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Clay Helton's play-calling to be a change of pace at USC

Helton, the Trojans' offensive coordinator, is excited about his chance to spread the ball around against Arizona on Thursday night.

October 08, 2013|By Gary Klein

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It won't be difficult locating Clay Helton on USC's sideline Thursday night.

When the Trojans play Arizona in the first game since Lane Kiffin's firing, Helton will be the coach holding a play-call sheet, though not the laminated, jumbo-sized aid Kiffin relied upon.

"I'll have something," Helton says. "I don't think it will be huge."

Helton, the titled offensive coordinator since the start of the season, finally gets his opportunity to live the part. The Trojans' quarterbacks coach for three-plus seasons will call plays for the first time since 2009, when he directed an up-tempo offense at Memphis.

USC will not drastically overhaul its pro-style system, but interim Coach Ed Orgeron has charged Helton with infusing the attack and spreading the ball around.

"We're going to change the pace a little bit and see how Clay likes it," Orgeron says.

Since last week, Helton, 41, has set the tempo for the offense in practice, moving in and out of the huddle and on the flanks of the line of scrimmage while instructing and encouraging players. More than a few moments cannot pass, it seems, without Helton sprinting, backpedaling or shuffling sideways while chattering "Let's go! Let's go! Let's go!"

"He's flying around and every position group on offense is fired up," quarterback Cody Kessler says.

Helton takes up a position about 10 yards behind the offense during scrimmage drills. He places his left hand under his right elbow, his right hand under his chin. But he cannot maintain a contemplative pose for more than a second or two.

"Right there, right there," he says, pointing while dashing to the line. "I need perfect alignment."

After a successful run play, Helton sprints upfield through the defense, trailing the ballcarrier.

"You can't stop Power!" he yells. "You can't stop Power!"

A few days later, as he welcomes a visitor to his office at the McKay Center, Helton clears blankets from the couch he sleeps on several nights a week.

Helton will spend the next 40 minutes paying homage to the coaches and mentors who helped him achieve his current position, including Kiffin.

But, in the end, he says, "You always put your own personality into it when you get the opportunity."

Helton's biggest influence — "my hero" he says — is his father. Kim Helton was an offensive lineman at Florida and then coached there as an assistant before moving on to the University of Miami and stints with four NFL teams. He also was head coach at the University of Houston.

As a boy, Clay played pitch and catch with Miami quarterbacks Jim Kelly and Bernie Kosar and Houston Oilers quarterback Warren Moon. Meanwhile, his father taught him pass protection schemes and other football nuances.

"Once I got into it," he says of football. "It was an addiction."

Helton's parents did not allow him to play organized football until high school. So he was a baseball player until he arrived at Clements High in Sugar Land, Texas.

Helton played quarterback and worked his way into a starting position his senior season. "I was lot better on the chalkboard," he said, "than I was on the field."

Helton's knowledge of the game helped him excel.

"He'd come to the sideline," says David Sparkman, one of his high school coaches, "and we'd ask, 'What do you think?' He'd say, 'Coach, I think we should do this.' And he was smart enough to get it done."

Helton played two seasons at Auburn under Coach Pat Dye, and then transferred to Houston after his father was hired as the head coach before the 1993 season. He was a backup quarterback for two seasons and a committed student working toward a mechanical engineering degree.

When Duke Coach Fred Goldsmith called and offered him a position as a graduate assistant, Helton had to make a choice.

He had already completed enough work for a degree in mathematics and interdisciplinary science. He told his parents he was going to ask his high school sweetheart, Angela, to marry him and would take the position at Duke.

"His mom looked at me like it was my fault," his father says, laughing.

Jokes Helton: "I think my mom's still mad at me today that I'm not building buildings."

In 1995, Helton coached Duke running backs as a 22-year-old graduate assistant. He joined the Blue Devils' staff full time the next season. His first recruiting trip almost ended before it began because he was too young to rent a car in Florida.

"I'm like, 'Well, I don't want to get fired on my first day recruiting so I better get to this kid's house,'" he says. "I found a cab that drives me about 45 miles… I think the family got a real big kick out of me showing up for the first time in a cab."

Goldsmith says Helton's knowledge of the offense went far beyond running backs.

"Of all the guys I ever had, if anybody ever asked who I would pick to be a head coach, it would be him," Goldsmith says.

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