Drama to dependability: USC's Clay Helton discusses his mindset in his first year as the Trojans' full-time coach
Few football programs have experienced the transition and tumult of USC since the departure of Pete Carroll in January 2010. The Trojans have gone through three head coaches, two interim coaches and one forgettable stretch in which the best postseason result was a Holiday Bowl victory over Nebraska in '14. Clay Helton takes over USC in a full-time capacity this year after two interim stints, and his main job is to bring stability to a program pockmarked by off-field drama; from NCAA sanctions to athletic director roulette to former coach Steve Sarkisian's controversial firing, a Hollywood scriptwriter couldn't have dreamed up the twists and turns that have beset the team over the past few years.
Helton, 43, is relatively anonymous by Los Angeles standards, but he maintains lofty goals as he settles into his first career head coaching job. He recently sat down with Campus Rush to discuss his mindset, USC's offensive philosophy, Adoree' Jackson's "pitch count" and how often he sleeps on his couch.
Campus Rush: You previously coached at places like Duke, Houston and Memphis. Your dad coached at programs including Houston and UAB. What's it like coming from have-not schools to landing your first head job at a college football blueblood?
Clay Helton: I feel like I've won the lottery, to be honest with you. To imagine you're going to get to be the head coach at USC, that's a dream job. It's the pinnacle of college football. You're talking about a place that has won 11 national championships, six Heisman Trophies, [and had] 489 draft picks. That's the most draft picks in the history of college football. You're talking about a premier place. It's my responsibility and our staff's responsibility to continue the tradition of excellence here.
CR: I'd imagine taking over midway through last season, when you became the interim head coach following Steve Sarkisian's ouster in October, that it was hard to put your stamp on program. What will be different in 2016, when you have the opportunity to fully brand this team as your own?
Helton: The best advice I was given was from my dad. He said, "Clay, make sure you just be yourself: 18- to 21-year-olds can smell falseness in a hurry." And I really took that to heart as far as last year's experience of just being myself and worrying about our kids, their well-being and helping and doing everything I possibly could—myself and our staff—to help them win football games.
And that's very similar to what's going to happen this year. The thing that I'm excited about is I'm going to be able to stress what I believe in now. You're in the middle of the season and you're just worried about game planning. Now, you're going into a spring and you're actually getting to teach technique. You're getting to teach fundamentals. You're getting to teach situational football. I want [our players] to remember how fun it is to play the game of football and how disciplined a game it is. To win championships is hard.
CR: Offensive coordinator Tee Martin has called plays here and there, but up until this season that has never been his primary role. What can we expect philosophically?
Helton: I think that every good offense looks at its personnel, designs its offense around its personnel and recruits to its system. Right now we're very skilled. I think that you have some really talented running backs, but you look at the receiving corps and it's one of our strengths, also. Going into this, I think we're going to be extremely balanced.
One of the staples I think is imperative for this team, and how you win championships, is when it's time to run the ball—and everybody knows you have to run it in games—you have ability to. You look at the Cal game [a 27–21 win on Oct. 31], having to run six [times] in a row to finish the game. You look at the UCLA game [a 40–21 win on Nov. 28], 11 plays in a row running power to the right side to finish that game. The Colorado game [a 27–24 win on Nov. 13], running the ball to finish that game. That's got to be a staple of our football team. Be a balanced offense and run the ball when you must.
CR: Your roster is stocked with future NFL draft picks. Rising junior Adoree' [Jackson] will be one eventually. What do you foresee his role being this fall?
Helton: He's so valuable to us, and I think there's a pitch count that you have to look at with him. We kind of learned that last year, that he's right in that 80 pitch count per game [range]. And we actually would chart his number of plays per quarter and break it down defensively, offensively and special teams-wise.
He's so dynamic in the return game. Every time he touches the ball offensively, I hold my breath. The ball in his hands is a special thing, and we'll continue to do that.
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CR: So with that count for Adoree', will it be close to a 40–40 offensive and defensive split?
Helton: No, no. Usually you're going to get—if we can hold [an opposing] team—the average in college football is [playing] about 68 [snaps] on defense. So, you get 12 extra plays. Now, is that six returns and six touches on offense? We held it to about a six- to eight-play series last year, a package we took into every game. And four were designed plays for him, and two or three were decoys. So, if we can get eight or 10 plays out of him a game offensively and let him be a punt returner, I think it would be advantageous.
CR: People don't know you very well personally. Do you have any hobbies outside of football?
Helton: I married my high school sweetheart, Angela. I met her when I was 15, and we got married right out of college. I was getting married, and my dad told me—and I chose to go to Duke to get into coaching—he goes, "Son, you got to understand that if you choose this life to be a football coach, you have to understand the amount of time that it takes. You're going to have long nights. You're going to be sleeping on the couch. You're going to have to do those types of things." So, when you are away from the game, you only get three things. And that's your faith, that's family and that's football. That's all you get. Football is your hobby. You love it. You chose it. You love your family and you love your faith. Those are the three things you do.
Now, with my family I do have one hobby: I like to fish. I don't get to do it often, but every summer we all meet down at dad's place down south of Naples, Fla. My brother, his family, my family, we all meet down there and fish for a week.
CR: What do you catch?
Helton: We catch snook, redfish, trout, tarpon.
CR: That doesn't sound bad. Does your cellphone work when you're fishing?
Helton: No, it doesn't. Thank God.
CR: So, do you really sleep on the couch?
Helton: Yeah. I check in on Mondays and I go home on Thursdays during the season. We call date night Thursday—Thursday is date night, here we are, go home. Friday morning, I get a haircut.
Usually we have a game on Saturday, so I'll watch the tape Sunday. I'll go home for dinner, and then I check into the hotel here for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
CR: Your 2016 schedule is fairly unforgiving. You open against Alabama on Sept. 3, and then you play Utah State, Stanford and Utah in succession. Is that baptism by blowtorch?
Helton: When you come to USC, you want to be the best, [so you] play the best. We play an Alabama, a Notre Dame [on Nov. 26] and a Pac-12 schedule along with a Matt Wells-coached Utah State team. In today's modern football, we are in a playoff system. And one of the things you have to do is you have to build your résumé. I think if you do your job and you have an Alabama, a Notre Dame and a Pac-12 schedule, obviously you got a great résumé.
The other thing, the way I look at it, if you're fortunate enough to be in the playoff and you've played that schedule, there are some really good teams in that playoff—in that first playoff game and then the national championship game. I think you've prepared yourself with the teams that you've played. You're not just playing to be unbeaten. You've actually prepared your team for the playoff.
CR: One of the big things early in your tenure is that it has been pretty drama-free. Do you feel good about that?
Helton: The biggest thing here—and I hope, knock on wood, it stays that way—but I think just consistency for this football team and the players is very important. I told them when I got the job I'm not very flashy, but I love the game of football. I love our kids and I'm going to coach them hard to help them win.