September 17, 2020 | zelepmlo | No Comments
It seemed like an unusual location for the USC football program to hire multiple assistant coaches. I had to double-check what conference the school was in — Conference USA — and what in the world its team name — the Hilltoppers — represented (no explanation, though Wikipedia describes its mascot as a “red, furry blob”).But when the names of the assistant coaches from Western Kentucky who had been hired by USC came out, the move made much more sense. The Trojans are bringing in the Hilltoppers’ offensive line coach Neil Callaway along with the offensive coordinator Tyson Helton. Tyson, of course, is the younger brother of recently named head coach Clay Helton. Callaway will take over the same position for the Trojans, while the younger Helton will shift to quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator.It’d be easy to call the maneuver classic nepotism, and maybe the Trojans will end up having missed out on some of the best assistant coaches in the country. But the elder Helton is shaping up what will be a very strong and unified staff, which will prove to be more important than having some big-name hires.Critics of the promotion of Helton from the interim to full-time head coach argued that it was a classic example of Athletic Director Pat Haden and the athletic department getting too caught up in nostalgia for the “Trojan Family.”Instead of looking externally for a potential big-name upgrade, the Trojans went in-house, promoting a coach already with ties to the school as an assistant, to the program head for the third time in a row. After the legendary Pete Carroll left the USC program in some turmoil for the NFL in 2010, Haden tried both Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian, former offensive coordinators under Carroll, as head coaches, but both failed after brief stints.Looking into the other coaching staff moves Helton and the athletic department have made plays into this idea even further. Helton promoted Tee Martin, the team’s wide receivers coach, to offensive coordinator. For the defensive coordinator, Helton brought back Clancy Pendergast, who served that role for the Trojans in 2013. For special teams, Helton also kept it in the Trojan Family, bringing back John Baxter to fill the special teams coordinator position he had held at USC from 2010 to 2013.But there was plenty of good reasoning for all five of the major hires Helton has made.In three of his four seasons at USC, Baxter’s special teams unit ranked in the top 10 in ESPN’s special teams efficiency metric. This past season, under that same title at Michigan, Baxter led the Wolverines to 13th nationally in efficiency after ranking 96th the year before. Anyone who watched Monday’s national championship game could tell you how important that phase of the game is.Neil Callaway comes with an illustrious career and experience at several different levels. He was an offensive coordinator at Alabama from 1998-2000 and at Georgia from 2001-2006, winning one SEC title with the Crimson Tide and two with the Bulldogs. He’s also had head coach experience at the University of Alabama Birmingham, where he was the program head from 2007-2011. If anything, he seems almost overqualified for a positions coach and should do a great job in the role. Though the younger Tyson comes with much less experience, his Western Kentucky team did win its conference and the Peach Bowl this season, finishing 12-2. The Hilltoppers scored the fifth most points on average in the country at a rate of 44.3 per game.In arguably the most important move, Helton made a great move in bringing back Pendergast. He was only a coordinator at USC for one season in 2013, but the Trojan defense led the conference that year in defensive efficiency, ranking sixth nationally in ESPN’s ranking. He proved he could do the same elsewhere in the conference, leading Cal’s defensive unit to the best total yardage defense in the Pac-12 in 2010 and 2011. He also brings experience from the next level, having led the Arizona Cardinals as a coordinator to a Super Bowl appearance in 2008. Given the criticism of past coordinator Justin Wilcox, the move was especially important and exciting for fans like me who were there to watch the 2013 season.Tee Martin is arguably the biggest question mark of the hire. In a position most susceptible to second-guessing, Martin has no experience in an offensive coordinator role beyond the high school level. His best asset might be his recruiting abilities, but his most important duties will now arguably be his playcalling responsibilities. He’s had tremendous success as a college player, succeeding Peyton Manning as the starting quarterback at Tennessee and leading the Volunteers to their most recent national title in 1998, but he will have the most to prove this season.Overall though, the chemistry and communication between the staff will surely be strong. Everyone has experience working in the Coliseum and under the pressure of the LA media market, and everyone seems to fit with the hardworking and dependable personality of Helton. Ultimately, it will come down more to the players than the staff, but the coaching staff features a savvy and motivated number of football minds that will put the Trojans in the best chance to succeed.Luke Holthouse is a junior majoring in policy, planning and development and broadcast & digital journalism.