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Clay Helton future remains uncertain at USC

If the football coach is fired, Florida State would have competition for its opening.
Clay Helton signals to fans after USC's 52-35 win over UCLA on Saturday, possibly his final game as Trojans coach.
Clay Helton signals to fans after USC's 52-35 win over UCLA on Saturday, possibly his final game as Trojans coach. [ MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ | AP ]
Published Nov. 25, 2019

By Ryan Kartje

Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LOS ANGELES — In the wake of a rivalry victory, at the end of an uneven regular season that may very well be his last at USC, Clay Helton preferred to live in the moment, ignoring his uncertain future for as long as he could.

Soon, however, that future would beckon from across the dinner table. Hours after the Trojans took care of their crosstown rival Bruins with a 52-35 victory on Saturday, Helton had a recruiting dinner to attend, where he’d have to sell prospects on the future of USC’s football program, in spite of its uncertainty.

Even before a decision on Helton’s status seemed imminent, that pitch wasn’t going well this recruiting cycle, as USC ranks 76th in 247Sports composite rankings, just behind Bowling Green and just ahead of Texas San Antonio, the latter of which has been a part of Division I-A for only six years.

Asked in his postgame news conference how he might pitch those recruits now, Helton’s voice raised to a boom.

“If you want to come and do something special, jump on the train with some damn good kid quarterbacks, some damn good skilled young kids and have a lot of fun, then come on!” he said.

“Is that good?” he said with a grin.

Whether Helton will even have a seat on the Trojans’ train next season remains to be seen. If he is fired, the opening at a prestigious program could hurt Florida State’s hiring of a replacement for the fired Willie Taggart.

Regardless of who’s conducting, USC will have no shortage of talent next season.

Kedon Slovis, fresh off a school-record 515-yard passing performance, will be a sophomore. The backfield will be intact. Its deep receiving corps loses Michael Pittman Jr., the son of former Bucs running back Michael Pittman (2002-07) and possibly an NFL-eligible Tyler Vaughns, but gets back everyone else, and will have a healthy Kyle Ford and an eligible Bru McCoy, both top recruits a season ago.

An offense that improved by leaps and bounds over the final six weeks of this season should only be better a year from now. In its final five victories, USC’s offense averaged 523.6 yards per game, which, over a full season, would’ve ranked seventh in the nation.

“When they come together, the offense down the stretch started to play at a really high level,” offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said. “All the guys that came knew we had a special offense. A lot of it has to do with confidence. It helped to feel, as we started going down the stretch, that man, we can be unstoppable. They started to feel that.”

Pending the decision on Helton, Harrell may not have the chance to continue building on a relatively successful debut season in charge of USC’s offense. If a new coach is put in place, especially one with an offensive background, the Trojans may have to scrap the Air Raid and start anew with a different system.

For Slovis, who finished the regular season with 3,242 yards passing and 28 touchdowns in 11 games, such a change could alter his development. A new offense could also open the door for injured quarterback JT Daniels to retake the job Slovis stepped into.

On defense and special teams, changes appear to be a foregone conclusion. Even if Helton remains the coach, defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast and special-teams coach John Baxter could be in jeopardy of losing their jobs after less-than-stellar seasons for both units.

Defensively, USC ranked sixth in the Pac-12 Conference this season in points (27.8) and yards given up (415.2). Last week, Pendergast was asked where he felt his unit improved the most over the course of the season. He pointed to the number of young players who garnered experience as the defense was overcome by injury.

“We got a lot of repetition with a lot of different players at all three levels,” Pendergast said. “As of late, the continuity of the same guys playing has really helped us play a little better.”

Those same guys will return a year older next season, giving USC one of its most talented rosters this decade.

The only question now is who’ll be leading them.