When Clay Helton took over as USC Trojans football coach last season following the dismissal of Steve Sarkisian, one of the first things he did was help USC get back to its roots.
Be powerful. Use a talented offensive line. Run the dang ball.
USC ran the ball at least 37 times in seven of the 10 games Helton coached. The Trojans didn't exceed that figure in any of Sarkisian's four games, despite routs against Arkansas State and Idaho.
Helton, near the end of last season, had the "interim" removed from his coaching title and now he wants to bring USC a full season of his get-physical approach. That should work behind a veteran offensive line, led by senior tackle Zach Banner, that should rank among the best in the country.
The running back tandem of Ronald Jones II and Justin Davis is special, so that fits nicely into USC's we-dare-you-to-stop-the-run plan.
Junior Max Browne has outdueled redshirt freshman Sam Darnold and will be the starting quarterback when Southern California opens the season against Alabama on Sept. 3.
USC coach Clay Helton announced the decision on Saturday August 20th after a spirited derby between the two signal callers.
"At this point, we feel that it is in the best interest of our football team to lean on the veteran experience that Max Browne has, so we have named him the starter going into our opening game against Alabama," Helton said in a statement. "With our experienced offensive line and the weapons at our skill positions, we as a staff are confident that Max's ability will help guide a very successful offense."
Browne, who has thrown 19 college passes, said he was thrilled when Helton broke the news to him that he had won the job.
"It was a moment of realization that hard work and staying the course paid off for me," Browne said. "I feel like I have put in the work necessary to earn the starting position and I look forward to leading this team to championships.
"Sam is a heck of a player and he pushed me to the final day of camp. We are good friends and I have no doubt he will have a great career at USC."
Browne and Darnold competed throughout the spring and summer until Saturday's decision. The Trojans are replacing three-year starter Cody Kessler, who is now a member of the Cleveland Browns.
Helton feels the coaching staff did the right thing by keeping the competition going up until two weeks before the first game.
"We believe that the competitive atmosphere that was put in place allowed both quarterbacks to progress as players," Helton said. "We also gained valuable knowledge on each quarterback's skill sets that will allow us to better game plan this fall. Finally, we learned that these two men are extremely talented, ultracompetitive, and possess all the leadership intangibles that you must have at the position.
"It made for one of the toughest decisions in my college coaching career. This usually is the case when you have very talented individuals at the same position performing at a high level."
Darnold said he was disappointed in the decision but understood the reasoning behind it. He also wanted to make sure it was known that he would not consider transferring.
"I will continue to work hard and prepare as if I'm the starter, so I will be ready when my name is called," Darnold said. "I'm proud of Max for what he has done and how he competed. The competition made us both better. I have no desire to leave USC, this is the place for me. "
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: Coach Clay Helton would emphasize toughness in any situation, but that characteristic will be especially needed, given USC's early schedule. The Trojans open at Jerry's World in Arlington, Texas, against defending national champion Alabama, certainly known as one of the toughest, most physical outfits there is in college football. Two weeks later, on Sept. 17, USC goes to Stanford for its Pac-12 opener, and there's another team that would just love to get into a line-of-scrimmage brawl. The only home game in the opening month is Sept. 10 against Utah State, while the month ends with another tough road game -- at Utah on Friday night, Sept. 23. Yet another physical game awaits.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: The offensive line has five returning starters, including senior tackles Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler, and there is an overflow of possibilities at the interior positions, considering guys coming back from injury. Sophomore Ronald Jones II looks like he could be the next superstar running back at USC, but coaches also love Justin Davis, and there is nothing wrong with fresh legs in the ground game. A potentially punishing ground attack could set the tone and set the table to get All-American wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster some extra space. Not that he needs a lot to make a big play.
AREAS OF CONCERN: The defensive line is on the thin side. There are no returning starters up front. USC added a 25-year-old Utah graduate transfer Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, which is a play for more depth because he hasn't been a star-level player. Potential starting defensive tackle Noah Jefferson was bothered by back problems in the spring and early in fall camp. The line's most experienced player is Khaliel Rodgers, a converted offensive lineman who started games at center last season. Coach Clay Helton has talked about adding extra personnel into the box to help the defensive line. That comes with a trade-off. "There's going to be more pressure put on our defensive backs to play some man coverage," he said. "That's probably my biggest concern -- how that defensive front plays."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The fact of the matter is the expectations at USC, the bar is set high. It's about championships. And if you don't like that bar, don't take the job." -- Coach Clay Helton
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
HEAD COACH: Clay Helton, second year at USC, 6-4 at USC
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: WR JuJu Smith-Schuster -- He caught 89 passes for 1,454 yards and 10 touchdowns last season in an All-American campaign that was slowed late by a hand injury. He had 100-yard efforts in six of his first nine games. While the Trojans have other talented options at receiver, those players are either less experienced or not nearly as productive, creating quite a potential gap between Smith-Schuster and the next-best receiver. USC needs him at full strength to balance the offense and prevent defenses from stacking against the run.
BREAKOUT STAR: LB Cameron Smith -- He was pretty great as a true freshman, making 78 tackles in 10 games before missing the final four games because of a knee injury. The middle linebacker had such star power that he was assigned No. 55 this summer -- the hallowed USC jersey number worn by Chris Claiborne, Willie McGinest and the late Junior Seau. The school quickly changed course, though, and gave Smith back the No. 35 he wore last season, as No. 55 will be unused this season. Smith has All-American potential; the question will be if he's 100 percent recovered from his knee problems when the season-opener vs. Alabama rolls around.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: DE Oluwole Betiku -- The five-star freshman, rated the No. 16 recruit nationally by the 247Sports Composite, plays a position of need for the Trojans. Betiku got a jump on things by enrolling early. "Looks like a 26-year-old," coach Clay Helton was quoted as saying in the Los Angeles Times. "Thank god he had a spring. The progression from him from the 15 practices in spring to now is light years. He's not a finished product, nowhere near, but his upside is tremendous."
--CB Isaiah Langley, a sophomore backup, is suspended for the season-opener against Alabama. He was arrested in the spring at a UCLA frat party on misdemeanor charges of resisting arrest, providing false information and trespassing, according to campus police.
--DT Khaliel Rodgers, who started six games at center last season as an injury replacement, asked to be switched to the defensive line. He will add size up front and has a better chance of time on that side of the ball.
--CB Adoree' Jackson, who has been a three-way player the past two seasons (cornerback, receiver, returner) will mostly give up offense this season to focus on his duties as a defensive back.
--OL Toa Lobendahn, coming back from an ACL injury suffered last season, was a full-go early in fall camp. He is projected as the starting center.