LOS ANGELES – Xavier Grimble recently emerged from the McKay Center and the 6-foot-5 250-pound tight end was all smiles. He had just wrapped up one of his finer practices of the year.
As he walked further away from the USC facility, he ran into his offensive coordinator, Clay Helton.
“Great job today,” Helton told his tight end. “Big tight end day.”
“Big tight end year,” Grimble fired back.
Helton, too, now was all smiles.
The plays called during that Wednesday afternoon practice, much like the ones that will be called when USC returns to the Coliseum to take on Arizona on Thursday night on FOX Sports 1, were called by Helton.
The USC assistant had been the offensive coordinator in title but not the play caller — those duties belonged to former head coach Lane Kiffin.
The job now belongs to Helton who’ll make his debut as USC play caller vs. the Wildcats.
While many USC fans berated Kiffin for staring at his Denny’s menu of a play card constantly or for the beanie or the shades or standing many yards away from his team or whatever else they could find, Helton admired his former boss for his traits as a play caller.
“The game was always in slow motion for him,” Helton said of Kiffin. “He could see things tremendously and he knew how to get to the next play really, really well.”
Thursday will be his first test to show how well he sees things on the field. Before coming to USC, he spent three seasons as the offensive coordinator at Memphis. Twice his offense threatened school records in total yards and points.
Last spring, Helton called plays for USC while Kiffin took a hands-off approach. His voice isn’t foreign and one that has been heard in the USC huddle before.
“Coach Helton is one of the best offensive minds I’ve ever been around and, personally, I feel 100 percent comfortable with him,” Cody Kessler said. “He’s probably the person I’ve been closest to the last two years I’ve been here just because I spend every day with him in the film room.”
Helton’s play sheet won’t be quite as large as his predecessor but he, too, will be on the sidelines calling plays and not in the booth. Wide receivers coach Tee Martin will be moving upstairs to the booth.
It’s a decision that Helton made at the suggestion of interim head coach Ed Orgeron.
“I really think it’s going to help having Clay Helton on the sideline managing the offense,” Orgeron said.
Added Helton: “(We) felt it was in the best interest of our football team for me to be down with a young quarterback, to be down with two young backs, to be down with a young left tackle, to be down with some guys you may need to talk to and communicate with face-to-face and be able to make adjustments when need be.”
If taking over play calling duties in the middle of the season wasn’t a tough enough challenge, he’ll also have to call plays keeping the team’s health into consideration.
Marqise Lee is doubtful for Thursday night’s game, Orgeron announced on Tuesday. Darreus Rogers and De’Von Flournoy will be game-time decisions, which could leave Helton with just two healthy scholarship receivers.
Helton will have to adjust accordingly, but he’s ready for the opportunity.
“As a competitor you always love to be the one that has the opportunity to make the call,” he said. “I’m looking very, very much forward to it.”
As is Grimble.
Thursday could end up being another big tight end day.