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Clay Helton's USC mission: No more Hollywood

LOS ANGELES -- Zach Banner slides into the meeting room chair easily, which seemingly challenges the laws of physics, but USC's mammoth senior offensive tackle is about to unleash a filibuster that makes a reporter forget Banner's 6-foot-9, 360-pound frame, something that's not typically easy to do.

Banner wants to explain what has been wrong with USC since Pete Carroll left after the 2009 season, and he wants to describe what's going well now, what's changing under new coach Clay Helton.

“We haven’t had a solid set of guidelines until now," Banner said. "That’s why spring has been going well. That’s why everybody is so solid with Coach Helton. Everybody realizes you have to have a solid foundation in terms of a head coach.”

Then Banner begins to gain serious steam.

"I think the issue in the past that we have had, in between Coach [Pete] Carroll and Coach Helton, everything in between, every single coach, every single player because the coach allowed it, everyone wanted to be Hollywood," Banner said. "Everyone saw the type of star power Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart had when they were winning games -- video game covers, Heisman Trophies, commercials. Some people came to SC just to be a part of that power.

“Guys were so Hollywood, coaches were so Hollywood. Coach Helton is not Hollywood. He’s like our hashtag that is going around -- #allaboutball. This man is a 6-foot-1, bald-headed white dude. He is not going to be on the next GQ cover, and he knows it. But he wants to win football games. To win football games, you have to have a really solid leader, a great commander [in] chief in your head coach. That's Coach Helton."

Helton is not Hollywood, for sure. The son of a longtime college assistant coach, he's a product of Texas and southern football cultures.

He's also not the only member of the Trojans' staff who might pine for grits every once in a while. You hear southern accents all over the practice field. There's Helton's brother, Tyson, the QBs coach. There's offensive coordinator Tee Martin, a native of Mobile, Alabama, who won a national title as Tennessee's quarterback. There's offensive line coach Neil Callaway, a Georgia native who coached 22 seasons in the SEC at Auburn, Alabama and Georgia. There's running backs coach Tommie Robinson, a native of Phenix City, Alabama, who played at Troy State.

Said sophomore linebacker Cameron Smith, “He brings a little bit of the South, that football culture. We pride ourselves on academics, but right next to it is football."

Smith echoed Banner, noting "It's all about ball" and "faith, family, football" as the mantras of the 2016 Trojans.

“We’re really trying to get away from the prima-donna USC," Smith said.

Out at USC is music at practices. In is a physical running game behind a veteran O-line with a quarterback lining up under center. Fancy-pants is out. Nuts and bolts are in.

It's impossible not to notice that the terms used to describe Helton also operate as tweaks to his predecessors, Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian, who both hired him as their offensive coordinator: stable, mature, honest, grounded, football junkie, etc. Helton isn't about that hip, youthful charisma that is often viewed as advantageous in recruiting. Helton, 43, said the best advice he has received as a coach came from his dad, and it's advice that dads have been delivering forever: "Be yourself."

“I’ve never tried to be flashy. I’m a ball coach," Helton said. "I’m taking young men to grown men and I’m helping them win games. If you provide a level of consistency on a day-to-day basis, they know what to expect on each day.”

This spring, that meant installation meetings on Mondays, walkthroughs Tuesday morning and full-go practices on Tuesday afternoon. Wash, rinse, repeat. Players know what to expect. They know the plan.

Helton and his staff are also both new and old. Helton is the Trojans' new head coach but he has been coaching at USC since 2010. Coordinators Martin and Clancy Pendergast on defense previously coached at USC, as has Robinson, special-teams coordinator John Baxter and linebackers coach Johnny Nansen. Defensive line coach Kenechi Udeze starred for Carroll on the 2003 national title team.

So this new staff isn't new to USC, and knowing USC allows them to correct the record. This "USC is Hollywood" image isn't foundational to the program. Think of the greatest Trojans: Marcus Allen, Ronnie Lott, Junior Seau, Anthony Muñoz, Charles White, Bruce Matthews, Clay Matthews, etc. That's a lot of rugged dudes.

Sure, there has been plenty of O.J. Simpson and Reggie Bush flash, and Clay Matthews was willing to sing and dance in a comedic turn in "Pitch Perfect 2," but there has been a heck of a lot more smashmouth through the years.

“This place is a blue-collar place," Helton said. "This place is not Hollywood. This place is true grit. This place was built on the toughness of men and the competition that was on that field.”

All this functions as a meaningful prelude to the season opener against Alabama, the defending national champions, the quintessential gritty SEC team with a future Hall of Fame commander-in-chief coach in Nick Saban. The program -- oh, by the way -- that stepped into college football's dynastic void when Carroll bolted USC for the NFL.

While the ultimate sports cliche is to not look ahead, no one -- not Helton, his coaches, nor his players -- pretends that they aren't thinking about Alabama. While the comments show uniform respect for the Crimson Tide, everyone knows the marquee showdown at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Sept. 3 could immediately announce USC's return to the national title hunt, should the Trojans notch an upset.

Said Smith, “That phrase will get thrown around: ‘We’ve got Alabama!’ It will get thrown around randomly, once or twice a week, if we’re slacking. It’s there. [long pause] We’ll be ready.”

Banner, a communications major and a loquacious sort, again echoes Smith, though with a few more words and phrases. But, also like Smith, he takes a moment for reflection with the Alabama question, and you can hear his mental wheels churning during the pregnant pause.

If he is imagining a Hollywood ending to his career, he doesn't say.

“They’ve got really good players," he concludes. "But so do we.”