Clay Helton and USC appear to be headed for a breakup. After what can only be termed a wildly disappointing first seven games of the 2018 season, it’s clear the Trojans need to head in another direction.
Given the talent at his disposal, Helton and his coaching staff have consistently underachieved. They haven’t earned the right to stay.
I need to be clear about one thing: Clay Helton is an amazing human being. In the cesspool that is college athletics, Helton is one of the few truly good guys. He’s really easy to root for and, to be clear, he’s not without his positive qualities. Kids love playing for him and he’s a dynamite recruiter. That said, his shortcomings have become too much for USC’s football program to overcome on a weekly basis.
Helton won a Rose Bowl in his first full year as head coach, then wound up winning the Pac-12 in 2017. He’s also never lost a home game. That’s a lot of success. But both of those teams were high-wire acts orchestrated by the brilliant Sam Darnold. In reality, those two years were a house of cards that barely survived some stiff breezes.
The team lacks a killer instinct as it has the last two years. The Trojans never seem to put teams away, even when they wind up finding ways to win. Saturday night against Utah, the Trojans led 14-0 early and had all the momentum, then proceeded to allow 34 unanswered points in a 41-28 loss.
USC boasts a wildly talented defense that has largely performed well when not hung out to dry by the offense. But that offense has been nothing short of a disaster. The issues that bubbled just below the surface over the past two seasons have erupted this year to create a serious mess.
Offensive coordinator Tee Martin’s play calling has made absolutely no sense all season. Martin has a true freshman quarterback in J.T. Daniels, but rather than simplify things for him, he’s made the offense more complicated. The strategy with a young quarterback is to create easy reads, quick passes, run-pass options, etc. Instead, USC has rarely opted for quick reads, runs virtually no RPOs and most of their routes involve receivers running at least 10 to 15 yards down field. It’s mind-bogglingly stupid.
Things don’t all fall on Martin. The offensive line is a complete mess. Despite loads of talent, offensive line coach Neil Callaway hasn’t developed a solid unit in his two years on the job. Opposing defenses live in USC’s backfield, which has made running the football nearly impossible.
Despite a wealth of offensive talent, USC gained just 99 yards in the first half against Utah Saturday night, and finished with just 205. Daniels finished the game 6-for-16 for 89 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. He left in the fourth quarter after sustaining a concussion. The Trojans wound up running the ball 31 times for just 73 yards. It was ugly.
USC has three elite wide receivers in Michael Pittman Jr., Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown. Instead of isolating them one-on-one out wide and getting them the ball quickly, Martin has repeatedly done the opposite.
Callaway and Martin are both long-time friends of Helton. While the team could likely improve if the head coach brought in an innovative, autonomous offensive coordinator and a new line coach, Helton picked these guys. It’s on him. Putting his friends in key positions on the staff will wind up being his downfall.
Martin has a lot of great qualities. He’s been one of the best recruiters in the country for years and would probably make a fine head coach somewhere. But he’s not an offensive coordinator. Callaway needs to either retire or coach at a Group of Five school. That’s his level.
Helton almost certainly won’t be fired in-season. But the goal at USC is to compete for national championships. That will never happen with the current coaching staff in place. High-profile blowout losses to Alabama and Ohio State showed how far the Trojans have to go to compete with the big boys. This year’s losses to Texas and Utah showed the gulf may have actually widened since last year’s Cotton Bowl.
I think Helton might be able to buy himself time if he brought in a dynamite offensive coordinator and a new offensive line coach, then allowed them to build a new system from the ground up. But, again, Helton is a really good guy. I don’t see him firing his friends and being ruthless in his search of assistant coaches to replace them.
I don’t know who I’d pick to replace Helton, but given USC’s resources, tradition, fertile recruiting grounds and top-flight facilities, it shouldn’t be hard to find a top-tier head coach.
The question now falls on USC’s administrators. Do they have the guts to make some hard decisions? It’s time for someone to step up, show some leadership there and do what’s best for the long-term health of the football program.
Sadly, that means moving on from a great guy who just happens to not be on USC’s level.
Helton stepped in and provided stability for a program desperate for some form of leadership. Unfortunately, that is no longer good enough.