LOS ANGELES (AP) — Mere days after Clay Helton took over as Southern California’s interim coach seven weeks ago, his Trojans began lobbying loudly for their beloved assistant to get the permanent job.
Now that the No. 24 Trojans (8-4, 5-3 Pac-12) have exactly what they wanted, they’re even more motivated to show their appreciation to athletic director Pat Haden with a victory in the Pac-12 championship game.
« We all love Coach Helton, and for Mr. Haden to make that decision just makes everybody more pumped up, » tailback Justin Davis said. « To know that we have a permanent head coach makes me want to play for him that much harder. It’s great. »
Helton thought the Trojans looked particularly sharp Tuesday in their first practice since he agreed to a five-year contract. USC travels to Santa Clara, California, to face No. 7 Stanford (10-2, 8-1) on Saturday for a chance at the league title and a Rose Bowl berth.
« We were all pushing for him to be the head coach, » receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said. « He got the job, and we’re all excited. There’s no more need to worry about what’s going on with that. We can just focus on Stanford. »
USC was 3-2 when Steve Sarkisian was fired in mid-October, but the Trojans captured the Pac-12 South title by winning five of their last seven games, losing only on the road to national powers Notre Dame and Oregon.
Helton’s steady guidance is all over USC’s midseason resurgence, but the Trojans realize the career assistant wasn’t a glamorous choice for one of college football’s most prominent jobs. Yet nobody who actually wears the cardinal-and-gold uniform seems to care what others think.
« People outside (USC), they might not know about him, » Davis said. « But if they just met him, sat down 10 minutes with him, they would know it’s the right decision. »
Davis is averaging 110 yards on the ground over the past four games in Helton’s run-first offense, teaming with freshman Ronald Jones II at the front of USC’s horde of talented tailbacks.
« Toward the beginning of the season, I felt like we really didn’t have an identity as a team, » Davis said. « These past few weeks, we’ve really established this physical, hard-nosed football type of identity, and going forward, I think that’s the best chance we have to win against Stanford. »
Davis was recruited out of Stockton by Helton, and he quickly formed a tight bond with the assistant coach. His observations over the past several years echo the opinions of many teammates: In the wild world of elite college football, Helton is an island of stability.
« Some recruiters, I can kind of tell that they’re just fake, » Davis said. « The thing about Coach Helton, anybody can tell you that he was the same way recruiting me that he is right now. He’s such a great person, and that’s how he operates. »
Quarterback Cody Kessler advocated emotionally for Helton, his longtime position coach, after the Trojans’ win over UCLA last weekend. But the opinion of Kessler’s probable successor likely carries more weight — and it is equally strong.
Max Browne, the nation’s top quarterback recruit in 2013, is likely to be the Trojans’ starter next year after three seasons behind Kessler. Although Browne believes he could thrive in any offensive system, he was thrilled to learn he will be playing in 2016 under Helton, the quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator who recruited him out of the Seattle suburbs.
« Over my 3 1/2 years here, he’s been the one stable portion, » said Browne, a part of the recruiting class that has had four head coaches in three years. « Being a quarterback, that’s a big decision with my future, so you pay attention to it. But I knew if we took care of the South, Coach Helton would have a great shot at getting the job, and that’s exactly what happened. »
NOTES: C Khaliel Rogers received a platelet-rich plasma injection in his sprained ankle to speed its healing. He still hopes to play Saturday, but fourth-string center Nico Falah and emergency fifth-stringer Viane Talamaivao worked out at the position. … Five Trojans made the all-conference first team chosen by the league’s coaches: Smith-Schuster, LB Su’a Cravens, CB Adoree Jackson, DT Antwaun Woods and OT Zach Banner. … Banner claimed he hasn’t decided whether to head for the NFL next year.
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