His absence mattered most of all. The absence of his name, precisely.
Expunge Lane Kiffin, USC fans said, and we’ll be happy. Rid us of this era, and we’ll get on board now for the next one.
And so, after the fifth game of the season, USC athletic director Pat Haden did. In the middle of the night, after returning to Los Angeles from USC’s ugly loss at Arizona State, he told Kiffin that was enough.
Players, students, alumni, boosters, your average nut – everyone mildly or maniacally associated with USC football seemed frustrated. They had a head coach known for his offensive genius who couldn’t craft even a remotely threatening attack.
They had a receiving corps more talented than most, yet USC fans were treated to a choked and conservative passing game that ranked 54th in yards per attempt (7.5) during Kiffin’s five games. Instead of letting the field breathe, Kiffin served up bubble screens and a run game that, at 4.63 yards per pop, quivered at 57th among FBS schools.
All that will change, Haden relayed to program supporters with his disposing of Kiffin. With Ed Orgeron now the head coach and Clay Helton the offensive coordinator and playcaller, things will be different. And they have been.
Six games, and five victories, in with the new leadership, and USC is averaging 6.42 yards per play (8.52 before facing Stanford), which would rank 24th nationally over a full season, ahead of prolific offenses like Clemson and Oregon State. Helton brought a few ideas, and USC fans have been pleasantly surprised.
Finally, they thought, our offense has escaped Kiffin’s grip.
“I became a better coach by being around Coach Kiffin,” Helton said over the phone last week. “[He] taught me the USC system here that’s been very successful and won national titles.”
The first thing Helton did upon taking over USC’s offense was see how he could adapt Kiffin’s philosophy – the “USC philosophy” – rather than try to overhaul it like many wanted.
He could have tried. He spent a decade at Memphis running a spread before coming to SC in 2010. He could have turned all hell loose on the field, slinging passes everywhere and ambushing defenses. An aerial-heavy assault even fit his preconceived notions of Kiffin.
“I thought Coach Kiffin was a throwing guy, but his knowledge of the run game was extraordinary to me,” Helton said, reflecting on what he picked up around Lane. “In the spread, you don’t really have a lot of runs. So I [learned] about zone offense and the importance of the run game in this system.”
Helton knew, with the players having dedicated months to the current system, he couldn’t make a full-sale change in the middle of the season. Too much information to process, too little time. Instead, he evaluated strengths and ways to reconstruct individual genes of the offense’s DNA, beginning with the most familiar to SC.
“We felt we had really talented running backs and the ability to run the ball and then play-action,” Helton said.
The idea wasn’t new – Kiffin did that – but something else was: the staff’s perspective of Javorius “Buck” Allen.
Buck Allen has become a star in the last few weeks.
A third-year sophomore running back, Allen never got a full look as a featured back under Kiffin. He ran well in fall camp, and Kiffin credited part of Buck’s emergence to a change in running back coaches from Kennedy Polamalu to Tommie Robinson. "Sometimes when change happens, whether it’s an entire staff, head coach or a position coach, guys get new chances," Kiffin said in August. "They get clean slates.”
But how clean was it, really? Buck played in three of Kiffin’s five games this season and played well, averaging 5.9 yards per carry, but couldn’t get more than 14 attempts. Oddly enough, it took until Kiffin’s firing for Buck to get a fuller shot, finally breaking through with 133 yards and three TDs against Oregon State and following that up with 135 yards and two TDs (on six carries), plus a receiving TD, against Cal.
Was it injuries, his own improvement or a newfound opportunity with a new coach that led to Buck’s breakout? “I think it’s some of all of those things,” Helton said.
The Trojans had a full backfield that held Buck back, but that’s withered away.
Silas Redd, who didn’t play in any of Kiffin’s five games due to a left knee injury, became a featured part of the run attack for four games before tweaking hurting his right knee against Cal and missing the Stanford game. Tre Madden entered the season on fire, with 100 yards rushing in four of the first five games (and 93 in the other) but then hurt his hamstring and hasn’t been the same since. Justin Davis was part of the mix before hurting his ankle against Notre Dame and undergoing season-ending surgery.
And here’s Buck, still standing.
I asked Helton what’s changed about Buck’s in the last month, and he, inadvertently, pointed to an element that was overlooked by Kiffin.
“He does a tremendous job in the outside running game because of his speed and power, but we like to utilize him in the pass game, too,” Helton said. “He has tremendous hands and is a good route runner.”
Buck as a receiver has been something like a revelation for USC. He caught four passes for 41 yards against Oregon State and four more for 58 yards against Stanford. At Cal, he took one throw to the house for a 57-yard touchdown. In total, he has 12 catches in six games under Helton. He didn’t catch one pass in the five games with Kiffin.
“He’s always had the talent,” Helton said.
After scoring seven points in a home loss to Washington State in Week 2, USC posted a YouTube video the following Monday with Kiffin telling the greater Trojan world he was naming Cody Kessler the full-time starter at quarterback over Max Wittek, hoping this was the first step towards at least a semblance of offensive solidarity and spark.
For whatever reason, it didn’t catch with Kiffin. Only twice in five games did Kessler attempt 20 or more passes, relying mostly on the run and a strong defense (both still staples) to win. Instead of allowing Kessler to stretch the field a bit, short and intermediate passes became the norm.
That’s also loosened under Helton. In the first five games of the season under Kiffin, USC had 37 passes of 10-plus yards, 11 at 20-plus and five at 30-plus. In the six games since under Helton, it has 53 tosses of 10-plus yards, 21 of 20-plus and 11 of 30-plus.
It’s lifted the pass game under Helton to 8.65 yards per attempt, which would rank 14th in the country over a full season. A lot of that, of course, is Kessler.
“We stress three things: decision making, timing and accuracy,” Helton said. “He’s really progressing. His timing has improved about getting the ball out on time and seeing things – making the anticipatory throws. He has a high percentage and is checking the ball down. He’s managing the offense.”
The rest of it has come from a dash of tempo Helton has brought from his Memphis days and unleashing every offensive weapon he has. Helton implemented some no-huddle against Arizona and Utah, and he’s limited the shifts, motions and personnel groupings, keeping the same set of players on the field for several plays in a row.
“[This] gets us in and out of the huddle quicker and snapping the ball quicker,” he said.
Now, the Trojans are cycling in receivers who didn’t used to play, selling the idea that the ball will make its rounds, and leveraging assets that were once underutilized, like receiver Nelson Agholor. It took Agholor two weeks under Helton to rack up more catches (13) than he had in the first five weeks of the season under Kiffin (11).
They’re looking for opportunities to play faster, following opponent three-and-outs with a cranked up pace, and pushing the ball downfield when able. The Trojans are, you know, operating like they have a quarterback who was once also recruited by Alabama and other elite programs.
Gone are the times when the Coliseum roared at the sight of an incomplete deep ball.
Before Helton goes off to coach his offense, he mentions one other principle, in addition to run-game nuances, of Kiffin’s he kept: the ability to get personnel matchups.
Helton mentions Xavier Grimble, the 6-foot-5, 250-pound tight end who’s matchup kryptonite for opposing defenses.
“Gosh, he’s my favorite toy,” Helton laughs, and I can almost hear the pain in his voice because Grimble’s missed three games this season with an ankle injury.
Helton has charmed USC fans in a month-and-a-half by building on the offensive infrastructure of the man they no longer wanted a part of. He’s kept some pillars in place and tweaked some others, all for the better as the production suggests.
But now he’s talking about this ability to visualize things, to see the movement of chess pieces while they’re still in place, yearning for it as if it’s a level of mastery he has yet to know.
“It’s about seeing a weakness rather than just diagnosing plays,” Helton says, and if you zoom in close enough, you can see Helton in strong pursuit of this last thing Kiffin left, while the loud voices around SC happily head the other way.