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USC Football

Rebuilding USC's Culture Highlights Coaching Goals For Spring Ball

March 5, 2019
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Spring Ball: Answers at RB | QB Competition | OL Answers | Gustin’s Replacement | DL situation | Immense DB talent

Signing Day has barely come and gone but, already, USC is a few short weeks away from beginning spring practice. And while it’s an abnormal time for the program at large, the day-to-day reality of spring ball should be the same as ever. This is the time of year with the most on-field questions, which in turn provides the greatest opportunities to learn about what the team will ultimately become.

Over the next three weeks, we’ll lay out our biggest ones for the offense, defense and coaching staff. Don’t expect all of them to be resolved by the April 6th spring showcase. But if you’re looking for certain areas to focus on for the month of March, here’s where you should start.

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How Does John Baxter Plan to Fix Special Teams?

Few assistants on last year’s staff had deeper ties to Clay Helton than John Baxter, so it wasn’t a total shock to see the veteran special teams coach ultimately survive the year-end coaching purge.

© Kirby Lee-USA TODAY
John Baxter’s has deep ties to USC as well as head coach Clay Helton.

In terms of results, however, his retention was certainly an eyebrow-raiser. USC’s special teams delivered some big moments like Jay Tufele’s blocked field goal versus Washington State and Tyler Vaughns’ 82-yard punt return touchdown against Arizona State. But the big picture was abysmal. Per Football Outsiders’ advance metrics, USC ranked 61st nationally in special teams last year. Things were even more grisly by traditional numbers. USC’s coverages were absolutely brutal: the Trojans finished 101st in punt return defense and 109th in kickoff return defense.  Results were much stronger in the return game – 34th in kicks, 45th in punts – but still nothing to write home about. The Trojans have lacked a truly dynamic punt returner since Adoree’ Jackson left for the NFL, while Velus Jones, who quietly established himself as one of the better kick returners in the Pac-12, has entered the transfer portal.

None of these are new issues, either, which is especially damning with five players on scholarship last season plus the ample practice time Clay Helton devotes to this unit each week. Point blank, there are far too many resources on hand for the results to be that poor.

No one would have faulted Helton for making a change, especially with Joe DeForest, who ran special teams at four different Power Five schools, already in house. Sticking with Baxter amounts to trusting that the 55-year-old’s skills haven’t atrophied and that Baxter’s overall body of work is much more representative of where USC’s special teams will be in 2019 than anything we’ve seen over the past two seasons.

Whether Baxter can achieve that while returning the tight end group to his menu of responsibilities remains to be seen.

What Shape Will Graham Harrell’s Offense Take?

We know what Harrell’s offense is called, as well as its basic tenets. But not all Air Raids are created equal. To wit, Harrell’s scheme at North Texas was far more run-heavy than the pass-centric attack of his former college coach, Mike Leach. But how much of what Harrell was doing in Denton will make its way to Troy, now that he has four- and five-star weapons across the offensive skill positions?

At its core, his system is all about empowering his skill talent.

“Get your playmakers in space, get them the ball in space and let them do what they do,” he said.

© Kelvin Kuo - USA Today
Will USC’s receivers like Michael Pittman Jr. fit into Graham Harrell’s spread offense?

That’s often done most effectively by smaller, shiftier receivers, a body type that is now in desperately short supply on USC’s roster. Can bigger-bodied types like Tyler Vaughns, Michael Pittman Jr. and Devon Williams display the requisite quickness to handle those faster-breaking routes the scheme so often demands? If not, how will Harrell adapt?

Will the tight end be a focal point? Past precedent says it should be, at least relative to the Trojans' recent history at the position: North Texas' Kelvin Smith notched 29 receptions last season, which matched Xavier Grimble’s number in 2012 for the most by a USC tight end this decade.

And how will the quarterback adapt? Theoretically, this should be an easy transition for J.T. Daniels, who played in an Air Raid scheme at Mater Dei. But Daniels is a different quarterback than North Texas’ Mason Fine. What differences will make themselves apparent to Harrell, and will he see enough of them to want to tweak the scheme even further to match his new quarterback?

No matter what form these answers take, Harrell’s offense is going to look vastly different to what anyone has seen at USC. Helton’s job, though, very much is riding on “different” being synonymous with “exceptional.”

How Does Clay Helton Plan To Rebuild USC’s Culture?

Graham Harrell may, in fact, save Clay Helton’s job. But the double-edged sword of the new offensive coordinator is that it also theoretically blocks off a key avenue for Helton to retain it.

Allow me to explain. In practice, Helton wasn’t doing himself any favors by wielding such a heavy hand over USC’s offensive playcalling. Some of that is an indictment of his ideas but a lot more of it speaks to the strain of trying to balance being a tactician while also being a field general. Very few coaches balance both well at the same time. Just because Clay Helton wasn’t one of them doesn’t mean he can’t be a good head coach overall.

Trojan Insider
Clay Helton pushed his pride aside by saying he wouldn’t have a hand in the offense in 2019.

The real trouble is that he hasn’t consistently demonstrated he can handle the big-picture aspects of his job, either. For the past three-and-a-half years, the same problems have manifested like weeds, sometimes tamed for a spell but always reappearing. Clay Helton’s USC commits penalties. It flounders in third quarters, especially, and routinely gets outscored and outgained by opposing teams in the second halves of games. It loses the turnover battle. It gets outworked on the recruiting trail. It has, in Cam Smith’s words following the Notre Dame game, a buy-in problem.

Most or all of those things have been in place throughout his tenure, not just 2018. But Helton’s role in the offense helped obscure some criticism of those failings, or at least insulate him from some brunt of them. Scoreboards are deceiving but they’re also the simplest barometer outside observers have to judge what’s going on in front of them – good or bad. In Helton’s case, it was a salve for those underlying problems when things went well and a distraction when they didn’t.

Now Helton plans to remove himself entirely from the offensive equation, and all anyone will have to judge him on are those larger questions. That could be a very, very bad thing if he doesn’t correct course.

There is no one way to steady a ship, which means Helton should use the spring to implement as many new ideas as he can. He’ll have no better window to gauge results in a competitive environment that also has so little on the line. Heading into his fourth full season in charge, he should have unparalleled freedom to focus on exactly what he wants, when he wants in practice. All the while, everyone else will be watching him, now more than ever.

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Rebuilding USC's Culture Highlights Coaching Goals For Spring Ball

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