Last Wednesday, hours before the workouts stopped and recruiting shut down and college football ceased for the time being amid the threat of COVID-19, Clay Helton explained just how critical this spring would be for his football team.
USC had a new defense to install, new coaches to integrate, and a new mentality to embrace. It had a rising sophomore quarterback ready to take the leap and an uncertain situation along the offensive line. With 18 returning starters, there were a lot of reasons to hope for a productive spring, especially with such an uncertain fall ahead for USC’s coach.
But as Helton belabored the importance of the 14 practices ahead, he already stood six feet behind a rope cordoning off reporters, in accordance with social distancing guidelines from the World Health Organization.
“It’s changing daily,” Helton said then. By the next morning, spring practice was canceled altogether due to the coronavirus.
At 2 p.m. on Thursday, Helton gathered his team in a meeting room to tell them what to expect next. Their classes would be online only for the foreseeable future. The training room would be open through the week to the many who were rehabilitating after offseason surgery, and on-campus housing would be available through spring break, if needed, along with any necessary meals.
Only three USC players needed to take advantage of that offer. But all three had left by Monday, the university said, leaving campus entirely empty of football players.
“This is the most time off us athletes will ever have from our sports,” wideout Amon-ra St. Brown wrote on Twitter.
Still, Helton remained in the football office on Friday, making arrangements for the weeks to come. With players set to be holed up in their homes for weeks, contingency plans needed to be made.
“They have availability in which we’re coordinating rehab opportunities at home,” Helton said. “Obviously, strength and conditioning has been shut down here. But opportunities to have workout manuals and workouts that we can provide for them to do at home.”
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Helton needed to know where players planned to be — and what they planned to do while they were there. So his staff created a database of the whereabouts, along with potential off-campus sites at which recovering players could continue rehabbing.
Helton also reiterated the expectations for online classes, which will resume after this week’s spring break. All players were given an academic point of contact, with whom they must check in with directly next Monday.
“The danger for us is when school keeps going, our students might not check in,” said Denise Kwok, director of USC student athlete academic services.
To mitigate that possibility, Helton had his staff reach out to parents of every player to relay the program’s expectations during an unprecedented time.
“Right now, as a coach and a father, it’s about the kids,” Helton said. “Making sure they’re healthy. Making sure they have the resources and services that are needed to them immediately. And to make sure those 30 surgeries and the rehab that’s going on, making sure that even if they’re home, they have the necessary services available to continue their rehab.
“While we’re going through this process, it’s making sure they’re staying up to date academically, continuing the process to get their degree, to make sure they’re staying up to date and assignments and tests. That’s the priority right now.”
That process began last week and will continue for the foreseeable future. With online classes extended through the end of the semester, it’s unclear if the football team will even be allowed on campus any time soon.
So for the time being, Helton isn’t going to focus on the valuable time lost this spring or the uncertainty that lies ahead for college football. That’s a problem for another day, when his players and staff are no longer in self-isolation.
“The sport will catch back up,” Helton said. “Right now, we have to focus on the well being of the people that surround us. … You don’t know how long this is going to go. Hopefully it’s shorter than longer, but we have an obligation to continue to help with our students.”