Interim coach Donte Williams takes over at USC as Trojans move on from Clay Helton

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LOS ANGELES — Donte Williams walked around the practice field on Tuesday, a printed plan in the hands behind his back. Some things remained the same, like the cleats he wears to go through drills with his cornerbacks. But he didn’t spend as much time with the group as usual, instead wandering around and surveying other aspects of the USC football team.

That’s the new life for the Trojans’ interim head coach, promoted from associate on Monday following the news that Clay Helton had been fired two games into the 2021 season.

“To be honest, it felt great,” Williams said in a press conference following the practice, though he noted some oddities. “I was always rooting for my guys – that’s the way it should be, it’s competitive. Now to come out here and cheer on the offense when they make a big-time play, that’s a little different.”

Everything has been a little different for USC the past two days, with Helton not on the practice field for the first time in more than a decade. Helton was the coach who recruited all the players to USC, who sold them on his vision for the program.

So the players are still processing the sudden change in leadership as they try to move on to the remaining 10 games on the schedule.

“We wanted him to be the next Pete Carroll. We wanted to lift him up and be great,” captain Isaiah Pola-Mao said Tuesday. “Of course, things don’t go our way, stuff happens in this business, but he’s always with us. He’s always part of this family.”

The moving on part is where Williams will need to guide the team most this week.

Williams came to USC prior to the 2020 season from Oregon, renowned for his recruiting acumen and ability to develop defensive backs. After a year as a position coach, he added associate head coach to his title prior to this year.

But the 39-year-old from Los Angeles admits there’s a learning curve as he takes on the interim job.

“I’d be lying to you saying I know everything,” Williams said. “I pretty much want to know exactly what the offense is doing from a verbiage standpoint. It’s one thing to play against our offense, it’s another thing to truly know their verbiage.”

He spent a lot of time observing that side of the ball during scout team work on Tuesday. And he understands he’ll have to balance new decisions, such as when to use timeouts, when to go for it on fourth down.

But his first steps are to try to instill more discipline in a team that committed nine penalties for 111 yards in Saturday’s 42-28 loss to Stanford. In his first public comments on Monday on Trojans Live, Williams talked about eliminating “dumb mistakes,” a theme he’s tried to work on in practice.

“The coaches, I see right now a guy makes the littlest mistake the coaches make sure they get on them,” Williams said. “Whether that’s taking a guy out for a play, whether that’s taking a guy out for a quarter, whether that’s taking a guy out for a game, we’re going to make sure that we clean up every little thing that we see.”

Williams understands the scrutiny placed on him in light of this interim promotion. In response to a question about whether he would be interested in the full-time job, he said he is worried about the present and trusts the USC administration to make the right choice for the team and players.

“It’s not the Donte Williams show. It’s the USC show, so we’re working this all together,” Williams said. “It’s no ‘I’ or ‘me’. It’s ‘us’ and ‘we’. That’s what the whole message is, it’s us and we – what we’re going to do. Not what I’m going to do – what we’re going to do.”

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