Do the simple things better: USC's Clay Helton preaches incremental improvement at an impatient program
LOS ANGELES — Just outside the USC football practice fields, the sound of ice cubes and water meeting asphalt interrupts the early evening quiet. Inside, on the turf, Adoree' Jackson observes through the open portal and shakes his head. The previous day, some wily Trojans soaked sophomore Deontay Burnett to mark his birthday. This time, it is freshman Michael Pittman's turn to get drenched. But the designated douser misses, apparently bumped by an overanxious teammate. And the contents spill on McClintock Ave., instead of on Pittman's head.
"Isaac, it's all your fault!" Jackson shouts at senior Isaac Whitney, who shoots an incredulous look back at the Trojans' voluble cornerback. "You pushed him! Somebody pushed somebody with the bucket. It was all somebody's fault. "
It was all somebody's fault. Arguably, no phrase better approximates the scramble to identify anyone and everyone to blame for what has happened at USC, all the way through a 1–3 start to this season. Also fittingly, the Trojans still laugh and joke around anyway. By now, this is a group inoculated against the side effects of calamity, self-inflicted or otherwise.
But the tenor of things has been reset by two straight wins, first a thumping of Arizona State and then a white-knuckler over Colorado last weekend. It was both teams' first conference loss. After the big spill, USC's cleanup has so far proceeded as hoped.
Whether the mess should've existed to begin with … well, Clay Helton realizes that tension might not ease quickly. He realizes this because his job is head coach of the University of Southern California football team, and there is always tension. But he stands on the practice fields at twilight, well after everyone else has left, preaching incremental improvement at a place not known to be patient about incremental anything.
The fate of his fledgling tenure, after a couple stints as an interim replacement, depends on how the locker room buys into that idea. And, if we're being realistic, some buy-in from influential people unaccustomed to delayed gratification would help, too.
"Do the simple things better," Helton says in that quiet moment, echoing what he's told his team since an opening night 52–6 thrashing applied by Alabama. "We gotta just do our job. Simplicity. We have a lot of talent here. Don't let it be about the hype or the flash. Let it be about us doing our job and winning games."
So the coach of this particular program in this particular market is advocating against flash. That's a pretty significant headwind Helton is leaning into. But he might not be wrong, and at any rate he didn't leave himself much of a choice.
An entire off-season of preparation led to that 46-point annihilation by the Crimson Tide on Sept. 3. It is fair to expect that USC shouldn't lose by 46 points to anybody, especially with months to work to prevent that. "The amount of mistakes we made, assignment-wise, was 100," Helton concedes.
Without a do-over available, a painstaking in-season rebuild was the only option. Progress was difficult to discern—295 rushing yards allowed against Stanford and three fumbles lost at Utah didn't help—but it has taken root the last two Saturdays. Freshman quarterback Sam Darnold, elevated to starter for the Utah game, has thrown for 710 yards and six touchdowns against just one interception in the back-to-back wins. And a USC defense that allowed an average of 241 rushing yards against Alabama, Stanford and Utah didn't allow either Arizona State or Colorado to crack even 100 yards.
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This may be an over-simplification of why USC scraped back to .500. But over-simplification is kind of the point. "It's tough to come out here and continue to do the same task, over and over," senior linebacker Michael Hutchings says. "That's what the defense is. It's staying assignment-sound. You're doing the same job, over and over. It gets hard, but great defenses have the fortitude to do that."
It is investment over time that Helton seeks, even as some wonder how much time he has. During a team meeting on the Wednesday before the Colorado game, Helton showed his players a slide featuring the old bromide that great players do not focus on the present or future. They commit to the now. To underscore the point, Helton played video clips of Hutchings's practice preparation. And then he rolled practice film of freshman defensive end Oluwole Betiku Jr., who is sitting out 2016 as a redshirt but nevertheless was shown "killing" the Trojans' offensive line starters over a handful of snaps.
"He's investing for his future, for his opportunity when it comes," Helton says. "That's what I'm trying to get them to focus on."
The brutal start and the flashpoints of disorder early on—safety Jabari Ruffin stomping on an Alabama player's groin in the opener, a practice scuffle involving star receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster the next week—didn't suggest a roster keen on disciplined approaches. The results the last two Saturdays suggest otherwise.
While Arizona State and Colorado aren't national title contenders, neither are they guarantee-game doormats. Winning those games required some level of fundamentally sound work; the zero turnovers against the Sun Devils and the season-low two penalties against the Buffaloes reflect a detectable quantity of precision and self-control. That is certainly an upgrade from six weeks earlier. "Even though we weren't in the position we want to be, it's still going to set us up for years to come," Jackson says. "That's how I see it. We see the sparks of what could happen. It's all about the building. That's what we're doing."
Aspiring to steadiness isn't a bad thing, not when you're a program only recently escaped from a morass of NCAA sanctions and two coach firings in three years. And the 44-year-old Helton absolutely can do steady. He spends his Sunday nights at home, drives to campus on Monday and doesn't return home until Thursday night, sleeping on office furniture in the interim. ("Looks like a psychiatrist's couch," he says of his preferred sleepover sofa, unintentionally offering a neatly symbolic visual for what it's like to coach USC lately.) This was Helton's routine during the series of unfortunate events in September and it is his routine now. His father, Kim, whose coaching career spanned 41 years, taught him that a leader's reaction informs everyone else's reaction. As a result, Helton's default reaction is, in a way, no reaction at all. "Don't make excuses," he says. "They pay you to find answers and improve your football team."
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Yes, Helton is aware this place will abide mere steadiness for only so long. "Championships—that's our expectation here," he says. "And if we don't [win], we've fallen short. But that's 'SC. If you don't like it, don't take the job."
Before he leaves the field, Helton notes USC won the Pac-12 South last year as a three-loss team. And that, too, was a salvage operation: Steve Sarkisian was dismissed Oct. 12, 2015, and Helton took over to attempt to dredge something good out of it. There's no one else to hang the early failings on this time, of course. So the school will have to reconcile any gradual improvement with the fair concern that a rebuild should've been avoided in the first place.
In the meantime, Clay Helton has a possible league title to build toward, again, at least for now. He's bringing his team around after that woebegone start. Be the answer, not the excuse, he often tells his players. Slowly, steadily, we're moving toward clarity on which one USC believes Helton to be.