Southern California coach Clay Helton banking on offensive overhaul to cool off hot seat

LOS ANGELES – Clay Helton does not want to call it the Air Raid. This radical shift in offensive philosophy, his offseason decision to hire first one disciple of Mike Leach and then another in a desperate attempt to jumpstart a proud program – oh, and let’s be real here, to save his own job – well, what is it?

“It’s not an ‘Air Raid,’” Helton insists. “It’s really the availability to attack every inch of the field.”

The goal, he says, is simple. And he means exactly that.

“The one thing I felt like I needed to get accomplished,” he says, “was to create a simpler offense that used every person in our system.”

Which, whatever you call it, only makes sense. Because for Helton and Southern California, the challenge this season is equally simple:

Win or else.

Southern California coach coach Clay Helton talks to players during his team's game against Notre Dame in 2018.

It has come to this as Helton prepares for his fourth full season as USC’s coach: Either the Trojans show significant improvement from 2018’s 5-7 record, or he probably won’t get a fifth season. And while there’s no set measure of what it will take, it’s apparent the Trojans must do more than just win a few more games. They need to demonstrate that the program’s trajectory is headed rapidly upward, back toward the top of college football – which is where their fans’ expectations always reside.

“USC is about winning national championships,” Helton says. “That needs to be our next step. I feel like we’re that close, to be honest with you.”

No, sorry – that was Helton a year ago, when as it turned out they weren’t all that close. But the Trojans had gone 21-6 in his first two seasons, winning a Rose Bowl and a Pac-12 championship, before everything fell apart in 2018. Here’s Helton now:

“Unless your last name is Saban or Swinney – everybody has expectations,” he says. “The most beautiful thing about being at SC is it’s the highest expectations. And that’s what I love about the job. … It comes with it. You know, if you don’t like it, really, don’t take the job.”

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It’s still a little surprising that Helton got this job. It’s easy to forget, but the understated career assistant was elevated in part to clean up the mess left by the consecutive tenures of Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian. Both of those guys were hired because of their connection to the Pete Carroll era, when they were assistants; neither proved able to handle the task of running the program, much less of returning it to the lofty stature of the early- and mid-2000s.

Helton’s first two seasons weren’t measured simply in wins and losses, but by USC’s place in the chase for the College Football Playoff. Right from the beginning – a 52-6 loss to Alabama – it wasn’t involved. The Trojans finished the season with nine consecutive wins, including a Rose Bowl victory against Penn State. They won the Pac-12 in 2017, but lost to Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl 24-7.

Those losses served as bookends that seemed to highlight just how far from elite USC was – which is likely why many Trojans fans never quite embraced Helton, even before last season’s disaster. Before the season finale against Notre Dame last November, a banner flew over the Coliseum: “Lynn Swann, please fire Clay Helton!” A few days later, in announcing Helton would be retained, the athletic director noted “deficiencies in areas that include culture, discipline, schemes, personnel and staff.”

Here’s where the Air Raid – or whatever Helton wants to call it – comes in. Or was brought in, rather, by former Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury. When Kingsbury left after one month to become the Arizona Cardinals’ head coach, Helton hired Graham Harrell – another former Texas Tech quarterback and Leach protégé – from North Texas. 

Helton says he saw the Air Raid’s potential when, before playing Notre Dame, he pared down the offensive playbook. Freshman quarterback JT Daniels flourished in the resulting pass-heavy attack (37 of 51 for 349 yards). A 24-17 loss might have been victory if not for mistakes including two fumbles and eight penalties (both were part of a season-long trend – USC ranked 120th and 123rd nationally in turnover margin and penalty yardage, respectively).

“It really hit me how explosive we could be with the players that we have currently on our roster,” Helton says.

One reporter last month at Pac-12 media day repeatedly asked Helton if the offense should be called the “duck-and-chuck.” But in embracing the Air Raid, USC has potential to resemble other traditional powers like Oklahoma and Alabama, who combine spread passing games with power running games. At those programs, which stockpile top recruits, the scheme is much more than an equalizer; it’s a devastating weapon.

With its tradition of offensive skill players, it’s easy to envision USC with similar production. But this has to work, and right away, which is why Helton says he was encouraged by how quickly the Trojans picked it up last spring, when Harrell needed only three days for installation. Helton says Harrell has taught him “how simple college football can be.”

“We all have grand ideas and grand schemes,” Helton says, “but it’s not what we know as coaches, it’s what our players know."

And it’s what the players do with that knowledge. Despite returning 11 starters, including Daniels and his top four wide receivers, USC was picked in the Pac-12’s preseason media poll to finish second in the Pac-12 South, well behind Utah. Most rankings would place USC no better than fifth in the hierarchy (behind, in some order, Utah, Oregon, Washington and Stanford). The Trojans also were not voted into the preseason Amway Coaches Poll for the first time since 2001 except when the program was ineligible for the poll in 2010 and 2011 due to NCAA probation. Preseason predictions aren’t worth much, but they demonstrate what people think of a team’s potential.

“I kind of like being hidden in the bushes right now,” Helton says. “I know what we are. I know what we have. I know what we can accomplish. And I think our kids do, too. And it’s gonna be exciting to watch and see.”

It sounds simple enough. We’ll see if it’s successful enough.