Head coach Clay Helton didn’t sleep well on Tuesday night.
The next morning, he knew, was the final test of his first full year as the head coach of the Trojan football team. There’s a long journey between winning a Rose Bowl and rebuilding the USC football dynasty. For Helton, Wednesday was the first step.
After a full day of signing, his fears were put to rest, as his program roped in one of the strongest recruiting classes in the nations. The Trojans ultimately earned the top recruiting class in the Pac-12 and the No. 4 class in the nation with two five-star commits, 12 four-star commits, 10 three-star commits and one two-star commit.
The group answers questions for both the offensive and defensive lines, while also filling in skills positions at wide receiver and running back.
“You’re going after the best of the best, and when you do that, you’re seeing a lot of kids make decisions very late,” Helton said. “We had six young men that we were after today, and we’ve added very well, and won those battles. The guys that we signed today I don’t want to play against. They’re talented.”
Both of the Trojans’ five-star recruits will fill holes the offensive side of the team. Wide receiver Joseph Lewis is an L.A. native who received offers from over 30 Division I teams. Ranked first in his position, Lewis selected USC over his final options of Nebraska and Oregon.
His decision marked the third time in the past 10 years that USC signed the top wide receiver recruit. Lewis will be immediately necessary to fill the hole that wide receivers JuJu Smith- Schuster and Darreus Rogers left behind.
Running back Stephen Carr will join his fellow five-star recruit in the offensive rotation. Carr committed to USC almost two years ago, but after visiting UCLA earlier this year, his loyalties raised the concern of many fans. When Carr — who ranked No. 3 overall in his position — appeared at Fontana Summit High’s signing ceremony with multiple USC banners in tow, Trojan fans breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Similar to Lewis, Carr fills a gap left in the offense by the graduation of running back Justin Davis. But Davis spent weeks of the past season on the sidelines nursing an ankle sprain, while sophomore Ronald Jones II took over at the head of the rushing attack. With Carr added to the mix, the Trojans will feature an explosive attack both on the ground and in the air.
“They’re going to be given the opportunity to compete right now,” Helton said. “We expect them to do great things, whether that’s day one or day 101.”
And those are only the five-star recruits. The Trojans pulled a wealth of four-star commitments, earning a total of 12 signatures from the class.
Included in those signatures was outside linebacker Levi Jones, whose signing ceremony immediately earned national attention.
In the middle of the ESPNU broadcast of his ceremony, Jones stood to announce his decision, unzipping a black hoodie to reveal a bright blue Florida shirt. As applause rose from the crowd, Jones shook his head, laughing and muttering, “Y’all better chill.”
The crowd immediately let out cries of surprise as Jones stripped off the Florida shirt to reveal a Florida State tee, which he removed to reveal a cardinal and gold Trojans shirt. He tugged on a USC hat, said his first “fight on” and immediately began trending on Twitter.
The announcement would’ve given any head coach panic, Helton joked, if Jones hadn’t texted him just before the ceremony started.
“Levi saved me from a heart attack today,” Helton said. “Right prior to him going on TV, he texted me and said, ‘Coach, I’m a Trojan.’ Thank God he texted me, I would’ve had a heart attack.”
Joining Jones on defense are safeties Bubba Bolden and Isaiah Pola-Mao, outside linebacker Hunter Echols and defensive tackles Jay Tufele and Marlon Tuipulotu.
Bolden committed to USC during the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, where he made his presence known by leaping a center to kick the ball out of the opposing kicker’s hands and return it for a touchdown.
He is joined by Pola-Mao, a nephew of NFL safety and two-time Super Bowl champion Troy Polamalu. The pair is ranked No. 11 and No. 15 respectively, bringing high-power energy to the Trojan secondary.
With a No. 10 position ranking, USC beat out both Alabama and Oklahoma to claim Echols back in August. But the addition of Tuipulotu came as a surprise when he ditched his commitment to Washington to enroll early at USC last Monday.
The announcement that Tufele — the top-ranked player out of Utah — chose the Trojans rounded out a defensive line that was in desperate need of reinforcement. Tufele will likely replace fellow Utah native Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, who ended his single transfer season with the Trojans as the Rose Bowl defensive MVP.
Tight end Josh Falo, quarterback Jack Sears, offensive tackles Austin Jackson and Alijah Vera-Tucker and center Brett Neilson fill out the offensive side of the ball. Sears played alongside redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold at San Clemente High, while Falo will bring his No. 1-ranked talent to a tight end corps that found success throughout last season.
The additions of Jackson, Vera-Tucker and Neilson were a success for the Trojans, whose offensive line thinned out with the graduation of Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler. Jackson was the blue-chip pick of the group, and will follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, Melvin, who played offensive line for the Trojans in the 1970s.
And the three-star commits won’t be far behind. Wide receiver Randal Grimes and tight end Erik Krommenhoek will join Lewis as a target for Darnold, while offensive tackle Andrew Vorhees and offensive lineman Jalen McKenzie will provide a fortified pocket for the young quarterback.
Shoring up the defense are linebackers Juliano Falaniko and Tayler Katoa, cornerback Jay Godfrey, defensive line Jacob Lichtenstein and defensive tackle Brandon Pili. The group continues to add depth to an area that left Trojan fans nervous after the end of last year’s season.
Rounding out the group is long snapper Damon Johnson, a two-star recruit simply due to his position. If Trojan fans are lucky, Helton said, this will be the last time they hear his name.
Those 23 players will be expected to join the competition for starting positions the second they arrive in Los Angeles. For a moment, Helton celebrated the success of his first full year of recruitment. But he isn’t one to rest for very long.
“That’s what I love about this place,” Helton said. “It’s always been that way. It’s been guys who come up here and never shy away from the competition. They know from day one that the best player’s going to play. It doesn’t matter if you’re a freshman or a senior. You know that you’re going to come to USC and compete in a hurry.”
Yesterday, the new class of Trojans made themselves heard. Now, it’s time to prepare for a new season and new expectations.