"Outside the Pocket” is a column by Sam Arslanian about USC football.
Just because you tweet “Fire Helton,” doesn’t mean it is going to happen.
With all the noise surrounding head coach Clay Helton getting canned come season-end, it’s easy to lose perspective on the good things Helton has done for this football team.
After USC was humiliated by Oregon at the Coliseum it seemed like there was no way Helton would stick around. Now, after a solid win over Arizona State and convincing wins over Cal and UCLA to end the season, Helton’s chance of sticking around seems much greater.
In his introductory press conference, athletic director Mike Bohn said good teams finish strong. Helton did that.
Let’s say Bohn decides to keep Helton around. Will his decision be worth the amount of egg yolk he will have to clean off of his new Southern California home?
The 2018 season was more than a disappointment for the Trojans — finishing with a 5-7 record. A head coach posting a losing record — even just one season — is an executable offense in the minds of Trojan fans. It was understandable why fans would start clamoring for a new leader at the helm, but does it make sense to fire a coach that improved to 8-4 just a season later?
Helton may have considered himself lucky that former athletic director Lynn Swann didn’t kick him to the curb; regardless, Helton knew he needed to make big changes in his staff. Offensive coordinator Tee Martin wasn’t working — enter Kliff Kingsbury. Exit Kliff Kingsbury.
Enter Graham Harrell. Offensive production was USC’s Achilles’ heel in 2018. Harrell breathed life into one of the nation’s best receiving groups with his “execution-based” air-raid offense. True freshmen receiver Drake London and (originally second-string) quarterback Kedon Slovis have made waves in their rookie seasons.
Don’t forget that Helton and his coaching staff found a diamond in the rough with Slovis. Credit the air-raid offense all you want, but throwing for 515 yards in a game is an impressive feat for anyone — let alone a freshman.
Helton’s accomplishments in 2019 would not have been possible without the depth of the Trojan roster, which Helton helped foster. Very few teams can sustain as many injuries as the Trojans have this season. In 2019, USC lost two quarterbacks, three running backs, both starting safeties and the starting center. USC’s ability to compete never wavered through these injuries.
“There’s going to be injuries, you have to coach from the bottom up,” Helton said after the final game of the season. “That’s what I asked our coaches to do [in spring and fall camp], was to coach the four-string like you would coach the first.”
Helton’s “next man up” mantra is annoying and cliché, but it’s true. At the helm, Helton kept this team pushing through significant losses to the roster; the losses barely showed.
This season, very easily, could have been a 10-2 or 11-1 season. Here’s a quick recap of all four loses:
BYU: Slovis’ first road game. Air-raid failed to adapt to drop-eight coverage before the run game was able to find its groove.
Washington: USC had to rely on third-string quarterback Matt Fink — with Slovis out with a concussion.
Notre Dame: USC almost clawed back a win against the No. 9 team.
Oregon: I got nothing. USC looked helpless; there’s no excuse.
With an 8-4 record, the Trojans likely won’t see a Pac-12 Championship (Colorado would need to beat Utah). The more likely scenario is that USC will compete in the Alamo or Holiday Bowl. If Bohn keeps Helton around through December, a bowl game win against a likely solid Big 12 or Big 10 team like Michigan would be a very impressive showing.
In his tenure, Helton recorded a Pac-12 Championship win, Rose Bowl win and a Cotton Bowl appearance.
“Fire Helton” enthusiasts will say former quarterback Sam Darnold carried Helton to those accolades. That is a poor argument; player talent and team accomplishments don’t exist in a vacuum. By that dumb logic, Helton has yet to win a game at USC.
The other big concern is how this will financially affect USC. Helton’s contract was extended through 2023 at the end of the 2017 season. Firing him now would be a financial burden on USC — not that the university can’t afford it with tuition reaching upwards of $50,000 a year.
If one thing is for certain, it would be foolish for Bohn to fire Helton without having a plan set. The last thing USC needs right now is uncertainty. It needs to have a ship to jump to — whether that is Urban Meyer, James Franklin or literally anyone else.
The 2018 Trojans were a lost cause; 2019 is not the same team. USC has made strides towards its former glory in 2019 and with a core of very talented freshmen, some of which have yet to play, leaving Helton in control of USC might not be the craziest thing.
“Outside the Pocket” runs every Monday.