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Notes and quotes from Clay Helton’s Sunday media call

USC head coach Clay Helton spoke to the media on Sunday night, as he reviewed the Trojans’ stunning 28-27 last-minute comeback victory over Arizona State. Helton gave an injury update on center Brett Neilon, shared his thoughts on the defensive performance–of the linebackers, secondary and tackling overall–and his team’s ability to stay focused and complete the comeback.

Clay Helton opening statement:

“Obviously an exciting game and an important win for our team. In this shortened season we know how critical each and every victory is, and this one especially because we knew games in the Pac-12 South in this abbreviated season are ultra-critical. And Arizona State — credit to coach Edwards and his staff and his team — that’s a good football team and they’re going to do some really good things this year, and one of the better teams that we’ll play all season. I thought both teams competed exceptionally well all the way down to the end and we’re fortunate to come out with a win.”

“It’s a win that I think will build a lot of confidence for our team. When you have special seasons, you’re always going to have one of those games that you’re going to have to pull out and have to dig deep and show your mental toughness. That’s what I thought our kids did. I did not see panic. I saw immense poise on the sideline from staff and players, and just looking for the next opportunity.”

“Obviously, a lot to clean up in Game One. You look at the stat sheet and you feel good about 558 yards of offense and holding Jayden Daniels to under 50% completion as well as 134 passing. But there are some critical things that we need to get solved in a hurry as we move from one week to the next. This game will build confidence but it will build reality of how good this team can be with eliminating mistakes.”

“I thought the potential of this team is going to be a lot of fun to watch because I think they can be really special and it starts with the playmakers. I thought Drake London and Amon-Ra St. Brown had a terrific game, and when the plays mattered the most down the stretch, they made them. You know, Kedon, you look at the stat sheet and he’s 72% on the day, puts up huge yard total numbers, but there’s some things that even he and Graham will say hey, we can do this better. I thought as the game went on, he started to feel a little bit more comfortable. And then obviously, the two drives at the end I thought he did a tremendous job of checking the ball down, throwing the ball away, not taking a critical sack. Eleven receptions by the backs in this game. He did a nice job of being able to check down to give them opportunities.”

“I thought Bru [McCoy], coming out for his first game, didn’t look like a rookie. Walked in there, good look in his eyes, made some big plays for us. Obviously, congrats to him on his first touchdown — was a big part of getting the onside kick in the late parts of that game.”

“I thought AVT (Alijah Vera-Tucker) had maybe one of his better games as a Trojan. Had a new position and really had a dominant game, we felt.”

“The runners did their job — 175 yards rushing on the day, 11 receptions. I thought that was critical. That was far above our average from last year. That’s what this team is going to have to do is take a little bit of pressure off of Kedon all the time and be able to create those rushing yards and that was a big part of this win, especially down the stretch. I said this on Saturday but I was really proud of Graham [Harrell] with his patience in those last two drives handing the ball off to Vavae for explosive plays.”

“Defensively, it was Marlon. Tuipulotu was just a rockstar all day. Huge plays, obviously made a huge play in making a tackle on [Frank] Darby that ended up having him unfortunately go out of the game. Eight tackles on the day, two tackles for loss, a key get-down of Jayden Daniels to get us the ball back on third down. I was really proud of him on the day.”

“We played three corners in that game with [Olaijah Griffin, Chris Steele and Isaac Taylor-Stuart], two nickels with Greg Johnson and Max Williams. Lined up in a ton of man coverage on the day, especially when we saw Darby go out. We really challenged them and you look at the last three calls of the game. What unbelievable trust by TO (Todd Orlando) to be able to say you know what, we’re going to get this ball out of his hand quickly and DBs go get it done. They did a heck of his done. Great job by them.”

“It won’t show up on the stat sheet but I thought Drake Jackson provided tremendous pass rush and if you go back to the last play offensively, one of the better pass rush moves I’ve ever seen. On the last play, to hit Jayden and make him force that ball to go short and one-hop to the receiver. Had a very good game.”

“The two specialists, with Ben [Griffiths] and Parker [Lewis]. Parker’s first time out there — thought he did a great job not only on extra points but on kickoffs. Whether it was depth or hang time, being able to get those touchbacks are nice, especially on a windy day and some of those were into the wind. And then Ben. Ben did a really nice job — 46 yard net on the day — did a heck of a job.”

Helton on the injury to starting center Brett Neilon:

“Injury-wise, you know Brett Neilon was our one casualty in the game with an ankle sprain. We’ll see how that goes through the week. You saw Justin Dedich come in, who I was so proud of. We always say you never know when you’re going to get your opportunity and here comes that kid in and there was not one lack of production, and two really important drives. He did a really nice job. We have Justin Dedich, we have Andrew Milek, who is a freshman, as well as Liam Douglass, who also practices at the position. We’ll have those three practicing this week and we’ll see where Brett gets to. He’s a tough kid; we’ll monitor it through the week.”

Helton on the injury to Brandon Pili:

“The other gentleman that you didn’t see at the game, that happened late last week, that actually had finger surgery on Friday was Brandon Pili. He broke his middle finger and had surgery to put pins in on Friday. Don’t know how long that’s going to be. It’s going to be a week-to-week thing. We’ll see how that goes.”

Helton on the ESPN game index that showed Arizona State had a 99.8% chance of winning during the final minutes:

“Thank God for the point two. And thank God for a lot of good men that have trust in each other and never quit fighting. That’s what Trojan Family and Trojan legacy is all about. As I told the kids in the locker room, I’ve been doing it a long time and I can promise you, I’ll be on my death bed and I’ll never forget this game. This, for what it means for this year, to have the opportunity to play that game through all that we’ve been through and then to win it in that fashion, it just speaks to what these kids have done since March and how they’re just resilient and keep on coming back. It provides us a lot of confidence that we can be in a situation like that, and good teams find a way to win. And looking back at it, being another year older, I felt the maturity, I felt the experience on the field that okay, it’s fine. Let’s get this ball, let’s go score, let’s execute, let’s get to the next drive, let’s get a stop, let’s get the ball back. And it was very poised and very professional and just what they’ve done all the way through. I was proud of them. As long as you’ve got a chance, just keep fighting. You’re always in the fight.”

Helton on true freshman Parker Lewis being named the starting kicker:

“Parker has been extremely productive in camp. I know that ya’ll have not gotten a chance to see him live, but extremely explosive leg. I think you saw that in the game. Chase is, in my opinion, one of the better kickers in the country and he competed with one of the better kickers in the country. Chase has been suffering from a little bit of knee tendinitis, hip tendinitis — no fault of his. But the other kid was producing better in the moment going into this game. Sometimes that’s hard decisions and Chase took it like a pro, said coach I’m there for you. I’ll be there for you if you need me. And he’ll continue to get better and get healthier, hopefully, and that pain will go away. And like we always say, we’re always in competition. Parker did a very nice job for his opening game.”

Helton on attempting eight fourth-down conversions:

“I’m always going to be aggressive. I believe in our offense. I think it’s going to be one of the better ones in the country. In that situation, going against an Arizona State team with a Jayden Daniels, I thought points were going to be important. And if you look at the situations, they were fourth and short. It wasn’t like it was fourth and six, fourth and eight. It was situations that I feel confident in our offense and trust our offense. We didn’t get every one of them — matter of fact, two of the fourth and shorts we did not execute to our ability. There were others that we did. I tend to be on the aggressive nature when you have a good offense like we do, which I think is going to be a really good offense. I have faith in them to be able to pull those out. Now, there may be other games that we’re in the lead or just keeping on adding up points might be more valuable, but playing a Jayden Daniels and that offense, I thought touchdowns over field goals were going to be important in that game.”

Helton on splitting reps between the backs:

“I’m hoping that when you look at the number of touches not only in the run game but in the pass game — you see the 11 receptions they had on the day — they’re going to be a major factor. With the amount that hopefully we run the ball and get them those touches, not one back can do it. We had Stephen [Carr], who started the game, had the best camp of anybody, so he started the game. I thought he started it physically. He got a little bumps and bruises as the game went on. We brought Vae (Vavae Malepeai) and Keese (Markese Stepp) in and did a nice job. Then Kenan [Christon] played in our two-back, three-wide series. So we had four backs play in the game. But obviously is one guy is getting heated and we’re running pretty good, you’re going to leave him in to get that flow. You saw that at the end of the game with Vae, that really started to heat up and we left him in. We’ll need all four of those backs. They’re dang-good players, not only offensively, special teams as you’ve seen with the ball in their hands. They’re all very productive.”

Helton on USC’s tackling:

“I thought the perimeter game, we let some big plays out. It really was being in the wrong position rather than a missed tackle. But when you look at the overall offense and holding what I felt was a really explosive offense under 400 yards on the day, it’s a good first outing. I give credit to TO. You get basically four training camp weeks to physically install a defense and go out there and, really kept us in the game when we were turning the ball over offensively. They did a nice job. Is there room for improvement? Yes, there’s room for improvement. But overall, the tackling for the first game out was good. I think we could have forced the ball a little bit better on the perimeter than allowing it to get outside of us.”

Helton on Markese Stepp’s performance:

“I think all of us had rust. He made some nice plays, made some nice runs for it. Remember it’s his first game back after a pretty good injury, and sometimes to be able to get the rust off and gain that experience and get the confidence back and going. That was not only him, but Vavae, coming off a knee surgery. So to be able to come out with a win and gain confidence with those two backs, that’s important. That will help us in the future. I felt both of them grew as the game went on. I feel back for [Stepp] on the fumble. But it’s something that they’ll gain confidence with and they’ll get better with each game. We have a lot of trust in both of those kids.”

Helton on his team’s chances for the College Football Playoff after a one-point win:

“We’re 1-0 and we played a good Arizona State team that I think is going to do some really good things this year. As we improve each and every week this year and build this resume and you see a team that can put up 550 yards-plus a game offensively with the type of playmakers we have and a defense that I think is going to grow and get better each and every week. We’ll see what the resume is at the end. But make no mistake, Arizona State is a good football team. We knew coming in that this was going to be one of the critical steps for us in winning a Pac-12 South championship and getting to a Pac-12 championship. Hopefully we continue to grow and get better. There were a lot of positive things that happened and there’s a lot we have to fix. Number one, the turnovers. I’ve always felt that good teams find a way to win, and if you turn the ball over four times and find a way to win, mercy, you’ve got a good football team. We’ll continue to build on our resume and hopefully get better and better each and every week.”

Helton on the performance of the two inside linebackers:

“For Ralen’s first time out, there were some good things talking to TO and watching the tape and there’s some things that he’ll improve on. There was a missed assignment or two, but for a first time out, you didn’t see any type of hesitation by him, any type of confusion. Pretty solid day, but I know he can play even better.

I hold EA on a pedestal. I think that he has to be one of the more dynamic players on our defense. I think that center of our defense, and I challenged them. They’ve got to be elite, and you look at the tackles in that game. You look at the center of the defense with the two safeties, Marlon and EA. Talanoa leads the way with 10, Marlon has eight, Isaiah has seven and EA has seven. So the middle of that defense were the top three tacklers on the team. That’s what you want. I know TO. He is a perfectionist when it comes to that position, so I don’t know if EA will ever have a great game in his mind, but he was productive and I expect even more from him as the weeks come.”

Helton on what went into the onside kick attempt:

“It’s something that we do practice each and every week. I really thought that the kicker did an exceptional job on his placement of the ball of where it was. A lot of times that ball gets a little too deep and it allows the blocks to happen by the front line, which they were trying to do. And it goes straight to the returner. On that kick, you try to get him off his spot and he got the returner off his spot. Bru, being in, I thought did a great job. He got close enough to the receiver to be able to cause some hesitation. Obviously that ball gets away and then he gets on it and he’s got it in a headlock with his arm just long enough to create the possession. You try to get guys on there that you know can make plays for you and Bru was in a position that we wanted him on there. Another gentleman had gone down and Sean [Snyder] put him on there and he made a 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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