USC's Early Signings: What We Have Learned

December 20, 2018

Clay Helton made something abundantly clear in Wednesday afternoon’s signing day press conference: USC is far from done with its 2019 recruiting class.

“I am very proud to welcome these new student-athletes to the Trojan Family,” said Clay Helton.  “I am thankful to each one of them and their parents for making the decision to attend USC.  They are all very talented players and will represent everything that we stand for at USC.  I also would like to thank our staff for the effort they put into this initial signing period.  As we proceed to the February signing period, we have work to do to add more outstanding players to this class and we are looking forward to it.”

So the signing day grades will have to wait, as will the assessment of needs for 2020. We’re not even to the point of assigning homework ahead of the February signing period — that comes next week.

Right now is all about taking stock of what we know exiting the early signing period. Which, as it turns out, is plenty. Here’s what left an impression from Wednesday:

We learned that USC will have bodies.

Here’s the thing about depth: It only seems like a luxury until you don’t have any. Then, as USC experienced firsthand this year with its defensive backs, bad things happen.

So it was imperative that USC replenish its roster this cycle and, with 18 players signed plus plenty more left on the board, it’s safe to say they have. On offense, that most crucially means two players apiece to supplement low numbers at running back and tight end. But the Trojans are also on pace to insulate themselves at wide receiver, offensive line and quarterback, the sort of proactive moves that make you wonder – or, at least, hope – if it was a lesson learned from how quickly the defensive back room thinned out.


USC still has a lot of work to do with the DBs. But they nabbed three defensive linemen when they realistically could have gotten by with one and took three linebackers when they could have become complacent after last year’s mega-haul.

You can quibble with some of the names they signed if you want. But smart programs plan ahead and space out well at each position versus depending on one huge haul to bail them out of depth shortages. Give USC credit for using this class to do exactly that when they had the scholarships available.

We learned that USC will put the star system to the test.

Just so this is out of the way now, star rankings matter. You can see it anecdotally in the correlation between perennial top-ten teams and their consistently strong recruiting rankings. Or, if you’d like to go to the data, the numbers bear it out, too. Even in the best-case scenario, USC isn’t signing a top-10 class this season. And if USC signed five consecutive classes like this one, they’re not contending for national titles.

But USC doesn’t have a roster full of classes like this one. In fact, according to SB Nation’s Bud Elliott, it had the third-highest concentration of blue-chip players on its roster in the entire country entering the 2018 season. So USC absolutely can sign a class rife with three-star players, as this one is, and be fine in the bigger picture so long as it A. includes a chunk of four- and five-star guys and B. They hit on some of those three-star guys.

There is no recent analogue for a situation like this in USC recruiting. But there have been smaller moments that mirror it. In 2012, Lane Kiffin whiffed down the stretch on Andrus Peat, Kyle Murphy and Kyle Dodson, his plan-A offensive tackle targets, and ultimately leaned on a 225-pound project named Chad Wheeler to pick up the slack. When Kiffin was fired ahead of the 2014 recruiting class, interim coach Ed Orgeron sent out a spate of offers that confounded USC fans. Among them were Ajene Harris, a dynamic athlete without an obvious position, and Uchenna Nwosu, a linebacker-safety tweener. The 2015 class saw USC pass up several highly-touted local wide receivers in favor of Deontay Burnett, who took a last-minute blueshirt offer.

You know the rest. Wheeler became a rock at left tackle. Harris became the heart and soul of the secondary. Nwsou became the team’s best defensive player as a senior. Burnett became a Rose Bowl hero. Three of those four now ply their trade in the NFL, and Harris has a chance to join them.

Of course, for all of their success, plenty more lesser-regarded players have busted. And there are players in this class who rank lower than any of that quartet did coming out of high school. But sheer odds dictate that at least a few will hit and it wouldn’t be surprising if they become some of the better players in the class. Maybe that’s Trey Davis , whom Helton gushed about in his Signing Day press conference and believes USC "really lucked into" him flying under the radar. Perhaps it’s Tilini Livai, a mauler who stood out at one of the best high-school programs in the state and who may have received more offers had he not moved from Hawaii to Los Angeles so late in his career. Or it could be Briton Allen, who hails from powerhouse IMG Academy, has good film and boasts a strong offer sheet but fell to the periphery of other teams’ boards.

Truthfully, there’s no shortage of candidates. USC will need to buck convention and history if it’s going to get the most out of this class.

We learned that USC won’t have to sweat anyone poaching their commit list.

There’s a follow-up joke here, if you’re inclined to make one. Given the current mood around the state of Trojan football, I won’t necessarily blame you if you do.

But take this at face value, for a minute. Save Jordan Wilmore and Puka Nacua, every player verbally committed to the Trojans signed a letter of intent on Wednesday. Which means, as Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly put it on ESPN yesterday in relation to his own recruits, that the Trojans no longer have to “babysit” 90% of its current class. That frees up an already-threadbare recruiting staff to focus a huge amount of man hours toward closing out the rest of this year’s board, which happens to comprise the majority of the highest-caliber prospects USC can realistically sign in the 2019 class. It also opens the door for USC to hit the ground running on assembling the 2020 group that needs – and, realistically, should – to be a more talented crop than what they’re bringing this year.

All of those are good things. The best thing USC can do for itself is turn the page on 2018 as quickly as possible and get to work on changing the perception of the program’s trajectory. Being able to put much of this year’s class on ice before the calendar turns to 2019 will go a long way toward helping that cause.

We learned that, even in the face of tough circumstances, USC can still close.

Aside from Chris Steele, Drake Jackson was arguably the most important recruit at a position of need remaining on USC’s board.

That didn’t figure to be the case at the beginning of the cycle, when Jackson was among a bevy of talented options at defensive end which also included Faatui Tuitele, Stephon Wright and Ty Robinson, to name a handful. But one by one, the list of names thinned out, until the Trojans faced a nightmare scenario: Whiffing completely on the top of their board, despite not signing a defensive end out of high school since 2016 and graduating as many as six defensive linemen over the next two seasons.

Jackson was the last big fish remaining – a total must-get. And Jackson would have been well within his rights to go elsewhere after USC replaced his position coach and sent mixed signals about his future position.

Ultimately, however, Clay Helton and co. did enough to fend off a late challenge from Arizona State to get their man. It’s a massive win, not only pragmatically but symbolically; it shows that USC can still coax big-time talent – in particular, big-time defensive talent – on board in hardly ideal circumstances.

That confidence boost is imperative over the next six weeks. Momentum can go a long way in recruiting. Jackson’s commitment could be the first push USC needs to make a big sprint to the finish line.

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USC's Early Signings: What We Have Learned

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