USA Today Sports

It's Clay Helton's day

They're called Pac-12 Media Days but this was Clay Helton's day, his official introduction with a team that will be his -- his family, his football guys. And he did well Day 1 of his first full season.

HOLLYWOOD -- In the heart of Hollywood's world of glitz, straight-talking family man Clay Helton seems about as far away from his Southern roots and even his place as the football coach at high-profile USC as anyone could possibly be.

This isn't his world. And yet, he couldn't have been any more at home here.

Clay looks people straight in the eye, thanks them for coming, answers every question without any sense of the slickness or the psychological ill at ease of the two coaches he's succeeding as head of the Trojan football family.

And a family it is, USC's two player representatives --Zach Banner and Adoree' Jackson -- made clear. It's also more than that. Unlike other programs, USC brought two of its three most newsworthy players -- missing only JuJu Smith-Schuster. With Oregon's Royce Freeman, these were the three players out of 12 here generating easily the most media buzz.

And like it or not, and no matter what the media voting said in picking UCLA barely above a USC team in the South although naming USC with the second-best chance to win the Pac-12 title, USC was the story here.

Commissioner Larry Scott even mentioned USC -- twice in his sitdown with the media at lunch -- as the leader this preseason in advancing the Pac-12 cause nationally by its willingness to schedule Alabama to open the season. "They didn't have to do that," Scott said.

But scheduling Alabama is one thing. Being able to stand up to Nick Saban's defending national champions, beat them even, is up to Clay & Co. now. Clay was thinking about that at lunch. "Maybe the greatest college football coach in our generation." he said of Saban -- on one side of the field.

And the 44-year-old rookie coach on the other. Going against a family friend, actually, someone he's known since Saban "coached at the Houston Oilers with my dad [Kim Helton]," he says. "It makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up . . . to be the best, you have to play the best . . . am I excited about it?"

The answer is obvious, Clay says. "He's the best in the profession. You want to take something away from it."

That's what Clay says he took away from the two whippings USC took from Stanford last fall. Not tough enough. Not physical enough. Not technique-sound enough. That's the big change with this team, he says. It's why Adoree' will focus almost entirely on defense, it seems, with some punt returning added this fall.

"To be great at man coverage, you have to work at it a lot," Clay said as Adoree' nodded next to him.

That's the plan. Adoree' came back to conditioning this week, working on his lateral movements he said, not the straight-ahead sprint of the long jump. There was also work on a new technique for getting his heart rate up as high and as fast as possible and then settling it back down in a minute, simulating going back into the game quickly on a three-an-out series, for example.

But t wasn't all Clay, He's getting help, Zach said, from the likes of Zach, himself, passing along the word that "the focus is on the team" this time around and that for this team, their job is to "work hard and keep our mouths shut. Let Coach Helton do the talking."

Which is what we'll do, letting Clay do the talking on lots of topics: 

*** Cameron Smith:  "That's an injury that usually takes seven to nine months to return and then you don't feel right until a year," Clay says of Cam's ACL rehab. And Cam will be at a linebacker position with a great deal of competition, Clay said, "and all of a sudden John  Houston is back" . . . and the two seniors, Michael Hutchings and Quinton Powell . . . And Uchenna Nwosu and Olajuwon Tucker. "He's encouraged about how things are going and so are his doctors," Clay said of Smith, "he's ahead of schedule."

*** More Cameron: They had a talk, Clay said, about the numbers 35 and 55 and the decision was made to retire No. 55 for now and have Cam stay in 35. "That's our plan," Clay said, and use the year to honor Junior Seau "in a way we haven't been able to," Clay said. And let Cam make No. 35 an honored number again. After all, it was the number ILB Scott Ross wore in his All-American season in 1990.

*** On stopping the Alabama run game with a new D-line: "They're an inside zone running team that likes to run inside the tackles. That's why Clancy [Pendergast] is here," Clay said, "is it a finished product? No way . . . More like our O-line two years ago . . . we'll load the box, put pressure on these zones."

*** The preseason QB competition: It will be for 18 practices, Clay said, and they'll stick to that schedule, not moving it up. Then there's a day off as they get ready for their mock game week with the start of class and media sessions and the like. With the day off, they'll post the two-deep, Clay said, so that the team not only knows who'll be leading them but how each of them stack up for the Alabama game. Clay said they won't be playing two quarterbacks nor will they be pulling a guy after a bad series. Once he's the guy, he's the guy until he's not the guy. No series-by-series changes.

*** Going early to Texas: USC will be going back to the go-early schedule for the Alabama game because of the need to get used to AT&T Stadium, Clay said, leaving Thursday after practice and then having their traditional Friday practice at AT&T. They'll have all the media, the lights and scoreboard going to get them used to it. "I've been in football my whole life," Clay said, and yet on his recent trip to Dallas-Ft. Worth to talk to a USC booster group and then a visit to the stadium, he knows how he reacted to the place. "I can't imagine what that would be like for an 18-year-old to see this a first time. We want them to be comfortable."

*** On Max and Sam: Said he wanted to make it clear that the continued quarterback battle is not a comment on what Max isn't getting done but on how far, how fast, how unexpectedly impressive has been Sam's progress. "This is his first spring camp," he says of Sam, agreeing that in all his years of coaching, he's never seen a quarterback improve this much in 12 months. But that Max has been great and exactly where he expected him to be.

*** On the offense: Said he decided it had to be balanced after what happened against Stanford. Said from what he can tell, not watching the practices except for glimpses on the message board videos, that "they're doing a nice job . . . that this is "still a progression offense for the quarterback with reads but they can skip reads 1 and 2 and go directly to 3 depending on how the defense plays them" . . . said that some of that is "just the kids getting older" and some of it the decision to involve the tight ends so much more and make teams single up on them with linebackers and now having "three dynamic tight ends". . .  says some of it is the addition "of the new concepts" that Tyson Helton brings from Western Kentucky and some of it is a continuation of the USC offense.

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