Clay Helton enters 2019 on the hot seat after last year's 5-7 finish

Editor's note: The ninth in a series of articles previewing Pac-12 Conference football teams in reverse order of how they were projected to finish in the preseason conference media poll.

Clay Helton was as upbeat as ever at last week's Pac-12 media day in Los Angeles.

“Great to see everybody,” USC’s embattled coach said. “It’s always my favorite time of the year, coming here. It means it’s football season and getting ready to get started again.

“It’s been a great offseason for our football program.”

The Trojans, coming off the program’s first losing season (5-7) since 2000, certainly had an eventful December.

Helton hired Kliff Kingsbury to install a version of the Air Raid. The idea was for the former Texas Tech quarterback and coach to get the most out of sophomore quarterback JT Daniels’ talents.

Kingsbury was on the job for four weeks before leaving to become the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals.

Instead of panicking and scraping the plan, Helton hired Graham Harrell, another former Red Raiders quarterback, to be his offensive coordinator.

USC’s offense finished tied for ninth in the Pac-12 in points (26.1 per game) and 10th in yards (382.6 per game) in 2018.

“When you watch the tape, Graham takes what the defense gives him,” Helton said. “If you’re going to line up and load the box, he’s going to throw it 60 times. And if you end up dropping eight and playing cover-two, he’s not going to force the pass, he’s going to run the ball and let a rusher get 200 yards in a game.”

Daniels was third in the Pac-12 in passing yards per game (242.9) behind Washington State’s Gardner Minshew and Stanford’s K.J. Costello last season. But as a true freshman playing behind a shaky offensive line, Daniels was ninth in passer rating after completing 59.5% of his attempts with 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

The return of dynamic wide receivers Michael Pittman Jr., Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns should aid the transition to Harrell’s quarterback-friendly system.

“I don’t want to be that guy that people are looking at like, ‘You let USC fall,’” said Pittman, a preseason all-conference first team selection. “So I’m doing anything and everything.”

Vavae Malepeai, who flipped from Oregon to USC late in his recruitment, and Stephen Carr are the top running back candidates.

Tailback U struggled to run the ball last season, finishing 107th nationally (133.5 ypg).

Helton, who won a Rose Bowl and a Pac-12 title during his first two seasons at USC, knows the offensive and defensive lines have to improve in order to get off the hot seat.

The Trojans allowed 27 sacks and and brought the opposing quarterback down 29 times last season.

“I believe big men win championships,” Helton said. “Obviously skill players can put points on the board, but at the end of the day, I truly believe the offensive and defensive line control games.”

Helton said his offensive line will take a step forward and the defensive line is the strongest position group on that side of the ball.

All of the ingredients will have to come together quickly in order for Helton to be at the 2020 Pac-12 media day.

The Trojans, who were picked to finish second in the South Division in the preseason media poll, have a brutal six-game stretch to open the season.

Before North Division favorite Oregon arrives at the LA Coliseum on Nov. 2, USC will have already played road games at BYU, Washington, Notre Dame and Colorado.

“When you have a 5-7 season, you own it yourself as the leader and you look at yourself truthfully of what you have to do to get better,” Helton said. “You can either hide your head in the sand or you can address the issues, have brutally honest conversations with the men around you of how to get better and institute that.”

USC TROJANS

Coach: Clay Helton, fifth year (32-17 at USC)

Key players: QB JT Daniels, WR Michael Pittman Jr, WR Amon-Ra St. Brown, OT Austin Jackson, DL Jay Tufele, DL Christian Rector

2018 record: 5-7 overall, 4-5 Pac-12

2019 projection: The Trojans are picked to finish second in the South Division in the Pac-12 preseason media poll

Nonconference opponents: Fresno State, BYU, Notre Dame

Plays Oregon: Nov. 2 in Los Angeles

Full schedule: Aug. 31 vs. Fresno State, Sept. 7 vs. Stanford, Sept. 14 at BYU, Sept. 20 vs. Utah, Sept. 28 at Washington, Oct. 12 at Notre Dame, Oct. 19 vs. Arizona, Oct. 25 at Colorado, Nov. 2 vs. Oregon, Nov. 9 vs. Arizona State, Nov. 16 at California, Nov. 23 vs. UCLA

Saturday’s preview: Washington