Last September, on a damp, dreary Friday night in Salt Lake City, Clay Helton squeezed into a tiny room in the bowels of Rice-Eccles Stadium after a devastating, nail-biting loss — one that dropped his team to 1-3 — and answered questions from the media.
The head coach lamented how the win slipped away, how field conditions impacted the final score, how he thought this would be the game that would key a turnaround for USC. Instead, the Trojans were off to their worst start since 2001, and whispers arose regarding Helton’s uncertain job security.
“I’m heartbroken for [our players],” Helton said after the game.
If that moment was the nadir of Helton’s tenure, then everything since has been a meteoric rise toward the zenith, and it’s a meteor that shows no signs of slowing. He made the right gamble in starting redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold, won eight straight games to finish the regular season, claimed a Rose Bowl victory in one of the most dramatic finishes in the bowl’s history and ended the season ranked No. 3 in the country. Now, a month later, Helton signed an absolute killer of a recruiting class on National Signing Day on Wednesday that fanned the flames on the three words that we’ve been dying to hear for years: USC is back.
Entering the day, the Trojans had their eyes on no fewer than eight prized recruits. They landed six of them. To put it into perspective, that’s like hitting no traffic and six of eight green lights driving down Figueroa during rush hour.
From four-star linebacker Levi Jones picking USC over both Florida and Florida State in epic, troll-like fashion (seriously, Google this) in the early morning to the afternoon commitments from Hawkins High product Joseph Lewis — ESPN’s No. 1-ranked wide receiver — and versatile four-star athlete Greg Johnson, the good news kept pouring in.
In between, the Trojans corralled three more four-star commits in defensive tackle Jay Tufele, offensive tackle Austin Jackson and tight end Josh Falo, also ranked No. 1 in his position by ESPN. And all 19 of their previous commitments stayed onboard to seal up a strong recruiting class at nearly every position, enough to push it into the top five of most national rankings by the end of the day.
It’s clear that this class — which features 14 players in ESPN’s Top 300 — will address positions of need for the Trojans. They’ll get Tufele and fellow four-star recruit Marlon Tuipulotu to shore up a defensive line weakened by the graduation of veteran defensive anchor Stevie Tu’ikolovatu and the departure of Noah Jefferson. They’ll add four offensive linemen — three of whom are four stars — to counter Zach Banner, Chad Wheeler and Damien Mama leaving the offensive front. They’ll bring in a couple of imposing wide receivers in Lewis and Randal Grimes, who will help step in the shoes of four departing “big men” — in Helton’s words — in JuJu Smith-Schuster, Darreus Rogers, De’Quan Hampton and Isaac Whitney. They’ll have an Adoree’ Jackson-like player in Johnson, who is 247Sports’ No. 1-ranked athlete in the class, able to play running back, wide receiver and defensive back. And they’ll even have a potential Sam Darnold Part II in four-star quarterback Jack Sears, who went to the same high school as Darnold in San Clemente.
The Trojans racked up so many top-notch recruits on Wednesday that it triggered my Golden State Warriors-fan guilt — you know, the tiniest bit of pity that you feel when all the best players wind up on your team. After all, the greatest game plan to beat the top players is to, well, just have them play for your team.
“They’re either going to be on your team, or you’re going to play against them,” Helton said. “The guys that we signed today I don’t want to play against. They’re talented.”
While it’s true that USC will always draw talented recruits purely from its brand name — the Trojans still managed the 13th-ranked recruiting class in 2013 despite losing scholarships because of NCAA sanctions — Helton’s impressive haul speaks to more than just the football program’s legacy.
It speaks to his ability to combine the glamour of USC with his own recruiting skills to convince talented players to don the Cardinal and Gold. It shows that he is far more than just a coach riding the coattails of a phenom quarterback to success. And it proves the benefits of tapping a long-time assistant in Helton to the head coaching position rather than hiring from outside the team -— because Helton used the relationships he developed during his time as an assistant coach to bring in this cream-of-the-crop recruiting class.
“There’s basically three ways how you win a kid’s trust. One, your character. Two, your competency in your knowledge and how you can develop them. And three, let them know that you care about them,” Helton said, pointing out that USC had followed 21 of its 23 commits over a long period of time. “That takes time. To be able to be here for a number of years and build that relationship, that definitely helps.”
With that, USC will enter spring practice with a very positive vibe and a head coach who is proving himself worthy of a prestigious position and winning over critics simply by … winning. Because when you win, people notice. But when you’re USC and you win, people really take notice — specifically, high school seniors making college decisions.
When asked if the Rose Bowl win swayed some recruits toward the Trojans, Helton didn’t disagree.
“It showed a level of consistency that I thought was important,” Helton said, “and I know it was important to the kids out there [watching] in their homes.”
Winning: It cures everything, and it makes that heartbreaking defeat on a rainy Friday night in Utah seem like a really, really long time ago.
Eric He is a sophomore studying print and digital journalism. He is also the associating manager of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Grinding Gears,” runs on Fridays.