Clay Helton loves having talented players. He just hates hearing about it.
The USC coach went into and came out of his first spring session as a head coach preaching the doctrine that the Trojans cannot survive on talent alone.
“I really wanted to sell these kids in spring that my least favorite word in the English dictionary is ‘talent,’” Helton said. “I’ve heard that we’re a talented bunch for the last six years. I’d much rather have a fundamental, technical, physical, tough football team that is also talented.”
USC’s talent will be put to the test in 2016, when the Trojans face the toughest schedule in the country, according to ESPN’s FPI metrics. And there’s no time for a tune-up. The Trojans open the season Sept. 3 in Arlington, Texas, against Alabama, the defending national champs. Two weeks later, it’s a trip to Stanford to face a Cardinal team that swept the Trojans last season, beating them at the Coliseum and again, 41-22, in the Pac-12 title game.
Those two games in particular are why Helton opted to ditch the music during spring ball. He wanted his players taking “mental reps” while listening to their coaches. It’s why he lined up the offense and defense then threw down the proverbial hammer: “We’re running power right three straight times. Offense, get a first down. Defense, stop them.”
If that sounds an awful lot like prepping for Stanford, you’d be right.
“No question,” Helton said. “That first ballgame and that third ballgame, between Alabama and Stanford, you better get ready for some physical football.
“I went back over last season really trying to understand what’s important. As proud as I was of this team to win out in the Pac-12 South, I really had a bad taste in my mouth after the Pac-12 championship game. We played a good Stanford team that really 'out-physicalled' us and outplayed us in the second half. That left a bad taste in my mouth.”
But before they get another crack at Stanford, the Crimson Tide are looming. Already building national hype, the USC-Alabama game is expected to be the big draw for Week 1 as college football royalty squares off. Alabama’s successes of late have been a bit more regal than USC’s. Helton said he feels the Trojans have lost their sense of physicality. Talent is nice, but toughness plus talent is better.
“It’s about doing your job, doing your technique and being physical,” Helton said. “That’s what wins football games. Not trying to out-scheme people or trick people. Not the flash. It’s about doing your job the right way over and over again.”
Helton recognizes the significance of that opening game. But he’s preaching to his players not to put all of their stock in it. Win or lose (and they’ve already opened as a double-digit underdog), it’s still Week 1 and they have to get ready for Utah State the next week and Stanford the week after that.
Helton said treating every game like it’s a playoff game was the mentality that helped them win the Pac-12 South last season. He’s hoping this year’s team can maintain that philosophy.
“It’s a special game for our fans and for football. It’s two storied programs,” Helton said. “When you play in the SEC or Pac-12, if you don’t bring your A-game, you’re going to get your butt beat. Do we have a challenging schedule? Yes. But what I’m selling the guys is every game is a championship game. And we saw the results that it gave us last year. We got to go to San Francisco and compete for a Pac-12 championship.
“It’s the same approach we have to take this year. As important as the Alabama game is, I promise they’ll be fired up for the next week and the next week if we want to get to where we want to go, which is the national championship.”