Georgia Southern head coach Clay Helton talks staff additions, previews National Signing Day


STATESBORO, Ga. (WSAV) – After just a few weeks of holding the full-time head coaching job at Georgia Southern, Clay Helton has assembled the core of his offensive brain trust.

Helton spoke to the media at the Ted Smith Family Football Center on Monday for the first time since making several key staffing decisions, including hiring Western Kentucky’s Bryan Ellis to be his offensive coordinator.

“Let’s go get the number one passing offense in the country,” said Helton, when asked about the reasoning behind the Ellis hire. “Here’s a guy that I know and have worked with and not only have seen his ability to evaluate offensive skill players, but be part of a system that was elite in the passing game.”

Ellis, a native of Byron, Georgia in Peach County, ran an offense with the Hilltoppers that could not have been more different than Georgia Southern’s. Western Kentucky ranked second in the nation in pass attempts and first in passing yardage. The distance between the Hilltoppers (5650 passing yards) and second-place Virginia (4711) was greater than the difference between Virginia and 10th-place Miami (3854).

By contrast, Georgia Southern ranked among the bottom 10 in the country in both pass attempts and passing yards. The hiring marks a clear shift away from the option-based attack that the Eagles have traditionally run.

Clay hired Ellis away from his brother, Tyson, who is the head coach at Western Kentucky, in a reverse of the way things have worked in the past.

“When he left me at USC and went to go be the offensive coordinator at Tennessee and then the head coach at Western Kentucky, he took a couple from me,” Clay Helton jokingly said. “I know he’s happy for Bryan and having the opportunity to be here. It’s something we’ve always shared thoughts together about. I’ve always had his blessing on everything and he’s always had my blessing.”

There are still several open positions on Helton’s staff, most notably defensive coordinator. In both his Monday press conference and his interview with WSAV at the Savannah Quarterback Club, Helton expressed a preference for a coordinator that would stick with the 3-4 defensive scheme that Georgia Southern had run in recent years.

There are two reasons why Helton chose to fill out some of his offensive staff before turning his attention to the defensive side of the ball. The first is his retention of former interim head coach Kevin Whitley, who is now an assistant head coach.

“I knew that there was going to be a lot of help in the relationships already with the defensive side of the ball,” Helton said. “In having Coach Whit, I knew that the relationships would be maintained on that side of the ball…it’s something that I think has worked very well as far as recruiting goes.”

Some of Helton’s top candidates for the defensive coordinator job and for several position coach openings are also still playing in bowl games. Although he wants to have the entire staff assembled by the time the team starts its Winter conditioning program on Jan. 9, Helton expressed a willingness to be patient with his remaining choices.

“You want to make sure you’re getting the right people that fit Georgia Southern and fit what we’re about. At the end of the day if you rush into something and you’re not 100 percent sure, it could bite you on the back end.”

Not all of Helton’s openings are on defense; he also still needs to hire an offensive line coach, which he identified as the most important spot on the staff after the coordinators. Clay’s father, Kim, coached offensive line at five different locations, including three in the NFL.

Overall, Clay said he was pleased with the budget that Georgia Southern afforded him to make staff hires.

“There has been an upgrade in the budget for coaching staff. When I was talking with (athletic director) Jared (Benko), that is one of the things we talked about in taking the job.”

Helton will speak to the media again on Wednesday when the early signing period opens for football.

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