LOS ANGELES — For USC defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, practice has been a sanctuary this week from the emotions of Monday, when head coach Clay Helton was fired.
“Obviously when you leave the facility or you’re driving home or you’re at home, it’s another avenue, but we’ve got great pros in here,” Orlando said after Wednesday’s practice. “All we’re worried about is the moments we have with the kids. The second we’re with them, the second we’re game planning, everything revolves around them.”
That’s been the mindset for the USC coaching staff as it tries to rally the team around interim head coach Donte Williams and prepare for the remaining 10 games on the schedule, starting Saturday at Washington State.
Orlando described Monday’s practice – held less than two hours after Helton addressed the team and told him about his dismissal – as “a lot of talk, less football.” The team needed to go through the motions and get the day out of its system.
Tuesday and Wednesday were more standard days, and if anything more strenuous than a typical week of practice. On Wednesday, the team was in full pads for the second day in a row rather than being in half shells, as was the case for most game weeks during the Helton era.
If anything, defensive line coach Vic So’oto said, practices have been more upbeat this week.
“I don’t know if it’s because of the news and everybody getting tighter, but we’ve been running around, having fun,” So’oto said. “I told them, my guys, that every minute in meetings, every minute out here, it’s sacred. You’ve got to enjoy it, you know? Even when it hurts, you’ve got to enjoy it.”
It’s been those kinds of mixed emotions for the team all week.
Perhaps no one embodies that more than Michael Hutchings. The former USC linebacker and captain was promoted on Tuesday from defensive quality control analyst to linebackers coach. The bump to an on-field, position coach wouldn’t have been possible for Hutchings without the departure of Helton creating an opening on the staff.
Hutchings was called into an office by Williams and Orlando on Tuesday to get the good news.
“It’s humbling, right, and also extremely thankful for the opportunity that those two believed in me,” Hutchings said. “We’re extremely blessed and thankful for Coach Helton and his time here, but also we’re gonna be in the moment and fight for Coach Williams and everything that he wants to implement.”
That’s largely about rallying for the players. And setting an example, given the coaches are dealing with their own levels of uncertainty about what lies in store for them after this season.
“From our standpoint, there’s a time to show our true character,” Orlando said. “I just worry about those guys. I worry about USC and what we represent. And then, it’s just having pride. That’s the biggest thing from our standpoint. We can do the best work in the country, there’s no doubt about it. That motivates me every day. I don’t get out of routine just because things are messing – I’ve been raised to go through tough situations. You just press forward.”