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Helton won a Rose Bowl (2016 season) and Pac-12 title (2017) during his time at USC, where he coached parts of eight different seasons as the full-time and interim head coach.
Helton’s hiring means that one early season college football firing replaces another, as Georgia Southern fired Chad Lunsford in September after a 1-3 start. Helton is expected to start immediately at Georgia Southern, as he’ll observe practice, recruit and begin to assemble a staff. In his deal, Helton will average $800,000 a year.
Interim coach Kevin Whitley will remain the head coach the rest of the season.
The hiring instantly gives Georgia Southern one of the most recognizable coaches in the Sun Belt, as Helton’s time at one of college football’s most prominent jobs immediately raises the school’s football profile. Georgia Southern is expected to make a sizable commitment to staffing, as it’s in the school’s eighth season of FBS football and has seen the league’s competition and investment increase.
USC fired Helton in September with a 46-24 record. Georgia Southern encountered criticism for firing Lunsford so early in the season, but the timing allowed the school to interview an experienced and high-profile coach.
Helton is well regarded as a leader and players’ coach, and prior to USC he had a strong history of developing talent that should translate to Georgia Southern. As an assistant coach at Memphis prior to his time at USC, Helton coached DeAngelo Williams. At USC, he won the Pac-12 South three times and is credited for having a big hand in developing Sam Darnold into the No. 3 overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft.
Helton had two full years remaining on his contract at USC and his buyout was more than $10 million. He’ll bring another strong resume to a league with coaches that include Butch Jones (Arkansas State), Jamey Chadwell (Coastal Carolina), Terry Bowden (ULM) and Billy Napier (Louisiana).
Georgia Southern, which is located in Statesboro, hopes to revive a strong tradition that includes a passionate fan base and six FCS national titles. The last of those titles came in 2000.
The hiring of Helton marks a distinct shift for a school that has long been associated with some iteration of option football. Helton is expected to run a more conventional offense, as he has developed a reputation as a strong developer of quarterbacks.
The hiring with more than a month before signing day should give Helton a chance to evaluate the current talent and begin to monitor the transfer portal and evaluate high school recruits for building a roster for the future.