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Florida offensive coordinator search: How Clay Helton became "the guy" — until he wasn't

Everything about Florida's offensive coordinator search pointed to USC offensive coordinator Clay Helton as the Gators' primary target as of Friday. On Saturday, that all changed.

Ethan Miller

One by one, the potential Florida offensive coordinators removed themselves from the running to design the Gators' attack, until, as of Saturday, USC offensive coordinator and interim head coach Clay Helton looked like Will Muschamp's man.

Most of the other guys on the list got better jobs, better-fitting jobs, or raises — possibly leveraged with Florida's interest. North Carolina offensive coordinator Blake Anderson will now be Arkansas State's head coach. Mike Norvell, Arizona State's hotshot offensive coordinator, got the title of Deputy Head Coach and a raise. Former Wyoming head coach Dave Christensen accepted a job as Utah's offensive coordinator. Texas A&M offensive coordinator Jake Spavital was elevated to play-caller.

Others fell off the board for one reason or another. Noel Mazzone was kept in UCLA's fold by the retention of head coach Jim Mora Jr.; Kerwin Bell, Lane Kiffin, and Bobby Petrino were swiftly dismissed; Major Applewhite fell to the back of the pack while Texas agonized over and finally parted ways with Mack Brown; Dana Holgorsen remained employed at West Virginia.

And no one made more sense, for circumstantial or logical reasons, than Clay Helton.

Helton was the guy with Gainesville and Florida roots like the ones that were touted when Muschamp was hired, as the son of former Florida player and coach Kim Helton. Helton was the guy with a name big enough to thrill Florida fans and recruits alike, especially with the pedigree of USC's offense and the excitement around the Trojans after the firing of Kiffin this fall. Helton was the guy with background as both a run-first coordinator and a spread coach, perfect for compromising between Muschamp's interest in controlling the ball and the line of scrimmage and the thirst of fans and players for a more exciting scheme. Helton was the last major name left on a list full of potential candidates that proved to be just out of Florida's grasp for one reason or another. And Helton was the guy whose elevation to interim head coach at USC on December 2 was followed one day later by multiple reports that Florida's OC search would extend past bowl season.

Helton was the guy. It made so much sense.

And then he wasn't.

This news came at halftime of the 2013 Las Vegas Bowl — with the score USC 35, Fresno State 6, and Helton's offense just finished with an I-need-a-cigarette thrashing of the Bulldogs' defense for 30 minutes — and it sent Florida fans reeling. We clung to a modification of that report, and to Helton no-commenting questions about Florida, and the fact that a subsequent Los Angeles Times report is rather flimsy in its sourcing.

For my money, these reports about USC keeping Helton sound like they've come directly from incoming head coach Steve Sarkisian and/or athletic director Pat Haden — and I think that, if that's true, it's possible, if unlikely, that they're mostly letting Helton know that he is coveted in Troy.

But that's mostly bargaining and wishful thinking. With the orange and blue lenses removed, it makes plenty of sense for Helton to stay in Los Angeles. He knows he can be successful at USC, and knows that talent well, while Florida's been managing a Superfund site on offense for four years. USC pays him well, and can at least stay in Florida's ballpark when it comes to salaries and perks. His mobility — he'll be a head coach before long, almost assuredly — doesn't suffer for being at USC, and any potential increase in mobility from the Florida OC seat is marginal. And he's been in L.A. for four years — roots in Gainesville are nice, but setting down roots with a family is probably more important.

Helton's now mostly given way to Duke co-offensive coordinator Kurt Roper as the Gators' new front-runner, and Roper being on campus certainly helps his standing in the race. Florida fans may go through the same multi-step process of acclimating to Roper that they did with Helton — Roper potentially coming from Duke like some guy named Spurrier once did is a nice stand-in for Helton's Gators heritage, as narrative pegs go.

But there's one thing the process of making a front-runner out of Helton and watching his horse fade down the stretch should make clear.

In college football, no one is the guy until he is the guy.