When Notre Dame beat USC to seal the first losing Trojans season since before Pete Caroll was hired, many expected USC head coach Clay Helton’s tenure to be over. An airplane circling the Coliseum kindly suggested Trojans athletic director Lynn Swann make that decision. “Lynn Swann — Please Fire Clay Helton.”
Swann did not, instead issuing a statement announcing Helton’s retention. Declaring a lack of change is not usually something that needs to be done.
USC and Helton still made some moves, following the model created by Irish head coach Brian Kelly following his similar season in 2016 — retain the head coach, turn over most of the coaching staff, hope the stocked roster rebounds.
In retrospect, it is somewhat surprising how quickly the Trojans’ season spiraled. They were 4-2, having beaten two division foes. A run at a national championship was off the table, but USC still very much controlled its own fate in the Pac 12. The Trojans proceeded to lose their next two conference games, all three of its remaining contests against South Division opponents, and could only claim a victory at cellar-dweller Oregon State.
In that 1-5 closing span, USC lost four times by one possession, after beginning the year 2-0 in such games. Of course, that included the 24-17 defeat to the Irish.
Perhaps even more incriminating, the Trojans also lost four times last season in games in which they at one point held double-digit leads, again including against Notre Dame.
WHAT USC LOST
Let’s focus on the players before delving into the key piece of coaching drama. The Trojans lost less talent than they would in most offseasons, sending only seven players to the NFL with only four drafted. That makes sense from a logical perspective: A bad team does not produce as much individual talent.
The secondary lost the most, with cornerback Iman Marshall getting drafted in the fourth round and safety Marvell Tell in the fifth. Linebacker Porter Gustin signed with the Saints as an undrafted free agent, a fall at least somewhat precipitated by Gustin’s injury history; he managed to get into the starting lineup only five times last year.
Offensively, the biggest loss will be second-team All-Pac 12 right tackle Chuma Edoga, a third-round draft pick. He had spent years clearing the way for running back Aca’Cedric Ware, another undrafted free agent.
ABOUT THE OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR
Did USC gain an offensive coordinator? Eventually. Did the Trojans lose one? No, they lost two, only one intentionally.
Two games into that late-season skid, Helton took over the play-calling duties from offensive coordinator Tee Martin, putting the writing on the wall for Martin’s eventual departure.
Helton then targeted recently-fired Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury as his new offensive coordinator. Best known as a leading Air Raid disciple, Kingsbury figured to slide in and return the Trojans to scoring averages in the mid-30s, as had been the case in the previous four years (35.8 in 2014 to 32.6 in 2017 as both the bookends and the peaks of that stretch). After agreeing to a deal in Los Angeles, Kingsbury then took the head coaching job with the Arizona Cardinals.
Scrambling, Helton stuck to the Air Raid thought process and hired Graham Harrell from the same position at North Texas. Harrell, to simplify his trajectory, is Kingsbury but a stage or two behind him on the career path.
WHAT USC GAINED
As far as transfers go, the Trojans pulled in only Tennessee graduate offensive lineman Drew Richmond. He started 25 games with the Volunteers and should help USC replace one of the three starters it lost.
No matter the on-field struggles, the Trojans can still recruit, another similarity to 2016 Notre Dame. Of the notable signees who may impact this season, the list does not begin with USC signee-turned Texas transfer-turned USC roster member five-star receiver Bru McCoy. McCoy’s appeal for immediate eligibility — he did technically transfer — has not been upheld or dismissed by the NCAA, but the expectation is he will not be eligible.
Rather, two four-star defensive backs and four-star early enrollee defensive end Drake Jackson may be called upon. Jackson, in particular, earned rave reviews during the spring and has the markings of a three-year player.
For all that he has already done, both in winning and in losing, it is hard to remember Helton is entering only his fourth full season as USC’s head coach. That may be, in part, why Swann opted to retain him. Giving a coach only three years is an awfully-short leash and one that would not make the position look promising to other potential candidates.
Helton has won a Pac-12 title and a Rose Bowl, as well as appeared in a Cotton Bowl. He has won double-digit games twice. But he has also gone 1-2 against the Irish, 1-2 against Stanford and endured a spiral that became a national joke.
That joke led to Helton replacing five different assistant coaches and moving another, as well as hiring a new strength and conditioning coordinator. (Again, sound familiar Notre Dame fans?)
Lest anyone think these repeated parallels to the Irish of two seasons ago are forced to fit only this space, note a line from Swann’s statement announcing Helton would “continue” as the Trojans head coach.
“We see top programs across the country have down years and the fans want to change coaches. In fact, it happened a few years ago with [Notre Dame], but that administration remained committed to their head coach, who made some key changes, worked hard to fix things and got his team to improve markedly.”
Any offense transitioning from a first-round draft pick to a true freshman quarterback should be expected to regress. J.T. Daniels (pictured at top) played well last year, but not well enough to push forward the offense as the defense failed to shut down opponents. He completed 59.5 percent of his passes while throwing 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Nominally, Helton and Harrell insist there is an ongoing quarterback competition between Daniels and junior Jack Sears. That is a nice thought, but it will be shocking if Daniels does not start.
As the offensive line replaces three starters, Daniels will hope for enough time to utilize the skill position talent on the Trojans roster. It is there, it is apparent, and it is bountiful, particularly at receiver. USC returns its top three receivers in Michael Pittman (41 catches for 758 yards and six touchdowns), Amon-Ra St. Brown (60 catches for 750 yards and three scores) and Tyler Vaughns (58 catches for 674 yards and six touchdowns).
Harrell’s version of the Air Raid likes to distribute the ball around to as many playmakers as possible. Those three receivers, as well as some of the aforementioned freshmen, should continue to split touches, preventing a defense from focusing on any one of them.
Similarly, the Trojans will rely on a fewrunning backs, primarily junior Stephen Carr, if healthy after fighting back and ankle injuries. In limited action, Carr took 81 carries for 384 yards and two touchdowns. He will be supported by junior Vave Maleapeai (93 carries for 501 yards and eight touchdowns) and former Notre Dame commit Markese Stepp, a sophomore.
Their improvement may be most crucial to Harrell rallying from a 26.1 points per game average. In 2017, USC ran for 185 yards per game and 4.8 yards per rush; last year those figures fell to 134 and 4.1.
Despite injuries plaguing the unit, the Trojans defensive performance did not lag all that much, allowing 26.1 points per game in 2017 and then 27.0 last year. Only five starters return, but a number of others gained experience amid those moments of attrition last season.
The strength will be the defensive line, led by second-team All-Pac 12 junior defensive tackle Jay Tufele and buoyed by the return of senior end Christian Rector. While Rector had only 4.5 sacks in 2018, he had 7.5 in 2017. His pass-rushing abilities are genuine and troublesome for opponents. Add in the hype around Jackson, and USC’s front-four could quickly match the team total of 29 sacks last year.
The questions arise in the secondary, where no full-time starter returns, in part due to injuries bothering both the safeties expected to start in 2019.
A roster with this much talent rarely has a season win total over/under of merely seven, but that is where the Trojans land. Some of that ties to 2018’s struggles, some of it to the tumultuous offseason, and some of it to the schedule. USC’s North Division crossover opponents are Washington and Oregon this season.
More than that, though, the Trojans schedule is front-loaded. By the time they face the Irish in mid-October, they will have faced Fresno State, Stanford, BYU, Utah and Washington. To put that in other terms, USC will have played the Mountain West champion, the always-physical Cardinal, a promising BYU team, the Pac 12 champion, and the Pac 12 South champion.
If the Trojans stumble out of the gate, will Helton still be around after their bye week before heading to South Bend?
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