USC looks to turn Tide
Oregon fans may still want ’Bama someday, but USC gets ’em first.
The Clay Helton era officially kicks off when the Trojans face defending national champion Alabama on Sept. 3 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
USC, coming off a chaotic 8-6 season that included the firing of coach Steve Sarkisian and a Pac-12 championship game appearance under then-interim coach Helton, was voted second in the South Division in the preseason media poll.
“I can’t tell you how excited we are to have the opportunity to play a defending national champion, to play one of the top head coaches in the history of this game in Nick Saban,” Helton said at the Pac-12 media day event in Los Angeles. “I think it has given us a little bit of a kickstart in the summer and really has made our football team have a little chip on their shoulder.”
The upperclassmen on the Trojans’ roster, like their Crimson Tide peers, were all touted recruits coming out of high school.
Instead of winning championships, the Men of Troy have experienced the chaos created by the firings of Lane Kiffin during the 2013 season and Sarkisian’s fall.
A USC victory in the opener would certainly qualify as an eye-opener for the College Football Playoff selection committee.
“At ’SC, when we have nonconference games, we want to schedule the best,” senior offensive lineman Zach Banner said when asked about facing Alabama. “We are one of the best programs in America, we have a great staff, we have a great team and we want to represent well by playing high-class teams.
“I truly feel like it’s going to be a great battle. I respect their team very much.”
Helton, viewed externally as a safe but unspectacular hire, isn’t shying away from the great expectations at the tradition-rich program.
“The bar is set high, it’s about championships,” Helton said. “If you don’t like that bar, don’t take the job. That’s what we expect as coaches, that’s what I expect as a head coach is to be at a championship level.
“To be able to do that, we need to progress as a football team. I learned that after the Pac-12 championship game last season.”
USC was manhandled 41-22 by Stanford in the conference title game after losing to the Cardinal 41-31 during the regular season. The Trojans also lost to Washington, Notre Dame, Oregon and Wisconsin.
Helton, the offensive coordinator last season, promoted wide receivers coach Tee Martin to the position during the offseason. His brother, Tyson Helton, was also added to the staff as quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator.
Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, a former standout player at Oregon, was replaced by Clancy Pendergast. John Baxter is the new special teams coordinator.
“I’ve hired great men,” Helton said. “I’m going to let them do their job. That’s primarily what I learned from last season.”
When USC begins fall camp, which is open to the public, all eyes will be on the quarterback position.
Junior Max Browne and redshirt freshman Sam Darnold are competing to replace three-year starter Cody Kessler.
The new quarterback will have the luxury of playing behind elite offensive line talent. The team’s top eight receivers and top two rushers from 2015 return.
“I’ve played quarterback, I’ve coached the position, I know that you want to know and you’re team wants to know who the leader is going into that first game,” Helton said. “So we’ll make that (decision) about two weeks prior to that opening game when we go into our game week.”
Senior tailback Ronald Jones rushed for 987 yards and eight touchdowns last season, and sophomore Justin Davis added 902 yards and seven touchdowns.
JuJu Smith-Schuster (1,454 yards, 10 touchdowns) is one of the nation’s best wide receivers. Three-way star Adoree’ Jackson added 414 yards and two touchdowns on offense and returned two punts for touchdowns.
USC’s offensive line returns seven players who started games in 2015.
“Our ones, twos and threes could seriously start at any other school, and I really mean that,” Banner said. “We have a lot of depth at the offensive line position, it’s very competitive, and I’m happy to lead this group.”
The defensive line is an area of concern for Helton with the loss of three starters and Kenny Bigelow to a torn ACL suffered in March. Sophomores Rasheem Green (defensive end), Noah Jefferson (nose tackle) and Malik Dorton (defensive end) are the next men up.
USC has two standout linebackers in Cameron Smith and Porter Gustin. Jackson and Iman Marshall are a dynamic starting cornerback duo.
“I’m excited for the new staff we brought in,” Jackson said. “You have Clancy and everything he has brought to the defense, and coach Helton bringing his brother in, who was electrifying (as offensive coordinator) at Western Kentucky.
“It’s going to be awesome. This team is ready and willing to learn.”
The Trojans, still seeking their first conference championship since the Pete Carroll era, have road games at Stanford, Washington and rival UCLA.
The home schedule at the Coliseum, which the program now shares with the Los Angeles Rams, is highlighted by visits from Oregon and Notre Dame.
“What excites me the most is probably the opportunity that we have to perform at the highest level,” Helton said. “When you look at playing Alabama, Notre Dame, the Pac-12 Conference, you’re talking about an unbelievable opportunity to show who you are and compete.
“That’s why you come to ’SC, to compete and play the best of the best.”