As Uncertainty Shrouds USC, the Trojans Are Weathering the Storm—For Now

LOS ANGELES — Just before halftime of the season opener, USC quarterback JT Daniels took a snap, dropped back to pass, and immediately saw a swarm of Fresno State players coming at him, essentially unblocked. Daniels backpedaled, trying to buy himself some time. He glanced at one of his hot routes, but his man was covered. As the defenders closed in, he spun and tried bracing himself for impact, but his right foot got caught in the grass. Two defenders crashed into him, and his body collapsed awkwardly under their weight.

“I felt a pop,” Daniels says, “so I knew right away it wasn’t good.”

In an instant, Daniels’s season had ended. An MRI later revealed that he’d torn the ACL and the meniscus in his right knee. He had to be helped off the field, his arms around the shoulders of two USC staffers. Soon halftime came, and USC retreated to the locker room without its quarterback, clinging to a 17–10 lead. Graham Harrell, the offensive coordinator, surveyed the room. “They were a little big-eyed,” he says. “Like, what’s the plan now?”

Kedon Slovis, the freshman backup QB, sat at his locker, anxious to get going. He hadn’t had a chance to take a snap before halftime, and now he had 30 minutes to sit and think about the moment at hand. “That was honestly worse,” Slovis says. “I would rather just go in and play, get my feet wet right away.” He could feel all of the eyes in the room on him. “You can tell, you’re the young guy so everyone’s kinda gauging you, seeing where you’re at.”

Three times, USC head coach Clay Helton came over to Slovis, offering him words of encouragement. Slovis shook his coach off each time. “I was like, 'I’m ready, let’s go.'”

One could hardly blame Helton if he were concerned. After leading USC to back-to-back 10 win seasons, Helton went 5–7 last year, and that led to fans calling for his job. He had survived thanks in large part to the support of the athletic director, Lynn Swann, but entering this season, Helton seemed to be on a short leash. Now, halfway through the season opener, his starting quarterback had just gone down and he had a true freshman taking over.

In the second half, Slovis played well enough. He completed 6 of 8 passes for 57 yards and an interception, but he also led USC on a long touchdown drive that helped secure a 31–23 win. Afterward, back in his apartment, Slovis’s phone buzzed nonstop. Before that night, he'd been another anonymous, 18-year-old freshman backup. Now Slovis was USC’s starting quarterback, thrust into the crucible of big-time college football, for better or worse.

- Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images
Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

Slovis had not exactly taken a traditional path to arrive at USC. Back at Desert Mountain high school, in Scottsdale, Ariz., he didn’t start on the varsity team until his junior year. His offensive coordinator, the Hall of Famer Kurt Warner, thought Slovis hadn’t been mentally ready to run his pro-style scheme until then. But that set him back in recruiting.

After his junior season, he still had zero scholarship offers, due largely to a lack of exposure. That February, Slovis started reaching out to college coaches, sending blind e-mails or direct messages to their Twitter accounts. On a whim, he sent one of those DMs to a USC recruiting staffer. Slovis politely introduced himself, listed his measurables and statistics, and included a link to his highlight tape. “I look forward to hearing from you in the future!” he wrote.

Two months later, the staffer responded out of the blue. He said he’d watched Slovis’s tape and came away impressed. Shortly after that, Bryan Ellis, the USC quarterbacks coach, came to watch Slovis practice. Later that day, USC offered Slovis a scholarship. At that point, he had a few offers from smaller programs: Hawaii, NC State, Oregon State. By the end of the week, Slovis was sitting in Clay Helton’s office, verbally committing to USC. It seemed like the perfect situation for a Slovis, as a young quarterback, a no-brainer really. At the time, Helton had a 21–6 record at USC and had just had a star quarterback, Sam Darnold, go No. 3 in the NFL draft.

As the year went on, though, Helton’s standing at USC began to change. Playing Daniels, a true freshman quarterback, the Trojans went 5–7 that season, their first losing record since 2000, and lost five of their last six games. Fans started calling for Helton’s job. But Swann decided to keep Helton on, doubling down after giving him a contract extension before the season.

At the time, Max Slovis, Kedon's father, admits he was worried for his son’s future, especially under a new offensive coordinator. Amid the shakeup, Ellis, the quarterbacks coach who had recruited Slovis, had taken a job at Western Kentucky, too. Max wondered, would Kedon fit the new coach’s system? Would he get a fair chance to start? “It is a little nerve-racking,” Max says, “It makes you pause and consider, what’s going to happen next?”

But Kedon never wavered in his commitment to USC, because, well, it was USC. His father, a middle school math teacher, had warned him not to choose a school only for the coach. “A lot of kids worry about [their coach’s job status] in recruiting,” Kedon says. “But a big thing my dad and I discussed, coaches are going to get fired or leave. Like Jim Harbaugh at Stanford: might leave for the NFL. Our mindset going in was, find a school that you love. Because if football doesn’t work out, you don’t want to be stuck at a school you don’t like.”

That December, Helton hired Kliff Kingsbury, a disciple of the Air Raid, as his offensive coordinator. Soon after, Kingsbury came to visit Slovis in Arizona. Kingsbury met Slovis’s parents, and they sat in his living room, talking about the offense, how he liked Slovis’s film and how Kingsbury planned to stage an open competition among the quarterbacks.

Looking back now, Max Slovis jokes, “He was probably just looking for a place to live.” Shortly after that visit, Kingsbury left USC to become the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals.

That happened in January, around the time Kedon arrived on campus as an early enrollee. Max Slovis texted his son slightly worried: What’s the deal with the OC? But Kedon shrugged off any concern. “It was weird but it wasn’t a big deal,” he says. “I knew we’d get another great coach. Like, it’s USC. You’re not going to hire someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.”

Slovis had that ingrained in him from his official visit that previous fall. One morning, Slovis, his parents and about a half-dozen other recruits were eating breakfast at the Coliseum when they met Lynn Swann. “He was talking to us about what a success USC can be football-wise, professionally, how many businesses and boards he sits on,” Max Slovis recalls, “and then he says, ‘This can be the result of what you do here.’” Swann started pulling rings out of his pocket as if they were loose change. His 1972 USC Championship ring; his 2017 USC Rose Bowl ring; his four Super Bowl rings; and two Hall of Fame rings. He pulled out eight rings in all and placed them on the table. It was reminiscent of the move Pat Riley famously pulled while recruiting LeBron James. Max Slovis snapped a picture.

“My parents were like wide-eyed,” Kedon recalls. “I was like, that’s pretty cool.”

- Courtsey of Max Slovis
Courtsey of Max Slovis

Back at the Coliseum, facing No. 23 Stanford in his first career start, Slovis played the game of his life. He completed 28 of 33 passes for 377 yards and three touchdowns, leading USC to an impressive 45–20 win. After he did an on-field TV interview, someone (maybe a photographer?) directed him over to the marching band. As the star of the night, he had to lead the band in the fight song. “I just got thrown up there,” Slovis says. “I’d seen other people do it on TV and stuff. It’s nothing crazy. They give you the sword and you do it to the beat.”

The new offensive coordinator had turned out to be alright, too. After Kingsbury had defected, Helton had hired Graham Harrell, another Air Raid disciple. Helton and Harrell had also opened up the quarterback competition, as Kingsbury had initially promised, and Slovis had won the backup job outright, over two more experienced players, Matt Fink and Jack Sears. That had put Slovis in position to step in once Daniels went down hurt.

After his performance against Stanford, Slovis was still riding high on Monday afternoon when he saw a tweet saying Lynn Swann had resigned. At first Slovis says, “I thought it was a scam or a fake thing.” He had to contact someone with the team to confirm the news.

The truth was, in the time since Swann had shown those eight rings around the Coliseum breakfast table, he’d run into some trouble. USC had been implicated in the Varsity Blues admissions bribery scandal, and Swann had taken flak for not taking the scandal seriously enough, after he was spotted in Virginia signing autographs for money shortly afterward. Some fans hadn’t been pleased either with how he had handled the football program.

That Monday, when the Swann news broke on Twitter, Helton was speaking at a boosters luncheon. The LA Times later wrote that Helton had been kept “in the dark,” along with other athletic department officials, until shortly before the official announcement. Helton told SI that multiple people, including Swann, had given him a heads-up. Either way, Helton had just lost his biggest ally, and his future suddenly looked murky. At the luncheon, the Times reported, a booster asked Helton about Swann’s departure, and “he sidestepped the question.”

That week, Helton met with Dr. Carol Folt, the newly installed university president who would be charged with finding the next athletic director, Helton’s next boss. According to Helton, Dr. Folt offered him some words of encouragement: “‘I loved watching ya’ll versus Stanford. … Love what you’re doing, keep doing it. I’m here to help you be successful.’”

Helton also met with Dave Roberts, the school’s former vice president of athletic compliance, who Dr. Folt had installed as the interim AD. Roberts offered Helton encouragement, too. But in an interview with the Times, when asked about Helton’s future, Roberts gave a more sobering response: “He’s a coach. He’s going to stand on his record.” (SI requested interviews with Dr. Folt and Roberts, and the school declined both requests.)

“Anytime there’s a change in leadership, there’s going to be a transition—and there could be change,” Helton says. But he adds, “I’ve felt so much support from our administration.”

That Saturday, Roberts stood on the sideline during USC’s game at BYU. The Cougars spent much of the game dropping eight defenders into coverage, trying to confuse Slovis, who was making his second career start, and it worked. Slovis threw three costly interceptions, including one in overtime that secured BYU a 30–27 win. Afterward, Roberts flew home with the team as, back in Los Angeles, the hashtag #FireClayHelton started trending on Twitter.

“You can’t listen to any of that,” Slovis says. “There are so many people out there spewing nonsense, that don’t know what they’re talking about.”

The Monday after the BYU game, Roberts asked to address the team at practice, in an attempt, it seemed, to lift their spirits. “He said, ‘Hey guys, it’s just one game.’” Helton recalls. “ ‘We got this. We’re going to do this. I believe in Clay. I believe in what he’s doing.’ ” Roberts also reiterated that Helton would be judged on his record. After listening to Roberts, Slovis says the players’ general takeaway was, “Nothing’s going to change this season. … That was the message: Your coach is going to be here through the remainder of the season.” Finally, for the moment at least, Helton, Slovis and the rest of the team seemed to have some clarity.

Helton may have received a vote of confidence behind closed doors, but the public perception hadn't changed by the time USC kicked off against No. 10-ranked Utah at the Coliseum that Friday night. Before the game, Fox Sports hosted a pregame show in the west endzone, featuring former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who some fans had targeted as USC’s next coach. Earlier that day, at Dr. Folt’s inauguration as USC president, she had denied rumors that she and Meyer had recently had dinner. She told the Times that she’d never met Meyer and that it wasn’t the president’s job to hire coaches. Nevertheless, as USC warmed up on the field behind the Fox Sports set, a small group of fans started chanting: “HI-RE URB-AN!”

The night only got more surreal from there. On the second play from scrimmage, just as Slovis released a pass, Leki Fotu, Utah’s 6-foot-5, 335-pound defensive tackle, slammed him into the ground. Slovis stayed down for a while and stumbled as he tried getting up. He later failed a concussion test, which meant he’d be out for the game. Slovis returned to the sideline in the fourth quarter, wearing street clothes and ear plugs and watching from afar, as Matt Fink, the third-string quarterback, led the Trojans to a stunning 30–23 win over the Utes.

Afterward, Helton walked off the field grinning ear to ear, as Fink, the star of the night, joined the Fox Sports set for a postgame interview. Meyer turned and raised a hand toward Helton, acknowledging of a job well done, and Helton acknowledged him back.

- Meg Oliphant/Getty Images
Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

Meanwhile, away from the crowd, JT Daniels walked off the field on crutches. He has a long rehab process ahead of him, and he still hadn’t had surgery on his knee yet. He had told SI earlier in the week that he hadn’t thought about his future at USC just yet, either. “There’s so much time before I’m even ready to start running,” he said. “I can’t even think about considering any of that. I have to get healthy first. Then whatever happens, happens.”

Nearby, Slovis patted Helton on the back and headed up the tunnel. He wouldn’t recover from his concussion the following week either, not before USC’s next big road game against No. 17 Washington. Fink would be the starter for now, the quarterback leading USC during these strange times, the one everyone looked to, at least until Slovis returned healthy.

Somehow, the Trojans are 3–1 now and ranked No. 21 in the country. For how much change has occurred around the program this year, much more remains to be determined. USC still needs to decide on a starting quarterback, a new athletic director and Helton’s fate.

“You know what the most beautiful thing is? When you control your own destiny,” Helton says, cracking another grin. “Add ‘em all up at the end and see where we’re at, you know?”

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