In this week’s edition of the Roundtable the WeAreSC staffers give their thoughts on the mid-season results from USC coach Clay Helton:
Things couldn’t have started much worse this season for Clay Helton. There was the Alabama game, and we all know what happened there. Then came Stanford, a loss that looks different now that the Cardinal have had their struggles. Things were quickly heading to a bad place before Helton made the move that would change the course of the season when he inserted Sam Darnold into the line-up at quarterback.
Not only has Darnold played well (#1 QB rating in the nation) but there has been a renewed energy come over the team since he took over and we’ve seen it become infectious in all three phases of the game, from players and coaches alike. At some point you have to credit Helton for the turnaround happening on his watch, even as you give an assist to Darnold (or question why it took so long to make him the starter in the first place).
One thing Helton did that doesn’t get talked about much is his focus in practice after the Utah game on a quieter “workmanlike” atmosphere, a move that was designed to focus on attention to detail. The Trojans have gone 3-0 since, although it’s also fair to note the competition level of those October opponents as well. Circle the calendar for the road trip to Washington, how the Trojans battle and compete in that game will be a reflection on where Helton has this team.
While Clay Helton undoubtedly shoulders his fair share of the blame for the Trojans’ rocky start, I think he also deserves some credit for the shift that has taken place over the last month.
The most obvious move of his that has worked out was putting Sam Darnold into the starting lineup. And while a fair argument can be made that he should have named the redshirt-freshman the starter from the get-go, I fully understand why Max Browne, as a veteran leader, received the opportunity first.
In regard to what I haven’t liked, I haven’t necessarily agreed with the way that the reps have been levied out at the tailback position. When healthy, I believe Justin Davis has been the most effective performer at the position, yet he’s been forced to split carries with Ronald Jones II and Aca’Cedric Ware – even in games where he clearly has the hot hand.
The lack of team discipline and the rash of mental mistakes early on this season was also a real negative, as was the offensive play calling, but there has been noticeable improvement in both areas as of late.
As far as moves yet to be taken, I’s still think the team needs to play with greater physicality. While they have started to come along in this aspect, it’s been against weaker competition. In order to compete against the likes of Washington, they still have a ways to go, and I think that the only way they can accomplish this is by increasing the physicality of the practices.
On one hand, Clay Helton is a great guy, the type of guy you can root for and the type of guy you’d want your son to be coached by. As a person, he is undefeated in 2016, and in the face of some intense scrutiny, he has remained the same type of congenial personality through thick and thin. His steady hand is reflected by his team in the sense that even when the club was 1-3, there was unhappiness but a sustained sense of trust with their head coach. Helton’s finest move, no doubt, was eventually making redshirt freshman Sam Darnold his quarterback, which changed the personality of the offense and had an effect on the defense. To those that say that Darnold is making Helton look like a better coach than he is, as Lou Holtz used to say, “It’s not about the ‘Xs” and “Os’ but the Billys and the Joes.”
On the other hand, he has deserved intense scrutiny over his decision-making when it has come to clock management such as his use of timeouts, highly questionable fourth down punting decisions, early poor team discipline both on and off the field as it applies to penalties and team behavior, and a general lack of offensive identity earlier in the season. All these negatives can be traced back to being a rookie head coach with no previous head coaching experience. As for the future, the good news is the team does seem to be improving, and that provides a guarded sense of optimism heading into the final five games of the regular season.