by Garry Paskwietz
My number one wish when this coaching search started seven weeks ago was a coach who would return a certain physical identity to the Trojan football team.
A program that had been known for so long as one of the premier bastions of physical college football had seen something slip in recent years. Both of the previous head coaches had talked about wanting to have offenses that were based on running the football but at some point the bubble screen became the play of choice. And the defenses, save for the one year under Clancy Pendergast, have not been what the USC defenses have been known for in the past in terms of an aggressive and attacking style of play.
I really didn’t know if Clay Helton would be the guy to deliver that kind of identity because we simply hadn’t seen enough from him in the head role to know what he would do. But there were names out there, such as Chip Kelly, that you did know what they would do and it would be an identity different than the blue-collar tradition upon which USC football had been built. If the choice had been made to go in that direction, or with an unknown college commodity such as Herm Edwards or Hue Jackson, then there would have been a lot of uncertainty about the future of the identity of USC football.
But then an interesting thing happened during the interim tenure of Helton. We started to see an increased commitment to running the football (USC outrushed opponents by 139 yards per game under Helton) and the son of an offensive line coach began to show that he understood the value of having a strong foundation up front. We began to see production from the defensive line, a group that had been roundly criticized early in the year for lack of production, and before you knew it the defense had garnered 26 sacks under Helton and the line showed signs of being able to control the line of scrimmage.
These were not small developments. These were signs of a coach who grew up at a dinner table discussing pass protections and blitz pick-ups with his father. A coach who was a former quarterback and who also coached quarterbacks but who enjoyed spending time with the Trojan defensive linemen during one-on-one pass rush drills. A coach with substance.
There were some bumps along the way (the Oregon game comes to mind) but ending the season the way we did against the Bruins certainly had to help his chances. Pat Haden made it clear in the press conference introducing Helton as head coach that the UCLA win by itself didn’t get him the job, and he went on to detail what did get it for him.
One of the first things Haden mentioned is the fact that Helton has brought back the USC style of physical football. It was good to hear Haden mention that since it wasn’t entirely clear which direction he was looking to go after his earlier support of the offenses of Kiffin and Sarkisian. He also referred to Helton as a leader of men, a teacher, a mentor.
For his part, Helton was quick to deflect most of the attention during his big moment press conference. He made it clear that he understood he was not the flashy name that some fans sought, but he also reminded everyone that the what we saw on the field was not an accident as far as the style of play he was looking to implement for the Trojans.
“This place was founded on a blue-collar toughness,” Helton said. “I believe that’s what it takes to win championships, and it has been proven here long before me.”
As with every coaching choice, time will tell before we know if it is the right hire and I will freely admit that Helton does not have the long term experience of being a proven head coach. There were certainly some USC fans who were looking in that kind of direction with names such as John Harbaugh or Mark Dantonio, and I can see the merits in both of those coaches.
But when Helton says words like that, and when you’ve seen it in action on the field, it makes me anxious to see where this will go. You have to assume there will be some movement on the assistant coaching staff as Helton will want to bring in some of his own guys, and then it will be his show. His own blue-collar, run the football show.