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Clay Helton embracing his make-or-break season at USC

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

By GREG BEACHAM

AP Sports Writer

LOS ANGELES (AP) Clay Helton is still in charge at Southern California after its first losing season in 18 years. The folksy head coach realizes he probably won't be for much longer if he can't get the Trojans back on top almost as swiftly as they fell to 5-7.

The obstacles along that path are daunting, and they start with a schedule that could put even a much-improved team below .500 heading into October.

But the ever-optimistic Helton is downright excited about the daunting challenge of reviving USC and extending his unlikely tenure atop the West Coast's glamour program.

"You can either hide your head in the sand, or you can address the issues and have very brutally honest conversations with the men around you on how to get better," Helton said.

Those conversations resulted in a wholesale change of offensive philosophy at Tailback U.

Helton has provided stability and accountability at USC, but he's counting on Graham Harrell to provide the points that were glaringly absent last year when the Trojans finished 83rd in the FBS in total offense, 91st in scoring and 108th in rushing offense.

After Kliff Kingsbury's 34 days in LA, Helton hired another Mike Leach disciple to put the Trojans' talented skill players into a version of the Air Raid offense. While Harrell has the lineage and the recent success to back his hiring, he is making a quantum leap from North Texas to Hollywood.

Helton is confident Harrell can do it with a stacked roster featuring one of the nation's best receiving corps, running backs Vavae Malepeai and Stephen Carr, and quarterbacks J.T. Daniels and Jack Sears.

"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-2, 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."

Here are more things to watch from the Trojans:

TOUGH START

USC's schedule is absolutely brutal, even by its masochistic standards. The Trojans begin Aug. 31 by hosting Jeff Tedford's defending Mountain West champions from Fresno State, followed by their annual way-too-early visit from Stanford. USC then makes a high-altitude trip to BYU in a head-scratching nonconference scheduling decision, followed by a short-week Friday visit from preseason Pac-12 favorite Utah - and then a trip to defending Pac-12 champion Washington. At least they've got a subsequent bye week before their trip to Notre Dame, but it's not unrealistic to wonder how safe Helton's job will be at that point if the schedule is as tough as it looks.

JT RETURNS

Daniels' freshman season was inconsistent and ultimately disappointing, but the coveted quarterback recruit maintained his strong work ethic. His teammates think it could pay off under Harrell, who turned North Texas' Mason Fine into the most prolific quarterback in school history even before his senior season this fall. "I feel like it works perfectly for (Daniels), because he's just a straight passer," receiver Michael Pittman Jr. said of Harrell's offense. "He is a drop-back guy that is going to pick you apart, and I feel like this offense is advantageous to his skill set."

REALIGN THE LINE

USC's offensive line might have been the biggest culprit in last season's struggles while yielding 27 sacks and struggling to create space for the meager rushing offense. What's more, three of those starters are gone. Offensive line coach Tim Drevno might have as much pressure as Harrell to get quick results.

CATCHING UP

Oregon State is the only team in the entire FBS that finished last season with fewer than the Trojans' four interceptions, even with an experience-laden secondary at USC. An otherwise solid defense's inability to generate takeaways is a glaring area for improvement this season, and the Trojans lost five of their top six tacklers in the secondary during the offseason. There's plenty of talent left over, though: Safety Talanoa Hufanga is among the youngsters with serious ball skills looking for big defensive roles.

NEW PLACE

The 96-year-old Coliseum has undergone an estimated $315 million renovation in its first major improvement in 20 years. Every seat has been replaced, and a modern press box has been built on the south rim of the venerable home of the first Super Bowl and two Olympics. The concession stands and concourses also were spruced up. The Trojans' longtime home is more attractive to their fans, and they're hoping the product on the field will improve similarly.

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Updated August 14, 2019

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