Clay Helton has a fan. It couldn't have been more obvious. Max Nikias may be the president of the University of Southern California but Monday he was a typical Trojan football fan, showing up at Cromwell Field with his cellphone camera, taking photos of his team and getting a chance to meet the coach.
And having fun with it.
"Coach Nikias," Clay called him as he came over to say "Hi" as practice was ending. For a lifelong coach like Clay, with a brother and dad both football coaching lifers, it's a greeting that says we're family, we're in this together. As indeed they are now.
But as uncomfortable as the hiring of first-time head coach Helton has been for his critics, commited to a big name to erase the back-to-back mis-hires of Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian, that's how comfortable Pres. Nikias seemed at his impromptu get-together with his new coach.
Sure, you can say it was the root canal talking with Max having just left the dentist's office. "I don't feel anything now," He laughed. But that's not true.
We've seen Max at practice more than a dozen times easily and never have we seen him more comfortable. And on his own. None of the entourage that presidents usually have. He was just hanging out.
And then the president saw a familiar smiling face as Antwaun Woods sidled by to check out the photos Max had been taking, telling him he expected to see them on Instagram.
"You gotta' coach him up," Antwaun advised the USC sports information staff about the importance of "social media" for the president when he's taking football photos.
We mention this because of all the criticism Helton's hiring that didn't leave the building, some say, and Tee Martin's elevation to offensive coordinator, has earned. And no other hires despite letting three defensive coaches go and one on offense.
There's just no sense of that here. Of course, Helton has already classified USC's first conference championship appearance as "a great experience" in playing in that game for the first time despite the 41-22 Stanford romp.
Getting there was the best part of it, obviously. Getting rolled was not. Especially at the end of a week when Max had tapped Clay as the new head coach with a five-year deal.
So now Clay is 5-3 this year, 6-3 over his two appointments as USC interim and head coach in 2013 and 2015. He's won two big games big -- Utah and UCLA. And lost two big ones big -- Oregon and Stanford. And one big game, Notre Dame on the road, went half big for him, half big against him -- but that came at the start and the finish of a loss in South Bend.
He has yet to lose a game he's supposed to win. That's the plus of the run-first, stop the run win it in the trenches formula.
And he has yet to bring in a new coach -- or upgrade anyone not on this staff. So we don't know how this is going to go.
We like the talk. We like the way he thinks. We like the football family he comes from. We like that he can say his life is "football, family and faith" and do so without crossing his fingers or stifling a grin. Clay's the real deal there.
But we're not crazy about his recent pedigree, obviously. Sark and Lane are not the coaching tree you'd want to come from if you had your druthers. What did they really know -- and more importantly do -- about this run-first physical football other than occasionally talk about it?
That's why, coming after the Stanford game, Holiday Bowl opponent Wisconsin with its stingy defense against teams that play the way Clay wants to play on offense, is the perfect test. Even if there's no full-time O-line coach in place and his hastily assembled substitute staff isn't what it will be.
No one cares about that. Alabama is next up next September. Better not be going into that one on a two-game losing streak and with three losses in the last four.
Get it done in San Diego and all of USC will feel something of a comfort level over the winter, no one more than Max.
And the hope for Antwaun is that Max is still taking photos late at night Dec. 30 at Qualcomm. And Clay is still calling him "Coach."
Helton quick hitters
With no one else available to the media Monday, it was an all-Helton day. Here are some of Clay's takes:
*** On playing fast on Cromwell Field's artificial surface and the carryover to playing fast the previous two bowl games after practicing on Cromwell. Maybe, Clay said, although this year it's because Howard Jones Field, freshly aerated and with a deep sandy base, is still a bit too muddy after the weekend rain. In previous years it was just too worn. "The thing that really helps is the way the calendar has fallen," Clay said. "Those 12 to 14 days off. They're feeling healthy with fresh legs. Adoree' is as fast as I've ever seen him."
*** As to injuries, Clay said of corner Kevon Seymour that "he tweaked his ankle . . . I don't think it'll keep him out of the game." And for wide receiver Isaac Whitney, "everything from his MRI looks great."
*** And how is freshman tight end Caleb Wilson handling things with his dad, D-line coach Chris, one of the four dismissed the day after the Stanford game: "He's handled it with class and style," Helton said. "I'm a coach's son myself (and you get to know how this works) . . . I absolutely love that young man" as he talked of all that Wilson had done as a member of the service team although on Monday, he finished practice with two nice catches in the final 11 on 11 after switching over from the Scout team.
MONDAY QUICK HITS:Day 3 of USC's Holiday Bowl prep had the Trojans in their second and last day in shoulder pads, helmets and shorts . . . it will be back to just helmets and shorts, no pads, Tuesday and Wednesday when Helton hopes the team is back on HJ-Brian Kennedy Fields . . . Center Khaliel Rodgers was back and working out in pads, although not doing everything, with extra tape over his right shoe after tweaking his ankle Sunday . . . longtime NFL O-lineman Mike Goff, now the O-line coach, finished the day putting three centers -- Nico Falah, Viane Talamaivao and Chris Brown through their shotgun-snapping paces . . . Ajene Harris is fully cleared for contact after his preseason double hip surgery but no way they'll use up his redshirt for this game so he'll have three more years . . . no talk of Chad Wheeler, absent again, and no contact between Helton and Chad, the coach said.CHECK THIS OUT: For Monday's practice report, check out MONDAY HOLIDAY BOWL GHOST NOTES.
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