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Less than two months after he was fired from USC, Clay Helton was announced Tuesday as the next coach at Georgia Southern. Helton, 49, replaces Chad Lunsford, who was fired on Sept. 26 after a 1-3 start to the 2021 season. Helton’s deal will be for five seasons at nearly $800,000 per year, according to Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel, and he is expected to start working immediately on tasks such as recruiting and building a staff.
Helton was fired from USC on Sept. 13, two days after the Trojans lost at home to Stanford after beginning the season favored to win the Pac-12 South. He was two games into his seventh season as USC’s head coach. He went 46-24 (36-13 Pac-12) during his tenure after taking over for Steve Sarkisian midway through the 2015 season. Helton had been on staff at USC since 2010.
Though he’s never coached in the Sun Belt, Helton does have ties to the southeast. Helton began his playing career at Auburn and worked at Duke and Memphis before arriving in Los Angeles. During Helton’s childhood, his father was an assistant for Florida, Miami and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Kevin Whitley, who was the cornerbacks coach under Lunsford, has been serving as the interim coach since Lunsford’s dismissal. Whitley is 1-3 in that role. With a 2-6 record, Georgia Southern will need to win its final four games in order to reach a fourth-straight bowl game.
Lunsford took over as Georgia Southern’s interim coach for the last six games of the 2017 season and ended his tenure with a 28-21 overall record, including a 17-14 mark in Sun Belt play. Georgia Southern just joined the FBS ahead of the 2014 season, but the program has a strong record at the FCS level with six national championships.
Let’s have a look at now some key takeaways from Georgia Southern turning to Clay Helton to lead its football program moving forward.
At 49, Helton still has time to restore his head coaching career and land another big job, and Georgia Southern is a solid place to do some rehabilitation. The program has a good history and competes in the Sun Belt, which has sent several coaches on to power conference jobs over the past decade. Among the most recent are West Virginia coach Neal Brown (Troy) and Missouri’s Elijah Drinkwitz (Appalachian State). Current Sun Belt coaches Jamey Chadwell (Coastal Carolina) and Billy Napier (Louisiana) are also potential candidates for Power Five openings in this upcoming hiring cycle.
Helton is regarded as one of the nicest guys in the coaching profession and is leaving USC with less baggage than his two most-recent predecessors, Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian. Both were also fired from USC mid-season and are now in attractive jobs with Sarkisian in his first season at Texas and Kiffin in his second at Ole Miss. Helton could position himself for a similar type of opportunity with a few good seasons leading the Eagles.
Helton’s hiring likely signals that Georgia Southern will move away from the option-based attack which has defined the program through the years. Its best days as an FCS program came with the option, and so did some of its more recent success. The Eagles won nine games in 2014 and 2015 — their first two seasons as an FBS team — with strong option themes under then-coach Will Fritz, and they won 10 games in 2018 under Lunsford while running the ball 49.1 times per game.
It appears Georgia Southern would have been willing to stick with the option-based offense if it could have landed the right coach. Former Georgia Tech, Navy and Georgia Southern head coach Paul Johnson, one of the option’s modern faces, declined when approached by the school about a return, according to The Athletic’s Jeff Schultz. Johnson won back-to-back NCAA Division 1-AA national titles at Georgia Southern in 1999 and 2000, and was also the program’s offensive coordinator during a pair of titles in the 1980s.
The Eagles have thrown the football more frequently this season than in any other since joining the FBS ranks. They are averaging 23.5 pass attempts per game but are still running it nearly twice as often as they throw it. By contrast, USC threw the football 44.2 times per game last season under Helton while running it just 30.7 times per game.
Helton’s early hiring gives him a chance to recruit for Georgia Southern well in advance of the early signing period, which starts Dec. 15. The early signing period, which was introduced in 2017, has changed the dynamics of the sport by flipping the signing date for most prospects from February to December, which has made it difficult for coaches starting new jobs to salvage their first classes.
Helton needs the extra time to hit the trail in search of prospects because Georgia Southern has just two commitments in the Class of 2022, according to 247Sports. Just as important now in the age of mass transfers is that Helton will be in position to land players who enter the transfer portal when the regular season ends for most teams later this month.
Transitioning away from an option-based system can be an arduous process because of the unique personnel the scheme requires. But with all players now allowed to transfer once without sitting a season, Helton’s early hiring will give him a chance to load up on transfers who can help him implement a new system right away without being overly reliant on freshmen or misfits.
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