Bowl due to an elbow strain.

* Wide receiver Drake London and running back Kenan Christon will not be with the football program this spring, as London concentrates on basketball and Christon on track. Helton said he expects both players to return to football this summer.

* Asked about the unheralded players he’s most looking forward to watching on offense this spring, Helton pointed to the two incoming freshmen wide receivers, Gary Bryant Jr. and Joshua Jackson Jr. Helton said both have impressed him and the team with their maturity and he’s excited to see them get their share of reps to show if they’re ready to contribute as true freshmen.

* Of course, they’ll join a loaded group of receivers, even without London. And Helton specifically mentioned redshirt freshmen receivers Bru McCoy and Kyle Ford as he talked about his excitement in watching the offense move from Year 1 to Year 2.

* Defensively, Helton said the most important thing this spring will be to install the new system and form an identity.

* Helton was also asked about bringing in the five new coaches to the program, in defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, defensive line coach Vic So’oto, cornerbacks coach Donte Williams, safeties coach Craig Naivar and special teams coordinator Sean Snyder. Helton pointed to the 46 sacks registered by Virginia last season, with So’oto’s line leading the way, as well as his connection to the West Coast. Helton pointed out that Williams is regarded as a terrific recruiter, but also that he’s an “elite football coach.” And Helton was very impressed with the gameplan and play calling shown by Naivar during a dominating Texas bowl game win against Utah.

* Orlando was asked about coming to USC, and his answer was familiar to what we’ve heard Graham Harrell say about the opportunity. Orlando listed three things he looks for in a job, starting with finding a head coach he’d “run through a brick wall for,” and continuing with a place that gives him an opportunity to win a championship, as well as a place you can continue to recruit players to sustain that championship level. Orlando said there are only a handful of jobs in the country that meet those requirements, and USC is one of them.

* Orlando joked about the defensive coaches going back-to-back-to-back-to-back during their media interviews last week and said they probably should have broken it up with an offensive guy because it sounded like maybe they were promoting UFC with all the fighting metaphors.

* Orlando was very up front in saying that this defensive staff believes it could take some time to get the defense where they want it in terms of that physical, violent mentality. It’s clear Orlando believes this group needs to be put in that “dark place” and find their way out of it, and he said that’s based on watching video and evaluating the personnel. He’s looking to retrain guys and making them learn how to fight. He said guys are going to get knocked around and tossed out, and they have to be able to get back in and keep going. He said one of his directions to strength and conditioning head coach Aaron Ausmus was to put a “shield of armor” on the guys to get them stronger.

* But it’s also clear that Orlando does like a lot of what he has, and he appreciates how many veterans are on that side of the ball and how they conduct themselves as experienced players. “I like where we are up front,” Orlando said, adding that any type of defensive or offense always starts up front. Orlando also made sure to say that a lot of jobs are open right now–and that’s interesting, considering the defense lost just two starters from last year’s team.

* The other Orlando theme–besides fighting through the dark place–came up again, as he again preached the “run and hit” mentality of the defense. Orlando said his message to the defense before Practice 1 will be, “Run and hit,” he said. “Don’t worry about anything and play with zero fear.” The one thing Orlando stresses from his defense is rallying to the ball. He cited how offenses are designed now to get playmakers the ball in space, and how advantageous a one-on-one situation in space is for the offensive player. But once multiple defenders show up, those odds shift significantly. And that’s what he wants from his defense, citing a “fanatical effort” from his players to get to the football.

* Orlando was also asked about his practice field demeanor and whether he is a quiet, contemplative coach during practices. Orlando said, “No,” before the question was halfway over. “I plan on being right behind the crew and running with them,” Orlando said, adding that he wants to be around them constantly just to emphasize the point that the defense only works if they’re all in it together, all giving full effort to get to the ball on every play.

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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