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The Final Grade: Linebackers a strength, corners questionable

February 13, 2019

Before we get into the business of grading USC’s 2019 signing class, it’s important to lay out something of a rubric.

First and foremost, this isn’t a referendum on how this class will ultimately turn out. Neither I, nor anyone else, can claim to know how 26 unique players, with unique skill sets and backstories, will fare five years from now. Even if we did, that doesn’t mean we were right, per se: There are so many variables that factor into a player’s success that, sometimes, luck plays more of a role than anyone wants to admit. There’s a reason why NFL teams fail at this every single year. Scouting is hard.

In reality, then, exercises like this are really about grading the school, not the players. What I’m attempting to do here is examine USC’s process for how it recruited the 2019 class relative to the outcome of who they ended up signing – because, as I’ve harped on before in other contexts, so much of why USC is in the position its in has to do with bad processes. Your mileage with this class will vary depending on how much you believe in a host of under-the-radar types developing into gems – but, in USC’s case, a good number of those players only came on board after they missed on other, higher-profile targets. That certainly doesn’t preclude these players from succeeding or even outperforming those Plan A targets. But it does mean that USC should only get so much credit if they ultimately blossom, because if the Trojans had things their way, a number of them wouldn’t be on the roster in the first place. That matters a whole lot when it comes to early grading.

Context also matters. No signing class exists in a vacuum, not for the schools and certainly not for the players. Every quarterback, for instance, is well aware of who is ahead of them on the depth chart at the schools they’re considering, which makes it unreasonable to expect USC, who signed a blue-chipper in 2018 and has a blue-chipper committed in 2020, to land a similar elite talent. Situations like those are also reflected in the grading.

So does supply and demand. Right now, the majority of USC’s talent comes from within its home region – California, obviously, but also states like Hawaii, Utah, Arizona, Oregon, Nevada and Washington. That’s to be expected when the on-field results no longer match those of a consistent national power. The trickle-down effect is that the Trojans are often at the mercy of what’s available in their backyard when it comes to elite talent. In 2019, it was always going to be hard for them to sign a big-time safety class, for instance, when it was a pretty weak class out west. Conversely, a great cornerback haul was very much a possibility given the amount of talent California had in-state. That’s unlikely to change in the bigger picture until the team starts winning again. All of that affects the grade.

Finally, sheer numbers. This one is pretty obvious: It’s hard to make a great meal if you don’t buy enough ingredients. USC went light in a couple key areas and that will be factored in, too.

With all of that said, let’s conclude on defense, the side of the ball that dramatically improved in between the two signing periods.

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Needed: 3

Signed: Ralen Goforth‍, Sivi Nomura, Stanley Taufoou‍, Maninoa Tufono‍ 

Here’s another spot where context matters. Last year, USC signed the best linebacking group in the country, one that stood out not only in star power but numbers, too. Point blank, it was always going to be an uphill climb to sell elite linebackers on coming to USC this year with six blue-chippers one class ahead of them on the depth chart. A lot of players tend to – and, in this case, did – look elsewhere with that sized speed bump on the road to early playing time.

So this group was always going to be more about spackle than shine. Fill in the depth chart with good, solid players and get ready to big-game hunt once again in 2020, when Justin Flowe – arguably the single most important recruit on USC’s board – is on the market.

Considering that, USC did quite well here. I’m all about players who produce against top-notch competition and Goforth did that in spades for St. John Bosco as a rangy, space-oriented player who is tailor-made for the WILL spot in Clancy Pendergast’s 2-4-5 alignment. Tufono was the most decorated of the bunch, a classic MIKE in the Cam Smith mold who makes up for less-than-ideal athleticism with size and instincts. Taufou is the consummate downhill player, stouter than the average Predator in USC’s scheme but also more filled out at this stage, too.

Each one of them has a key developmental question hanging over their heads – Goforth’s size, Tufono’s fluidity, Taufou’s projectability. But all three can play and would make the grade most every year, if not as headliners than at least as core components of a deeper linebacking group.

Nomura is a wild card. Truth be told, the best fit for his frame and skill set is probably at WILL linebacker in a 4-3 scheme, which makes him something of a tweener at USC. I was expecting to see his name penciled in as a strong safety and perhaps that’s his ultimate home. But Clay Helton compared his style to Uchenna Nwosu, which suggests he’ll at least get a cup of coffee in the outside linebacker room. Know this: If nothing else, he’s going to wreak havoc on special teams, but there’s potential for much more if the coaches find a niche for him in the defense.

USC did what it needed to here and, given that, this was one Laiatu Latu short of a solid A.

Grade: A-


Needed: 4

Signed: Trey Davis, Jaylen Watson, Adonis Otey‍, Max Williams‍ 

Defensive back is unquestionably where USC took the most shots at those aforementioned under-the-radar players. Of the eight – or nine, if Nomura is a DB – players they signed, only Max Williams qualifies as a Plan A target with a national offer sheet.

That being said, the situation at cornerback is vastly different than that at safety, and the two grades will reflect that disparity. Cornerback was a stacked position in California this year, featuring an in-state quintet of Williams, Chris Steele, Trent McDuffie, Mykael Wright and Isaiah Rutherford that would hold their own against any other state’s top five. The Trojans landed Williams but missed out on the next three and didn’t bother to truly recruit Rutherford, a decision that was and remains baffling. They also got in the game late with Kamren Fabiculanan and were all over the place recruiting Arizona’s Noa Pola-Gates, two highly-regarded hybrid players who easily could have been boundary corners at USC given Pendergast’s predilection for big cornerbacks.

That’s a whole lot of talent to miss out on.

So taking this many backup plans is a bit damning, because things never should have gotten close to this point. Williams isn’t in that group but he’s coming off an ACL tear, one that’s a concern for any player but especially for him as a player whose game is all about using work ethic and smarts to trump a lack of size and burst. I could see it not affecting him very much at all. I could also see it becoming something that saps enough of the athleticism he does have to hinder his chances at being great at the collegiate level.

Otey is the most intriguing of the other three players, a multisport and multi-position athlete who began the cycle with seemingly every offer south of the Mason-Dixon line and ended it with questions about how many of those were commitable. He’s likely to play right away, though, and has the athleticism to flourish. Watson is the platonic ideal of what USC needed late in the cycle, a junior college product who is physically ready to step in immediately and, if worst comes to worst, will be off the roster in two years. Lastly, there’s Davis, who may be the player with the biggest gap between what USC sees in him relative to what everyone else does. Helton absolutely raved about him on early signing day but the offers and interest never caught up to what you’d expect from an out-of-state product USC pulled the trigger on pretty early in the cycle.

All of them offer varying degrees of potential but none is a sure thing. That just can’t happen in a year when USC has an urgent need on the roster plus top-shelf supply in its backyard to fill it with.

Grade: B-


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