As Clay Helton heads into his first offseason as head coach of the USC Trojans he has made his priority clear in terms of what he wants to see from the team in spring ball.
“My No. 1 priority this spring is to establish a physicality in the trenches,” Helton said in a recent media conference call. “That’s going to be my primary concern this spring. I know there’s skill all over the field but I really want to see how well we can move forward with our offensive line and defensive front.”
Those words ring especially true for Trojans fans who have watched their team lose the last two games of the season to teams (Stanford, Wisconsin) who controlled the ball on the ground and played with a physical style that was reminiscent of USC football teams of the past.
It was Helton’s often-stated desire to return to that style of play, and games during his interim tenure where the Trojans showed progress running the ball on offense and stopping the run on defense, that endeared him to many former players and fans in his bid to become the full-time head coach. There has been some grumbling from those factions after the two recent losses but now is the time that Helton will truly get to show what he believes in as a head coach and how he will implement those beliefs in his program. He will get the chance to hand pick coaches that he wants -- a process that has already started with moves that included Tee Martin to offensive coordinator -- with the remaining moves such as defensive coordinator expected to be in place by the next big recruiting weekend on January 15.
“I really look forward to delegating authority to some men that I trust so that I can truly concentrate on being a head coach,” Helton said.
The spring ball sessions that are scheduled to begin in March will be the first opportunity for Helton to start laying the foundation for both sides of the line.
“Where we need to improve and where I want to see us make the biggest step up is on the offensive and defensive line,” Helton said.
On the offensive line, there will be a lot of talent returning, even if the exact lineup of players isn’t exactly known yet. There is the uncertain status of three-year starting left tackle Chad Wheeler, who missed the National Funding Holiday Bowl for personal issues, and the spring absence of probable starting center Toa Lobendahn due to a mid-season knee injury. Khaliel Rodgers, who filled in for Lobendahn, is also expected to undergo shoulder surgery this month. The available players will include All-Pac-12 tackle Zach Banner, a pair of two-year starters at guard in Damien Mama and Viane Talamaivao, and promising tackle Chuma Edoga.
“Offensive line-wise I’m looking forward to getting everybody back healthy and building a chemistry with five guys who can go out there and dominate games,” Helton said. “I’ve always thought the biggest thing with the offensive line is the chemistry of being able to play together and be healthy, just the consistency of five guys taking rep after rep after rep with each other is going to help us a bunch. I think these guys are physically talented and I anticipate them going into football games with a very physical style of play.”
There will also be a new position coach for the offensive line, a hire that will be critical for Helton in the coming weeks.
On the defensive line, there is also plenty of talent returning, it’s just not nearly as experienced as their offensive line counterparts. The Trojans lose five seniors from the interior line rotation (including all three starters) and that is going to be difficult to replace right away. The good news is that there was a lot of playing time this season for several of the younger players such as Rasheem Green, Noah Jefferson and Kenny Bigelow, but now it is a matter of those guys stepping into bigger roles.
“We have some talented kids and we’re going to have to progress extremely quickly in the spring,” Helton said. “I like some signs that I’ve seen from them this year but there’s a long way to go before we can try to go win a Pac-12 title with those guys and this spring will be extremely important to start that process.”