Mind of Mike: Lack of recruiting success, development doomed Helton at USC
The Mind of Mike is a scary place. Here are my thoughts on the firing of USC head coach Clay Helton.
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Remember the Pete Carroll days at USC? I sure do and they were amazing. But since then it’s been disappointment after disappointment save for an isolated season here or there. It was always going to come to this. Helton never fit in quite right at USC and, after an embarrassing loss to Stanford on Saturday, the inevitable finally occurred. Helton is gone and the fan base gets what it wants. The 42-28 loss to the Cardinal was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back when it came to his tenure in Los Angeles, and athletic director Mike Bohn did what others have been hesitant to do: He fired a good man who was over his head at USC.
Even before this season, Helton was on thin ice with the program, having gone 46-24 with a 36-13 record in the Pac-12 over six-plus seasons leading the program. Those kinds of numbers simply won't do when you are supposed to be the No. 1 program in the conference by a good deal. USC is the Pac-12's Alabama or Ohio State, and so with only one conference title and routine losses to inferior programs, the brass at USC was left with no other options.
So why wasn't Helton successful at USC? It should be easy for almost anyone to win there, but in Helton's case he made a few critical mistakes. First and foremost, he did a poor job of hiring capable assistants around him. He held on to Tee Martin and Clancy Pendergast too long. Todd Orlando has not done a whole lot in his time there and Graham Harrell still has yet to fully unlock the talent the Trojans have at the skill positions on offense. They are still having trouble blocking anyone with a whiff of a pass rush and skill position players continue to underperform.
But ultimately it was recruiting that did Helton in. Even though we've seen the Trojans land their fair share of high-level recruits, the misses are huge ones. Kayvon Thibodeaux, Bryce Young, Justin Flowe, D.J. Uiagalelei, Henry To’o To’o, Joseph Ngata, Najee Harris, Kendall Milton, Wyatt Davis and others. And those are just the in-state prospects. Let’s not even talk about guys like Bijan Robinson.
Player development has not been there to nearly the same level as it was during the Pete Carroll era. USC landed 11 five-star prospects between the 2015-20 cycles, and can you really say that any of them truly panned out for them? Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown both turned into above average receivers, but neither were true game breakers. None of the linebackers (Porter Gustin, John Houston, Palaie Gaoteote) ever broke through in a truly meaningful way to become upper-echelon players. And JT Daniels got worse between his freshman and sophomore campaigns, eventually transferring to Georgia. The lack of development goes even beyond that - Kedon Slovis was fantastic as a freshman, but made zero discernable improvements as a sophomore and seems to be the exact same quarterback today as a junior as he was during his first start.
The 2020 class was arguably the biggest embarrassment of the Helton era, finishing No. 71 in the country behind programs like Tulane, Bowling Green, FAU and Rutgers. That was when the axe should have fallen but here we are now.
What's next for USC? Donte Williams will take over as the interim head coach for the remainder of the season, but they'll be looking to make a big, splashy hire. Expect the likes of Matt Campbell, James Franklin, Bill O'Brien, Luke Fickell and others to be at the top of their list. Heck, you can even throw in Urban Meyer as he could flame out in one season in the NFL. But aside from Meyer the biggest power move the Trojans could pull off would be to lure Mario Cristobal down from Eugene. While that may be a long shot, that's the kind of hire it's going to take to get USC back to the top of the Pac-12. The issue? USC is a step-down job from Oregon now, something Helton has had a great deal to do with. But at least this first step has finally been taken.