Wednesday was a monumental day for the USC football program. Any time the Trojans can finish in the top five of recruiting rankings, it is a successful National Signing Day, but this one had extra significance.
First and foremost, Clay Helton has proven that he is no step down from previous coaches on the recruiting front. In fact, not only can Helton and staff close on all the big names, but they also fill out position groups of need. Helton’s strategic approach to this recruiting class demonstrates a keen understanding of the type of team he needs to mold to be perennial playoff contenders.
For the second consecutive year, Helton finished with a flourish on signing day as the Trojans vaulted up the rankings. This signing day bonanza follows in the footsteps of former head coach Steve Sarkisian, who closed out his two recruiting classes with major coups. The first year of Sarkisian landed Adoree’ Jackson, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Damien Mama and Lamont Simmons on National Signing Day. The second year closed equally strong with the “Drive for Five,” when the Trojans secured the commitments of Porter Gustin, Rasheem Green, John Houston, Iman Marshall and the now-departed Osa Masina.
Many of these players have been the foundation of USC’s success the last few years, emphasizing the immense benefits of closing strong on National Signing Day. Hopefully, this year’s batch of last day signees like Austin Jackson, Joseph Lewis, Josh Falo, Levi Jones and Jay Tufele has the same immediate and long-term impact the last few classes have had.
In addition to the impressive haul Helton brought in on the final day, he also demonstrated a knack for strategically recruiting at positions of need while opening new pipelines in Los Angeles. This combination is what sets this year’s class apart from past groups.
Not since the Wild Bunch II with Omar Nazel, Kenechi Udeze, Shaun Cody and Mike Patterson has USC had a truly dominant defensive front four. This class may have set the foundation for a devastating defensive line down the road. With superb interior linemen like Tufele, Marlon Tuipulotu and Brandon Pili, the Trojans will have depth and the ability to substitute on the line for the first time in years. Additionally, USC was able to add to its formidable group of defensive ends with highly touted local prospect Hunter Echols.
It isn’t just the defensive line. Helton was able to bring in an influx of talent on the offensive side as well. Landing Jackson, offensive tackle Alijah Vera-Tucker and center Brett Neilon gives USC reinforcements on the offensive line after losing three starters from last year’s unit.
If college football has shown fans anything the last decade, it is that teams either win with dominant lines on both offense and defense or sensational quarterback play. In the immediate future, USC is fortunate to be led by the best quarterback in college football. This is great for the short term, but redshirt freshman Sam Darnold may only be playing on Saturdays for one more season. While he hopefully he graces Trojan fans with his presence for at least two more seasons, his ability to erase mistakes and win games through his otherworldly ability won’t last forever at USC.
Maybe freshman recruit Jack Sears or future Trojan quarterback Matt Corral can match Darnold’s impact, but if they cannot, it is comforting to know that Helton is building some of the best offensive and defensive line groups in the country.
Over the last few years, the only teams to beat Alabama were those with great quarterback performances (Oklahoma and Ole Miss) or the ability to match up with them across the board (Ohio State and Clemson) who also had a great quarterback performance. USC clearly didn’t have either last season in the embarrassing season opener. With Darnold at the helm, it may be a different story against the Tide if the Trojans can make it to the playoff next season. Long-term, though, USC is finally restocking its depth and talent at the positions that can compete with Alabama and Clemson in the trenches.
It is not a coincidence that Pete Carroll’s best teams had an offensive and defensive line that all played in the NFL. That is why Helton’s ability to dominate the Southland and West Coast is so critical. For the most part, USC is unable to go into the South and beat out Alabama and LSU for the region’s top prospects.
Fortunately, the Trojans have shifted their strategy to focus on the rich and fertile recruiting ground of Southern California and the rest of the West Coast. If USC can consistently get the types of lineman and skill players they brought in this year, almost exclusively from the West Coast, it will be able to match the best schools talent-wise.
In years past, the Trojans have lost out on coveted targets to other Pac-12 schools. For the most part, Helton rectified this issue from past years and the Trojans are now reaping the rewards. National Signing Day was a milestone for USC in the present, and more importantly for the future. It is great to be a Trojan football fan yet again.
Jake Davidson is a senior majoring in accounting. His column, “Davidson’s Direction,” runs Mondays.