Just Sayin' . . . Clay Helton edition

Going into his second full season, Clay Helton seems to have developed a sure-footedness this USC program has sorely needed.

It wasn't always this way. A year ago this time, it wasn't even a thought.

Check that, Just over six months ago, the thought was the guy was in way over his head, like the two coaches -- both with head coaching experience at major programs, even the NFL -- were who proceeded him at USC.

It was just a matter of time, the common wisdom told us. Clay Helton is through. Stick a fork in him.

And now, at least ever since he made that decision before Game 4 at Utah to start Sam Darnold and after that Game 4 loss at Utah to tell this USC team how well it had played and how good it could be, the record tells us that he was right. Even if we didn't fully realize it until that January night in Pasadena. 

Clay has been right a lot, which is what this all comes down to. Getting it right.

Think of all the opportunities a college football coach gets to demonstrate whether he gets it or not. Just one game, the 60 minutes from kickoff to final whistle, there are maybe 75-80 plays for each team 150-160 chances to get the call right that translates to how many moments in how many practices and game plans and film watching and recruiting and staffing to get to that point. The data is there.

We're Just Sayin' we have a lot to factor in here -- a second recruiting class after a second bowl game, a new staff hire, a second spring that has a final week to go. Which is the plan here -- to focus on the post-Rose Bowl phase of Clay's coaching career at USC.

The nine games from Utah on, all wins including at Washington, and that stirring comeback at the Rose Bowl, have been well-documented. The point here is to look at what's happened since January. In Clay's second go-round now that our expectations have been raised exponentially the way they have.

*** Losing Tommie Robinson hurt. Good guy. Good coach. Loved USC. The kids loved him. He loved it here. But Coach O at LSU really wanted him and had both the money and a title and a special need to get Tommie to Baton Rouge. It happens. We weren't very happy about it but Clay did what the best coaches do in that situation. He went out and found a Deland McCullough who has already, in his less than two months here, brought a special something to the running backs party. Looks like a win-win here. Good for Tommie. Great for USC . . . Just Sayin'.

*** That's what you do. Deland was not in Clay's "rolodex," not in anybody's rolodex here. They went out and found him. And not just Clay. This was a staff deal. How do they get that one new guy who will make a difference going forward? That was the question. And that's what they did. They found a former charter school principal and head high school football coach, a top college running back and NFL guy with serious player-developmental credentials who loves recruiting and has done it at a high level with ties to places USC both needs and has yet to establish. And he can coach the heck out of it on the practice field as we're seeing on a daily basis. It doesn't get much better than that . . . Just Sayin'.

*** Then there's recruiting. The 1-3 start put USC behind the proverbial eight ball so after making the decision to lay low, get the season right and close fast, well, that's exactly what USC did. Sure, it was high risk. To pull it off the way USC did, to close throughout the Pac-12 footprint in Utah, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, the Pacific Islands and Northern California, not to mention Texas and Florida, and to close out competing Pac-12 programs in the process, well you had to close out that comeback against Penn State. USC did . . . Just Sayin'.   

*** The first five early entry recruits to get here, all immediate contributors in spring, give us more confidence the recruiting decisions were the right ones. The new guys fit. They're in positions of need -- D-line, O-line, quarterback, inside linebacker and long snapper. And before Tayler Katoa's knee injury, they showed they can play right away or compete for a spot in the rotation . . . Just Sayin'.

*** Spring has been a revelation about what you can do with a full -- or nearly so -- roster when it comes to the kinds of injuries every football team must deal with. You soldier on. Next man up. You give guys opportunities to play and see if they step up the way a Clayton Johnston has at offensive tackle the past week. Or the way freshman Andrew Vorhees did before him. Or Vavae Malepeai all spring. No woe is me, none of that "we've got a lot of guys hurt, what do expect us to do?" stuff. You do this: You go out every day, go hard, play fast, make plays, be physical and see who steps up. With Clay, from what we're seeing, the glass is always half-full . . . Just Sayin'.

*** And for those who worried about physicality, a missing ingredient in previous years, with a team that still has a bunch of ex-quarterbacks on the coaching staff, Clay was able to say that word we haven't heard about this bunch, especially the front seven on defense. They're "violent," he said Saturday. They will flat-out hit you. How cool is that. USC had gotten away from the Ronnie Lott-Troy Polamalu-Rey Maualuga-Brian Cushing school of bringing the pain for too long. Now Clay's bringing it back . . . Just Sayin'.

*** Then there's this. Sure, Sam Darnold may be the name on the marquee but the guys driving this Trojan bus may well be on a two-deep defense that appears to be coming of age despite some of its youth because of its talent -- and a second year of figuring out just what Clancy Pendergast means when he says he wants them to play on the other side of the line of scrimmage and Clay, despite his offensive background and unlike his two predecessors, gets the value of that . . . Just Sayin'.

*** One thing you realize about USC being USC after being around here long enough is that it means guys stepping up to play like All-Americans. That's just the way it is. Watching Uchenna Nwosu do just that at outside linebacker, a position with as much talent among the four players there as any program in America, says it's happening here . . . Just Sayin'.

*** Not to downplay Sam's role. It's just that he doesn't have to drive the bus himself as he did in the Rose Bowl. He'll have help so he doesn't have to put up 52 points. And he'll have the challenge of being asked to do things he wasn't asked in his redshirt freshman year so stay tuned with how that develops. Just say that Clay's second team looks like it will have a nice balance, a word he so often uses . . . Just Sayin'.

*** Sam's first line of help comes from an improving-by-the-day wide receiving corps eight-deep right now with a nice blend of veteran talent and five relative newcomers who all seem to be taking turns showing what they can do right now in a competition-driven spring set up to show just that . . . Just Sayin'.

*** But it doesn't stop there. It starts with coaching moments like that little down-on-one-knee get-together before Thursday's practice at the Coliseum when Clay reminded his players, as he asked them to grab a handful of the dirt that has produced 11 national champions, 496 NFL players and -- oh by the way -- a 9-0 record since he's been here at the Coliseum, that this building belongs to them, the place the players call "the Coli." As Ronald Jones says, they're going to be "rockin' the Coli." . . . Just Sayin'.

*** And while Clay often reminds his guys of what opportunities they'll have in the PRPs this summer on their own and in the 29 fall practices to keep another 9-0 streak going -- the nation's second-longest win streak (to Oklahoma's 10) -- looking at next year's schedule makes the Coliseum focus clear. USC opens at home against 13-win Western Michigan, then Stanford, then Texas. Get those three right, defend the Coliseum and it's all there for Clay Helton's Trojans . . . Just Sayin'.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at

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