Q&A: Clay Helton on fall timelines, USC’s QB situation, recruiting

On any given day, Clay Helton makes 40-50 phone calls.

Quarantined at home with his wife and three children, the USC head football coach has a staff to manage, recruits to call and current student-athletes to monitor as college football has become a virtual business during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m trying to take care of my 110 adopted sons right now,” he says.

But Helton squeezed an extra phone call into his schedule this week to talk with the Southern California News Group about recent developments with the team, a look ahead at what could be an unorthodox football season and more:

Updates are few and far between at this point, but two weeks ago the NCAA allowed teams extra virtual time with players, up to eight hours a week. How are you utilizing these extra hours?

Helton: “Not only the extra hours, but what was really important, that we (were) glad that happened, was getting rid of the discretionary weeks, also. Usually May in college football there are discretionary weeks where we’re not allowed to do anything with our guys. So by giving us those eight hours and getting rid of the discretionary weeks, I think it’s really helped us continue to engage with our players.

“So that eight hours of being able to be with them is an opportunity to have Russ Romano and our physical trainers be able to consult. We had 30 surgeries over the course of last year so the opportunity for them to engage our players with rehab schedules, with physical therapists in their area, to wellness checks. Our strength and conditioning staff being able to consult players and help them with things that they can do from home safely. Mike Bohn did a great job of not only our sport but all sports of providing some equipment for our student-athletes in the form of bands, medicine balls, jump ropes, things they can do from home the same way.

“Obviously, it’s given us the opportunity to still provide academic services. And finally it’s enabled us to provide engagement of their minds football-wise. That’s a huge piece of this because when you look at where we are with a new defensive staff and a new special teams coach, it’s very, very important for them to get online, say, ‘Hey, let’s install the system. These are the fundamentals and techniques I want you to be able to see and learn. Let’s go through it.’ “

On Tuesday, USC announced that classes will be done remotely through August 11. How does that impact the timeline for the start of fall camp?

Helton: “I don’t have a crystal ball, to be honest with you on that. I’m just hearing it myself, to be honest. I think the one thing the NCAA is trying to do and all conferences are trying to do is create a level playing field for everybody. I think we’re going to get a lot clearer picture of the whole thing probably in 6-8 weeks is what I’m being told. I think everybody is optimistic that we will have a season, we just don’t know the timing of that season or the structure of it.

“But the one thing I’m appreciative of is the NCAA and colleges are trying to level the playing field, knowing that there are different situations based on the states that you’re in. For us, when is it safe to get back as 110 men? That’s No. 1. Phase 2 is going to be getting our kids in functional football shape and be able to safely go into a training camp. Phase 3 will be that actual training camp and Phase 4 will be actual play.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom released his reopening plan for California on Tuesday and it mentions having sports without spectators before being able to open up completely. Have you wrapped your head around the possibility of playing a season in empty stadiums?

Helton: “I’ll be grateful, and I think we all will, just for the opportunity to play the game because that will mean there has been some advancement and progress in this crisis that we’re dealing with. I look forward to the day that we’re all back together and having the opportunity to not only get to play the game but have the passion that’s with it, and the fans are a big part of that.”

Quarterback JT Daniels entered the transfer portal two weeks ago, but left open the possibility of returning to USC. But if he does decide to transfer, that would leave you with just two scholarship QBs again. Are you comfortable entering the season under those circumstances, or could you look to add to that room?

Helton: “I think the May 20 vote [on immediate eligibility for transfers], we’re going to see how that affects college football. That is going to really see for kids, is that something that opens up the door to be able to look at other avenues and other opportunities. Obviously if JT decides to leave, having two scholarship quarterbacks on campus, we may try to acquire a third.

“JT, he and I both said, USC is one of his opportunities. That door has been left open. JT is still in our team meetings, position meetings, he’s still progressing as a quarterback. He’s still preparing. So this is all being done extremely respectfully and as a family. I think that May 20 vote has a lot to do with what the next step would be not only for JT but for us also.”

If Daniels does decide to transfer, would you still have a quarterback competition during camp even with Kedon Slovis as the returning starter?

Helton: “Yeah, obviously. We always compete at all positions. Training camp is an opportunity to compete. We know we have talented quarterbacks in the room. One of the things our quarterbacks know that I’m very appreciative of is we’re here to compete. When you walk in as a quarterback to USC, they understand the talent that’s in the room. They’re not fearful of it. It makes us all better.”

It seems like the new members of the coaching have already created some new energy in the program’s recruiting efforts. What impact have you seen from the new coaches on recruiting?

Helton: “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the energy and the work ethic and the chemistry that this whole staff has brought. All of them are great recruiters, but I think they’re also great relationship builders, not only with our current team but with recruits. The work ethic that they put into recruiting and the chemistry that we all have working together as a staff to get to know kids. We made that investment and it’s really paying dividends for us right now. And plus having the ability to have more scholarships this year. Going from only 13 scholarships last year to now being able to sign a full load. That’s something that’s helping us, too.”

USC is always USC, but do you get the sense there’s a stronger buzz around the program this recruiting cycle than last?

Helton: “I’m really appreciative of Mike Bohn and Dr. [Carol L.] Folt for the resources and tools that they gave us. One, when you look staff-wise, to be able to keep a Graham Harrell and keep that consistency, but also to acquire a Todd Orlando, Craig Naivar, Donte Williams, Vic So’oto, there’s a financial investment that needs to be made there, as well as building an even stronger recruiting staff. Technology has become a huge part of recruiting. Being able to add an extra graphics guy, a video production person, a brand marketing person and an additional recruiter, building that has helped us also. That type of investment people feel.”