by Johnny Curren and Garry Paskwietz
With Notre Dame coming up on Saturday, new USC interim head coach Clay Helton led the Trojans through a high-energy, full-pads practice session that began with a board drill that set the tone for the entire workout.
“Competition Tuesday is about running the ball and stopping the run — that wins championships, and it’s done with your big men,” Helton said. “We were all together in that huddle today. We had one man down. It was big man on big man. Then it was big man on big man again, and then it was linebacker on tight end, and then we went wideout on DB, and then we even put in the punter and the kicker, and we let them be involved. These kids love to compete, and we’ll keep doing that for them. As we said in our meeting, iron sharpens iron, and another man sharpens another, and that’s what we did today.”
Helton said he will try to keep that upbeat, competitive atmosphere going throughout the rest of the season.
“We had a blast, and that’s one of the things that we’re going to do over the next eight games,” Helton said. “We’re going to have a lot of fun, enjoying each other and doing it our way.”
As for the Fighting Irish, currently ranked No. 14 in the nation, Helton said that his team is well aware of the challenge that they pose.
“We’re extremely excited to have the chance to go to Notre Dame and compete against a very, very good football team,” Helton said. “I commend Coach [Brian] Kelly and his staff. They were in a situation last year with several injuries, and the way they have come out of this is tremendous by them. They’re a very competitive football team that is very well coached. It’s a tremendous challenge, and it’s going to take every day, and every minute of work to be able to do this.”
– Helton confirmed earlier reports that center Max Tuerk is out for the season with a torn ACL. He will undergo surgery at some point in the near future.
– Defensive lineman Claude Pelon (knee) will not play against Notre Dame.
– Helton said that wide receiver Steven Mitchell is “probably” out with an ankle injury. He did not practice on Tuesday.
“We’re taking it day-by-day,” Helton said. “To be honest with you, it does not look great right now.”
– Wide receiver Darreus Rogers participated in the entirety of practice, and Helton said that it looks “very promising” for him to play on Saturday.
– Cornerback Iman Marshall, who went to the sideline against Washington after taking a big hit, took part in the entire practice session for the second consecutive day, going with the No. 1 defense.
News and notes
– In a Reflection of his new duties as head coach, Helton was observed spending time with the defense as well as the offense during some of the 11-on-11 service periods.
– In anticipation of Saturday’s game, crowd noise was piped in during a portion of practice.
– During an early one-on-one drill, cornerback Kevon Seymour came up with a beautiful leaping pass deflection on a deep bomb to Isaac Whitney.
– With Tuerk out, the Trojans continued to go with an offensive line that featured Chad Wheeler at LT, Damien Mama at LG, Toa Lobendahn at C, Viane Talamaivao at RG and Zach Banner at RT.
– Tailback Justin Davis had a very busy practice running the ball. Tre Madden appeared to get most of the day off.
– ‘Will’ linebacker Osa Masina continued to take some reps with the No. 1 defense.
– J. Davis opened up practice with a short run before getting swarmed by Delvon Simmons and a host of others.
– Uchenna Nwosu stopped Ronald Jones II after a short gain.
– Rasheem Green and Noah Jefferson combined to stop Jones for no gain.
– Kenny Bigelow stopped Dominic Davis after a short gain.
– J. Davis ran outside for a gain of seven or eight yards before Marshall made the stop.
– Jones ran up the middle for a gain of fiev or six yards.
– Nwosu and a host of others leveled Aca’Cedric Ware for a loss.
– Max Browne hit Jalen Greene along the sideline for a 60-yard touchdown over John Plattenburg.
– Cody Kessler hit JuJu Smith-Schuster for a seven or eight-yard gain before Anthony Sarao made the stop.
– Kessler again hit Smith-Schuster for a gain of eight yards before Lamar Dawson made the stop.
– Kessler hit Deontay Burnett outside for a gain of around 20 yards.
– Kessler tried to hit Connor Spears outside, but Plattenburg delivered a big hit and the ball fell incomplete
– Kessler tried to hit Adoree’ Jackson over the middle, but Plattenburg broke up the pass.
– Kessler hit Smith-Schuster over the middle for a gain of 20 yards before Jabari Ruffin made the stop.
– J. Davis broke off an eight-yard run before Ruffin made the stop.
– Green tipped a Kessler pass at the line and it fell incomplete.
– Kessler connected with Whitney outside for a gain of close to 20 yards.
– Browne hit George Katrib outside for a gain of eight or nine yards,
– Scott Felix dropped James Toland IV for a loss.
– Kessler hit Greene outside for a gain of around 20 yards.
– J. Davis ran outside for a gain of 10 yards before Plattenburg made the stop.
– Kessler hit Spears for a gain of around 15 yards before Quinton Powell made the stop.
Pat Haden – Clay Helton media session
USC athletic director Pat Haden and interim coach Clay Helton met with the media today after practice and here is a recap of what both of them said.
Helton started off by saying “we love coach Sark. He’s a good man and a good football coach”. It’s pretty clear this sentiment is genuine from someone like Helton, who made it clear he wasn’t going to comment on anything personal with Sark because “I’m not one to kick a man when he’s down”.
This is the 2nd interim stint for Helton after coaching the Trojans in the 2013 bowl game and he said one thing he’s learned for this opportunity is that “you have to be yourself. Kids can smell fakeness in a heartbeat”.
He focused on 2 things – 1) the fact that he has a “tremendous” staff. He will move Marques Tuiasosopo to QB coach, and Lenny Vandermade will coach tight ends. Helton will continue to call plays. 2) the players. Helton said he was extremely humbled, as he had been in the profession for 21 years and will never forget the standing ovation the players gave him when Haden introduced him to the team as the interim coach.
This is not a knock on Sarkisian at all but the promotion of Helton has been a very popular move. Clay brings solid credentials to the table, he’s the son of a longtime coach, and he’s been with the program long enough to have familiarity with all the players on the roster.
Helton also acknowledged “I want to be the head coach, but I also understand the reality of this position, you need to prove yourself”. He said the first thing he is, is an educator “I might as well be a high school teacher”.
He said the Tuesday practice was one of the toughest in terms of competition, with a physical element of “big man on big man” football.
Helton said the thing he learned from Coach Orgeron as an interim coach was how to bring people together as a family, and to that point the team will be having a family dinner tonight.
Haden came up to the stage and talked about how the past few days have been very difficult, to have to terminate Steve Sarkisian, someone he sincerely likes. But he also said that Sarkisian did not meet the standards of the head coach, standards that had been reviewed thoroughly after the Salute to Troy incident.
He then addressed the fact that he didn’t discipline Sark or take any action after STT. Haden said it was because the players had been through so much previously with sanctions and coaching changes that it was in “the best interest of the players and Steve not to suspend him at that time”. He added “I felt a great deal of compassion for Steve and felt he deserved another chance”.
Haded said he investigated any “credible” report that came his way from that point on about Sarkisian behavior and any potential issues.
As for the vetting process of hiring Sarkisian in terms of any previous issues, Haden said he “owned the process” and that he used a search firm, along with NCAA and USC background checks, and talked with dozens of people who had known Sarkisian for years, including his previous time at USC, and none of them raised a concern. One of the reporters pressed him on the vetting topic and Haden said “you can disagree with the vetting but he was vetted”.
He said there would be no comment on any candidates or timetable for a decision on the next head coach.
It was clear at one point that Haden felt he was being pressed by the media and he said “I know who I am, I know what I stand for and what I’ve been asked to do. Are we doing everything right? No. This happens in college football, there will be upwards of 20 coaching changes across the country this year, but I will get this right.”
And to that last comment, as far as anyone who thinks Haden may step aside from the job anytime soon, USC president Max Nikias issued a statement on Tuesday morning in support of his athletic director:
“As president of USC I am very, very fortunate to have Pat Haden as our Athletic Director – as is the entire Trojan Family. He is a man of true character and integrity, he cares deeply for our student athletes, and he always makes their well-being his highest priority. Pat Haden has been doing an outstanding job in leading Trojan Athletics in the past five years and I want to take this opportunity to reiterate my unwavering support for him. I look forward to working with Pat Haden as our USC AD for many years to come.”
Haden made it a point to list many of the accomplishments during his tenure, including number of overall national titles won, academic improvement and fund-raising.