LOS ANGELES (AP) Clay Helton is only guaranteed seven games in charge of the storied Southern California program. He intends to spend every day of his tenure making sure the Trojans have fun while winning as many games as possible.
You know, all the simple stuff about football that can get overlooked when your coach gets fired at midseason.
Helton is using his half-season as USC’s interim coach to let his players have their say on most aspects of the Trojans’ beleaguered program. The coach’s open-door policy is cited by his players as one factor in the revitalization of the Trojans, who narrowly lost at Notre Dame in Helton’s debut before trouncing No. 3 Utah 42-24 last weekend.
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USC (4-3, 2-2 Pac-12) visits California (5-2, 2-2) on Saturday.
”I think any smart coach is going to listen to his players,” Helton said. ”They have great ideas, and you want to get the feel of the team. I’m just a ball coach trying to improve a team each and every week, and a lot of times you have to listen to your players. How their bodies are, how they’re feeling, their bumps and bruises, what they need to work on. Sometimes they come up with great ideas.”
For instance, quarterback Cody Kessler proposed USC’s pregame decision last week to defer possession after winning the opening coin toss, allowing the defense to get the first crack at the Utes after Helton preached defensive toughness all week long.
”You’ve always got to listen to your players,” Helton said. ”(Kessler) said, `Let’s let them go make a statement.’ It showed confidence in them to go and get the job done, and they did.”
For the Trojans’ veterans, Helton’s ascension to Steve Sarkisian’s post has put them in mind of their last midseason coaching change two years ago, when Ed Orgeron took over for Lane Kiffin and sparked another late-season surge.
”We’re starting to get back to the way we ran the team with Coach O,” tailback Justin Davis said. ”Everybody is involved with how we make decisions. Coach Helton is asking us what you guys want.”
Most Trojans say Sarkisian also was open to dialogue and suggestion, but the nothing-to-lose vibe that inevitably comes along with a midseason coaching change has encouraged free discussion. Helton also has emulated Orgeron’s decision to emphasize simple, physical play, hoping to remind USC’s long list of superior athletic talents of its ability to simply outplay opponents at times.
”We’ve got a lot of talent on this team, but you have to use it,” linebacker Su’a Cravens said. ”We still feel like we control our destiny. We have heart, and we’ve showed that all year.”
The Trojans are building togetherness on and off the field. The team has regular movie nights now, along with catered Tuesday dinners from local restaurants – barbecue one week, Italian the next.
Helton said his first two weeks on the job have underlined the importance of his football relationships, a principle taught to him by his father, Kim. The career coach led the University of Houston while Clay played quarterback there.
”It’s not all about X’s and O’s and schemes,” Helton said. ”It’s about your trust in them to get the job done and their trust in you. That’s been built over six years. We saw the effects Saturday.”
Helton also translated that belief into practice.
The offensive coordinator spends extensive time with the defense these days, particularly the line. Helton also has placed a team-wide re-emphasis on fundamentals of blocking, tackling and play execution, determined to fine-tune the smaller points of the Trojans’ game.
”We’re starting to pay dividends, especially in the pass-rush area,” Helton said, pointing out seven sacks and numerous additional pressures in the past two games. ”This practice field has always been about competition.”