Photo by © Bryan Lynn - USA Today
USC Football

Clay Helton's Offseason Checklist

April 25, 2019

It’s all a matter of perspective.

Spring ball is now over and done, and, it could be argued, USC is only a little further ahead of where it started a month and a half ago.

After all, the quarterback battle hasn’t formally been resolved. The running back stable has yet to shake out. There is no defined slot receiver or Predator, and we won’t even get started on the secondary. The return game is anyone’s guess. Mysteries generally abound.

And, yet, there was progress. Each week this spring, this column promised nothing other than snippets of answers – fragments to cling onto and polish and dream upon for the four longest months of the year: The ones bereft of football.

Now, finally, we have some of them. And, more importantly, we know what the Trojans need to be done until fall camp opens up. Here’s Clay Helton’s offseason checklist.

1. Identify team leaders – and empower them to lead. 

We’ll give Helton a leg up with the first item, because most of this work is likely done. Any coach worth his salt understands the pulse of his team and knows who drives the action in the locker room. Helton, in other words, is well aware that players like J.T. Daniels, Michael Pittman and Amon-Ra St. Brown are models of on-field work ethic and off-field smarts on offense. He is cognizant of John Houston emerging as the vocal, experienced shot-caller that this green defense sorely needs. 

© Mark J. Rebilas - USA Today
Will JT Daniels emerge as a leader off the field?

Now, as the school year winds down, he must depend on them to be his eyes, ears and mouthpiece for offseason workouts, which coaches are barred from attending. He must trust them to marshal their teammates effectively and to report back on the team’s growth areas. He must lean on them to begin breaking in the incoming freshmen before Helton and the coaching staff can do it themselves. 

In the bigger picture, everything that happens from May through July pales in comparison to what happens in August, let alone in September onward. Nevertheless, there are valuable reps to take and valuable information that can be gathered, if only secondhand. The first step toward maximizing those is through whatever cadre of players that will vie to become next season’s captains.

2. Recruit hard and recruit smart.

Let’s be clear: USC isn’t landing a quality recruiting class unless it starts winning games. But, and this shouldn’t be understated, even if the Trojan do win, USC also won’t land one if they don’t get back to doing the little things correctly. 

Namely, that means improving communication with recruits and coaches and doing so year-round, not just when the calendar flips to November. It also means treating December, not February, as the de facto National Signing Day and calibrating the recruiting calendar accordingly. And, after a spate of offseason official visits backfired with key names, it probably means nudging priority targets to visit campus late in the cycle to ensure that USC has the best chance possible at making a late impression versus setting itself up to be overshadowed later on. 

But it also means catering to the depth chart. If USC knows, for instance, that it urgently needs a big year on the offensive line as well as a pair of running backs, offer and follow up accordingly. However damning as last year’s class might be in terms of overall quality, the bigger sins were the one-two punch of honing in on a small percentage of targets and then scrambling to cultivate backup plans in players who other schools had already been in touch with for months.

Simply put, there’s no excuse for a school like USC ever seeming so unprepared. With football out of the equation, now is the time to course correct.

3. Shop in the transfer portal.

The most reviled – at least on this board – change to college football world has taken a bite out of USC’s roster. Now, with no shortage of holes to plug and plenty of time to schedule visits, it’s time for the Trojans to take a bit out of someone else’s.

© Bryan Lynn - USA Today
Tennessee offensive lineman Drew Richmond visited USC as a transfer prospect.

Right now, USC could use an extra body at cornerback, slot receiver, running back, offensive line and possibly tight end if Daniel Imatorbhebhe cannot play this year. But with initial counters at a premium following a 33-man recruiting class – 34, counting John Jackson III – that “and” almost certainly becomes an “or.”

So if there are five possible need areas and only one ride to spend on them, that’s all the more reason for Helton to do something and at least plug one hole with a grad transfer who not only will step in right away but step out soon enough to free up his scholarship for what’s shaping up to be a small 2020 class.

Maybe that’s Drew Richmond, the offensive tackle out of Tennessee who already visited campus. Perhaps that’s someone else entirely. But it needs to be someone. It’s time for Helton use the system to his advantage after so many months of it working against USC to date.

4. Gauge who’s ready for a shot at the next step. 

What do you do when there’s no new film to evaluate? Re-examine what you already learned. 

No job battles were decided outright this spring, but some players certainly acquitted themselves better than others and made the case for more responsibility. In between now and fall camp, it’s on Helton to take further stock of who should get the first crack at them. 

If Helton genuinely believes Kedon Slovis held his own against the non-Daniels quarterbacks, then give him added second-team reps now that Matt Fink has entered the transfer portal and Jack Sears has to at least be considered a possibility to do so. Briton Allen drifted all over the secondary and made plays at each spot. Now that he’s seemingly entrenched at safety, find out if he’s already able to make another jump by running him out with the first team. Put Drake Jackson with the 1s. Same with Devon Williams. And don’t be afraid to give Markese Stepp even more run after what he did this spring. 

Fall camp snaps are precious, so not every spring standout will walk into more reps once game-planning becomes a priority. The best possible use of USC’s time, though, would be to cull that list of names now and spend an early round of practices assessing if they’re primed for even more or if they’re better suited for a rotation role. 

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