The USC football team has shined on National Signing Day in the last few years. Two years ago it was securing the commitments of wide receiver and cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and offensive lineman Damien Mama all on the final Wednesday. Last year, USC made major improvements to its defense, closing on every high-value recruit, bringing in linebackers Porter Gustin, Osa Masina, John Houston and defensive end Rasheem Green.
These commitments on National Signing Day have allowed USC to vault to the top of the rankings and stockpile immense talent for the years to come. For the future of the USC program, hopefully this upcoming Wednesday yields similar results. Now recruiting isn’t everything, as former head coach Steve Sarkisian proved, but it is an absolutely essential element of building a program.
Since it’s only Monday, and the entire recruiting landscape can have a seismic shift in 48 hours, it is still too early to draw conclusions on the 2016 recruiting class. The early enrollees are a formidable group, led by Oluwole Betiku, who continues the Serra-to-USC pipeline, a versatile and fast defensive end who hopefully will develop into a terror for opposing Pac-12 offensive linemen. Matt Fink will add depth to the quarterback position, safety C.J. Pollard and offensive lineman Nathan Smith should do the same in the defensive secondary and along the offensive line respectively.
In the spring, USC got two big, physical and fast wideouts in Michael Pittman– who dominated the southern California football scene this year– and Josh Imatorbhebhe from Georgia. In the Pete Caroll era, USC had a lot of success with strong, big receivers from the Southern region, namely Mike Williams and Patrick Turner. At 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, Imatorbhebhe isn’t quite as physically imposing as Williams and Turner but he has the frame and potential to make an impact moving forward.
The other recruits, who have indicated their commitment to enroll in the fall, include three other talented receivers, a tight end and one lineman on each side of the ball, as well as an outside linebacker. A few of these recruits are incredibly sought after, specifically Tyler Vaughns, who by almost every recruiting site metric is a top-five receiver.
However, outside of the four receivers and Betiku, USC has no dynamic instant impact recruits in the mold of Leonard Williams, Su’a Cravens, Jackson, Smith-Schuster, Iman Marshall or Ronald Jones II. Maybe that gets changed on Wednesday if Jack Jones, a star cornerback from Long Beach Poly commits as he is anticipated to, or if USC can snag talented lineman E.J… Price out of Georgia. Otherwise, USC’s class looks somewhat thin and underwhelming in contrast to the last few years, even the classes hamstrung by sanctions.
Recruiting is only one aspect of coaching; player development is equally critical and an area in which USC has floundered over the last few years. Not everyone is plug-and-play like Jackson and Smith-Schuster, but when the best players leave, it is important to have equally talented players waiting in the wings. USC didn’t replace Leonard Williams’ production last year, and if they don’t this year, it is going to be another long season of watching opponents glide through running lanes wide enough to fit a Mack truck.
Arguments can be made that recruiting rankings don’t mean much, and that the correlation is low between top 10 recruits and top 10 draft picks. That is true, but USC doesn’t need to dominate the top ten of the draft. They need linemen on both sides of the ball who could all potentially play one day in the pros. It’s great to have star receivers and tailbacks, but if the quarterback is running for his life and there are no creases to be found because of an anemic line, USC isn’t going to win very many games.
I like new coach Clay Helton’s desire to mold this Trojan team into a squad that is physically dominating and one that imposes their will. However, that only works if the Trojans are stronger and bigger than other teams, and they need talented linemen coming in on both sides of the ball each and every year. Look at Stanford and Alabama’s rosters, they are filled with top linemen who have been coached extremely well.
Part of it is improving the strength and conditioning program at USC, but even more of the challenge is getting the proper guys into school. Two years ago, USC landed offensive linemen Toa Lohbendahn, Viane Talamaivao and Mama. That vaunted class on the line was supposed to anchor the line for three years, but injuries and a failure to meet admittedly high expectations have cut that shelf life in half. You never know what recruits will turn into, which is why it is essential to bring in new talent on the line, each and every year, and then spend time coaching them up.
USC always recruits USC, it is just about where the focus and resources are channeled. Hopefully, Wednesday proves that the coaches didn’t overlook building out the lines, and USC has another exciting signing day. That is the key to building the Trojan program back up.
Jake Davidson is a junior majoring in accounting. His column, “Davidson’s Direction,” runs Mondays.