Can USC, Clay Helton recover from a rocky offseason?

NCAAF

When USC athletic director Lynn Swann announced that Clay Helton would remain the Trojans’ head coach on Nov. 25, his statement of support contained a glaring, almost baffling, admission.

“We acknowledge and understand our deficiencies in areas that include culture, discipline, schemes, personnel and staff,” Swann said.

Again: Culture. Discipline. Schemes. Personnel. Staff.

For a fan base that was already upset about the direction of the program following the Trojans’ first losing season since 2000, it was maddening. Swann, in an official statement, described a broken program, and his solution, it appeared, was to let Helton make a few tweaks and expect different results.

Instead, the Trojans have endured another two turbulent months and enter Wednesday’s signing day expected to haul in USC’s lowest-ranked recruiting class since ESPN started ranking them in 2006.

There have been so many bizarre twists in USC’s offseason that the athletic department published a state-of-the-program-style article this week to give Helton a way to downplay concern about what has transpired.

“It has been an eventful offseason, but every offseason has its share of activity, planning and challenges,” Helton said.

Few offseasons, though, are quite like this one, which had a promising start when Helton hired former Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury to install his Air Raid offense. The hire was universally celebrated as a best-case scenario until, of course, it wasn’t.

Kingsbury’s tenure at USC lasted about a month before the Arizona Cardinals decided that, despite his inability to finish higher than tied for fifth in the Big 12, Kingsbury was ready to be an NFL head coach. And like that, he was gone.

“Unfortunately, losing coaches is part of the industry,” Helton said. “For Kliff to have the chance to be a head coach in the NFL was a tremendous opportunity and I was happy for him. I wish him nothing but the best. He is a very talented coach, which was the reason we brought him to USC.”

The Kingsbury saga was mainly bad luck for USC — it was nonsensical to believe when he was fired following his third straight losing season at Tech that he would be seriously considered for an NFL head job — but the school still managed to look bad when reports surfaced that Swann, who didn’t include a significant buyout in Kingsbury’s contract, initially blocked Kingsbury from interviewing.

Regardless, the initial morale boost — from fans, recruits et al — that arrived with Kingsbury’s hiring vanished with his exit. Instead of propelling USC forward and possibly extending Helton’s tenure like it was supposed to, the hire managed to set the program back even further.

Receiver Bru McCoy, the top-ranked athlete in the country, signed with USC thanks to Kingsbury’s presence on the staff (and even enrolled in classes). But once Kingsbury left, McCoy wanted out, too, eventually transferring to Texas.

“Bru’s decision was personal to him,” Helton said. “He is a fine young man who has a bright future and I wish him well.”

McCoy’s transfer was unique because of how little time he spent at USC, but he was one of four receivers who announced they will or already have transferred since the end of last season. Randal Grimes (Minnesota), Josh Imatorbhebhe, Trevon Sidney — all high-profile recruits, but with just 14 combined career catches — will finish their careers elsewhere, as USC returns its top four pass-catchers.

“The new NCAA transfer portal has allowed student-athletes to more easily seek a new opportunity at another university,” Helton said. “The other day, there were 1,986 football players in the portal and 1,362 were Division I. Everyone is experiencing attrition. It is something that all head coaches have to manage when it comes to rosters and recruiting.”

This week, USC announced Helton hired North Texas offensive coordinator Graham Harrell to run the offense. Like Kingsbury, Harrell played quarterback for Mike Leach at Texas Tech, played briefly in the NFL and runs a version of the Air Raid. The year before Harrell became the offensive coordinator, North Texas averaged just 15.2 points per game. In two seasons he helped it improve by more than 20 points per game.

While Harrell isn’t as proven as Kingsbury, his similar scheme remains a good fit at USC, which, despite the attrition, is still extremely talented at receiver and features a promising sophomore quarterback in JT Daniels.

“In our study, I was so impressed with how he turned North Texas into one of the top offenses in the nation, combining an elite, highly ranked passing game with a ground game that rushed for nearly 2,000 yards,” Helton said. “He also did a terrific job developing Mason Fine into one of the best quarterbacks in the nation. We look forward to the future of our offense under Graham’s leadership.”

As important as the Harrell hire will be for his future, Helton has another big staff decision to make in the coming weeks following the departure of longtime strength coach Ivan Lewis, who left for a job on former USC coach Pete Carroll’s staff with the Seattle Seahawks.

Helton didn’t outline a specific time frame for when a replacement would be found, but he gave a lengthy list of qualifications — “programming should incorporate strength, conditioning, speed training, functional football movements, preventative injury exercises, flexibility, diet and sleep.”

Former UNLV strength and conditioning coach Keith Belton, a Trojans assistant, will lead the winter conditioning workouts on an interim basis.

As unstable as things appear for USC, it’s also still USC. The Trojans’ recruiting class doesn’t measure up well against its own of the past, but it’s still No. 19 nationally and third in the Pac-12. Taking into account the drama and negative attention over the past several months, that’s not bad.

Either way, talent will never be the problem at USC. That means that despite how bad things are perceived to be, there is always a quick path back. It’s just a matter of leadership being able to find it.

If the Trojans don’t bounce back strongly in 2019, it won’t be just Helton whom USC fans will want replaced. Swann will be right there with him.

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