It was hard to think of a prettier sight as a Trojan fan, especially in the offseason. On Wednesday morning, Solomon Tuliaupupu — the third-ranked inside linebacker in this year’s high school class — sat in front of countless cameras and behind hats emblazoned with three different logos: Notre Dame, USC and UCLA.
“I will be attending the University of…”
Tuliaupupu milked every millisecond, glancing at the powder-blue cap and then extending his hand briefly toward the navy. He finally reached between them and placed the cap bearing the interlocking “SC” logo on his head.
Thus kicked off USC football’s 2018 National Signing Day. One hour later, the program reeled in an even bigger fish: five-star, second-ranked cornerback Olaijah Griffin. When the day was over, USC had secured several big names to add to an already formidable class.
This feels like an annual occurrence now. The Trojans beat out not only their archrivals, but also most of college football on the recruiting trail this year, finishing with the No. 4 class in the nation according to the 247Sports composite rankings. This is the program’s third top-five class in four years. USC has not finished lower than 10th since the infamous NCAA sanctions ended in 2014, and this year, head coach Clay Helton managed to assemble a class rated higher than Alabama’s.
Tuliaupupu wasn’t the headliner of the group — he wasn’t even the headliner from his own school. Over the course of the recruiting season, the Trojans signed four five-star recruits, including superstar quarterback-wide receiver combo JT Daniels and Amon-Ra St. Brown: Tuliaupupu’s former teammates at Mater Dei High School. Tuliaupupu may have been the No. 3 inside linebacker in the country, but USC also snagged top overall inside linebacker Palaie Gaoteote. Of the Trojans’ 18 recruits in this year’s class, 11 were ranked top-10 nationally at their position.
With the debut of college football’s new early signing period this year, National Signing Day wasn’t as huge an ordeal as we may be used to, but when all was said and done, the Trojans had once again emerged as one of the biggest winners of the season. It’s cause for celebration, especially for a program that is losing significant talent to the NFL this spring.
But at some point, the on-paper victories on signing day will have to translate to success of equal stature on the field.
I voiced staunch support for Helton throughout a pressure-filled 2017 campaign, and my opinion hasn’t changed. The statement above isn’t some sort of indictment or ultimatum: It’s simple fact. Helton enters his third full season as USC’s head coach boasting yet another elite crop of freshmen and a lucrative contract extension through 2023. It was unreasonable to expect him to immediately take over the circus left in former head coach Steve Sarkisian’s wake in 2015 and establish the team as a national contender.
However, Helton has now had ample time to instill his philosophy and assemble the roster accordingly — and to his credit, he has done so with aplomb. This is an argument doubters are tired of hearing, but it’s simple fact: Helton is undefeated at the Coliseum as a head coach, and his first two seasons have yielded a Rose Bowl victory, and then a Pac-12 Championship. After another banner signing day, Helton has also assembled the deepest pool of talent on campus since USC’s glory days last decade.
With those successes in tow, it’s time for Helton to catapult USC into the national title discussion, not merely over the summer but come the new season, too. Even Nick Saban didn’t win his conference in his first two seasons with Alabama — but he did win it all in year three, defeating Texas in the 2010 BCS National Championship. In 2018, it will be Helton’s mission to do the same. It may seem unreasonable to compare Helton to arguably the greatest head coach in the history of college football, but if you asked him about it yourself, I think you might be surprised by his answer. This is USC. If this team refuses to compare itself to the likes of Alabama, it has already admitted defeat.
This isn’t about proving worthiness or championship mentality or any other cliche we like assigning to teams. This is simply about taking the next step at a program that still fancies itself a blueblood college football powerhouse. A conference title and a Rose Bowl ring — there’s only one logical achievement left to complete the trifecta.
Ollie Jung is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism. His column, “Jung Money,” runs Fridays.