Tuesday marked the first time media could attend a practice session as USC prepares to face Iowa in the Holiday Bowl. It also marked the first time Clay Helton was available to the media since athletic director Mike Bohn’s vote of confidence kept him fixed as the Trojans head coach, and the first time offensive coordinator Graham Harrell was available since he signed a three-year extension to remain with the Trojans.
While there was some talk about the Hawkeyes and what awaits the Trojans down in San Diego, much of the post-practice attention was paid to Helton and Harrell, and the circumstances surrounding them both still running things for the Trojans.
“I thought both Mike Bohn and President Folt—the support that they gave me the day they stepped on campus was amazing,” Helton said. “And then to have the opportunity to be back with the kids that I love at a university that I love with a fanbase that I love, what an unbelievable opportunity. And I look forward to the next game, and the next game is Iowa.”
Helton was asked about the surrounding chatter about his job status during the time between the UCLA game and when the announcement was officially made. He said he has “never worried about the noise.” And, ultimately, Bohn’s announcement to the team touched him greatly.
“I’ve had two special moments in my life,” Helton said. “One was when I originally got the job five years ago and the other one was to be able to be in front of the team again and see their reaction. We have a relationship that goes a long way…It’s more personal to me. This is not a business to me. This is not a business to them. It’s a relationship and a family, and when you get to be a part of something that special, it’s emotional. It’s a memory that I’ll never forget.”
Senior wide receiver Michael Pittman never had a doubt that Helton would return.
“That was something that I knew was going to happen,” Pittman said of Helton continuing as head coach. “I feel like he deserves that and I feel like he’s been doing a good job. He’s brought us a lot of stability and I feel like everything is going up. Next year I think that we’ll be even better. I wish I had a fifth year, so I could come back and play.”
Quarterback Kedon Slovis didn’t have doubts as to the futures of Helton or Harrell. While he never specifically asked Harrell whether he would stay or take one of the jobs for which he interviewed—Harrell confirmed that he did interview for head coaching positions, as he reportedly took interviews with UNLV and UTSA, as well as for the Texas offensive coordinator position—Slovis said seeing both coaches around the facility so often gave him confidence that both would be around into the future.
“Obviously you hate to see all the speculation and rumors,” Slovis said of Harrell. “But I wasn’t really worried that anything was going to happen.”
Harrell cited the talent on the field and the people he’s surrounded by here at USC for helping him make the decision.
“To me, the most important thing is the guys you’re around—the people you’re around in the office and the players you have,” Harrell said. “I’ve said it many times since I’ve been here, we have a really special group of, not only young men in the locker room, but a great group of guys that I get to work with every day. That can’t be weighed in anything else. THat’s just something that when you’re there and you have something really special, you know it. And that’s a hard thing to leave.”
The Texas schools seemed like they might have the upper hand in chasing Harrell, as the Texas native could have had a chance to head home.
“Texas will always be home, at the end of the day,” Harrell said. “But my wife, she’s starting to think this is home, I’m afraid… My wife thinks she lives in paradise and my son, he lives with Mickey Mouse and the beach, so what’s not to like?”
Much was made of only 11 practices being listed on the schedule, but it sounds as though Helton is finding ways to get closer to or arrive at the 15 number that he mentioned following today’s practice.
Helton did say getting these practices are “almost like stealing an extra spring, to have these 15 opportunities.” Helton said they had “four great practices” last week–just two were listed on the scheduled sent to media–then mentioned the team will have five practices this week as they prepare as if they are playing a game on Saturday. Helton finished by saying they’ll get five more opportunities next week before the game.
Back on the field
The Trojans got some welcome injury news, as running back Markese Stepp, wide receiver Velus Jones, offensive guard Liam Jimmons and center Brett Neilon were all in full pads and practicing on Tuesday. Linebacker Tuasivi Nomura was also in pads. There was no definitive word from Harrell as to whether Stepp would be available for the bowl game, but Stepp participated in post-practice interviews, which means he practiced the entire session on Tuesday. Harrell said that often even if a player is physically cleared to play, it can take some extra time for that player to mentally get back to 100%, trusting his injury to hold up against contact. Harrell also said that Helton will always error on the side of caution in doing what’s best for the health of the player when it comes to clearing players to participate in games.
Also hitting the field in full pads Tuesday was wide receiver Bru McCoy. This is the first time McCoy has been spotted in full pads, and while he was a limited participant in practice, Harrell said it’s easy to see that he’s a dynamic athlete with good size.
The 20 minutes of media viewing time was spent entirely devoted to stretching and special teams. But the late portion of practice seemed to be pretty spirited, as several plays resulted in a chorus of loud shouts that echoed over the walls. Following practice, running back Stephen Carr performed fumble recoveries while the rest of the offense did up-downs.
Defensive tackle De’jon Benton and offensive lineman Liam Douglass stayed late to work on some individual drills. Munir McClain was not in a jersey, but he stayed after practice to play catch. McCoy also remained on the field well past other players. While Pittman won’t be on the roster next year, the reminder that McClain and McCoy (in addition to John Jackson III) could all be fully unleashed next fall with the returning receivers definitely helps you understand Harrell’s desire to come back and coach this offense.
USC got into some Iowa prep last week. Offensive line coach Tim Drevno said he feels the strength of the Hawkeyes defensively lies in their front seven. Defensive end AJ Epenesa is the star, but Iowa has plenty of big bodies. Drevno compared Iowa’s defensive front to Notre Dame’s–a typical Midwestern team with a physical presence–among the teams USC faced this season. Special teams coach John Baxter echoed the Notre Dame comparison, and also said Iowa reminds him of the good Stanford teams USC has faced, with a lot of linebacker-type bodies.
Austin Jackson is one of USC’s non-seniors with a decision to make regarding the 2020 NFL Draft. Jackson has been mentioned as a possible high selection in the draft, but the junior left tackle said that’s a decision he hasn’t truly thought about yet. He also said skipping the bowl game was something that never crossed his mind.
Helton might also have some decisions to make in the future. Asked about potential staff changed, Helton said he is solely focused on closing out the recruiting class and winning the bowl game. Any staff changes–something he lumped in with looking at and making any necessary changes to the entire program–wouldn’t come until after that.